A Labor Trilogy Part I: The Greenback-Labor Movement in Indiana County, 1878-79

National monetary policy played a big role in national politics in the 1870s.  Toward the end of the decade Pennsylvania became a stronghold of Greenback-Labor Party sentiment.  The northern counties dependent on agriculture and lumbering proved particularly responsive.  The race for governor in 1878 illustrated support for the party in Indiana County.  It polled 30% in the county compared to 11% statewide.  Some townships registered totals in the 50% range.  The party never duplicated this showing, but the following year the county received much attention with the nomination of Peter Sutton for State Treasurer.  Sutton outdistanced the Democratic candidate in Indiana County.  James Weaver’s race for the presidency in 1880 produced disappointing results.  Nevertheless, Indiana County cast more than 1,000 votes for him, a figure matched only by Tioga County.  The count exceeded the 1,000 figure in the elections of 1881, 1882 and 1884 to rank as one of the county strongholds of the Greenback-Labor Party in the Commonwealth.

Declining farm prices and tightened credit helped to set the stage for protest movements in Pennsylvania.  The Grange gained popularity and many farmers used it to complain about the railroads.  The Depression of 1873 aggravated conditions and as late as 1878 the agriculture and lumber sectors remained unimproved.  The economic crisis buoyed the prospects of the Greenback-Labor Party which polled over one million votes in the congressional election of 1878; Pennsylvania, a stronghold of the movement, included a number of counties in which the party surpassed 30% of the total vote.

Peter Sutton
Peter Sutton, Greenback-Labor Party candidate for State Treasurer, 1879

The Indiana County party took more tangible form with its county convention in May 1878.  The twenty-four delegates included twelve representatives from Green Township.  The following month Blairsville demonstrated its interest by organizing a Greenback Club and hosting a speech by W.R. Allison, a party stalwart on July 4.  The National Labor Tribune, a leading labor newspaper published in Pittsburgh, described the Greenback-Labor Party of Blairsville as flourishing and adding to its numbers.  By July, the club held weekly meetings in the Town Hall.  Other communities also hosted Greenback-Labor meetings and other activities.   Jacksonville held a June meeting and a July 4th celebration at Pine Flats that included a dinner, speeches, reading of the Declaration of Independence and music.

The pace of campaigning intensified in September.  Local meetings continued but the emphasis shifted to larger and more dramatic activities.  The Greenback parade featured a large delegation from Green Township, the Elderton brass band and six martial drum corps.  A convention in late September attracted a sizable turnout with estimates ranging from 300 to 600.  A week before the election the party held another convention.  This activity drew a large crowd well supplied with banners and flags.  They heard a speech by the Greenback-Labor candidate for governor.

The election returns illustrated the strength of the Greenback-Labor ticket in the county as its candidate for governor polled 30% of the vote.  The party carried a number of townships, winning in Burrell, Rayne, Washington, Canoe, Green, and Grant.  It also won Homer City.  Green Township, the party stronghold in the county, produced 60% of the vote for the Greenback-Labor ticket.

Census figures for 1880 provided an occupational breakdown for areas of strong party support.  The vast majority of adults males listed themselves as farmers with their sons recorded as farm hands and their wives as keeping house.  Variations occur, however, most notably in Homer City with a population composition heavily weighted to laborers, sawmill workers and teamsters, and in Burrell Township with railroad workers, laborers (especially at the fire brick yard), coal miners and carpenters as well as the more commonplace categories of farmers and farm hands.  Washington Township included workers in the trades such as masons and carpenters and Canoe Township contained some grist mill and saw mill workers in addition to carpenters.

1879 began auspiciously for the party with a meeting of the county committee in early January.  Good news continued the following month with the entire Greenback ticket elected in Burrell Township and two Auditors victorious in Blairsville.  June featured the county convention which met at the Indiana Courthouse.  The representatives chose delegates to the State Convention and instructed them to support Peter Sutton for State Treasurer.  Sutton won the party’s nomination.  He came from one of the oldest families in the county and established a personal reputation as a well-to-do merchant and former Associate Judge of Indiana County.  The Party publicized his campaign with a biographical sketch and the party’s platform.  In his speeches Sutton condemned the current ruinous financial system.  A tremendous Greenback-Labor meeting at Marion Center in September highlighted the campaign.  The event attracted an audience of 5,000 which heard eight bands and several speakers.  The speakers encouraged laborers to join the struggle for universal justice and human rights.  Ox roasts and picnics produced large audiences and gave Sutton and other party orators an opportunity to spread their message.  Peter Sutton outpolled the Democratic candidate in Indian County and Tioga County.  He polled a statewide vote 10% of the winner’s total.  The party continued to operate in the 1880s publishing a newspaper, the Indiana Banner, and amassing vote totals of over 1,000 which compared favorably with party showings elsewhere in the state.  However, the revival of prosperity undermined the party’s appeal and the attempt to bring farmers and workers into solidarity remained relatively dormant until the revival of a more favorable climate in the 1890s.

This episode links developments in Indiana County with protest movements elsewhere in the state.  It also deepens our knowledge of a protest tradition in the county.  The role of the abolitionists and the organizing campaign of the United Mine Workers in the 1930s has received some attention, but there are other notable movements to chronicle.  The Greenback-Labor Party provided farmers and other discontented groups with a channel for expressing their discontent.  Peter Sutton’s campaign gave Indiana County voters an opportunity to support a man of recognized probity, integrity and uprightness who presented himself as “The Farmer Candidate and Mechanic’s Friend.”