Wisconsin Genealogy Trails
Jefferson County, Wisconsin
Some Pioneering Experiences in Jefferson County


Some Pioneering Experiences in Jefferson County

Source: Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at its 52nd Annual Meeting held October 27, 1904 (published 1905) transcribed by Dana Kraft
By Elbridge G. Filield [of Janesville. Written for the society in February, 1891.]


On the fifteenth, of May, 1837, when I was twenty years of age, I joined in the State of Vermont, a party of eleven persons, men, women and children, bound for the Rock River valley, in Wisconsin Territory.

We travelled by stage to Burlington, Vermont; thence by steamer to Whitehall, 'New York; by line-boat on the Northern Canal to Troy and on the Erie Canal to Buffalo; thence by steamboat to Detroit. There, we discovered that but one vessel was going to Chicago, for several days; this was a sailboat, and lay out in the river waiting for favorable winds, but it was so heavily laden that not another passenger, nor pound of freight, could be taken aboard. E. E. Sawyer, who had charge of the women and children of the party, hired a common lumber-wagon and team, to make the trip across Michigan to St. Joseph, a distance of one hundred and eighty miles. We young men made the trip on foot, keeping up with the team.

At St. Joseph, we all embarked on a small sailing vessel for Chicago, where we spent one night at the best hotel we could find. The women and children were provided with rooms and beds, while the men slept on the floor, on Indian blankets. At Chicago, we took a schooner for Milwaukee, arriving there June 11, having been twenty-six days on our journey from Vermont. We were landed near a hotel on the beach; in its bar-room, H. N. Wells, a prominent lawyer of the village, was pleading a case.

In strolling about the village, Sawyer was offered a building lot and small frame house on East Water street, for $450, opposite Ludington's old comer—old settlers will remember the location. He thought the price too high and did not buy, although he had the money to invest.

Mrs. Brown, of our party, expected to have met her son, E. G. Darling, in Milwaukee, but on arriving there learned that 'he was fifty miles away in the country, at Bark River, now Hebron, Jefferson County, building a saw-mill for the Milwaukee & Rock River Land Company. I was deputed to walk out and notify Darling of the arrival of the party, being directed to follow the blazed line and wagon tracks, through the Milwaukee woods to Prairie Village (afterwards Prairieville, now Waukesha), and then inquire for the Bark River trail. I followed directions, and in due time came in sight of a small prairie, and a double house, built of tamarack logs. Enquiring of a man the distance to Prairie Village, he said I was already there. Then I enquired for the Bark River trail, and a good place to stay over night. The next house, he said, was about a mile farther on, and there was none other short of Bark River, a distance of thirty miles.

I passed the night at that next house, and started the following morning on my thirty-mile tramp. After a few miles, I was much alarmed at seeing in the distance behind, a man on an Indian pony, apparently hurrying to overtake me. It proved to be, not a pursuing Indian, but Sheriff Aldrich, of Milwaukee County, going to Bark River on business—Milwaukee County then extended to Rock River. He had been told that a young man was on the same trail, and he was hurrying to overtake me, so that he might have company. It occurred to me a novel idea, for a man on horseback to seek the company of a man on foot for a twenty-five-mile tramp. As he seemed to be a jolly good fellow, and I had nothing to lose, I awaited results. After chatting awhile, my new acquaintance said, "Now we will try the game called 'ride-and-tie.' You take the pony, and put him through on a canter for a mile or so, then tie, and walk on. I will do the same, overtaking and passing you." I liked the idea, and we practiced it during the remainder of the journey, arriving at the mill about three o'clock. We spent the rest of the afternoon angling below the dam, where thousands of fish were vainly seeking to ascend. My new friend returned to Milwaukee the following morning, and I have not seen him since.

I now found myself, a green Vermont boy, a thousand miles from home and relatives, with $2.50 in my pocket; owing $42 in Vermont, which I had borrowed in order to go West. It cost a dollar a day to live on bread and pork. I applied to Darling for work, and he said he lacked a teamster to drive a four-ox team, to stock his mill with logs, and offered me the job. I accepted it, and drove the team for about ten months.

This was the first sawmill built in the Upper Rock River valley. There was not a frame house in the valley, unless possibly at Beloit; there were no bridges across Rock River, north of the Illinois line, and I think not a ferry established. Out of the first lumber sawed, a house was built for Darling's family and his mall hands, who up to this time, had lived in a small log shanty, the hands sleeping under a shed built of split logs.

A scow was next built by Darling, and loaded with lumber, which was floated down Bark River, and up the Rock to Jefferson, to be used in building a house for the company, on their claim. Soon after this, I think in June or July of 1837, Henry F. Janes, founder of Janesville, came up and bought 6000 feet of lumber, for which he paid $20 per thousand.

The lumber being green and heavy, one crib was sunk and nearly lost. He ran the rest down to Teboe's Point, on the east side of Lake Koshkonong, took it out of the water, drew it to Janesville, and there put up a building on South Main street.

About the same time, Dr. Edward Brewer, and Charles Hamilton, from Whitewater prairie, bought lumber to take down there. They put it in cribs, offering $10 to get it floated down to the junction of the Bark and Whitewater rivers. A mill hand, by the name of Brayman, who was going to Jefferson to work on a claim, proposed to take the job with me, and I consented, with the provision that, by being out one night, it would keep me but a single day from my work. We found the river very crooked and sluggish, but by working until after midnight found ourselves about a mile above our landing place. We there went ashore and stayed until daylight. As everything was wet from the rains which fell in the afternoon and evening, we were unable to kindle a fire, but finding a large, leaning tree, we protected ourselves somewhat from the rain. 1 proposed trying to get some sleep, but Brayman said the wolves might attack us. At daylight we ran the lumber down, and hitched up, as agreed upon.

Indian Hill, where Black Hawk and his tribe had a village during the Black Hawk War, was near our landing. There was an army trail west to Fort Atkinson, and an Indian trail running nearly south. Brayman and I separated here, after taking a scanty meal of bread and pork; he to go to his claim above Jefferson, and I to return to the mill. He took the wrong trail which cost him about ten miles extra travel. I landed to rest, after rowing my boat several miles up the river, and drew the bow a little out of the water, there being no way of tying it. After walking about a few minutes I returned to my landing, to find that the wind had rocked and loosened the craft, and sent it ten or twelve rods across the channel into the wild rice, leaving me boatless on the opposite side from home. The water was ten feet deep, and being unable to swim, I concluded to try and strike south to Whitewater prairie some six miles distant, where the men who owned the lumber were shantying. It was a cloudy, rainy day, and I was in what is called the Bark River marsh, without compass or guide. Wandering about, I struck some pony tracks, which I thought might lead me out of the swamp. Following them some distance I came to a pond of water. The tracks went to the left of the pond, apparently out of my direction, so I turned to the right. After traveling some time in the marsh, I again struck pony tracks and soon after saw a man's footprint in the mud. This was encouraging, as it clearly was not an Indian's track. But I soon discovered that it was my own, and that the same pond of water was before me. I now realized that I was lost, and had been travelling in a circle, but determined to follow the pony tracks until I ' found the Indian riders, or came to a white settlement. It was growing dark when I left the marsh and struck a native trail in the Palmyra Bluffs, but no trace of white men could be seen. Gathering the leaves from a white oak tree which the wind had blown down, I made a bed and stopped for the night. A few crab-apples, which I had in my pocket, were all the food I had. Warm from the severe exercise of travelling, my clothing wet from the showers which had fallen during the day, I soon became chilled, and suffered greatly, both physically and mentally.

At daylight I started on my trail, and in about two hours, came to Eagle Prairie, where I found an inhabited loghouse, and obtained breakfast. I was informed that the best way to get home was to cross the prairie to a certain house, then cross it forth Prairie, thence west to the Bark River trail, which would be a distance of thirty miles. Following directions, I reached Curtis and Cushman's shanty, five miles from home, about two hours after dark. Heavy rains during the afternoon had soaked my clothing, but I was obliged to take my chances with four others, sleeping on marsh hay, with two Indian blankets for covering. The next morning it took me three hours to drag myself over the five miles which intervened between this lodging place and my home. I can truly say that I experienced more real suffering on that trip, than at any other lime in my pioneer life. During the season of 1837, lumber was taken to Fort Atkinson; a scow v.-as built for ferrying across the river, and another at Janesville, I believe the same season. Our nearest post office was Milwaukee and all provisions had to come either from there or the south. Pork at Milwaukee was worth from $30 to $34 a barrel; flour $16 a barrel, and it cost $2 a hundredweight to get it drawn to the mill. Pork and bread, with coffee, constituted our principal living, although occasionally we had doughnuts.

Both large gray and prairie wolves were plenty. A small one was in the habit of sticking his foot through, a crack in the cook room at night, and stealing the pork rinds that had been saved for soap greese; but a trap was set, and he paid the death penalty. During that year, I several times drove an ox-team to Milwaukee to get provisions. Large gray wolves followed on the trail, and howled after me; but I had no fear, as they were very shy.

It was reported, in the fall of 1837, that the Indians threatened to sweep down Rock River valley and kill all the whites; that large numbers were congregated above Watertown, holding war dances, trading ponies for rifles, and furs and skins for powder and lead; and that the squaws were running lead into balls. We did not believe the reports, and on the day of the threatened attack I was at work at some distance from the mill, when I heard such a yelling as none save Indians could make, and looking towards the house saw three tribesmen on ponies, riding towards it at full speed. Their faces were painted, their heads ornamented with feathers, and they looked warlike. I called some men who were working near by, and we ran to the house, finding the Indians quietly preparing to cook some game that they had shot. They were on their way to Milwaukee to buy whiskey, and meant no harm to us.

During the season of 1837, there was but one family in the Bark River settlement, although several men were keeping bachelor's hall. The nearest settlement was at Fort Atkinson, eight miles distant, and during the season a young man and I walked to and from there to attend the funeral of lone, Foster, who died there. During the same season, a sawmill was completed by George Goodhue, at Johnson's Rapids, now Watertown.

In the summer of 1837 I made a claim on the bank of Rock River, three miles above Jefferson. In December following, I took an ax, a ham of pork, and a blanket, walked down to Jefferson, bought from. Darling a few loaves of bread, borrowed a boat of him, and changing work with my old friend E. F. Sawyer, went up to my claim to make the improvements necessary to hold it until spring. Previous to this, Darling had rented his mill at Bark River to Churchill and Collum, and moved to Jefferson to start a village.

I worked upon my claim throughout four weeks, chopping timber, splitting rails, building fences, etc. Having made the necessary improvements, I returned to Bark River to work until spring. Anson and Virgil Pope, from Pope's Rapids, near Janesville, were shantying near by, getting out rail timber.

During the winter I picked enough cattail flags to make a bed, caught and salted a keg of fish, bought a yoke of oxen, and prepared to work my claim in the spring. In April, 1838, borrowing the hind wheels of a wagon, I put in a temporary tongue and box, loaded up my shanty outfit, drove to Fort Atkinson, crossed the river on the ferry, journeyed thence to Jefferson, again ferried across, cut my own three-mile road through the timber, and reached my claim. The following day I took the wagon in a boat which had been borrowed of Darling, rowing the distance of twenty miles, returned it, and came back to my claim the next day, ready for farming. I cleared about two acres, made a harrow with wooden teeth, and planted the land with corn and potatoes, buying the latter of Samuel St. John, near Janesville, and boating them up the river. I paid $4 a bushel for seed corn to plant; and the com not coming up the first time, replanted June 3, paying six-pence an ear for the seed. The result was a splendid crop both of corn, and potatoes.

That same spring, my brother came out from the East, and I divided my claim with him. We built a comfortable log house, covering the structure with boards and slabs bought at Goodhue's mill, Johnson's Rapids, and shantied together. During this season large quantities of lumber were floated down the river, both from the Goodhue and Bark River mills, and as far below as Dixon's ferry, Illinois. The nearest grist-mill was at Beloit, and several Jefferson County people carried their corn there to grind; but one of our neighbors, Samuel Britton, dug a hole in an oak stump for a mortar, and pounded his com to supply a large family. Having built comfortable houses and raised something to live on, we all turned our attention to opening roads through the timber, building bridges and causeways across marshes, to enable people to come in and settle with their families. We opened a highway from Jefferson to Bark River, a distance of ten miles; and from Jefferson to Golden Lake, fifteen miles; there we met the Prairie Village people, who were opening the road to meet us. With the help of the Watertown folk, we opened a road on the east side of the river to Watertown, and one on the west side, six miles north, and another to Aztalan.

The United States government opened a territorial road from Milwaukee to Madison, crossing Rock River near Belleville, or Johnson's Creek. My brother and I worked on this road from Aztalan to three miles east of Rock River, under Chester Bushnell, the contractor. I drove the first team (an ox-team) that ever passed over the road from Rock River to Milwaukee. The sub-contractors were to have completed their work at a certain date, and at that time I went to Milwaukee for a load of provisions, but found that several parties had not fulfilled their contracts, and we were obliged to cut roads through the woods. On my return, after purchasing my load of the Ludingtons, I found the timber cleared, and the roads completed the entire distance. That season a ferry was established across Rock River. By this time, we had ferries at Watertown, Jefferson, Aztalan, Fort Atkinson, and Janesville, and roads cut and bridges built in different directions through Jefferson County. All this was done by volunteer work, except the territorial road.

On the eighth of January, 1839, a ball was given at Bark River, attended by people from Jefferson, Fort Atkinson, and Whitewater. There being no printing press except in Milwaukee, the ball tickets were written by James M. Cushman. There being but one team to carry the women, the men walked ten miles to attend this affair.

By treaty concluded in 1840, the Winnebago Indians were to remove west of the Mississippi River; but they refused to go, and threatened to resist the United States forces if they undertook to compel them. Governor Dodge issued a proclamation, calling for volunteer companies of mounted riflemen, to assist, if necessary, in removing them. A company was raised at Jefferson, which I joined, being appointed second lieutenant, with a commission, signed by Governor Dodge and William B. Slaughter, secretary of the Territory. No resistance being made by the redskins we were not called upon to fight.1

Previous to 1840, Capt. Joseph Keyes built a small gristmill and a sawmill at Lake Mills.2   The Indians being removed west of the Mississippi, mills having been built, roads opened, bridges constructed, marshes covered with causeways, post offices established on Rock River, and wagons put on the road to carry mail and passengers, we began to feel that we were working into civilization.


1 - The treaty was signed in 1838, but the removal was not attempted until 1840. See Wis. Hist. Colls., xi, pp. 430, 431.— Ed.

2 - Spring of 1838. See Keyes, "Early Days in Jefferson County," ibid., pp. 419, 420.—Ed.


From 1837 to 1840 we saw some hard times. Once (July, 1837) while the team was in Milwaukee for provisions, we got entirely out of food at the mill and had to catch suckers and red-horse in Bark River, which by boiling into a sort of porridge, we ate with nothing but salt, I have eaten meals of nothing but boiled beans, or potatoes sweetened with maple molasses.

During the winter of 1841-42, I had a little experience which may be worth relating. Having neither a team nor money with which to buy one, I went to Janesville and bought a pair of oxen of W. H. H. Bailey, giving my note for $75, payable on or before June first, with twelve per cent interest; the note being payable in lumber at Janesville, at the market price. I agreed with a neighbor to go up the Crawfish River, about ten miles above Milford, and cut logs. These we were to run down to Nute's mill at Milford, have them sawed, and then I was to rum the lumber to Janesville to pay for the oxen. It did not snow until February, and the neighbor refused to fulfill his part of the arrangement. Obliged to provide for the payment of the oxen, I hired two young men, and breaking a road into the woods, built a shanty and stable. The cold was intense, and at the end of the first week, one man went back to Jefferson to get warmer clothing. He froze his feet on the way and could not return. After working another week, the second man had the ague so badly that I took him on the ox-sled, and carried him six miles down the river to the first house, which happened to bet his uncle's. I then worked alone for about a week, and during that time was awakened one night by a terrible yelling of Indians. They had been down the river to the first house, and having traded furs for whiskey, were going back on the ice, partly drunk. Fearing they would attack me, I tried to think of the best means of defense, and decided that if they left the river and approached the shanty, it would be safer for me to take to the woods and endeavor to reach the settlement. They did not molest me, however, and I saw daylight with a thankful heart.

With great trouble I succeeded in getting out logs for enough lumber to pay for the oxen, but there was still more trouble. Part of the dam at Nute's mill went out, and I was delayed about the sawing; this again caused delay in the delivery of the lumber at Janesville, and my note became due. I had no money to pay it, but settled the matter by giving $10 bonus for being behind time.

I will name a few of the very early settlers of the Rock River valley, who were there as early as 1837: at Watertown (called Johnson's Rapids), were Timothy Johnson, James Rogan, George Goodhue, John C. Gilman, the Boomers, and others; at Jefferson, E. G. Darling, William Woolcock, Daniel Lansing, R. J. Currier, Peter Rogan, Robert Masters and family, and William Burton; at Fort Atkinson, Milo Jones, the Posters, Dodge, Barry, David Sargent, West, and others; at Koshkonong, the Pinches, Binghams, Grahams, Aliens, and others; at Otter Creek, the Smiths. In and around Janesville were Robert and Daniel Stone, the Spauldings, George HI Williston, John James, the Pope Brothers, Judge Holmes and family. Dr. Heath, George Fulmer, the St. Johns, W. H. H. Bailey, John P. Dickson, P. A. Pierce, and others; and at Beloit, Caleb Blodget and family, the Cheneys, Fisher and others.

I remained in Jefferson County until May, 1846, when I removed to Janesville and opened a lumber yard, dealing mostly in basswood and hardwood lumber, floated down the river from Jefferson County.

During my nine years of pioneer life many things occurred that might be interesting if accurately stated, but I kept no diary, and writing from memory long after the events took place, I have attempted to mention only a few leading incidents.


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