|WISCONSIN LOCAL HISTORY NETWORK: ONLINE DOCUMENTS|
|Transcription Courtesy Diana Morse|
REPORT and COLLECTIONS
of the STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY of WISCONSIN
for the YEARS 1857 and 1858
Volume IV, Madison Wis.
James Ross, State Printer, Printed at the
"Patriot" Book and Job Office 1859
Pages 377 to 381
FIRST GRAVE IN THE CITY OF WATERTOWN
BY D. W. BALLOU, JR., OF WATERTOWN.
The first white man's grave, ever made within the limits of the present city of Watertown, Wisconsin, has just been broken in upon, destroyed and obliterated by the steady march and ceaseless changes of time, and its almost forgotten tenant, after peacefully resting in it more than twenty-two years -- heedless of the life and activity surging above and around him -- removed to a spot, where his wasting form, will be disturbed, no more forever, by the thoughtless intrusions of the living, who, in the calm hour, when, sooner or later, they meet the "common lot", will desire the dreamless repose of the dead. I have indulged the hope, that a slight sketch of this pioneer incident, in the early history of one of the most prominent and prosperous of the many places in the interior of' the State, drawn from the fresh and vivid recollections of' some who were witnesses of the whole scene, might be interesting, not only to such as will first learn them, but also to those who retain a clear and distinct remembrance of what happened at that primitive day, in the history of a city, whose foundations they were about to commence, and yet survive to behold the wonderful results of their youthful foresight, perseverance, and enterprise. And as we give a brief account of the first death, curious fancies more than half arise in the mind as it casts a hurried glance along the long line, and suggest the question, as to whose hand shall record the last one, and when shall it be done?
In the spring of 1837, aside from the red men, the entire population of Watertown did not exceed fifteen--men, women and children, all counted. When the census of 1860 is taken, its inhabitants will probably number over 9,000, and there will not be a lingering or begging "original American" within hundreds of miles to enumerate with the pale faces, who have succeeded to this noble inheritance. Then there might have been standing, far apart, here and there, under the shadows of the far-spreading and dense wilderness, on one side of Rock river, or in the vacant places of the splendid oak openings on the other, four rude and hastily-built log-cabins--not dwellings, for they were furnished with too few of the comforts, conveniences, and attractions, which constitute a house a home, to be called anything else. They all long since
disappeared, without leaving a vestige behind to mark the spots they once occupied. These were the only traces then existing of the approach of civilization, with all its train of attendant blessings. Indian villages were thickly scattered up and down the never failing stream, that made so fruitful the magnificent valley through which it murmured, and this whole region--remarkable even then for its beauty, fertility, and salubrity, and widely known at the East as the romantic "Lake Country," the favorite and dearly cherished abode of the Winnebagoes.
Among the new comers, was THOMAS BASS, an intelligent Englishman, of about twenty-six years of age. He had been hired in Milwaukee by PETER ROGAN, and brought out to engage in the service of that gentleman as a laborer. He was a young man, without any known relatives on this side of the Atlantic but by some means had wandered out to the West, and made quite a favorable acquaintance with those who had become acquainted with him alter his arrival. His worst habit seems to have been a little too strong a love of liquor, which was not then considered a very grave fault, but like most other bad habits, it proved his speedy ruin. Some time in the month of February, 1837, with two other jovial companions, he procured a gallon of whiskey, and became involved in a drinking frolic, in a half-built log hut that stood on the ground now occupied by the Vulcan Iron Works. The weather being cool, the merry friends kindled a blazing fire, and after partaking very freely of their course beverage, along in the evening, two stretched themselves out on the floor for the night, but BASS is supposed to have seated himself on a bench before the hearth, became drowsy, and, while nearly insensible, and helpless, to have pitched, head first, into the flames, and totally unable to make an effort to get up or call for aid, suffocated in tile heat and smoke. At all events, nothing more was seen or heard of him until the next morning, when he was found dead by his startled associates, who had recovered from the effects of their excesses. His limbs and body were scorched, burnt and partly consumed. The sad accident, occurring as it did, immediately created intense excitement and deep regret, and threw the young community into sudden commotion. The shock was felt by all. Some were afraid that false and exaggerated reports would be circulated abroad, and there might be no end to the frightful stories told about it to travelers coming in from a distance. To prevent this blight on the fair prospects and good name of the settlement, LUTHER A. COLE, now a member of the Legislature, the same day walked to Aztalan to induce two neighbors--it seems strange now to speak of men living twelve miles away in the forest, as near neighbors--to come and help dispose of the case, so that no undeserved blame should be attached to any one in the town, as most, if not all, were entirely innocent of any intentional wrong, and had not the least agency in bringing about the terrible calamity, and, therefore, should not be held responsible, or made to suffer for it. A thorough and careful examination took place, and after all the facts had been fully ascertained, nothing remained but to give the unfortunate victim as decent a burial as circumstances would permit. There being not a single saw-mill on the entire length of Rock River, boards of any description could not be procured, though there was plenty of timber towering up all around, and waving high in the air, out of which to make them. The next best thing was to cut down the green and growing trees, and from the logs hew thick plank for a coffin, which was accomplished, and a rough box manufactured, without nail or chisel. A retired grove, then supposed to be far off from what was ever likely to become the business part of the unnamed city, was selected for the first grave. It was well chosen, being on a gentle elevation, under the branches of an unusually lofty and handsome maple, the admiration of all who had seen it, and which grew where the First Ward Brick School House now stands. There he was buried, his funeral being attended by every citizen. MRS. TIMOTHY JOHNSON, the wife of the pioneer, and the only woman then in the country--did her share of the melancholy work--she making the shroud. There being no house of worship, pointing its glittering spire to the skies, the woods, "God's first temple," had to be used, in which to perform the solemn rites of committing dust to dust. The ceremonies of the occasion were simple, and the services short. No minister of the Gospel was at hand, to speak a word of consolation, or utter a voice of warning, but WILLIAM BRAYTON offered up an appropriate prayer, and all was ended. Those present, as far as can now be remembered, were TIMOTHY JOHNSON, LUTHER A. COLE, JOHN W. COLE, AMASA HEYLAND, CALVIN BOUGHTON, CHARLES SEATON, EZRA DOLLIVER, PHILANDER BALDWIN, and REEVE GRISWOLD. So terminated the first funeral in the city of Watertown.
About a week afterwards, however, ENOCH DARLING, now residing in the village of Jefferson, Jefferson County, came from Milwaukee to hold a Coroner's Inquest. Strange rumors had reached the Lake shore, of a man having been murdered and burned out back, and it was deemed necessary to have a legal investigation. The body was disinterred, and a jury collected, and it required the whole population to organize it, although, in the meantime, two or three new settlers had arrived, among whom was Gen. JOHN C. GILMAN, so that there were enough to form the proper tribunal. The facts of the case were again related and reviewed, and the evidence was thought sufficient to arrest and take the two persons who were with Bass, when he met his fate, to Milwaukee, but they were ultimately discharged and never held to trial. Their names were SEATON and DOLLIVER, mentioned above. One was never known to take a drop of intoxicating drink afterwards, and the other went to the wilds of Missouri, and has never been heard from since. The body was again consigned to the earth, and has remained there, until in the progress of improvements it was exposed to view this summer, while a lot of men were grading the streets. The remote and out-of-the-way place is but very little removed from the busy centre of the rising and fair city which we now see there. In front is a spacious public square; on one side is a large and commodious church, on another, one of the finest residences in the State; near by the best school house in the vicinity, where, for years hundreds of joyous and bright-faced children have been unconsciously running and playing over the unmarked tomb of the first white man buried in the city, where, perhaps, most of them were born.
When this grave was dug, twenty-two years ago, the iron horse had not advanced in his journey towards the Pacific within a thousand miles of the neglected spot; now he has gone a thousand miles beyond, and his rumbling tramp may be heard as he sweeps along on his quick march from the east, west, north and south, over the smooth metallic rails.
LUTHER A COLE, having had his attention called to this grave once more, he applied to WILLIAM M. DENNIS, the President of the Common Council, who immediately had the decaying fragments of mortality taken up and properly coffined, and interred in Oak-Hill Cemetery, where they will probably moulder back to their original nothingness, without being again troubled.
WATERTOWN, Wis., August 11th, 1859