The Panic of 1837 slowed down western expansion to growing communities like Pittsburgh (seen above in 1849), and the United States suffered seven years of hardship making change inevitable for many of its citizens. Pittsburgh would undergo substantial changes in the several decades prior to the Civil War (when it became a Forge of the Union), as iron ore had proved to be abundant regionally, rapidly expanding industrial growth and production of the native metallic mineral.
Manifest Destiny had furthered the antebellum fortune of Pittsburgh, Pa., to become the Gateway to the West, as the Ohio River — formed by the southern flow of the Allegheny River and the northern flow of the Monongahela River — proffered the perfect confluence for itinerant riverboatmen and steamboatmen to provide a crucial service for its businessmen, who labored to grow the commercial hub and its near-monopoly on western trade. “The booming steamboat industry helped maintain Pittsburgh’s role as a key ‘Gateway to the West’ from the 1830s through the 1860s,” wrote Katelyn Howard for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014. By 1849, over 2,000 steamboats were anchored annually along Pittsburgh’s wharf.
The financial crisis had caused many businesses to fail. New York City was especially hard hit. On November 28, 1837, John Shephard III and his wife Thermuthis (Jones) signed a deed granting property in NYC to his brother Samuel. By 1840, John, Thermuthis, and their three sons (Thomas Haddon, John Newbold, and Richard) had moved west to take a chance in Pittsburgh’s transitioning economy, and growing community with a population of just over 21,000.
The growth of western cities such as Pittsburgh would have prompted some brave souls to take action to improve their lives no matter how hard their lot had become because of the Panic of 1837. The “iron city” might have seemed a practical harbinger for future economic success to young men like John Shephard III. He probably had read the newspapers that would have informed him that his former country had decided to invest less in the United States and more at home, and so he may have been in a speculative state of mind with regards to his family’s future. “Go West, young man!”
Historian Steven E. Woodworth writes in Manifest Destinies that “British investors had been bullish on America during the early 1830s, investing so lavishly that the inflow of their gold effectively doubled the U.S. money supply. At the same time, U.S. bankers had recklessly expanded credit, with banknotes in circulation jumping from $95 million to $140 million during the middle years of the decade. With the easy credit provided by scores of eager investors, a number of state governments foolishly borrowed dizzying sums to finance lavish programs of transportation improvements — railroads, canals, and the like. Midway through the decade, the Bank of England became alarmed at the ongoing export of capital and changed its policies so as to make investing in Britain more attractive. The resulting diversion in the flow of British investment capital might at first seem an insignificant cause for the massive financial crash America suffered in 1837, but credit bubbles, such as the one that had formed in the United States during the first half of the 1830s, are notoriously skittish. Like a slight vibration on a snow-covered mountainside, even a small tremor in the money supply can trigger an avalanche that carries away everything in its path. So it was with the U.S. economy of the 1830s, as the withdrawal of British investments triggered an inexorable credit contraction that historians would come to call the Panic of 1837.”
Shephard may not have read what visitors had written about Pittsburgh as early as 1816: “A hovering cloud of vapor obscures the view.” But his father, Thomas, had faced bankruptcy as a farmer in Lincolnshire, England, likely influencing his mindset regarding a yeoman lifestyle: so how John ultimately responded to the belief of Thomas Jefferson “that great cities were pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man” would take him close to a quarter of a century to formulate in his own mind. Jefferson believed so strongly in an agricultural state that he “favored legislation to maintain the United States as a nation of planters and small farmers,” wrote J. Cutler Andrews in A Century of Urbanization in Pennsylvania, 1840-1940. As he became Americanized, Shephard would have been well aware of the allure of Jeffersonian democracy and would eventually move east to Luzerne County, Pa., to farm the land; but that was in the future. As he entered his fourth decade, Shephard and his family settled into Antebellum Pittsburgh, which supported frontier farmers who needed “products made of iron, such as nails, horseshoes, and farm implements… Iron foundries and blacksmith shops proliferated.”
Steam locomotion by railroads in the 1830s and 1840s was playing an important new role in the United States. Port cities were quickly being connected by rail, and new lines to the interior would have allowed the Shephard family to make their move from NYC to Pittsburgh via Philadelphia on the Camden and Amboy Railroad — completed in 1834 — and the new Pioneer Fast Line westward in conjunction with canal packets — the Pennsylvania part of the journey taking three-and-a-half days.
By the 1850 United States Census Shephard was a baker and confectioner and owned Shephard’s Steam Cracker Bakery at 317 Liberty Street. His Pittsburgh business and property were valued at $15,000 (worth over $505,000 in 2021). “Our crackers are baked upon the OVEN BOTTOM, and are superior to any baked or by any other process,” ran one advertisement. As the country was expanding rapidly westward, Shephard’s steam crackers were surely accompanying pioneers.
Whether or not the Shephard family suffered hardships after the Great Fire of Pittsburgh on April 10, 1845, burned one-third of the city, destroyed 1,200 businesses, and left 12,000 people homeless, they and their fellow Pittsburghers endured and rebounded strongly. Real estate values soared, and the greater growth of the industry was galvanized by the recovery.
Shephard became a prominent and very active member of the Christ Methodist Episcopal Church. The Second Great Awakening had renewed the Protestant spirit to be born again —one in five Americans attending Sunday services in the 1840s — and erase sin from the land in order to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ. His wife, Thermuthis, likely played an important role within the congregation, and most assuredly at home. Sermons across the land emphasized morality, and preachers were tasking the fairer sex with instilling proper values in their menfolk. “No other avenue of self-expression besides religion at once offered women social approbation, the encouragement of male leaders (ministers), and, most important, the community of their peers,” wrote historian Nancy Cott in The Bonds of Womanhood. From the time it was founded in 1784, MEC leaders had preached against the evils of slavery and ruled that owning slaves was forbidden within the church.
Pittsburgh became a destination for “freedom seekers” during the antebellum period. “By the 1830s, Pittsburgh had a growing reputation as a fierce, militant abolitionist community…The community investment included forming organizations to not only aid the cause of abolition and freedom but also to assist in the cause of education, employment, homelessness, and other humanitarian needs of the newly free and destitute,” according to The Senator John Heinz History Center project From Slavery to Freedom.
The ensuing debate in his church and throughout the nation over the “peculiar institution” was antithetical to the “gag rules” Congress had imposed on itself from 1836 through 1844, when former President John Quincy Adams, serving as a representative of Massachusett’s 8th District, led a group of congressmen in overturning the odious taboo. The reading of more than 130,000 abolition petitions signed by more than 2 million Americans could, and would, proceed in the house chamber, thus enraging Southern representatives, who would fight the matter tooth and nail.
The division sowed further — a reckoning that would split Protestant churches (including Shephard’s) and upset the two-party system that President Martin Van Buren had envisioned and thought would preserve democracy as a civilized conversation between common people and the aristocracy — now Democrats and Whigs would be cleaved North and South. “The national party that he wanted to create was a democratic (small d) party that embodied true Americanism as determined by the majority of the people. Its opposition was a much smaller, but still powerful, aristocratic party comprised of wealthy elitists and special interests. The goal, from Van Buren’s perspective, was to ensure that the democratic party remained the permanent voice of the people and that it drowned out the noise produced by the minority party, which was only interested in furthering its own selfish interests,” wrote Mark Cheathem in an editorial for the Tennessean.
Political viewpoints in Pittsburgh were pressed by the editorial views of Neville Craig, editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette, who “became an active member of the Antimasonic Party in the 1830s. Craig’s hatred of the Masons put him at odds with Henry Clay as a presidential candidate. In 1842, the paper opposed Clay’s presidential run because Clay was a Mason and a slaveholder. While a strong protectionist with his anti-Clay position, Neville Craig became at odds with the Pittsburgh industrialists who were Clay supporters. In 1844, a group of Pittsburgh industrialists…helped implement a change in the Gazette’s editorial approach. From 1844 on, the paper became an advocate of Henry Clay and his ‘American System’ of protectionism. Henry Clay’s Whig Party stood for American industrialization and American greatness. This demonstrated the extensive political power of the Pig Iron Aristocracy in western Pennsylvania. In the Clay-Polk presidential election, Polk won handily nationally, but Whig Henry Clay carried Allegheny County. The local Democrats claimed the Pig Iron Aristocrats assured the Democrat Irish were working on Election Day. Still, the Whig victory would augur the great political alliance of management and labor in the future Republican Party. During the formation of the Republican Party, Pittsburgh was a Whig stronghold and its leaders were known as ‘Iron Whigs,’” wrote Historian Quentin R. Skrabec in his book How Pittsburgh’s East Enders Forged American Industry.
“As the population west of Pittsburgh surged, down-river cities, such as Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis, began to challenge Pittsburgh as supply points near the frontier,” wrote William Dietrich II in the Pittsburgh Quarterly. Shephard’s oldest son Thomas would eventually follow the new commercial opportunities in the west, leave Pittsburgh, head down the Ohio River to Cairo, Ill., with his wife and son, and then up the Mississippi River to Davenport, Iowa, where the family would head west and make Iowa City their new home in the 1850s. In the 1860 United States Census, Thomas is listed as a merchant. Two years later he accepted an appointment as major in a battalion of horse soldiers to help protect the expanding frontier. His brother John Newbold would marry Elizabeth McCallum, and two of her brothers would become U.S. Cavalry officers during the Civil War.
To be continued by Mark A. Shephard