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Published by EH.NET (January 2004)

Kim M. Gruenwald, River of Enterprise: The Commercial Origins of Regional Identity in the Ohio Valley, 1790-1850. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. xvi + 214 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-253-34132-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Diane Lindstrom, Department of History, University of Wisconsin.

The author, an assistant professor of history at Kent State University, has written a slender but satisfying narrative describing three generations of merchants along the Ohio River. Focusing upon Marietta, Ohio, but extending her case studies from Pittsburgh to Louisville, Gruenwald analyzes how the commerce of the region shaped its identity. The heart of the tale is in the period before 1830, when the Ohio River formed the core of nearby settlers’ sense of place. For the first two generations, their identity was with the west, and they referred to their region as the Western country. But from 1820 forward, the northern and southern areas surrounding the river began to pull away from each other as transportation systems, foreign immigration, and slavery underwrote new identities that were no longer Western but Northern or Southern.

This sense of place is derived from a careful analysis of three generations of merchants; Dudley Woodbridge, his son, and grandson. Their correspondence, account books, ledgers, invoice books, blotters, and letter books form the evidentiary base for this study. From them the reader can see how widely the merchants traded, from whom they got their goods and how they were paid for, to whom they marketed their goods and what they received in return. This close analysis of commercial patterns and practices not only supports the author’s thesis about regional identity, it also offers a first-rate case study of mercantile practice on the frontier.

Dudley Woodbridge arrived in Marietta in 1789, determined to speculate in the lands of the Ohio Company and to engage in entrepot trade between this fledgling town and the Eastern seaboard. His efforts to supply area farmers with goods and markets, while fraught with hazard, proved to be successful and he became one of the leaders of Marietta. Woodbridge’s ledgers show an amazing variety of goods handled as well as imaginative methods of payment. To facilitate his business, Woodbridge encouraged more settlement by farmers and he recruited artisans, such as smiths, shoemakers, and boatbuilders, to migrate into the Ohio Valley. By the turn of the century, Marietta was a center of trade for southeastern Ohio and northwestern Virginia.

Dudley Woodbridge, Junior, was part of the second generation that linked Marietta with the growing regional hubs at Pittsburgh and Louisville. He began to move into wholesaling, buying up lots of goods to be shipped to country stores in the Marietta subregion. Having such access to goods, Woodbridge opened up branch stores as well relying upon partners to help fund and operate the business. Success here required not only knowledge of markets and the trust of customers, but goods and credit from the regional hubs such as Philadelphia. As the area developed, trade with the burgeoning towns of Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati grew. Expanding markets encouraged the development of regional manufactures, such as Pittsburgh’s iron and glass and Cincinnati’s textiles, and Lexington’s gunpowder. Meanwhile, the steamboat made upriver traffic possible and Woodbridge got tobacco and hemp from Louisville, salt from western Virginia and even cotton from Nashville and sugar from New Orleans. As he developed wholesaling based upon this greatly extended Ohio River commerce, trade with local farmers shrank. If the Western country got its identity from the patterns of commercial trade, Gruenwald argues that it was cemented by its shared political interests, as westerners sought both better banking and transport systems.

The new transport systems would erode the importance of the Ohio River system. With two major canal systems crossing Ohio from south to north and connecting with Lake Erie, the Ohio River was no longer a primary route for those heading further west into the interior of the North America continent. The Great Lakes-Erie Canal waterway and good wheat lands led to development of the northern parts of the state. Railroads would confirm this northward shift. Ohioans now identified themselves with the term the Buckeye State.

The author’s focus upon commercial networks and regional identity is well-placed. The consequences of the shift in identity from Western to Northern and Southern would have momentous effects in 1861. For economic and business historians, however, the virtues of this book are to be found in the author’s ability to recreate the patterns of mercantile trade during the earliest years of the Ohio territory and statehood. While the Woodbridges assume center stage, the patterns of their commercial exchange are confirmed with account books, ledgers, and blotters of other merchants. The work in these primary documents is impressive and the results will no doubt find themselves in the published work of others.

A classic piece of history, this book does not employ economic models nor does it rely upon advanced statistical technique. For some this may be a limitation, but for others, it means a more readable narrative.

Diane Lindstrom, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is currently working on a history of the Industrial Revolution in America.