Portfolio: Tatum Portfolios Project Proposal

Module 6: Project Proposal

Here is my data set:

My data is drawn from my transcriptions of Dutchess County, NY Ancient Documents from 1770-1775. The records I transcribed were from the filings of imprisoned insolvent debtors who sought relief under various NY colonial acts relating to insolvency passed between 1770 to 1775.When an insolvent debtor filed for relief, they generated multiple different types of records, including a list of their creditors and a list of their debtors (money still owing to them). I transcribed the lists of 28 insolvent debtors.

I was initially drawn to these records because of the fascinating inventories of personal belongings (such as clothes and household furniture) , that the insolvent debtor had to write during the process of petitioning to be discharged from prison. As I dug further into the files, I started noticing that names in one insolvent debtor’s list of creditors would reappear multiple places in other debtor’s lists. It made me start to wonder just how connected all these people were. I wanted to know who owed money to whom, and how much. Also, who turned up more frequently in lists of creditors? Did the insolvent debtors themselves show  in other insolvent debtor’s lists of creditors? 

Currently, it is unclear just how many records there are relating to insolvent debtor filings in the Dutchess County Ancient Documents. I started transcribing the cases where I was able to collect together the pieces of their application (their petition, inventory, list of creditors and debts owing to them, assignment of estate and discharge from prison). I had a good cluster of debtors from 1770-1775, so I chose them as a sample for this project. 

With this sample of 28 insolvent debtors and their associated (roughly) 1000 creditors and 500 debtors, I should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What was the average amount of debt owed by each insolvent debtor and how does it compare to the amount still owed to them?
    • Tawny Paul ( The Poverty of Disaster) has studied insolvent debtors in England and Scotland and found that many of these debtors were imprisoned because their assets were not liquid, as in when one creditor came knocking collecting their debts, the debtor could not provide, because his assets were all tied up in other people owing him money.
  • How connected was this network? 
    • Bruce Mann ( Republic of Debtors ) has described the credit/debt system in 18th-century America as a “web of indebtedness” in which one person’s failure can have catastrophic impact on the rest of the network. Did one imprisoned debtor’s inability to pay their debts drag anyone else down with them?
  • What was the frequency of female creditors, especially widows?
    • To my knowledge, there are no female insolvent debtors, but women (mostly widows) do appear in lists of creditors. The literature on women’s participation in the credit economy has largely been described in terms of their ability to achieve economic independence with a legal system that operated under the doctrine of coverture. The literature seems to have swung back and forth from describing a “golden age” for colonial women who were able to subvert coverture in numerous ways (Mary Beard 1946)  to historians proposing that women were severely limited due to coverture (Mary Beth Norton ,1979; Deborah Rosen 1997; Cornelia Hughes Dayton 1995). More recent historians (Ellen Hartigan O’Connor, 2009 ; Serena Zabin, 2001) err on the side of more independence of economic activity, with caveats, describing an informal economy that operated outside of the restrictions placed by coverture. However, their work is in urban areas, not rural areas like Dutchess County. The few names of women that do show up in the Insolvent debtor papers provide us with a small glimpse into the reality of women’s commercial activity in this area. 
  • How frequently do we see family members on lists of creditors?
    • The middle class family relied on credit and debt for their livelihoods (see Margaret Hunt’s work on England) and I’m curious to see how this played out in Dutchess County. This question will lead to further avenues of questioning. What does it mean, for instance,  when an insolvent debtor lists his father as one of his creditors? Historians of capitalism in Early America (like Stephen Innes) have described a shift away from “communalism” and pointing to an increase in formal litigation to pursue debtors, rather than settling outside of the court, they have argued that Americans were becoming less family/community oriented and more individualistic in their enterprises.  However, other historians (Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Bruce Mann) have argued that the increase in professional ways to handle debts actually eased relationships and the facilitation of debt litigation. 

One question I will not be able to answer with this sample is what is the geographic extent of this network? Unfortunately, the 1770’s insolvent debtor filings do not have much geographic info. I will have much more information to work with once I start exploring the 1780’s and 90’s cases. The paperwork becomes more regular, so the insolvent debtor’s town is usually mentioned. Also, I will have the ability to cross reference with the Poughkeepsie Journal, which dates from 1785 and includes the announcements the insolvent debtors were required to take out to announce that they were seeking relief under an act relating to insolvency.

Secondary Sources

Beard, Mary Ritter. Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities. Macmillan, 1946.

Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. “Turning Points and the Relevance of Colonial Legal History.” The William and Mary Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1993): 7–17.

Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. 3rd ed. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Hartigan-O’Connor, Ellen. “‘She Said She Did Not Know Money’: Urban Women and Atlantic Markets in the Revolutionary Era.” Early American Studies 4, no. 2 (2006): 322–52.

Hartigan-O’Connor, Ellen. The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Hunt, Margaret R. The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England 1680-1780. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Innes, Stephen. Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeenth-Century Springfield. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Mann, Bruce H., and Mann. Republic of Debtors.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Norton, Mary Beth. “The Myth of the Golden Age.” in Women of America: A History.eds. Berkin, Carol, and Mary Beth Norton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1979.

Paul, K. Tawny. The Poverty of Disaster: Debt and Insecurity in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Rosen, Deborah A. Courts and Commerce: Gender, Law, and the Market Economy in Colonial New York. Historical Perspectives on Business Enterprise Series. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1997.

Zabin, Serena R. Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

One reply on “Module 6: Project Proposal”

I’ve said this before, but I’m really excited to see where this goes. I don’t have anything new to say beyond what we’ve already chatted about over email, but this is already looking good so far.

I was looking back at Mann, and my gut instinct is that your networks may initially not bear out his conclusions 1) because you don’t yet have complete transcriptions of your records and 2) because of archival gaps even if you do get everything transcribed. Just something to keep in mind.

Something to think about from a visualization/analysis standpoint is whether a tree or a network is more appropriate. A tree is more rigidly hierarchical and doesn’t tolerate multiple roots (ie, a parent can have many children, but a child can’t have multiple parents). A radial hierarchy might also work for you, with color coded debt/credit relationships.

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