Nineteenth Century Labor and Industry

Curtin Iron Works Transcript

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Curtin Iron Works Ledger

Manuscript Group 155: Curtin Iron Works Records, Ledger, 1830-1832, p. 339. Store account of Berry Cook, Negro, June 9, 1831. Iron gall ink on paper, 15 1/2"X 6".

African workers were present in English America at least as early as 1619. In that year, a Dutch sea captain brought nineteen of them to Jamestown in the recently established colony of Virginia. Initially considered "servants," by the late 1600s, in Virginia and in other colonies, their status had degenerated into slavery. In the southern colonies, they were used primarily as agricultural laborers in the growing of tobacco in the Chesapeake area, and sugar, rice, and indigo in Carolina. To the north, their tasks were more varied. Some were farm hands, dock workers and helpers to craftsmen.

Pennsylvanians were reluctant to import and use African slaves. Their proportion of the colony's population never exceeded about five percent. After decades of vigorous opposition by Philadelphia area Quakers, Pennsylvania's Legislature in 1780 became the first to abolish slavery. The law itself provided for only extremely gradual emancipation; nevertheless, many Pennsylvanians allowed their slaves to buy their freedom or specified in their wills that their slaves should be set free.

In freedom, some African-Americans achieved excellence in their professions. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones became clergymen and founded African Methodist Episcopal and Episcopal congregations, respectively. James Derham became a physician. Benjamin Banneker became an outstanding mathematician and participated in planning of the new nation's capital at Washington. In time, James Forten, a Philadelphia sailmaker, who employed numerous African-Americans, became one of that city's wealthiest citizens.

Despite the prominence of some African-Americans, most were consigned to menial tasks in Pennsylvania's economy, including its developing iron industry. Essential in the manufacture of ship fittings, agricultural tools, cooking utensils, and many other products, Pennsylvanians began to produce iron in the southeastern portion of the colony in 1717. Because the fuel was charcoal (wood), the industry flourished not in towns and cities, as in the second half of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in rural areas. As the supply of wood was exhausted in the original area of production, the industry moved west.

In 1810, Roland Curtin, an Irish immigrant, built an iron forge on the Bald Eagle Creek in Centre County. Curtin expanded his "Eagle Iron Works" to include 30,000 acres of farm, ore, and forest land; three blast furnaces; rolling, grist, and saw mills; a store; school; four "semi-mansions" for family members; and approximately seventy dwellings for his 100-200 full and part time employees. His workers included, among others, drivers who transported wood to the wood-cutters; colliers who prepared the charcoal; miners who dug the ore; a founder who determined what amounts of ore and limestone (used as a flux to burn impurities from the ore) to put in the furnace; the iron master whose responsibility it was to tap the furnace of its molten iron at the proper time; and teamsters who carried the iron to markets east and west.

Although most of the ironworkers were of European ancestry, some were African-Americans. As early as the 1770s, Blacks worked at the iron foundry at the Hopewell plantation in Berks County. By the 1830s, Roland Curtin employed at least a few at his Eagle Iron Works. It is not possible to determine exactly what they did, but it is unlikely that they held skilled positions here, or at any other iron plantation. The extant records do not reveal whether they lived in the company houses, but they might have resided there with the white workers and their families. What the records do indicate is that they frequented the company store. There they purchased goods that they needed on credit like the white workers. The document presented here is probably typical of the variety of goods bought at such a store. It shows, "Berry Cook, negro" bought in June and July of 1831, bacon and beef; fabrics such as calico, flannel, and muslin; stockings, combs, "1 pair Shoes for Wife" and other necessities. As noted at the bottom of the document, Mr. Cook earned credit for his purchases, for example $28.44 "By Making 8 ton 15ยข Blooms [a bar of iron for use by blacksmiths] @ 3.25 with Snowden", probably the man he assisted; and $3.00 for "6 days Mowing & Making Hay". Entries for other workers whose ethnicity is not given, probably because they were white, show they made similar types of purchases, except for the forge manager. Presumably, his salary was higher, enabling him to buy more expensive goods, such as chocolate and molasses. A forgeman, also a specialized worker and probably white, obtained three glass plates and six decanters.

It is significant to note that African-Americans found employment at Roland Curtin's Eagle Iron Works with whites. They made purchases at the company store that were similar to those of other workers of the same status. Variations in types of purchases seem more the result of economic than racial differences.