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Today, when one takes a walk around the city of Hartford for example, they are more than likely to glance down at their phone and tread the same boring and programmed trail to work. Perhaps down Capitol Avenue, a traditional hotspot for early morning bumper-to-bumper traffic; speed past the Colt Armory and lay completely blind to the beautiful brick walls and blue dome; My point? To us, the cityscape of Hartford and the history it has preserved thus far is something which is just well, for lack of better terms just, ‘there’. But in reality, the ground we tread, and the trees we pass, hold much more meaning and cultural significance than most of us know. In point of fact, they hold stories of strife, hunger, and desperation that lead settlers to become heavily socially, politically, and materialistically dependent on one another in a frantic bid to survive.
The truth is, hundreds of years ago, the paved sidewalks be it in Hartford or Jamestown, were nothing but a dry, arid pile of dirt with a few tumbleweeds rolling by. It was due to this that American settlers often turned to one another for materials. Such could be seen during the “Starving Time” as presented by the Jamestown Documentary. The so-called “Starving Time” was marked by cold-blooded murder, conflict, and extreme malnutrition as a result of starvation. It was due to this, that settlers including John Smith, an English soldier who helped establish the colony, oftentimes looked to the local tribes in order to suppress their stomach albeit temporarily. But the good relations between the settlers and tribes would not last long, leaving the settlers hungry once more. Making matters worse, the newly established colony would soon readily welcome another batch of some 300 English people who in hindsight, came at possibly one of the worst times possible. It was around this same time that the condition of the colony quickly began deteriorating once more after a bout of several fights with the tribes, and various diseases making way into their settlement which weakened their already feeble state. Settlers soon found themselves engulfed in a famine that became so severe that ultimately, they turned to the corpses lying just a stone’s throw from their bed in order to fulfill their next meal, this perhaps being the greatest example of how the settlers depended on one another materialistically. However, this interdependence on one another did not die out even some almost two hundred years later.
In Cindy Lobel’s first chapter of Urban Appetites, she makes mention of John Pinard who she describes as a, “…New York foodie 150 years before the concept existed”. Further talking about Pinard, she says he, “….contended with scarcity and seasonality and developed personal relationships with food vendors to avoid swindles, scams, and poor-quality food.” It is at this moment that Lobel highlights the concept of 1800s “social dependence”. Through this quote, she explicitly tells the audience that ‘food culture’ and its quality strongly depended on one’s social abilities to swindle and manipulate vendors in exchange for a higher quality product. To us as readers, this statement is shocking as nowadays, food is a commodity that most of us take completely for granted without giving a thought about the labor it takes to grow, produce and distribute in a healthy manor. But at this time, in order to gain access to healthy, on-par food, one had to be heavily dependent on their on their social prowess and concurrent connections around town.
In addition to being materially and socially dependent on one another, people too were heavily politically dependent on one another. One prevalent example of this in practice would be the quote from Cindy Lobel’s Urban Appetites, in Chapter 2 when she speaks about the link between the Common Council and butchers. Lobel says, “Rather than engage in land surveys, hear petitions from residents, raise funds for markets, construct and regulate them, the Common Council found it far easier simply to offer provisional licenses to grocers and journeymen butchers to open private shops in the newer areas of the city that were underserved by markets.” This quote is important to bear in mind because it shows that there was a strong link between one’s ability to open a private shop and therefore, gain more power via in this case, a political entity such as the Common Council. As Lobel points out, “Owning a grocery along with running a saloon and heading a volunteer fire company was among the routes to power in the nineteenth-century political machine.” So while perhaps today the sight of a local bodega on a corner street is to most of us a familiar and perhaps unimpressive feature of a given neighborhood, in the 1800’s it was a gleaming example of the ‘American Dream’ which would bear one money and good fortune.
Bearing all these points in mind, I believe all these pieces of evidence work to refute the notion of “rugged individualism” as it pertains to American settlers during this vast time period of in American history. The term “rugged individualism” refers to “the practice or advocacy of individualism in social and economic relations emphasizing personal liberty and independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, self-direction of the individual, and free competition in the enterprise”. Due to the fact that settlers at this time (without fault) depended on one another to survive and this notion of such individualism at all costs is a longshot.
However, some may wish to present a counterargument to my assertion that states that for example, the sole act of going out and turning to cannibalism was the ultimate sign of ‘rugged individualism”. While this may hold some truth, it is important to view society as a whole in order to make a clear-cut determination when answering this question. If one solely considers the “Starving Time”, “rugged individualism” may be applicable as settlers had no real government to rely on and had to turn to themselves for everything. Where this no longer becomes applicable is during the establishment of state governments, towns, stores, etc., as seen in New York City during the 1700 and 1800s. The idea of ‘food culture’ in the 1800s was solely dependent on the presence of food vendors and grocers which people of all social classes depended on in order to put food on their respective tables.
In summation, after the study of‘ food culture’ and other aspects of “Urban America”, I am led to believe that settlers wholeheartedly depended on one another and strategically formed bonds in order to get themselves through one of the worst and most dangerous times in the history of America. What started as necessary cannibalism turned into a nationwide trend of cheap and unhygienic food vendors, the establishment of grocers, clubs, places to hold social gathers, etc., and the America that we all know today.
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