A few weeks back, I wrote a post about the Bank of Brest, one of the multitude of wildcat banks that sprouted up around Michigan after it was granted statehood in 1837 and liberalized its banking regulations. The stories of excess and chicanery that accompanied this episode are sometimes entertaining, but they also often fail to capture the impact that failed banks had on the community. It is also sometimes difficult to understand how people were fooled by what in many cases seem like transparently bad banks.
Luckily, there is a wonderful first-person account of the rise and fall of a wildcat bank by Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864). Born Caroline Matilda Stansbury, she was a well-educated woman from New York who moved to Michigan to head the Detroit Female Seminary in 1835 with her husband, classics scholar William Kirkland. William became caught up in the speculative land boom that accompanied statehood, and in 1837 purchased eight-hundred acres of land where the village of Pinckney was founded about fifty miles west of Detroit. Feeling somewhat isolated in their new environs, Caroline spent her days writing long and observant letters to friends and colleagues about the trials and tribulations of Western life. These letters coalesced into her first book, A New Home–Who’ll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life, which was published by C. S. Francis in 1840 and quickly became a runaway success that went through numerous editions. Writing under the nom de plume Mrs. Mary Clavers, Kirkland’s work consisted of perceptive and often satirical sketches of life in the fictionalized frontier town of ‘Montacute.’
Although undoubtedly lightly fictionalized, her account was frank enough to earn the ire of friends and neighbors who saw themselves in offending passages and disdained her portrayal of the mores that prevailed in the wilds of Michigan. The Kirklands moved back to New York City in 1843, and Caroline published two more books about her experiences out west. She was active in New York literary circles and was well-acquainted with many of the most renowned Anglo-American writers of the day. After William’s death in an accident in 1846, she continued to write to support her family and edited a variety of different publications.
In a scholarly edition of A New Home published by Rutgers University Press, Sandra A. Zagarell praises Kirkland as a “sophisticated cultural critic” who “engaged in wide-ranging, often satiric commentary on the socialcultural conventions and codes prevailing in both the eastern and western United States (xi-xii).” Indeed the lively passage excerpted below chronicling the rise and fall of the “Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Bank of Tinkerville” is a wonderful example of her keen eye for detail and sharp wit. Kirkland’s narrative captures something of the enthusiasm that so often accompanied such ventures, at least initially, as well as the impact that these schemes had on the community. The entire book, which you can find here, is well worth a read. For those in haste, this engaging excerpt on wildcat banking will have to do.
The very next intelligence from our urban rival came in the shape of a polite note to Mr. Clavers, offering him any amount of stock in the ‘Merchants’ and Manufacturer’s Bank of Tinkerville.’ My honored spouse–I acknowledge it with regret–is any thing but an ‘enterprising man.’ But our neighbor, Mr. Rivers, or his astute father for him, thought this chance for turning paper into gold and silver too tempting to be slighted, and entered at once into the business of making money on a large scale.