Fences Are For White Folks

This illustrated envelope dates from the 1860s. Depicting a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and accompanied by a poem, the iconography prominently features “The Fence that Uncle Abe built.” From the U.S. Civil War Papers, ca. 1850-1917. Box 7. Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

This illustrated envelope dates from the 1860s. Depicting a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and accompanied by a poem, the iconography prominently features “The Fence that Uncle Abe built.”
From the U.S. Civil War Papers, ca. 1850-1917. Box 7. Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

I am currently enrolled in a MOOC, HIST1.1x The Civil War and Reconstruction – 1850-1861, taught by respected historian, Eric Foner.  Each week our online student body analyzes a primary resource, an activity I enjoy immensely. This week’s challenge was the above envelope.  Who was the audience for this 1860s product?  What message was it trying to convey?  How did it reflect the symbolism and policies of the nascent Republican party?

so I posted:

Last year, when I took the course the first time, I am sure that I saw a clear appeal to the demographic that embraced free labor in an expanding country. Now, all I can see is an appeal to white men, who had the privilege of dreaming about being their own boss, marking their own territory, building their own factory/workshop. Blacks, enslaved or free, and Asian immigrants didn’t have the opportunity to set up boundaries, either physical or mental. Indigenous peoples measured territory and property with a whole different paradigm. The nascent Republican party was appealing to the common man, as long as he was white. The economic and cultural revolutions may have broadened the concept of “good” labor, but the political system was still attempting to reinforce white supremacy.

The discussion that followed had me return, reflect, and drill down into the free labor/free soil ideology, a fascinating and confusing exercise that only got productive when I harnessed my roaming mind to my own family history.

I can say with reasonable certainty, that my cattle drover ancestor, John Pearson Minor, regarded land as the ultimate asset, not only for the stock that could be raised on top of it and sold to expanding markets but also for the coal, salt, and other mineral resources beneath it that could be mined and sold to expanding markets. From his base in Southwestern Pennsylvania he speculated in land in what became West Virginia, Illinois, and Iowa. Extended family swept westward through this free soil era as well.

Letters reveal that the free labor concept of “work hard and rise to the top” was a core piece of this westward impulsion. Other documents indicate that these same people aligned themselves with the Democratic party. Republicans may well have captured the votes of some of this crowd, but only in as much as the Republican-defined property rights aligned with their own self interest. And that self-interest was what white men could define, legally describe, control, and profit from.

In as much as enslavers demeaned the very work that such cattlemen/farmers/entrepreneurs conducted, I speculate that my ancestors viewed slaveowners with contempt, and the ultimate insult would be to not acknowledge their social structure, the cornerstone of which was human chattel. And Native Americans worked from a whole different paradigm regarding property and community with a degree of stewardship of resources that was alien to the white, Protestant mind.

This one branch of my family demonstrated that an American could be an advocate of free labor and agitate for “free” or deeply discounted soil, and yet remain committed to a hierarchical, racist social structure, that codified a particular definition of property–fenced in by white folks.

Unknown Woman In Day Cap: The Minor Family Album

This middle-aged woman sat for her portrait, held motionless by a photographer’s head rest for the minutes-long exposure. The discomfort of such stillness couldn’t keep an impish grin from her face.  Woman in a Day Cap’s identity and relationship to my family has been lost. Her photograph, however, can serve now as a mid-nineteenth century fashion plate, evidence of what a mature woman wore out and about on a cold day.


A white cap covers the woman’s gray-streaked hair, framing her face with its starched ruffles.  A white ribbon is tied under her chin, ensuring the cap’s place come wind or rain.  At her throat, the woman wears a white cotton collar, one to three inches wide, with scalloped tatted edges decoratively set off by the dark material underneath.  The woolen wrap is worn draped across the front, gathered and fastened on the upper left arm–not at the throat like other coats and cloaks of the 1840s and 1850s.  Her hands are tucked inside a white fur muff, likely made of ermine.

Even if I don’t know how this woman is related to my Minor family, I take great delight in the inclusion of her photograph.  As always, digging in the Minor Family Album reveals treasures.

Smiling Woman Wearing Day Cap. Cabinet card (1885-1895) of original daguerreotype (1845-1855). Minor Family Album, p. 17; author's collection. 2014.

Smiling Woman Wearing Day Cap. Cabinet card (1885-1895) of original daguerreotype (1845-1855). Minor Family Album, p. 17; author’s collection. 2014.

The Minor Family Album: Mr. Chin Whiskers


Mr. Chin Whiskers

When I first became curator of the Minor Family Album, I moved swiftly to identify this man, the first face to appear in the album. I was soooo certain of my clues and my analysis.

  1. This whiskered gent is the first photograph displayed in a Minor Family album created in the latter part of the 19th century. He must be an important family member. A patriarch.
  2. Thomas W. Rogers, the photographer, opened a studio in Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, in 1864 that remained in existence through the turn of the century. Thomas took the photograph of this ancestor.
  3. The cabinet photo’s cardstock is an ivory color, with round corners, and medium weight.  According to internet sources, this description dates the card to between 1869-1875.
Digging into the family’s tree, I determined that the one Minor living near Carmichaels, Pennsylvania in the early 1870s old enough to present this image was none other than our patriarch, John Pearson (Pierson) Minor, 1791-1874.  I proudly announced my conclusion to the world in this blog.*


Time has passed, my skill set has expanded, newly discovered cousins have shared their treasures, and I have eaten a very, VERY large piece of humble pie.  In other words, I MUST retract my earlier identification.

Starting over I apply the procedures learned from THE photo detective, Maureen A. Taylor, author of Family Photo Detective, Fashionable Folks Bonnets and Hats, Fashionable Folks Hairstyles, as well as, a wonderful blog on the subject.

This photograph is a paper print on a 4½ x 6½ inch ivory colored cardstock, with rounded corners.  The photographer’s name and studio location–Thomas W. Rogers, Carmichaels, Pennsylvania–appear only at the bottom of the photo.  There is no design or notation on the back.  This portrait is an example of a cabinet card, most like created between 1869-1875.

Next I view the print with an eye for internal clues.  The man is seated in front of a dark backdrop.  White dots indicate that this photograph may be a photo of a photo–that the original photograph was on a surface like glass or tin, and that the photo’s chemicals flecked off with time.  In the upper left hand corner there appears to be a curvature of the backdrop, as if the original photograph was in an oval shape.

Snag it of Mr. Chin Whiskers.


The man is sporting a full beard, trimmed tight about his ears and mouth.  Beards were not popular until the mid-late 1850s, and were worn by a generation of men until the late 1800s.  The man has a full head of gray hair, worn long over his ears, and parted on the side.  It does not appear to be greased down.

The shot captures the fellow from the chest up, and his beard hides the neckline.  But the coat appears to be loose fitting, with a fairly wide lapel.  The vest is of a different material and the top button is at the height of the coat’s top button, mid-chest.

These internal clues indicate a timeframe between the late 1850s and the late 1860s.

The man himself appears to be between 55 and 70 years old. And sick.


Back to the stories, the roots, shoots, and leaves of this Minor Family tree.  And let’s just suppose that I am looking for a male family member who would have been between 55-70 years of age in the late 1850s to the mid 1860s.

So, patriarch Abia was dead by 1834. Francis Marion and his brothers would have been too young to be the photographed dude. That leaves a closer examination of John P., Samuel, and Asa, all of whom would have been alive in the late 1850s and at least 60 years old.


Cousin Ron Minor has generously shared a digital image, a photograph of a tintype, which was annotated with identification.

Minor Elders Collage

The man  identified as John P. Minor (shown here on the left) has a higher forehead, and a thinner face.  The eyebrows are not the same shape, and the hair appears to be thinner.  Mr. Chin Whiskers is not John P. Minor.

A photograph of Samuel Minor found on the website Ancestry.com bears a strong resemblance to John P., a high forehead, with gray hair thinning at the brow. Samuel’s eyes are deeper set than those of my Mr. Chin Whiskers.

Is this ASA?

More clues to come…


*I have since removed that original post because of the improper identification, AND because people were taking the misidentified photograph and posting to ancestry.com without my permission.  If you see something that you would like to share, please ask me about it.