Unfortunately, my only formal training in economics was one course at Machias back in the old days. I do remember the story of a young teacher from the Bangor area struggling to explain ‘economic depression’ to his rural scholars. The next day a boy offered that his father had told him that a depression was a time in economics when the rest of the country caught up with Washington County.

This introduction about economics is for a series about court judgements circa 1840 that involved people of Alexander, Cooper and Crawford. These judgements mostly involved money, or more specifically, the lack of money. In addition to the perennial poverty that existed in much of Washington County through the years, the panic of 1837 made money matters particularly severe.

The panic of 1837 and the related short depression that followed were the result of a number of events going back to the signing of the Constitution (1787). The Constitution, the law of the land, established a strong central federal government. The states ratified this because each state owed huge sums as a result of the Revolution, and the federal government, under Alexander Hamilton’s guidance, would assume the state debts.

Because of Hamilton, the Bank of United States was established in 1791; it was 1/5 owned by the federal government and the rest was controlled by the moneyed merchants and ship owners. This bank was conservative, good for the new nation and made its money by loaning to its owners. Hamilton established the US Mint at Philadelphia in 1792. It minted gold and silver coins and printed paper money (notes backed by gold or silver). There was not much gold or silver in the US at this time so money was tight and circulated within the upper class. Income for the federal government came primarily from two sources, tariffs on imported goods and from sales of public lands, mostly in the west.

Then, as now, states also chartered banks. These banks loaned to tradesmen and farmers. Thomas Jefferson was the leader of the states rights group and he had the support of farmers and laborers.

It was in the time that Andrew Jackson was president that this conflict between central government and states rights, between tight money and liberal loan policy, between the rich and the poor came to a head. The national debt was paid off in 1836. Jackson removed federal money from The Bank of United States and put it in states' banks thus making state money valuable and federal money less valuable. There was a time of wild speculation, when one could buy land after breakfast and sell it after lunch and double one’s money. (Readers will remember the day-traders doing the same on the stock market and the more recent housing boom). Then, as today, much of the speculation was done on borrowed money.

Some lost confidence in the system, loans were called, money wasn’t available to repay them and everything collapsed.

In Maine, the speculators had been buying land. These timber barons and merchants had borrowed and needed money to repay their loans. They went after the little people for the debts they owed. Towns were not immune from suits. The towns’ money came from taxes, mostly on farmers. That is the basis of most of the court judgements we’ll read about in this series. What follows is in summary form.

Credit cards did not exist in 1839, but there was a debt-credit system in which the merchants were the bankers. Here is the list of items that Reuben T Fenlason acquired from Robert D. Foster of East Machias in June 1839, representing a debt. Fenlason did not pay for the items and Foster took him to court. Note that three of the debits were for third parties; Kelly and Lambert are unknown, but Charles B. Dunn, son of Samuel, was from Alexander and lived on lot 85 (329 Arm Road). What did that $26 represent? It was usual for merchants to pay ‘orders’ to third parties, as we will see in an account of Daniel Seavey’s store in issue 140.

Reuben Tuttle Fenlason, second son Wallis J. Fenlason, Jr. and Deborah Seavey Gooch Fenlason was born before October 18, 1810 at East Machias. He died on August 10, 1852 in a well on Breakneck Mountain (lot 97) in Alexander. (See issue 11). Reuben married twice, first to Deborah Gooch who bore him four children, and second to Livonia Gooch by whom he fathered one child.

Reuben has several connections to Alexander. Reuben and his family moved from East Machias to Breakneck Mountain in Alexander after the 1840 census, and before the 1850 census. That census lists Reuben 38, Livonia 19, Ervine 16, Reuben 14, Deborah 10, Hannah 6, and Livonia 10/12. Rebecca Garnet 23 is also living in the home. Four of the children were attending school. It was Reuben Fenlason along with Joel Gooch who attempted to save John Phillips from the well. That well claimed all three men. Finally it was his first cousin Freeman Putnam Fenlason who reportedly was the first white child born in Township 16 (Alexander) on June 4, 1812. Some sources state his year of birth as 1814. Freeman was a grandson of Wallis, Jr., a son of Mark and Sally (Ellsmore) Fenlason.

An old newspaper account of that well incident is what led Emily Greenleaf of Seattle, Washington to Alexander. As part of her research into the incident and those involved, she found and copied the following court document. Thank you, Emily, for typing and sharing your material.



To the Sheriff of our County of Washington, or his Deputy,


We command you to attach the goods or estate of Reuben T. Fenlason of East Machias to the value of 100 dollars and summon the said Fenlason to appear to answer to Robert D. Foster of Machias for a plea of the case for that the said Fenlason at said Machias on the day of the purchase of this writ was indebted to the plaintiff in the sum of 63 dollars according to the account annexed, and being so indebted the said Fenlason then and there in consideration thereof promised the plaintiff to pay him the same sum on demand.

Mr. Reuben T. Fenlason Fr. Robert D. Foster Dr.


June 17th to 10 yds. Calico @ 18 – 1 pr shoes 6/9 2.93

3 yds. sattinette @ 6/9 – 12 skeins thread @ 12 3.50

1 lb. tea @ 2/3 – 1 spelling book 20 – 1 doz. buttons 6 0.64

“ ¾ yd drilling @ 1/ -- to Joseph Lambert pr request 0.13

“ 8 yds calico @ 18 – 1 pr shoes 6/9 2.57

“ 1 lb. tea @ 2/3 – 3 skeins thread 3 0.41

“ 1 lb. tobacco @ 30 –1 lb. salaeratus 9 d/1 0.43

“ 1 flag ? @ 7/6 – 1 lb. salaeratus 9 d/1 1.37

“ Your order paid to Charles B. Dunn 26.00

18th 1 barrel flour Mr. J. S. Kelley 8.75

26th 1 ¼ yds blue broad cloth @ 3.25 4.06

“ 3 yds mixed cashmere @ 12/ 6.00

“ 1 pair calf pegged Boots 4.00

1 ¾ yds drilling @ 1/ -- 3 sks. silk @ 4d/1 0.48

“ 5 yds blue drilling @ 1/6 – 6 sks thread 6 1.31

“ 1 lb. tobacco @ 30 & 2 doz. brace buttons @ 6 0.42


Washington SS December 5th 1839 By virtue of this Writ I attached One Work Waggon supposed to be the property of the within named Ruben T. Fenlason and on the 10th of January 1840 I summoned the said Fenlason for his appearance at Court by leaving a summons at his last and usual place of abode.

Fees for service .50 Writ 2.65

(illegible) .24 Entry 0.60

Toll over Bridge .57 Service 2.61

(illegible) of property 1.50 Travel 0.33

$2.61 Att. 0.99

Eric Longfellow-Deputy Sheriff $9.49

Albert G. Lane, Plaintiff’s Attorney

Writ 798

Robert D. Foster vs. Reuben T. Fenlason

Feb. T. 1840 - Judgment for Plaintiff Damage $64.05 Costs $7.18



To the Sheriff of our County of Washington, or his Deputy, and to the Sheriffs of all our other Counties, or their respective Deputies, or any Constable of any Town or Plantation in said Counties,


WHEREAS Robert D. Foster of Machias within our County of Washington Merchant by the consideration of our Justice of our District Court, for the Eastern District, holden at Machias, for and within our County of Washington, aforesaid, on the Last Tuesday of February 1840 recovered Judgment against Reuben T. Fenlason of East Machias in the County of Washington for the sum of Sixty four Dollars and five Cents, debt or damage, and Seven Dollars and eighteen Cents, costs of suit, as to us appears of record, whereof execution remains to be done;

WE COMMAND YOU, therefore, that of the goods, chattels or lands, of the said debtor within your precinct, you cause to be paid and satisfied unto the said creditor at the value thereof in money, the aforesaid sums, being Seventy one dollars and twenty three cents, and lawful interest on said debt, from the sixth day of March AD 1840, with fifteen cents more for this writ, and thereof to satisfy yourself for your own fees, and for want of goods, chattels, or lands, of the said debtor to be by him shown unto you, or found within your precinct to the acceptance of the said creditor to satisfy the sums aforesaid WE COMMAND YOU to take the body of the said debtor and him commit unto our Goal in Machias, in our County of Washington, aforesaid, and detain in your custody within our said Goal until he pay the full sums above mentioned, with your fees, or that he be discharged by the said creditor or otherwise by order of law... HEREOF FAIL NOT, and make return of this Writ, with your doings therein, into the Clerk's office, of our District Court for the Eastern District, for the County of Washington aforesaid, within three months from the date hereof.

WITNESS — ANSON G. CHANDLER, Esquire, at Machias, the tenth day of March in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and Forty

L. Raymond, CLERK

Comments from Emily Greenleaf: If Reuben was in the habit of buying a pound of tobacco every 10 days, he would have ended up spending roughly $11.00 over the course of the year for 36 pounds of tobacco. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $190.00 today. I think that is pretty cheap for the nicotine habit. A pound of loose pipe tobacco today costs $35 today, compared to $2.00 back then. The price of tobacco has out-paced the rate of inflation. Could taxes be part of that?

Comments from editor: How did Reuben pay his debt? Did he go to jail? If not, how was the debt paid? Reuben was familiar with the court in Machias and the legal system. John A. Churchill, President of the St. Croix Historical Society in Calais and an attorney helped give sense to these legal documents, much appreciated by the editor of this newsletter. Al should get credit, but any error is mine.

Case No. 175 Covenant Broken: In February 1837 Reuben Fenlason gave Newbegin H. Mooney, Calais wheelwright, a promissory note for $50.00, which Reuben didn’t pay. Mooney got a writ of attachment to collect the debt, which didn’t help. Mooney felt that Urban Hitchcock of East Machias had some property belonging to Reuben, but Hitchcock disputed this claiming it was for a debt Reuben owed Hitchcock. Was Hitchcock protecting Fenlason? Mooney couldn’t prove that Hitchcock was helping Fenlason, so the court ruled against Mooney and ordered him to pay Hitchcock $14.02, which Mooney refused to pay. The Sheriff was sent to arrest Mooney on December 12, 1839; Mooney gave a bond to stay out of jail and likely paid Hitchcock. Annually until 1846 the court issued writs of execution and arrest against Reuben Fenlason but with no returns. Reuben was a hard man to catch. There is no way to tell if the debt was ever paid.

Case No. 1023 Debt: At the April term of court in 1837, Reuben Fenlason was found to owe John K. Damon of Alexander one cent plus court costs and fees making $39.38. Reuben couldn’t or didn’t pay so instead of being jailed, Reuben got David and Daniel Fenlason* to put up their homes as sureties for payment of the debt. In 1839, the debt still not paid, the sheriff posted notice on their land of a lien against the property. Apparently Reuben or his cousins settled with Damon and the case disappears from record. * Daniel and David were brothers, sons of Jesse and Olive (Seavey) Fenlason. They were residents of both East Machias and Alexander. They were Reuben’s first cousins.

Case No. 1651 Replevin Writ & Trespass: Reuben Fenlason claimed that Babcock had entered his property in East Machias, had torn down and removed his house. He also claimed that his potatoes had been dug up and his fruit trees cut down. He asked the court to order all this be replaced (Replevin), but since the house was in pieces, the potatoes harvested and the trees dead, he asked for $50.00 instead. The court ordered Replevin and ordered an attachment of Babcocks’ goods for $100.00 to assure payment. However Fenlason was ordered to prove ownership of the property involved. He could not or did not do this so the court favored Babcocks and ordered the Sheriff to collect the court costs of $16.02 from Fenlason. Reuben never paid.