Through “Poverty’s Vale”
Henry saw his first bolt of factory cloth when he was ten, and his mother cooked over an open fireplace until he was thirteen. . . . At sixty, when he was a caretaker of a hunting camp in the southern Adirondacks, Conklin spent the winter drafting a memoir of his first thirty years, lingering on his boyhood. The document he produced is a warm and tender re-creation.”—Journal of American History
“Conklin’s memoir is priceless, not only because it is the authentic and well-written effort of a self-educated man, but because it captures the rural life of the unadventurous pioneer.”—History: Reviews of New Books
“While Huckleberry Finn was fictitiously playing along the Mississippi, Henry Conklin was growing up in a large, self-sufficient but abjectly poor family in an Adirondack region that is really the northern tip of Appalachia. His account of how the Conklins got by, scratching their vegetables from thin soil and hunting rabbits barefoot in winter snow, remains vivid reading more than a century later.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Writing his full-length reminiscence in a lonely Adirondack cabin during the winter of 1891–92, Conklin recounts the first thirteen years of his life on a farm in Schoharie County, his young manhood in Herkimer County, and his service in the Civil War. The story is one of a hardscrabble life, of farming on marginal land, and of struggling each day for the necessary food and clothing. And yet Conklin asserts that these years were the happiest he knew. The Conklin family was close-knit, loving, and self-sufficient. They built their home, made their own clothing, and grew much of their food. Everyone contributed his or her share to the good of the family group. In this vivid portrayal of family life, we read about ordinary events that are unfamiliar to us today—weaving cloth, churning butter, making shingles, starting a fire with flint and steel, setting traps—and about the technology of the nineteenth century.
With insight, humanity, and a perspective gained through distance and time, Henry Conklin gives us a dramatic and moving narrative in which we become deeply involved. In telling his story, Conklin is not only reliving the past but also saving the events, experiences, and persons of his life from oblivion, and contributing to our historical knowledge of the rural backwaters of antebellum America.
Conklin’s reminiscence was preserved by his son and then by his grandson Roy Conklin, who brought it to the attention of Wendell Tripp. Several engravings supplement the text, and the editor has provided footnotes to many references that may be unclear to present-day readers.
Wendell Tripp was editorial associate with the New York State Historical Association and editor of New York History. He has contributed articles to the Wisconsin Magazine of History, New York History, and New York State Town and Country Government.
Open access edition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Open Book Program.