CAPT. WILLIAM N. BRAINERD

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 65-67.

CAPT. WILLIAM NEWELL BRAINERD was a well known resident of Evanston, prominent in public affairs in Chicago, and numbered among the leading men of that enterprising city.  He was born in De Ruyter, Madison County, New York, January 7, 1823, and came of an old New England family.  His grandfather, Nathan Brainerd, was a native of Connecticut, and operated a stone-quarry near Hartford.   He reared a large family, and lived to an advanced age.  His son, Jonathan Brainerd, the father of our subject, was also a native of the Nutmeg State, and in early life became a hat manufacturer.  He married Sallie Gage, who was born in Dutchess County, New York, and was a daughter of Justus Gage, also a native of the same county.  By occupation Mr. Gage was a farmer.  His wife was a maiden of twelve summers when, in1777, she witnessed the Wyoming Massacre.   She had two brothers killed in that massacre, and one brother, who also aided the Colonies in their struggle for independence, reached the advanced age of one hundred years.

In 1831 Jonathan Brainerd removed with his family to Painesville, Ohio, where he engaged in the manufacture of hats for one year.   He then returned to De Ruyter, New York, where he carried on sheep-raising until 1849.  His death occurred in the Empire State in 1856, at the age of sixty-one years.  His wife survived him some years, and passed away in Chicago, at the age of sixty-eight years. They were members of the Universalist Church.  Their family numbered seven children, two sons and five daughters, of whom two are yet living: Lydia J., now the wife of L. W. Walker, of Petaluma, California; and Harry G., of Englewood.

The subject of this sketch spent his boyhood days with his parents, upon the old home farm of his grandfather Gage.  His education was acquired in the common schools and in the De Ruyter Institute of New York, and at the age of eighteen years he began teaching school, which profession he followed for several years.  When his time was not occupied with his school duties, he studied law, and afterward engaged to some extent in legal practice, but, on account of throat difficulty, he was forced to abandon that work.  He then went to Rome, New York, where he was engaged in a forwarding and shipping house for five seasons.  When the Mexican War broke out, he tried to enlist, but the ranks were overcrowded, and his services were not accepted.

In October, 1850, he left Rome, New York, for California, and sailed from New York on the Pacific mail steamship “Georgia” to Chagres, at the mouth of the Chagres River, on the Isthmus of Panama.  There were some four hundred passengers on board.  On landing at Chagres, ten of the number, including Mr. Brainerd, hired a canoe with five men to take them and their baggage to Gorgona.  The canoe, drawing eighteen inches of water, was hollowed out of a solid mahogany tree, and carried ten men and two thousand pounds of baggage, besides the five natives.  Before starting on the trip, the latter removed their clothing, and, dressed only in nature’s garb and a Panama hat, proceeded on their way.  They rowed eighteen miles to Gatun, where they camped for the night, and then with poles propelled the boat to its destination.  The weather proved most delightful.  There was gorgeous tropical scenery on every hand; monkeys scampered among the trees; and that trip up the river was remembered by Mr. Brainerd as one of the most pleasant incidents of his California journey.  When they reached the place of landing, the baggage was packed on mules, and the passengers walked twenty-five miles to Panama, but this arduous task made some of them ill, Mr. Brainerd among the number.  They waited ten days in Panama for a steamer which came around Cape Horn, and by boats they were taken to the vessel, which anchored about a mile from shore.  They carried the United States mail, and landed at San Blas, Acapulco and Mazatlan, Mexico; and at San Diego, California, reaching San Francisco in December, 1850.

On arriving, Mr. Brainerd and three companions obtained some mining and cooking utensils, a tent, etc., and then went to Sacramento on the old steamboat “Senator.”  There they hired a two-horse team and wagon to take them to the mines.  They went to Condemned Bar, on the North Fork of the American River, thirty-five miles from Sacramento.  They paid their teamster five cents per pound for hauling their baggage and supplies, while they walked.   The weather during the winter of 1850 was dry and delightful for winter mining, there being no rain for four months.  They made from $10 to $15 per day, washing the surface dirt from the banks of the river, where it was deposited among the rocks.  Mr. Brainerd’s Panama fever compelled him to leave the diggings, and he went to Sacramento about March 1, 1851.  After recovering from his illness, he bought a mule and express wagon and went into the produce business, furnishing hotels, steamboats and boarding-houses with vegetables, which were a very great luxury at that time. The wholesale price ranged form ten to twelve cents per pound, except for onions, which brought about $1 per pound.   The first onion Mr. Brainerd ever bought weighed a half-pound, and he paid seventy-five cents for it.  He ate it sliced in vinegar, when recovering from the Panama fever, and said it was the finest relish that he had ever had.  He continued in the produce business until May, 1857.  In April, 1856, he was elected Treasurer of Sacramento and served one year.

During the winter of 1853 Mr. Brainerd returned to the States, and, with some others, went to Peoria, Illinois, where they purchased a drove of cattle, and fitted out a train to cross the plains to California. They started the last of April, 1853, and crossed the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa.  Mr. Brainerd there left the party and returned to Syracuse, New York, where he married Melinda B. Coley, May 4, 1853.  With his bride, he went by steamer from New York to California, by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and resided in Sacramento until May, 1857.  While in the West, Mr. Brainerd belonged to a military company, and did some fighting in California.  He was made Captain of a company of the Committee of Vigilance, composed of seven thousand prominent citizens, mostly from San Francisco.

Mrs. Brainerd is a daughter of Col. George and Hulda (Norton) Coley, of Chenango County, New York.  Her grandfather served as Quartermaster under General Washington in the Revolution.  Three children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Brainerd:  Hattie Belle, who died in infancy, in Sacramento; William Vallejo, who died in 1887; and Frances Marion, wife of Edwin C. Belknap, a hardware merchant of Chicago.  Mrs. Belknap has a daughter, Charlotte.  Mrs. Brainerd is a member of the Methodist Church.  The Captain was an Odd Fellow, and a member of the Western Association   of California Pioneers.  He also belonged to the Union Veteran League.

In May, 1857, Mr. Brainerd went to Syracuse, New York, and in June, 1858, removed to Chicago.  He joined the Board of Trade, and engaged in the grain and produce business.   In the summer of 1860 he went to the gold mines of Colorado, but the trip proved an unprofitable one.  On his return he again joined the Board of Trade.  He filled many of its subordinate offices, was Vice-President for three years, and during the greater part of 1872 acted as President, when the building was being rebuilt after the great Chicago Fire.  In 1866 he removed to Evanston, but continued business in the city.  In May, 1873, he was appointed Illinois Canal Commissioner by Gov. John L. Beveridge, and served two terms, or until the spring of 1877.  The Copperas Creek Lock and Dam were built during that time.   In March, 1883, he was appointed Railroad and Warehouse Commissioner by Gov. John M. Hamilton, and served until March, 1885.  For eight years he was on the Committee of Appeals for the inspection of grain, which position he held until August, 1893.  In politics he was a Republican, and was Trustee of the Village Board of Evanston for three terms, and for three years was Town Collector.

The life of Captain Brainerd was a busy and useful, and also an eventful one.  He personally knew many of the pioneers of California, among whom were many noted characters, including Gen. W. T. Sherman, H. W. Hallock, John C. Fremont, John A. Sutter, Col. John D. Stevenson and Lieutenant Derby.  The path-finders and guides of the plains were Kit Carson, Bob Carson, James P. Beckworth, “Peg-leg” Smith, James Bridger, and James W. Marshall, who discovered gold in California.   Mr. Brainerd also knew men who became prominent in affairs later on, including Gov. John Bigler, Edward Gilbert, Gen. John D. Lippincott, Gov. J. Neeley, Johnson, Leland Stanford, Calhoun Benham, William Penn Johnson, Judge David S. Terry and David C. Broderick.  He also knew many of the prominent Mormons. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Mormon prophets, each bought a hat of his father, in 1831, at his store in Painesville, Ohio.   Many interesting incidents made up the life of Captain Brainerd, and it is unfortunate that he never completed his reminiscences, which were begun at the request of  a Sacramento literary society.  He died at his home in Evanston, May 19, 1894.

                                -- Submitted on 10/11/99 by Sherri Hessick ( slhessick@crosswinds.net )