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Interview with Jonathan Henry Evans

Some Reminiscences of Early Grant County

By Jonathan Henry Evans, in an interview with the Editor


Source: Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for 1909, pp. 232-272 (1910); transcribed by Jeanne Kalkwarf


Arrival in Wisconsin

            I came to Wisconsin with my parents when I was in my sixteenth year, arriving May 15, 1846.  We settled on government land in the town of Kendall, then in Iowa, but now in Lafayette County.  Previous to removing to Wisconsin my father had had varied experiences, with differing degrees of fortune.  He had lived near Philadelphia when the Pennsylvania Railway was projected and built (1832-1835), and being a blacksmith and machinist, established a small factory to build freight cars.

            The State had undertaken a system of internal improvements from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh: a railroad from Philadelphia to Columbia on the Susquehanna, thence a canal, following the watercourses to the headwaters of the Juniata at Hollidaysburg;  from this point a railway, by a series of inclines, five up and five down, carrying the boats over the mountain to Johnstown, where the craft again took to the water for Pittsburgh.  These boats were built in three water-tight compartments, each of which could be floated on to trucks and thus pulled over the mountains.  The freight cars were first constructed to run on four wheels, and about a third the length of the modern cars.  This was the style built by my father, who was one of the pioneer car builders in the United States.  The State owned the railway and canal; individuals or companies owned the rolling stock and boats, paying  toll to the State.  The first rails were iron bars about the size of an ordinary wagon tire; these were spiked on wooden string-pieces, perhaps six inches square.  For the first two or three years the motive power was  horses driven tandem.  Soon, however, steam supplanted horses.  Larger cars, with eight wheels, were built in Philadelphia, and my father’s small factory was put out of business, so he removed to central Pennsylvania, and engaged in canal-boating on the Juniata and Susquehanna.  He was one of many individuals who owned boats and paid toll to the State.

            We left Pennsylvania in April, 1846, travelling by canal to Hollidaysburg, thence by rail over the mountains to Johnstown, whence we floated by canal to Pittsburgh.  There we boarded a steamer down the Ohio to Cairo, and up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where we changed to another boat which brought us to Galena.  The journey that then took twenty-one days could now be accomplished in one.

            At some place below Louisville we saw a steamboat anchored in mid-stream.  It proved to be a “wrecker” at work recovering salvage from a sunken steamer.  Our boat stopped, and we watched them working with a diving bell.  A man went down in it and sent up all kinds of stuff.  We were told that many lives had been lost; but all we saw was a lot of merchandise  hauled up from the wreck.

            My first impression of Platteville (1846) was that of a village located in a dense forest; its area was perhaps forty acres.  The buildings were mainly frame, but some were of log, and there were two or three unpretentious brick structures.  There were probably seven or eight hundred inhabitants, chiefly men engaged in lead mining.  It was noticeable that there were but few old people, all being of middle age or under.  As my acquaintance grew, I was much impressed with the general intelligence of the people, who had a much higher average than those of central Pennsylvania whence I came.  At the time I could not account for it but subsequently learned that most of the people who came to southwest Wisconsin were attracted thither by the reports of the fabulous mineral wealth of the district.  As the means of communication from the East and South at that time (1827-46) were few and difficult, none but venturesome spirits, endowed with energy and enterprise, would emigrate to this region, so remote from the comforts of civilization.  The travelled route was mainly by water down the Ohio and up the Mississippi; hence the earliest settlers were from points contiguous to those waters – Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois furnished the majority, while New York and other Eastern states sent small contingents.

            At this early date most of the land was uncultivated; both prairie and timber were in primitive condition, hence there were many old Indian trails to be seen.  I remember one in particular; it came from the east, passing south of the mounds, thence through the ravine northwest of the village, and down the waters of the Platte towards the Mississippi.  There had been an Indian camping place on the limits of the present city; but as far as I know, no regular native village on the site.  For years after we came, Indians were frequently seen here, mainly Potawatomi and occasionally Winnebago.  They were all removed to eastern Nebraska about the time of the admission of the State (1848).  I have seen as many as eight hundred here at one time, probably when they were gathered for removal from Wisconsin.  They usually camped where there was plenty of water, either on the Peckatonica or Platte.  In their intercourse with the whites they were peaceable; but living a kind of gypsy life, they would steal pigs and other domestic animals such as dogs and calves, that came in their way during the night.  They were inveterate beggars, never omitting to ask for whisky.


Watching a Wheat Field

            In this connection, a little incident happened to me when I was a lad.  In the fall of 1846, a man named Brown had taken up a claim and sown a field of about twenty acres of wheat, a few miles from the nearest settlement.  He then left to get a winter’s job and did not return in the spring to look after the crop.  The wheat grew finely, and being unfenced was open to roving stock that began to graze upon it, the wheat being more fresh and tender than the surrounding prairie grass.  A neighbor with whom Brown had worked the previous year, declared it was a great pity to have such a fine crop spoiled by the cattle; that it would pay some one to watch the crop until it was ripe.  I was doing nothing at the time, and said, “If you will give me half, I will watch it until it is ripe.”  This was agreed, and on the next Sunday my father, my brother, and I went out to the field with a yoke of oxen and built a sod cabin.  I camped there that night, and staid four months alone, my only companion being a good  and faithful dog.  My door was a blanket.  One night a big buck Indian poked his head through this portiere and grunted at me.  I was so startled that I grabbed my gun.  My first thought was to shoot him; fortunately I did not, or his kinsman might have scalped me.

            About the 19th of August, Brown returned and assisted in threshing the wheat.  There were six hundred bushels, worth sixty cents a bushel.  My father got three hundred bushels of this, which was a pretty good thing in those early days.

            My father did not follow his former business very long.  Although raised a Quaker, he was much of a military man, having been lieutenant-colonel of a militia regiment in Pennsylvania.  He was good looking, and prided himself on his military bearing.  Although of little education, he was, like Rountree, a natural leader or men.  As early as 1840 he used to go out and lecture on temperance in country school-houses – he was a radical temperance man, never using either tobacco or alcohol.  My mother was of Pennsylvania-German stock, and was raised a Lutheran.  Neither of them remained in their religious sects, however, after they were married.


State Lines

            All the mails and most of the passengers in northern Illinois, eastern Iowa, and southern Wisconsin, were carried by a large firm named Frink & Walker, whose headquarters were in Galena.  The coaches used by them were of the big old Concord variety, and there were frequent relays, so that passengers were carried quite expeditiously and at reasonable rates.  I went to Madison in 1855 to sit on a federal jury, riding from Platteville all the way in one of these stages.  Coaches left Galena – twenty-five miles away – in the morning, arriving at Platteville about nine or ten o’clock, and reaching Madison about two o’clock at night.  The old ridge road was followed.  We struck the military road at Dodgeville, and proceeded over it to Blue Mounds, and thence to Madison.  This is much the same route as is now followed by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, at least from Dodgeville into Madison.  The coach itself went on from Madison to Milwaukee.  There were relays of horses about every ten miles, and we went along at a full swinging trot.  The firm issued regular time-tables, and kept pretty well to their schedule.  Another line of stages went to Milwaukee by way of Janesville.

            When going from Platteville to Chicago, the coaches first went to Galena.  From there, was a splendid line right through, by way of Freeport and Elgin.  The line to Prairie du Chien was also important; this went by way of Lancaster.

            I have spoken of the old military road to Madison.  This went across the State along the best line of travel, following a well-beaten Indian trail.  Like all primitive peoples, Indians kept to ridges and watercourses in their trails, which was easier than going in straight lines, like our modern “section roads.”  Westward from Madison, this military road lay on the watershed between waters running into Wisconsin River and those flowing southward – thus it went through Blue Mounds (Ebenezer Brigham’s old place), Ridgeway, Dodgeville and Montfort.


Hauling Lead

            This was one of the old roads for carrying lead between the mines of southwest Wisconsin and the lakeport of Milwaukee.  The ore was smelted at the local furnaces in close vicinity to the mines, and run into pigs ready for market.  Some copper was likewise smelted at Mineral Point, and run into circular pans, when it was hauled away in the summer as lead, reaching the same markets.  The lead went by ox-teams, in great canvas-covered wagons, the load being rated at about a ton of metal to each yoke of oxen.  As such a team accomplished a good day’s work if it travelled twenty miles, the distance between Platteville and Milwaukee was covered in eight to ten days.  Sometimes tramps and others “down on their luck” would travel with the lead caravans, but travelers generally regarded it as too slow a method.

            It should be understood, however, that most of the pig lead and copper from Wisconsin mines went to Galena, whence the bulk of it was dispatched by steamers down the Mississippi, seeking New Orleans and New York markets; some went up the Ohio to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, or was distributed along the Ohio River route.  How large a proportion of the output went overland to Milwaukee, by caravans, to meet lake vessels that carried it to Buffalo and other Eastern markets, I have no means of knowing; it was doubtless a rather small percentage.


Early Roads

            Many of the roads through this region were made before I came into it.  The road from Potosi was open when we came, also that from Plattville to Lancaster, New Diggings, and Benton – those were all mining places, and there was constant communication between them.  There were few farms then; just a vast prairie between here and Shullsburg.  Such roads as there were, followed, as I have said, the lines of least resistance, winding along the ridges and then through the valleys.  Later, after the federal surveys between 1833 and 1835, the roads went at right angles, following section lines.

            There were, of course, no railroads in the pioneering days of southwest Wisconsin.  Plattville was wholly dependent on the common roads to get its goods and ship out its minerals.  Most of our merchandise came by way of Galena.  Milwaukee was then a relatively small town – not so large as Platteville; but it was a lakeport, with Eastern connections by water, and that made it important.  I was for several years in the mercantile business in Platteville.  It generally took a day for us to get a load of goods from Galena by horse-team, and two days by ox-team.  The wagons came by way of Hazel Green.  This overland hauling by wagon added greatly to the cost of merchandise.

            A great many goods came to us from Dubuque by ferry.  We did not then consider those slow methods of transportation inconveniences, but took them as they came.  Dubuque was an important center, but not so much as Galena.  The latter quite outdistanced Dubuque until the railroad came.  Galena subscribed liberally toward building the road, while Dubuque would subscribe nothing, with the curious result that while Dubuque was helped by the new highway of steel, Galena was irretrievably damaged by it.

            Steamboating on the Mississippi River was a profitable business before the war and the general shifting of transportation to the railways.  The amount of money made by the steamboat companies was something truly magnificent.  My business affairs took me up and down the river a great deal in those days.  I was always filled with admiration of the splendid organization of the service, and the picturesqueness of the voyage, which was varied with interesting incidents.

            There is nobody alive now, who was in business here at the time I was.  I do not know how it happened that I survived all the rest of them; but here I am.  I attribute my good health to the good habits and splendid constitutions of my father and mother.


A Wisconsin Giant

            During the early years of our residence in Wisconsin, my father’s nearest neighbor was Randall, a Scotch giant, seven feet six inches tall, who in the summer time travelled with Barnum’s circus.  Randall lived between Mineral Point and Platteville, eight miles from the former and twelve from the latter.  He was in many respects a remarkable man.  Most giants are monsters – not well proportioned; but he was a splendidly proportioned fellow, and although weighing 420 pounds, had no extra avoirdupois  tissue.  From his thumb to the end of his little finger he would span thirteen and a half inches.  One day he came to my mother and wanted to get a setting of ducks’ eggs.  He was bare-headed, and when she asked him what he had to carry them in, he said that one of his hands was sufficient – and indeed he did carry that whole setting back home in his hand.  Randall had bookish tastes, and many of his friends gave him books.  Among others he had Rollin’s Ancient History, which I borrowed from him and read during that summer when I was watching Brown’s wheat field.  I believe that those four months I spent in watching the wheat was as good literary training as I ever put in.  I had good company in books, as well as my good dog.

            In winter time, when the circus business was shut down, and Randall had nothing to do in his own line, he used to haul lead.  He would load up the metal with his bare hands, picking up pigs weighing from seventy to seventy-five pounds and easily piling them up.  His wife was a giantess, too – six feet, four inches in height – and also travelled with Barnum.  Charley Stratton, popularly called “Tom Thumb,” was one of their companions;  he emphasized the giant stature of the Randalls by his own diminutive size.


Game

            I never saw a happier lot of persons in my life than were the pioneers of this region.  Yet we never had fresh fruit.  I had been in Wisconsin three or four years before I saw a peach, and I came from a peach country.  We did not have canned fruit, either.  We used to get blackberries and crab-apples from the woods.  There was, however, a great abundance of game; everybody went out to hunt.  The first winter we were here, there was a great snow, and deer were plentiful.  Hunters brought venison into Platteville and so great was the supply that they never thought of bringing the forequarters.  Generally, they brought only the saddles, and sold these for two or three cents a pound.  Prairie chickens abounded, and sometimes wild ducks.  Wolves, too, were quite numerous.


Decadence in Lead Mining

            The slump in the lead-mining industry began in 1849 or 1850, when the gold fields of California began to attract the miners to what promised to be a more lucrative region.  This decadence came suddenly.  There were from three to four hundred men mining here, and two hundred and fifty of them went to the gold fields, which made quite a difference in our population.  Our miners were chiefly Cornish, and good miners they were, too, making first class citizens.  The falling off in mining in this region continued until 1854, when the bottom pretty well dropped out.

            I attribute the decadence very largely, in addition to the loss of miners, to the increase in the value of the land itself.  Owners are very reluctant to have their land prospected.  John H. Rountree owned thousands of acres around Platteville.  Some of his property decreased in value over fifty per cent by reason of mining debris left on the ground.  I seldom allowed anybody to do any mining on my own property, because I did not want to damage the land for sale.  A prospector says, “I want to explore your ground for zinc.”  He makes a contract to be permitted to drill an eight-inch hole.  If he finds good showing, he makes a further contract to sink a shaft down to the mineral, and then the owner of the land gets a tenth of the proceeds.  Take a big zinc mine, and right at the shaft they irrevocably destroy an acre or two of land.  Unless a man gets a pretty good royalty, it is better to preserve the land.  I know of a tract south of here, that is so dug up that it does not amount to anything.  Generally, one can raise crops more valuable on top, than below.

            Here is an instance of good profits made by a landowner, in our own day, when zinc mining has been revived and prosperity has returned to the region:  This man owned a three-cornered piece of land, and wanted to sell it for $3,000.  The neighboring nine-owners would not buy, but contracted for it for mining.  Boring a hole, they found it rich, and wanted to know what the owner would take for it.  His price was now $6,000, which they declined to pay.  The following March, after paying $6,000 in royalty, they wanted to know what he would then take for the property.  His price was now $30,000, which they would not agree to.  But they had to pay him over $30,000 in royalty, so that he was well paid for his ground.  While you can find lead and zinc on every lot in this town, mining is nevertheless a gambling game.  I once put $400 into a mine, and that is the last I ever saw of the money.

            I well remember the excitement in 1865 about the alleged discovery of oil in this region.  It was a downright fraud.  Some parties bought a barrel of oil, and boring a hole in the ground put the oil into it.  They then put more oil in barrels, and said it came out of the well, and on the strength of this sold shares in their company.  The same year, over in Crawford County, the gang worked the same trick.  Major Rountree was greatly excited over the supposed discovery.  He owned about five thousand acres in Crawford County, and I sold it for him.  There was no oil ever found on it.  No man who understands geology would advise any one to put any money into oil-stock in this section.


James Gates Percival

            I knew James Gates Percival, who came here in 1863 as our State geologist.  He was one of the most interesting men I ever listened to.  Percival used often to stop with Major Rountree, and being a relative of the family I met him there.  Percival was then an elderly man, and dressed in very shabby clothes, his suit not costing more than ten dollars.  However, despite his very plain garments, he was neat about his person.  He wore shoes when most people wore boots.  As I remembered him, he was not more than medium size, with rather sharp, narrow, spare features, a little stoop-shouldered, and looking much like a laboring man, save for his strong face.  He had wonderful eyes.  I do not remember their color, but should say they were blue.  On the whole he was a pleasant-looking old man.  But to hear him talk – there was the charm.  He was not inclined to be cordial with people in general.  Unless approached in the proper way, he had nothing to say.  To see him at his best one should meet him at the tea-table and get him into familiar conversation.  He impressed you as a man of power.  Whatever he said meant something.


John H. Rountree

            As for Major John H. Rountree, I knew him well from his middle age to his death, and was at his house when he died.  The Major was very popular in this region.  He was a man of strong intellect, without much education.  Such learning as he had, was largely acquired through contact with educated men.  Being prominent in this locality, he was in the legislature for many years and ran for lieutenant-governor and county judge.  Mixing with all sorts of people, he had naturally rubbed off some of the rough corners.  He was a splendid man to his family, and had a devoted, loving wife, who was a Southworth – Mrs. E. D. E .N.  Southworth’s sister-in-law.  I did not myself know Mrs. Southworth, the novelist, for she left Wisconsin before 1846.

            Major Rountree left a good many papers, but I hardly think they are of much value.  There are some at his house now.  Those that came into the estate, which I settled, his son and I sorted over, saving what we thought were valuable and burning up bushels and bushels of others, some of which might have brought other people into trouble.  I still have a bunch of letters in my safe.  They often mention public men such as Governor Dodge.


Other Notables

            I was acquainted with Henry Dodge, by sight; but a boy of seventeen or eighteen years of age is not apt to get on intimate terms with the governor of his State.  I saw him first, during his second appointment as Territorial governor (1845-48).  He was quite popular hereabout, because of the considerable number of Southerners.  In fact, the first people in our lead region were from the South, from Missouri and Kentucky; later, came Yankees from the East.

            George Wallace Jones, our first Territorial delegate to Congress, was also one of my acquaintances.  I saw him in Platteville only a short time before his death, which occurred in 1896.  A nice looking old gentleman, he was polished in manner, always well-dressed, and had many desirable accomplishments.  A Virginian, he cultivated all the arts of social life, and would not permit too much familiarity.  His memory was marvelous.  He had not seen me for ten or twelve years, but when we met at a public gathering he seemed easily to recall my name.

            Nelson Dewey, our first State governor, I also knew.  Indeed, he lived more years in Platteville than in Cassville; but resided at Lancaster before being elected governor.  He used to come to Belmont to see Miss Kate Dunn, whom he married.

            Other prominent men who lived in Platteville or the vicinity were Charles Dunn, the first chief justice of the Territory; Ben C. Eastman, a member of Congress; Orsamus Cole, for many years chief justice of the State; James R. Vineyard, an early legislator of the Territory; and J. M. Goodhue, a lawyer and journalist, later the founder of a leading newspaper in St. Paul, Minn.  These pioneers had much to do with making history for Wisconsin and shaping early legislation for the Territory and State.


Old Belmont

            In the days when I knew Belmont, where the first Wisconsin Territorial legislature met in 1836, there were still some five or more houses in the already decaying village; although today there is nothing there save the old capitol, that is now used as a barn, and Judge Charles Dunn’s house (now a farmhouse).  I used to be told, as a boy – and that was only ten years after the session – that the senate met on the ground floor of the old capitol, and the assembly upstairs.  In 1848, while I was still a minor, I was tally clerk of the presidential election that was held for our precinct in this building – Zachary Taylor, whom many of the neighbors had known when he was commandant at Prairie du Chien, was running for president.


Recollections of U. S. Grant

            General Grant was also an acquaintance of mine in the ante bellum days.  His father, Jesse, was senior (and absentee) partner in the firm of Grant & Perkins, leather merchants at Galena.  Ulysses had been in the army, down at St. Louis, and married Julia Dent.  He tired of army life however, as our best military men do in time of peace.  His father-in-law gave him some land and he rented a house, but made a most signal failure of farming – indeed, he almost starved.  Then he applied for a place as civil engineer in St. Louis, but somebody else with more political pull got the job.

            Old Jesse Grant had several sons.  Among them was Simpson, who cared for his father’s interests at the store in Galena.  Simpson died at St. Paul, while on a business trip, and Jesse thought he would now have to do something for Ulysses.  He wrote to him to go from St. Louis to Mr. Perkins at Galena, and do whatever he was bidden.  Meanwhile, Jesse had written to Perkins that he was going to send Ulysses to take Simpson’s place, but that Perkins should pay him only what he thought he was worth.

            When Captain Grant appeared in Galena, Perkins set him at work, and after awhile wrote to Jesse: “Ulysses is here, and I have put him to work.  I think he is wroth about forty-five dollars per month, but he is drawing more.”  Indeed, I used to be told that he drew about ninety dollars a month, to pay his rent and support his family.  But old Jesse paid the balance himself – I don’t know whether Perkins knew this or not.

            If you ever go to Galena, go down Main Street, then up Bench Street for a short distance.  There you will find a little story-and-a-half brick house that would perhaps rent in Platteville for ten dollars  a month – that’s where Ulysses lived at that time.  After the siege of Vicksburg, the citizens of Galena built a residence for him, but he never lived in it.

            Captain Grant used to come up through this region to represent the firm.  He rode in a one-horse open buggy, in which he carried leather samples, not only seeking trade but collecting bills.  In those early days he was not at all impressive in appearance, being a short man, and rather spare.  If he had not afterwards developed into a great man he would have quickly passed from one’s memory.

            The first time I ever met him I didn’t see him.  It was a starlit night in January, 1861, just before the war.  Col. John G. Clark and I were county officers, and riding to Lancaster, the county seat, having been at Madison during the senatorial contest between Randall, Howe, and Washburn.  Where Fennimore now stands, was then but a wide expanse of prairie, with no houses in sight.  We there met a team struggling though the snow drifts, from which two men hailed us, asking how and when they could get to Widow Philbrook’s.  We replied that they were about a mile and a half off the road.  One of the men said, “Ain’t you Evans?”  He said he was Mark Brown, travelling for a liquor dealer named Lorraine, and added, “I want to introduce Captain Grant.”  That gentleman said, “You’ll have bad news when you get home, gentlemen.”  He explained that Mr. Hyde, landlord of the Mansion House at Lancaster, had dropped dead, and everything was in such confusion that they decided to come up to Philbrook’s and spend the night there.

            Grant was often in Platteville after the war.  I remember chatting and talking with him in 1868, in my store, and giving him a cigar.  He took it and put it in his mouth – but he didn’t smoke it, only chewed on it, as Sheridan also used to do.