Entrepreneurs and place in early America: Auburn, New York, 1783-1880

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Agnew


economic development, class

Subject Categories

American Studies | Economic History | Entrepreneurial and Small Business Operations | Geography | History | Human Geography | United States History


Auburn, New York, was one of many small communities settled in the northwestern frontier subsequent to the Revolutionary War. Because of early advantages, such as water power and its location on the major route west, it experienced unprecedented prosperity and growth. Like many other communities with similar geographical advantages, its growing wealth differentiated it from the country and communities around it, and attracted capital and an entrepreneurial class which built it into one of the leading places of its day.

One can see in Auburn the evolution of American capitalism in its most raw form. Into the region came three kinds of people with three different purposes: farmers, speculators, and purveyors. The latter two groups naturally gravitated to the towns and evolved into a new kind of entrepreneurial class with the capital, skills, and initiative to profit from the opportunities arising around them. Land transactions, probate records, and personal histories demonstrate that American capitalism at this time was place-based, personal, full of risk, sometimes but not always highly profitable, and derived in part from the free capital offered by the government to settlers in terms of cheap or free land. Land, religion, character, opportunity, entrepreneurship, and almost complete freedom from taxation, regulation, and controls, made this region a crucible forging a new American business class.

By the middle decades of the 19th Century, Auburn became a prosperous and rapidly growing center of invention, manufacturing, and finance. This study looks at the role of local entrepreneurs in both responding to and creating changing conditions in both the local and world economy at this time. The rise of Auburn and the geographical pattern of its economic landscapes is shown to be in part the consequence of entrepreneurship and the development of new forms of corporate enterprise in the corn starch and agricultural implements industries. However, the high profits and rapid capital accumulation from these industries that allowed the city to prosper and grow also initiated its decline, as entrepreneurs began to pull resources from local investments in favor of similar opportunities in other places. By taking a place perspective, this study explores concepts such as agency, structure, and the transition to organized capitalism in terms of the investment decisions of individuals in the course of their everyday lives in a place.


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