When I started this genealogy project over a year ago, I was driven (some have used the word obsessed, but I prefer to think of it as a passionate hobby) by a desire to meet my ancestors. But in the hierarchy of ancestors, not all are created equally. And the ancestors I was most eager to meet were my pioneer ancestors; the first people to leave the east and come to this beautiful place I now love so much: Wisconsin.
I'm fascinated by pioneers in general. People lived hard lives back then, and to find yourself in the middle of your life, packing up everything you owned that you could carry, cutting ties with everything and everyone you had ever known outside your immediate family, probably never to see them again, and traveling by covered wagon at a rate of 15 miles a day is a life that I cannot fully fathom.
They had to be unbelievably courageous to set out for unsettled areas with little knowledge of what lay beyond the scope of their current civilization. They had no real guarantees that they weren't traveling west to meet their imminent doom. They had to be a little desperate in their current situations to make that decision in the first place. They had to be optimistic enough to believe that a much better life was just over the Adirondacks. And they had to be just a little crazy, I think. The fact that I am descended from people like that never fails to astonish me. So initially, I had intended to research my family history just far enough back that I could meet my pioneer ancestors. In the case of the Vaughns, that meant researching back to Otis's parents, Sam and Sarah.
|Sarah Hart Mills Vose Vaughn|
Sarah Hart Mills Vose was born August 18, 1797 in Bridgewater, Vermont. Her father was a colonial patriot who had served briefly in Col. Moss Kelley's regiment in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War. Her mother descended from the same Ingalls family that would eventually produce Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Sarah was my great-great-great-grandmother. She was five years older than Samuel Cole Vaughn, my great-great-great-grandfather. (When I imagine them courting, I envision that there were a lot of conversations that were the early 19th Century equivalent of, "Oh my god, you were barely in high school when Smash Mouth's Walkin' on the Sun was popular? I was in COLLEGE! Now I feel ancient!" Or, "I can't believe you weren't even alive when the Challenger exploded! It scarred me in kindergarten, and you weren't even born yet!") Did her friends tease her for being the early 19C equivalent of a cougar, a cradle-robber, an older woman? Did Sam and Sarah fall in love or was she simply approaching an age that was considered an "old maid" and wanted more out of her life than that stigma?
Sarah had her first child at 31, her last at 44. This is a pattern I see repeatedly on this side of my family -- delayed childbearing in an age when most people had their children much younger. Though her pregnancies would all be considered "high-risk" by today's standards, she only lost one baby in infancy, the unlucky Melvin. He was her second child; she had him when she was 34. But she went on to have four more healthy children. (Though fourth child Abbie would die at 14, her cause of death now lost to history.)
|Samuel Cole Vaughn|
Samuel Cole Vaughn was also born in Bridgewater, Vermont. His father died when he was 9 years old and his mother when he was 18, making him the de facto parent to his eight-years-younger brother David. When David was 17, Sam and Sarah and David moved to Carver, Massachusetts, where Sam and David trained as joiners; Sam remained an expert carpenter all his life and passed the skills down to his sons as well. He was also a farmer, at a time when it was notoriously difficult to be a farmer in the east. The soil is bad, the land is steep and rocky and hard to till, the growing season is short, and there were too many people attempting to make a living from too little fertile land.
When Sarah was 31, they were still living in Massachusetts and their first child Benjamin came along. Sometime between Ben's birth and Melvin's two years later, they headed west, to Michigan. Melvin came into the world in Tecumseh, Michigan (and sadly departed again just as quickly.) Delia was born in 1833, and they were still in Tecumseh (which is about 40 miles southwest of Ann Arbor and had only existed since 1824.) In 1835, Abbie was born in Franklin, Michigan. At that point, for reasons unknown, they had moved 70 miles north and were now northwest of Detroit. But that move didn't last long -- within about a year they'd be moving again.
|Sarah, a little later in life|
They were in Franklin, Michigan during the winter of 1836-1837. It was an incredibly brutal one, possibly the worst Midwestern winter in modern history. On Dec. 20, 1836, an exceptional cold front moved with hurricane-force winds across the plains and the Upper Midwest and by some accounts, temperatures dropped 60 degrees in a matter of minutes, from 40F to -20F. Wild animals, livestock and unprepared humans froze to death in a matter of hours. In Illinois, two men crossing a prairie became disoriented by the storm and got lost. One killed his horse and climbed into the carcass to keep warm, to no avail; he was found frozen to death inside the dead animal the next day.
In Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, (where - spoiler alert - Sam and Sarah would end up in March of 1837), the event was remembered as "the four terrible cold days." Another early Walworth County settler, S.A. Dwinnell, arrived in November of 1836. His account of that winter appears in a history of Walworth County from 1890:
The pioneers of Wisconsin must ever remember the 20th of December, for one of the most sudden changes to severe cold ever experienced in our history. It had rained all day upon some fifteen inches of snow. Early in the evening, the wind veered to the northwest and the temperature ran down at a rapid rate. Having no thermometer, I can form no certain estimate of the intensity of the cold. It soon became unendurable in our cabin, and, building a large fire and hanging up blankets before it, I saw down in front of them to keep from freezing.It was so terribly cold that, had a person been caught four or five miles from a house, he must have perished. Fortunately, few were thus exposed. James Van Slyke, with his hired man, were on their way from Belvidere, Ill., to his house, at the head of Geneva Lake, with a drove of hogs. They had reached Big Foot Prairie, three miles from home, when the change came. They soon left their drove and started at a rapid rate for their house. Van Slyke succeeded in the undertaking, but his boots were so loaded with ice that it took a teakettle full of boiling water to thaw it off, as his wife afterward told me.A mile from home, the hired man, named Disbro, fell, exhausted and overcome with the intensity of the cold. He must have perished had not a man, providentially at the house, started out at once and brought him in. As it was, his feet were so frozen that he lost several of his toes, which Mrs. Van Slyke amputated with her shears, having made unsuccessful efforts to obtain a surgeon to do it. All the hogs, except two, froze to death that night.
From other Wisconsin and Minnesota reports, we can deduce that the weather hovered between -30F and -20F during that time, after which it probably warmed up to about 0F and started snowing relentlessly.
Mr. Dwinnell was entirely alone in his cabin during the four terrible cold days of the last of December, and had hard work to keep himself alive. He says, “It soon became unendurable in our cabin, and building a large fire and hanging up blankets before it, I sat down in front of them to keep from freezing.” Notwithstanding the cold and the deep snow, Mr. Dwinnell got so thoroughly lonesome that on the 20th day of January he started on a journey of forty-five miles to have a visit with some friends in Belvidere, Ill., then a little hamlet of six families.
In other words, for an entire month Dwinnell sat alone in a bitterly cold log cabin struggling not to freeze to death, having no contact with any other human beings, until it became necessary to risk his life with a 45-mile journey on horseback in the cold and snow just so that he would not lose his mind. Pioneers had to be the toughest kind of people to survive.
|Sam, posing with the tools of his carpentry trade|
We don't know what that bitterly cold winter was like for Sam and Sarah, 8-year-old Ben, 3-year-old Delia and 1-year-old Abbie in Michigan. It is likely that they considered themselves lucky to have survived it. And in the spring of 1837, a now 40-year-old Sarah packed up her three young children and what she could of her home and traveled again, most likely by covered wagon, even deeper into what was then the Northwest Territory, which had until very recently been occupied by Potawatami Indians. Sam's sister Mary, her husband Isaiah Dike and their two young sons came as well, most likely from Ohio. Together, they settled in Walworth County, at the same small settlement at which Dwinnell had arrived just months earlier: Spring Prairie.
We don't know exactly what Spring Prairie would have looked like when Sam and Sarah arrived in March of 1837. Dwinnell later claimed that the spring was so slow in arriving that year that the trees did not bud until June, so it's likely they found a very wintry landscape. And the demographics of the area probably remained similar to what Dwinnell had seen when he arrived four months earlier:
On the morning of the 16th of November, 1836, I took the trail of Black Hawk, at Belvidere (IL), at the point where, four years before, he sunk his canoes in the mouth of Piskasaw, and, with his army, took the land. His encampments were still visible every six or eight miles, as I proceeded northward to Big Foot Prairie, where I entered Wisconsin, at 4 o’clock p.m. The day was cloudy, cold and cheerless; the temperature at the freezing point; the streams swollen by recent rains, and unabridged. Several times I was obliged to wade from four to six rods. As night set in, snow fell plentifully. Big Foot Lake (Geneva Lake -ed.) was in view at my left. At seven o’clock evening, I reached the “Outlet of Big Foot,” near Geneva (Lake Geneva - ed.), having traveled thirty-five miles without seeing a human dwelling. The settlement consisted of five families, living in rude log cabins, without floors, chimneys or chambers, the roofs covered with shakes, and hardly a nail used in the construction of their dwellings. There were then twenty-seven families in what is now the county of Walworth, and all but four in the eastern half of it; all living in log cabins. All of them had come in since Spring, and had put under cultivation about 80 acres. I settled on Spring Prairie...”
Dwinnell actually settled in what would come to be known as LaFayette, but the account explains that there were only 22 acres of land under cultivation in Spring Prairie at that time. It goes on to describe:
The trouble and difficulty of reaching and selecting a claim was so great that settlers were often obliged to bring in their families before any shelter was provided for them, either camping in their wagons, or remaining at the house of some “neighbor,” three or four miles away perhaps, while the logs were prepared for the little cabin, where one room should serve for kitchen, living room and sleeping room for the family.
The hardships of getting there and getting established were obviously enormous, but what the pioneers found in Spring Prairie was beautiful land that was ideally suited to farming. Dwinnell goes on to say:
I found the place to be unsurpassed for beauty and fertility. It was one mile in width by four in length, with a gently undulating surface, surrounded on all sides by beautiful groves of timber. Upon one side were several hundred acres of heavy timber, consisting of oak, ash, basswood, butternut and maple, in which was a large sugar-bush, which had been the annual resort of the Indians for making sugar. Their wigwams, sap-trough and boiling kettles had been left – evidently for future use – a pleasure which they were never again to enjoy. In the groves surrounding the prairie were springs of the purest water, from which flowed streams in all directions – one of which was sufficiently large to the turn the machinery of a flouring mill, shortly afterwards erected a short distance from its source.
Samuel C. Vaughn laid a claim just north of the modern-day intersection of Spring Prairie Road and Hargraves Road, and built a small log cabin on the property. Sam must have been crazy for apples, because in addition to everything else they must have packed into that covered wagon with them, he brought two dozen grafted apple trees from Michigan and planted them almost as soon as he arrived. Those trees bore the first apples ever grown in Walworth County, which must have made theirs a popular cabin to visit come fall.
|Sarah a little older|
The five of them (and soon, six of them) lived in that one-room log cabin for 2 1/2 years, until the fall of 1839, when Sam built a frame house on the property. In 1838, Sam's brother David, with his wife and two young sons, had come to Spring Prairie as well, and once the frame house was finished, Sam gave the log cabin to David and his family. However just a few months later in December of 1839, the log cabin caught fire and burned to the ground. Miraculously, David and his wife Rebecca, for no logical reason at all, had woken up their boys and taken them along that night to visit Sam and Sarah in the new house, so no one was hurt. But the destruction of Sam's log cabin is credited as the first fire in Walworth County. (Lots more on David and Rebecca Vaughn in a future post.)
|The Vaughn farm. The frame house that Sam built in 1839 is on the left. This photo likely dates from before the 1880s.|
In November of 1838, Sarah gave birth to Phebe, presumably in the log cabin; Sam and Sarah were now parents to four surviving children. And finally in 1841, when Sarah was 44 years old and they were living in the frame house, Otis was born.
The Vaughn family was now complete and had found their place in the great Northwestern territory. Otis was seven years old before Wisconsin was admitted as the 30th state in the union. He would call it home his whole life. Sam and Sarah, after a lifetime of restlessness, of moving from Vermont to Massachusetts to two different towns in Michigan, had finally found a place that made them say, "I love it here; let's never leave." And they never did.
Sam passed away in 1868. He is buried in Hickory Grove cemetery in Spring Prairie. Sarah continued living on the farm with Otis and Fannie until her death in 1884. She is buried next to her husband.
|Sam and Sarah's shared monument in Hickory Grove Cemetery.|
*Note: All of the quotes and information about the early settlement of Walworth County in this post come from two sources: Albert Clayton Beckwith's History of Walworth County, Wis., published in 1912; and the indispensable History of Walworth County, Wis., published in 1882 by the Chicago Western Historical Society.