The King of Reutania

Shaking a family tree is bound to loosen a nut or two. But when I stumbled upon the modern polished granite tombstone surrounded by much older obelisks and limestone slab markers in the North Union Cemetery near Wakarusa, Indiana, I hadn't the faintest idea what I'd found. The sharply cut lettering read:

"MA STREETER"
Died in Chicago
Oct. 17, 1936
B. Feb. 20, 1873

Grew up in Locke Township as Elma Lockwood

What in the world? Fortunately, it didn't take too much digging to find the answer. Every Chicago history book has the story. It seems local girl made good -- or at least a name for herself -- by hitching her star to one of America's great oddballs. The man was George Wellington "Cap" Streeter, who staked out a claim to Chicago's priceless lakefront and held the great city at bay for 30 years. Author Emmett Dedmon tells the story nicely in Fabulous Chicago:

Streeter, a former Mississippi River steamboat pilot and circus proprietor, had run aground on a sandbar off the shoreline in 1886 while testing, more or less soberly, a craft named The Reutan with which he hoped to make a fortune running guns for South American revolutions. Unable to dislodge his ship and separated from land by only a shallow strip of water, Streeter decided to make his home on the Reutan.

Through the years the water separating him from the shore filled with sediment until the ship rested on the mainland. This suggested to Streeter that he might claim the land as an annexation of the island where the Reutan was lodged. ...

Christening his land the District of Lake Michigan, he announced he owed allegiance only to the federal government and named a crony, William Niles, as military governor of the district. With a top hat perched on the back of his head and wearing a stained frock coat, he opened offices in the Tremont House and spent his days exhibiting to gullible purchasers the documents on which he founded his right to the valuable lakefront property.

The farce continued, through much litigation and occasional confrontations between as many as 500 armed city police officers on one side and a ragtag army of hoboes and squatters on the other. Once, Cap's first wife, Maria, who was known affectionately to their followers as "Ma" Streeter, routed a batch of foes with a pot of scalding water. Then Streeter mistook his own watchman for an intruder and shot him dead, a deed for which he received nine months in prison. Picking up the story from another book, Chicago: A Pictorial History:

He emerged [from the penitentiary] to renew the struggle, took to himself a new "Ma" Streeter half his age but just as fierce. There were more writs, more arrests, and finally, in 1918, deputies followed out a court order to destroy Streeter's home and remove him. He left, vowing to come back. But two years later he was dead of pneumonia.

Elma Lockwood, the second "Ma" Streeter ("half his age but just as fierce"), was a first cousin of our great-grandmother, Estella Case Wehrley (1841-1920). It was a search for the grave of their grandfather, Samuel Lockwood (1781-1846), that led me to the North Union Cemetery in the first place.

Lockwood and his third wife, along with six sons, were the first members of that prolific family to settle in Indiana. They are deemed to be the first settlers of Locke Township in Elkhart County, south of South Bend. The family came from Springfield, Vermont, where Samuel operated a "potash and distillery" in conjunction with the family's large sawmill operation. I couldn't find out for sure, but assume this was sort of a factory that took sawdust and wood chips and turned them into such things as soap, fertilizer, methanol and turpentine.

Samuel's distant ancestor -- six generations back, to be precise, or 12 generations removed from me -- was Robert Lockwood (16?-1650), the first of my Mother's forebears to reach these shores. He was among some 900 Puritans who set sail from England in 1630 in the inaugural 11-boat flotilla of the Massachusetts Bay Company under the leadership of John Winthrop. That was the start of the "Great Migration" that brought about 20,000 Puritans to the New World during the ensuing decade.

If he was a good Puritan, Robert Lockwood must have spun in his grave when he learned what his descendant, Elma Lockwood, was up to on Chicago's North Shore.

-- Lawrence Sullivan, 1992


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