The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2001

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When Salt

Was A Substitute for Money

contributed by

Richard Palmer

The following account of early salt works and other businesses in this region is contained in a letter from Thomas Richmond, formerly of Salina and in later life of Chicago, Illinois. He was 73 years old at the time of writing, having for years been a merchant. The letter was found at the Onondaga County Public Library Local History Department.

Chicago, Sep. 29, 1869
To the Secretary of the Central New York Pioneer Association

I was born in Windsor County, Vermont. When I was nineteen I came to the then called Salt Point, in the fall of 1815, leaving Vermont, and a summer labor on a farm at ten dollars per month, with a view of keeping school in some of the then called western settlements, now central New York. I was induced to visit Salt Point first, to see some relatives there, viz: Hathaway Richmond, father of the late Dean Richmond, Edward Richmond, Anson Richmond, father of Alonzo M. and Jewett M. Richmond, now successful merchants of Buffalo, and John Richmond-Hathaway, Edward, Anson and John were brothers.

Then, in the second place, I called to see the salt works, which were then few in number, and small in capacity, compared with the present time. The largest block had 14 and the smallest, eight kettles.

Then there was a little narrow canal running up behind a few salt manufactories from the foot of the hill, parallel to the road to Liverpool, and in it was a Durham boat unloading wood. The captain, a dark, tall, lank man, called to me as I was passing, and asked me if I would hire out. I asked, what to do, and what price. He replied to work on his boat, that he would pay $25 per month, cash. This was so enormous, compared with ten dollars that I had been receiving during the summer, that I at once abandoned the pedagogue and took to boating, with Captain Nathan Walker, hauling wood from the banks of Seneca River to the salt works.

The salt water was then pumped by hand from a spring-cribbed up in the salt marsh about 12 to 15 feet deep, and about that size square, some eight to ten rods south of the Liverpool road, and nearly the same distance from the bank of the hill. This was several years before Syracuse was thought of.

A few rods east of Salina Street, where the canal now is and south of it, there was a dense cedar swamp, extending to the then called Lodi, say nearly a mile, so soft in summer that no ox could safely pass through it. To get the wood out for the salt works, we used in the fall to cut roads late in thick timber and break up the surface so they would freeze up, and when sufficiently frozen go in with teams and draw out the cedar to make salt with. Now a large portion of Syracuse stands upon this same ground. Salt Point improved but little in these years from 1815 to 1819-20. There was very little money in circulation in those days. The inhabitants lived upon the truck that farmers brought in, to trade for salt. All was barter: not much said about dollars and cents, but so much salt or so much truck. For instance, a bushel of salt for two pounds of pork or ham; two bushels of salt for a bushel of oats; four for a bushel of corn, twelve bushels for a hundred pounds of flour; six, seven or eight for one hundred of meal; fifteen bushels for a barrel of sauerkraut; and twenty more or less for a barrel of siscoes, &c. &c. ["ciscoes" are equivalent to fresh water herrings and considered a delicacy. They were netted in large quantities in Lake Ontario, packed in salt, and shipped to NYC.]

The merchants of the place during these years were Dioclesian Alvord, Fisher, Curtis, Morey and Van Vleck and Wheeler & McCarthy-all more or less engaged in the salt business, and traded goods for salt. Salt boilers then got every fifth bushel for boiling the water. Nobody paid money for boiling salt. Salt was nominally 25 cents a bushel and one dollar and 50 cents to $1.75 per barrel, but plenty could be bought at times for 10 and 12 cents per bushel, and six to eight shillings per barrel, cash.

When Judge Forman bought and laid out the village of Syracuse, we Salt Pointers had no faith in the enterprise, and we opposed and said all we could to defeat its growth. We felt toward it much as the Copperheads did about the recent war and government bonds. Nevertheless Syracuse grew almost without parallel then and now.

"Salt Point" has proved to [be] the first ward of the City of Syracuse, as the nation proved to have conquered the rebellion, and emancipated and made citizens and freemen of four millions of slaves. "The world moves."

In 1819 I commenced a small traffic in salt with the Canadas, using only the little accumulation from my labor as capital. In 1821 I made my first shipment in salt to the lakes, (I think it is this year), using only my small accumulations of capital.

I paid five shillings per barrel freight from the works to Oswego. I then contracted with Mathew McNair, of Oswego, to transport it, and me along with it, to Cleveland, Ohio, for one-half of the salt, at Cleveland. I went up Lake Erie on the same vessel that the commissioners and men were on, going to settle the northwestern boundary between the United States and Canada.

Salt was then worth at Cleveland $6.50 to $7.00 per barrel, but no cash in Ohio, the chartered banks that grew up in [Ohio] after the war had gone by the board and little or no sound money found its place. For two months I waited; only sold at retail enough salt to pay my board and expenses home. I traded my salt for a drove of cattle in August and drove them to Salt Point, but could not get money for them. Peter Wales killed and peddled about town occasionally, but one animal was equal to his purse at that time. I turned my cattle out on the reservation, and went to work. They got fat, and early in December I got them together for slaughtering. There was no slaughtering or packing in Onondaga County then; it was before the days of Howlett's packing.

I sold my hides for cash, the only article that would bring cash. I got a woman to try out my tallow and make it into candles, and put them up into bunches, five pounds each, and I peddled them from house to house for cash, one dollar a bunch. My meat I sold to the family in wholes, halves or quarters, for salt, free of duty, payable the next spring; and renewed the next spring my round of trade.

This is the way we early settlers managed to do business, with little or no money.

Respectfully yours,

Thomas Richmond

© 2001, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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