Friday, March 9, 2018

Accounting for Wheelock

Portrait ot Wheelock at his deskNone of Wheelock’s biographers, nor any of the historians of the College, ever mention Wheelock’s youth, other than to note his piousness and his attendance at Yale. This may not be surprising considering how thin the documentation for this part of Wheelock’s life appears to be. The earliest letter by Wheelock in Rauner’s collection is from December of 1733 shortly after his graduation from Yale.

But lurking in Wheelock’s papers is an account book that details Wheelock’s debts and credits for the years 1726 to about 1752. This makes the account book the earliest documentation of Wheelock’s life created by him. It would appear that the account book has been overlooked for some 250 years. This is not really unusual; accounts and finances are often viewed as ancillary when it comes to the historical record and it is true they do not shed light on the thoughts and dreams of individuals the way a letter or a diary might. What accounts do provide is a picture of how businesses or individuals managed their affairs, how labor was compensated, and what work a particular person was engaged in. In addition, they can be used to trace purchasing patterns, or document the everyday activities of a particular person or business.

In the case of Wheelock’s account book, it reveals some surprising things about his early life.

Two-pae spread of Wheelock's account book
18th-century account books were laid out as a two-page spread with the debit column on one side and the credit column on the other. The debit side recorded money received, or at least owed to the owner of the account book and the credit side recorded money the owner of the account was paying out for services or goods.

Let’s start with an entry from 1726 in the debtor’s column.
to one quart of roume 2-6 tow yard chinse      1 4s 9p
to tow boys hats      15s
to tow yards of silk at     8p 6s
to one gallon of molasses     8s
The items listed are just a partial transcription of a much longer inventory and they reflect goods that Wheelock must have been selling to the individual named in the account. The account book for the years 1726 to about 1730 consists of hundreds of lists like this in the debtor column.

Page of Wheelock's account book
In the creditor column, we find evidence that indicates that the young Wheelock was running a sloop back and forth between New Haven and (possibly) Oyster Bay, New York. Entries from 1726 to 1730 reference purchases he made to outfit the vessel and payment to individuals who were working on board the boat. Entries such as this one:
Jeames Douck Ceditor
for a set of blockse for a sloope
to fore days work a bord the vesel
a half day a bord e vesel
Wheelock, who was born in 1711, would have been a mere 15 years old in 1726. The account book indicates that Wheelock was in New Haven, Connecticut, during this time period. This places him away from home, which would have been his father’s farm in Windham, Connecticut, three years before he is said to have enrolled at Yale. New Haven, which is about 68 miles from Windham, would have been a long day’s ride, or more, by horse, so it is unlikely that Wheelock was commuting on a frequent basis.

So, what the account book tells us is that Eleazar Wheelock was living in New Haven engaged in the shipping and merchant business prior to and into the early years at Yale.

This is just one piece of the picture from this resource. Other evidence that can be derived from the account book include a sense of his income over time, how his activities changed when he entered the ministry, and how he made money off of slave labor, but those topics are for future posts.

To take a look at the account book, ask for MS-1310, Box 38.

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