American Towns

American Towns

by David J. Russo

For the vast majority of Americans who lived in rural settings from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, the small town provided the most important context for their lives. The town was a focal point and trade center chiefly for farmers but also for fishermen, loggers, miners, and even industrial workers as long as industrial production depended upon


For the vast majority of Americans who lived in rural settings from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, the small town provided the most important context for their lives. The town was a focal point and trade center chiefly for farmers but also for fishermen, loggers, miners, and even industrial workers as long as industrial production depended upon waterpower. Rural Americans needed community, and towns filled their economic, political, social, and cultural needs. David Russo’s history of these communities is a unique and engaging work of history, an overview of the founding, development, and varieties of life of American towns from earliest colonial times to the present. His chronicle is wide-ranging in its description but specific in its illustrations of how towns came into existence, grew or declined, gave way to larger urban areas, and finally have reappeared in idealized forms that provide Americans with nostalgia for a past that most of them did not even experience. The most important aspects of real towns, Mr. Russo observes, is their past, their history. With a vast knowledge of the field and a deft use of illustrative facts, he re-creates the universal experience of the small town—its intimacy, its neighborliness, and human scale as well as intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and tendency to exclusivity. American Towns is a richly informed book that fills a large gap in the history of the United States. With 50 black-and-white photographs and drawings.

Editorial Reviews

Richmond Times-Dispatch
A must read.
— Sally Brown
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Russo's work is a welcome look back at a subject that is irrevocably linked to the American experience.
— Mike Tsichlis
...This is a welcome study that, hopefully, will generate more scholarly interest in an enviornment that most Americans called 'home' until the beginning of the twentieth century.
— David Goldfield
Review Of Higher Education
An all-embracing narrative...a success.
— Jonathan Yardley
The Historian
...This is a welcome study that, hopefully, will generate more scholarly interest in an enviornment that most Americans called 'home' until the beginning of the twentieth century.
— David Goldfield
Richmond Times-Dispatch - Sally Brown
A must read.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Mike Tsichlis
Russo's work is a welcome look back at a subject that is irrevocably linked to the American experience.
The Review of Higher Education - Jonathan Yardley
An all-embracing narrative...a success.
The Historian - David Goldfield
...This is a welcome study that, hopefully, will generate more scholarly interest in an enviornment that most Americans called 'home' until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Washington Post
An all-embracing narrative...a success.
— Jonathan Yardley
Journal of the West
Russo's clearly written and widely researched interpretive history of American small towns will...stimulate further research on the subject.
Jonathan Yardley
An all-embracing narrative ..... a success.
Washington Post
Sally Brown
A must read.
Richmond Times-Dispatch
Mike Tsichlis
Russo's work is a welcome look back at a subject that is irrevocably linked to the American experience.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A welcome study.
This history of American small towns looks at their founding and development from colonial times to the present, discussing political, economic, social, and cultural life in small towns. Patterns in development are illustrated with many specific examples of how towns came into existence, grew or declined, gave way to larger urban areas, and have reappeared in idealized forms. Includes many b&w historical photos. Russo is emeritus professor of history at McMaster University. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.44(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The North American continent was inhabited for thousands ofyears before the arrival of white European migrants, beginning around 1500.The semi-nomadic elements of the native population typically clustered togetherin small settlements, but these settlements were not usually "permanent"in the same sense that European towns were meant to be. Many of theIndian tribes created villages—along the Northwest coast, in the RockyMountains, across the southwestern plateaus, and in many parts of the easternwoodlands. In most areas of the continent, these settlements were onlyseasonal: temporary quarters for semi-nomadic agricultural, hunting, andfishing tribes who settled in one area during the growing season and anotherduring the cold-weather months. Only in the Southwest of what later becamethe United States did tribes build permanent settlements. These tribes wereprobably influenced by those farther south who had developed complex civilizationswith large urban centers.

    During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the villages foundedby white European migrants to North America were sometimes located onsites that earlier native villages had occupied. But, in contrast to the practiceof most of the native tributes, the English, French, and Dutch colonistsplanned or developed permanent, not seasonal, settlements. In the broadestsense, the Europeans who migrated to North America usually rejected theclassic peasant village (with homes in town and farms in fields arrayed outside)and favored instead the "open-countryneighborhood," living in individualfarmsteads somewhat beyond a community setting of any kind.

    This was as true of the semi-feudal agricultural systems established bythe Dutch along the Hudson River or by the French along the St. LawrenceRiver as it was of the English farmers who settled in the river valleys alongthe Atlantic coast from the Bay of Fundy to the Florida peninsula. The Englishcolonists in particular extended a practice that became increasinglycommon in England and elsewhere in Europe during the seventeenth, eighteenth,and nineteenth centuries. When the "strip-field" pattern of landholdings surrounding peasant villages were "enclosed" or consolidated, thefarmer-owners of the new, enlarged lots moved out to their fields, leaving thevillages to farm laborers and craftsmen. In North America the abundance ofusable land made possible similar but even larger holdings.

    Even though the white European migrants dispersed onto farmsteads,fished off the coasts, logged the forests, and mined the mineral veins of a resourcefulland and its adjoining seas, they also founded towns as settlementmoved across the continent. A dispersed population still had need of milledand crafted products and of professional services, both of which could bemost effectively delivered in clustered settlements. In founding towns, thewhite pioneers drew on European experiences, adopting them to the alteredconditions of a new continent.

    Of course, all settlements were founded as towns. But a few of thesetowns grew during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into port cities,and rather more of them emerged during the nineteenth century into inlandurban centers. Indeed, in the early and mid-nineteenth century, as settlementspread through the great Midwestern valleys and plains, some town foundershoped that their settlements would grow quickly into cities. The vast majorityof towns, however, remained towns. Some grew into small cities; othersneither grew nor shrank significantly; still others declined or even vanished,became ghost towns. The combination of a favorable location and stimulativeeconomic circumstances, which together fostered the emergence of urbancenters, was a rare phenomenon. Most local communities did not experiencetransformative urbanization.

    In the twentieth century most Americans came to live in these relativelyfew urban centers, which became the standard location for a population thathad been dispersed in rural settings for the past three centuries. Neither beforenor after did most Americans reside in towns: at first they moved out tothe countryside, then they swarmed into the cities. Most of them have neverbeen town dwellers, but they have always needed towns, even if they have notlived in them.

* I *

    THE ENGLISH who settled in North America drew on theirexperience of settlement in Ireland, England's first colony. Across the IrishSea, the English "transplanted" themselves onto resourceful land, displacedand removed rebellious natives whose land was forfeited, and attempted toconvert native Catholics to Anglicanism. The English—far more successfullythan the French, Dutch, Spaniards, or Portuguese—promoted massmigration to the lands they claimed in the Americas, repeating many of thepatterns that Irish colonization had assumed by the seventeenth century. Asin Ireland, so in North America: the native population was perceived as wildand uncivilized; transplantations called for the invasion, subjugation, anddisplacement of the natives; colonization was sponsored by either proprietorsor trading companies; occupiers and natives had to be kept physically separate,to make more space for newcomers and to increase the chance for homogeneityin the colonizing population.

    Large numbers of Englishmen migrated to North America during theseventeenth and eighteenth centuries, dwarfing in number those who emigratedfrom other parts of Europe. Migrants from particular regions of Englandtended to stay together and settle in particular areas of the NorthAmerican Atlantic coast. The Puritans who settled New England camemainly from East Anglia. Those who settled in the Southern colonies tendedto come from the south and west of England. Migrants to the Delaware Valleywere from the North Midlands. Those who went out to the frontier andsettled in the backcountry came from the northern Borderlands. But thoughthere were regional variations in the way these transplanted Englishmenlived, with respect to their linguistic dialect, religious practice, architecture,family relationships, old age, childhood, education, sport, leisure, food, anddress, there were no discernible regional differences—either in England orin North America in the way they settled on the land. In North Americathis was mostly in dispersed farmsteads but also in an array of clustered settlements,varying in size from crossroads hamlets and mill hamlets to full-scalevillages or sizable towns and, in the case of a few coastal ports, earlyurban centers. The urge to move out to land that could be farmed was apowerful cause of dispersion, but a rural population nonetheless neededcommunity services, and that need explains the emergence of a variety of settlements.

    The land actually used for town formations was obtained in one of twoways throughout the English colonies. In New England, "proprietors"owned the land granted free by the colonial legislatures. They divided upsome of their acreage among themselves and gradually sold off the remainderto subsequent settlers, having set aside lots for common lands and a meetinghouse.Elsewhere in the colonies, land for towns was sold directly to the originalsettlers by the colonial legislatures. Land lots were a commodity easilybought and sold, though, and, at least in the planned communities of themiddle and Southern colonies, a few lots were usually set aside—as in earlyNew England for public purposes.

    As the English colonists divided the land they settled on, they exhibiteda deep-seated land hunger, a territoriality that was revealed by the fact thatland was viewed as a marketable commodity from the beginning, somethingthat began to be bought, sold, and traded shortly after its original distribution.During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only very small areaswere surveyed and laid out into towns. The vast areas beyond, used for agricultural,extractive, and milling activity, became a visually chaotic arrangementof parcels. In New England, New France, and Louisiana—placeswhere the residents had a strong desire for community-wide rules—therewas regularity in the way parcels in the open countryside were surveyed andsold. But elsewhere there was a mixture of large and small lots. Althoughmany colonists became family farmers and owned quite limited acreage forthat purpose, a landed elite also emerged, an elite that owned large land areasfor speculation or for staple crop agriculture.

    The northernmost English colonies, which came to be known as NewEngland, were settled by Puritan migrants. The Puritans were a group ofseparatist and reformist Anglicans who sought an asylum of sorts within thetransatlantic territories claimed by England. The Puritans, both the Separatistsof 1620 and the Reformists of 1630, secured charters as trading companies,by then one of two common ways of sponsoring colonization.Although seeking religious sanctuaries within which to profess unmolestedtheir reformed Anglicanism, the Puritans also aimed to improve their economicsituation. They came from the middling elements of an English populationwhose commercialization of agriculture, craft production, and tradewas the most advanced in Europe. Thus, in addition to their undoubted religiosity,the Puritans were imbued with a commercial, entrepreneurial spirit.These two passions—spiritual and material, religious and economic—whenfused were inseparable.

    One manifestation of this duality was the Puritans' decision to migrateas a trading company, with shareholders and members, whose purpose was tobe a profitable resource for the colonization and settlement of like-mindedPuritans who wished to start again in a new land. Another was the early decision,in the form of colonial legislative procedures, to disperse into small localcommunities which could be indefinitely expanded in number and therebykept small as religious and civil entities, but to found these towns under theaegis of land corporations, with all the hallmarks of the very trading companythat had sponsored their own colonization to the new land. In short, even intheir founding of towns the Puritans embarked on an enterprise that was asentrepreneurial as it was religious in character. In a further dualism thatmarked this notably intense and passionate group, the Puritans were practical,community-building utopians, the first great town builders of Englishcolonization anywhere in the New World.

    The places the Puritans chose for their town-founding enterprises were,without exception, the most blessed with resources—along the coasts andmajor inland river valleys. In Connecticut, settlers turned first (from 1635 to1675) to the seacoast and the Thames River system, the Connecticut River,and the Naugatuck and Housatonic rivers. Later migrants (1686-1734) settledin the interior uplands and secondary river valleys. Only then did furthersettlers move into the least desirable northwestern areas of the colony and fillin elsewhere (1737-1761). Similarly, in Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, andRhode Island, towns were founded first along the coasts and then along inlandriver valleys, and then only in the hills and plateaus. In more northerlyNew Hampshire and Maine (as a district under Massachusetts Bay's control),this pattern of town foundings persisted.

    By 1800, towns covered the entire territory of southern New Englandand a significant portion of New Hampshire and Maine as well. Much ofNew England's land, the portion beyond the coastal plains and inland rivervalleys, was quite marginal for agricultural purposes. But the mania for townfounding continued unabated from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.From the beginnings of settlement, it is clear that the Puritan migrants andtheir descendants wished to sustain their faith but also to further their economicwell-being. They did both in towns located throughout the regionthey dominated.

    The device the Massachusetts Bay colonial legislature chose to supervisenumerous town-founding enterprises was to create in each instance atown or land corporation that behaved much like a trading company or anylimited-liability business corporation of the time. Like a trading company,these land corporations had shareholder members who were the proprietorsof the common land that the legislature gave to the corporation or association.Shareholders were sometimes prominent colonists who had the contacts,expertise, and financial resources to supervise settlement within thenew town and thereby realize a profit on their land. The legislature wantedthe land "improved"—settled on and developed; it did not want land simplyheld, unimproved. The legislators' goal was to populate the landscape as expeditiouslyas possible.

    Prominent Puritans could most effectively choose and survey sites, purchasethe land from the native tribe that had occupied it, lay out lots, buildroads and bridges, and lure settlers to populate the new town. Individualslike these were an indispensable part of the founding of towns in colonialNew England. Some of the shareholders of these town corporations were notthemselves actual settlers; some of them were shareholders of a number ofsuch corporations; and the shareholders of some town corporationsfounded—as a group—other towns and thereby became shareholders ofmore than one town corporation. Deerfield, Massachusetts, for instance, wasfounded by the proprietors of Dedham, Massachusetts, none of whom becameactual settlers in Deerfield. As many as one-fifth of the towns foundedduring the seventeenth century were launched by older towns. Profit cameto shareholders when they sold off their land to subsequent settlers.

    Leading entrepreneurial town founders appeared throughout earlyNew England: the ubiquitous Pynchons, William and John, in the ConnecticutRiver Valley; John Winthrop, Jr., in southwestern Rhode Island andsoutheastern Connecticut; James Fitch throughout Connecticut; HumphreyAtherton in Rhode Island; Thomas Willett in Plymouth colony; JosephDudley in the Merrimac region of Massachusetts Bay as well as in southcentral Massachusetts and northeast Connecticut; and Richard Wharton inMaine and New Hampshire. But there were also lesser-known town promoterswho were deeply involved in the process. Frontiersmen such as CorneliusWaldo, Solomon Keyes, and James Parker moved from one frontiertown to another, becoming involved with several over their lifetimes. Politicalleaders such as Joshua Fisher, Eleazer Lusher, Andrew Belcher, Sr., andThomas Danforth did not settle in the towns they helped found. Othersknew and could deal with the native population, either as traders and neighborsor as military experts: Joseph Parsons, Sr., John Prescott, SimonWillard, Jonathan Tyng, Daniel Denison, and Daniel Gookin.

    Land or town corporations or societies were formed when the shareholdersmade formal agreements. These agreements or contracts might be atown covenant or articles of association or town orders. Whatever they werecalled, they organized the shareholders of the land granted by the coloniallegislature into a society for the purpose of designating a tract of land onwhich a town was to be formed. The agreements required the shareholders toperform certain common tasks, such as dividing the land, settling the lots,paying taxes, and maintaining the commons. In some cases shareholders whowere settlers signed the agreement. In other cases absentee shareholders,nonresident proprietors, drew up the agreement, especially if the shareholdersof an established town corporation were founding a new corporationsomewhere else. In some cases the agreements preceded actual settlement; inother cases they followed it.

    Once an agreement was made, the shareholders of a land or town corporationbecame the sole owners of the land on which a town was founded. Aleading objective of the corporation was to entice settlers to become residentsof the new town and to sell lots to them, both house lots and the fields beyond.But these residents were not necessarily admitted as shareholders ofthe new corporation. In a great majority of the early towns in New England,the resident population were not proprietors, as shareholders typically closedoff admission to the corporation after the first years of settlement. Althoughthey were property owners, nonshareholding residents could neither participatein nor benefit from the further sale of the remaining common land.

    Two well-documented cases illustrate the wide variations in circumstancesin which particular towns in New England were founded. Dedham,Massachusetts, was founded in 1636 when the colonial assembly of MassachusettsBay colony granted about thirty families two hundred square milesbetween Boston and the Rhode Island border. The native population waspersuaded to relinquish their claim over the territory for a small sum. Thesettlers composed a town covenant, which pledged everyone to practiceChristian love in their daily lives, limited residence to those who shared theirfaith, required all in dispute to submit their differences to binding meditation,commanded all to obey the rules agreed upon for the benefit of a harmoniousand orderly community life, and obliged all future inhabitants tosign the covenant as well. By the end of 1656, the seventy-nine men who hadbeen allowed to sign the covenant (all but the original settlers having undergonea public inquisition for suitability) constituted themselves as the proprietorsof the public lands of Dedham, and only these men, their heirs, orapproved newcomers were entitled to take part in periodic divisions of land.By contrast, the shareholders of Springfield, Massachusetts, signed articlesof agreement, also in 1636, but instead of a long list of religiously orientedstatements, Springfield's town covenant consisted mainly of formulas for allocatingland.

    The only other settlers in the English colonies like the Puritans werethe Moravians. Both were groups of religious refugees who tried to form settlementsthat were meant to be exclusively for themselves. The Moravianswere far more organized than the Puritans but far less widespread or numerous.They carefully planned their towns, starting with Bethlehem in thePennsylvania colony in 1741, followed by Nazareth (1742) and Lititz(1757). A second series of towns was founded in North Carolina, where in1753 the Moravians acquired a 100,000-acre tract. Economy was establishedin 1753 as a village for farmers, whereas Salem, founded in 1766, was intendedfor crafts. Others were Bethabara, followed in 1759 by Bethania.

    While in New England the earliest significant migration took place in1620, in the Southern colonies settlement began even earlier under the auspicesof another trading company. Group settlement in Virginia began asearly as 1607, in Jamestown. But the Southern colonists, unlike the Puritans,did not become committed town founders. The Southern colonies containedthe largest and most productive area for agricultural production in all of themainland colonies, with broad and contiguous river valleys cutting through awide tidewater and piedmont (or foothills) landscape. A warm climate and along growing season promoted extensive agricultural production.

    The failure of the English colonists to found towns on a regular basisthroughout the South has an economic explanation. In Virginia and Marylandthe emergence of tobacco as a staple crop, and of plantations as economicaland efficient large-scale farming operations, led to the development ofprivate dock and port facilities along the long, deep, navigable rivers of thearea. A notably dispersed rural population occupied plantations and adjoiningsmaller farms and relied for community services on crossroads churches,courthouses, and markets. These constituted a kind of "shredded community"and served as scattered focal points for farming, trading, politics, andreligion. In Maryland, mills and smiths' shops dotted the countryside, andeven churches and schools were not always in clustered settlements of anykind. In Georgia such bits of community existed at crossroads or at a particularlygood location on a trade route, such as at a good spring, at a ford ona river, or at a trading post or inn.

    But the pervasively rural nature of Southern settlement coexisted duringthe seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with continuing efforts by colonialauthorities in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia to createtowns as marketing centers. The trading company that founded Virginia issuedinstructions to the first group of settlers to found a town well inland ona navigable river, in a location that had the trading advantages of a coastal locationand that could be easily defended against attack by the native tribes.Jamestown, Henrico, and Hampton were all early, fortified settlements at theoutset of English mass colonization, when survival was precarious.

    Thereafter the imperial government in London pressed the colonial assemblyto enact legislation setting up procedures for the founding of towns.From a transatlantic perspective it seemed essential that the colonists havetowns to serve as tax-collection points and trading depots. In 1662 the royalgovernor in Virginia induced the assembly to pass town-founding legislationthat included a method for creating new towns. A tobacco tax was to belevied as a fund for the rebuilding of Jamestown and the building of newtowns on the York, Rappahannock, Potomac, and Accomac rivers, with thetowns to serve as ports of entry through which all shipments were to pass.Such ports would ensure that the imperial government could collect all legitimatetaxes on the colony's trade. Compliance was erratic and slow, however,and in 1680 the legislature was again induced to pass port-of-entry town-foundinglegislation. The new act directed each county's authorities to buyfifty acres of land on which to found a town, specifying the price to be paidfor each town site as well as the price to be paid for each building lot, withadded inducements, such as tax abatements, for the settlement of craftsmen.County sites were to be chosen for their accessibility and popularity. The actwas, in fact, unpopular because of the expense planters and farmers wouldhave incurred transporting and storing tobacco and because of the restrictionof their trade to designated places. So many lawsuits arose that the Englishauthorities suspended the act, which even the commissioners of customs denouncedas being too rushed, too restrictive of trade, and too lacking in theneeded infrastructure for both trade and taxation.

    In 1691 the legislature was induced to act again, refining the proceduresof the previous legislation and emphasizing the need for a dependablemeans of collecting revenue. This act was also repealed, probably because ofopposition from both English merchants and Virginia planters. In 1706 thelegislature was prevailed upon to act for what turned out to be the last time,reducing the number of towns to fifteen but otherwise providing for similarinducements to settlement and continuing to emphasize the channeling oftrade and the necessity for tax depots. Once again, though, the commissionersof customs opposed the act as being restrictive of trade, and it too was disallowed.Nonetheless some towns such as Yorktown (1691), Marlborough(1691), and Tappahanock (1706) were founded under the terms of these actsduring the brief time they were in effect.


Excerpted from American Towns by David J. Russo. Copyright © 2001 by David J. Russo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are saying about this

...A rare attempt to synthesize...small-town studies.

Meet the Author

David J. Russo is professor of history at McMaster University. His other books include American History from a Global Perspective, Clio Confused, and Keepers of Our Past, which Choice named an outstanding book in 1988-1989. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >