Lake County Ohio GenWeb

Joseph Adams Potter

This biography is taken from History of Geauga and Lake counties; Williams Brothers, 1878.

Transcribed and submitted by Becky Falin, 1996.

Joseph Adams Potter, brevet brigadier-general United States army. Born in the village of Potter's Hollow, Albany county, New York, June 11, 1816. His father, R.H. Potter, was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1782, where he spent his boyhood until the age of eleven.

His grandfather, Samuel Potter, with six brothers, enlisted in the Revolutionary army the day Washington assumed command of the army, under the old elm tree yet standing near Cambridge, Mass. He rose to be a sergeant in the army, and was detailed as sergeant of the guard at Washington's headquarters at the old stone house in Newburgh, New York, during the famous winter when Washington, Lafayette, Knox, Putnam and others made it their winter home.

The mother of J.A. Potter was of the Adams family of eastern Massachusetts, and a direct descendant of Samuel Adams, - hence his name. His grandfather, Joseph Adams, built and resided in the third house built in Catskill, New York.

Of J.A. Potter, up to the age of seventeen, his youth was spent in school and university, occasionally assisting his father, who was a large merchant for those days, when tan-yards, asheries, and other branches were component parts of a business man's operations.

At the early age of six his passion for powder and firearms was developed to such an extraordinary degree that a careful watch had to be kept over him. Where there is a will there is a way, however, and in connection with his brother, Champlin R. Potter, three years his senior, he outwitted his parents often, and had many a hunt on the hills at the base of the Catskill Mountains with his brother.

At the age of nine or ten his most intimate friend was a boy by the name of Tremaine. One day, while they were sitting under a tree, they talked together, as boys will, as to their plans when they had grown to manhood. Tremaine said, "I am going to be a lawyer and remain at home in this county." Potter says, "As soon as I get to be my own master I will go to the far west and lead a roving hunter's life." The life of Hon. Lyman Tremaine, attorney, judge, member of Congress, and attorney- general for his State, shows his prediction was fulfilled. As for the other, these pages will show part of his carrer, as before stated.

In the early summer of 1833, at the age of seventeen, by consent of his father, he went to Michigan with a party of friends, ostensibly to pay taxes on his father's lands, but in reality to carry out his ideas of adventure as far as possible. The party traveled with were relatives of General Charles C. Paine, and stopping here a week with them gave him his first look at Painesville.

But pages could not write his history from that date. After a series of adventures in the territory of Michigan, he went by stage to White Pigeon, paid the taxes on his father's lands, and then at the suggestion of a Chicago merchant, Mr. P.F.W. Peace, who was a fellow-passenger in the stage, he accompanied him to that village, then not having over six hundred inhabitants. The only way of getting there by land was by wagon from Niles, Michigan, down to the beach of Lake Michigan, near Michigan City, and from there on the beach around the head of the lake to Chicago.

After a few days there with nothing to do, he joined a party of Indians, being put under the care of the chief by Robert Kinzer, then an Indian trader of Chicago, and went on a tour with them west and north of Chicago.

They went directly west without finding inhabitants until they reached the house of Mr. Dixon, at what is now Dixon's Ferry, Illinois; and this was the last house seen until they reached Fort Winnebago, way up in now the State of Wisconsin. Where the city of Madison now stands there was on trapper's shanty, according to his recollection; and coming east the next point they made was the trading post of Mr. Junot, where the city of Milwaukee now stands. There were few, if any, white inhabitants there or in the vicinity. Mr. Junot told him thre would be a village there some time, but it might not be in his day; but people would eventually settle there. The Milwaukee of today would seem to have fulfilled the prediction.

He related with much interest the incidents of the trip, - the days of feasting and starvation, and the gradual change from white man to Indian in looks, - starting with clothing, and returning with nothing but a coon-skin cap, buckskin shirt, leggings, and moccasins. Returning to Chicago from Milwaukee, they followed the beach of the lake when practicable, though a short distance back was a good trail on the bluffs, passing Root River, Little Fort, etc. After five days tedious march the flag of the old Fort Dearborn came in sight.

The romance of the Indian character had descended to a very common reality, and after a half-days scrubbing and a change to the habilments of a while man he felt much relieved. He has never repeated the experience of that five weeks. Returning to Monroe, Michigan, he was invited by a Mr. Wadsworth to accompany him on a trip through the woods from the river Raisin to the trading post, where the city of Grand Rapids now stands. After getting up their outfit, - a pony, saddle, a tin cup or two, a frying pan, and other necessary traps, - they started. Living entirely on the products of their trusty rifles, sleeping under the trees with no covering but the canopy of heaven, studyingnature in its wildest forms, an almost daily adventure with the wild denizens of the forest, it was truly one of the pleasantest episodes of his life; and while he has always looked upon the Indian trip with disgust as the most disagreeable of his life, the trip of four or five weeks in the wilds of Michigan is among the bright spots of his existence.

The winter of 1833-34 was spent at Monroe, Michigan, and in the fall of 1834 he went to Illinois with his father and family, spending the winter of 1834 -35 in a log house on government land just below La Salle, on the south side of the Illinois river, near where the village of Toneca now stands.

The uneventful life of a farmer could not suit him; and after seeing his father and brother in a good house on a section of land they had united in purchasting, he bade them good-by, and in two weeks was back at Monroe, Michigan.

Being at once employed by the government as assistant engineer on a ship canal just commencing at this point, it decided his destiny and business for life.

In 1836 he was tendered an appointment to West Point by General Lewis Cass, which he declined, but was immediately appointed civil engineer, attached to the war department, and as such sent in 1837 to superintend the repairs at Grand Run harbor, Ohio. This brought him to Painesville, where he married Catherine, daughter of the late Dr. S. Rosa, on the 31st of December, 1840. She died in February, 1853, at Painesville, Ohio.

Being tired of public service, and in consequence of the reduction of his pay by the failure of appropriations, he engaged in mercantile pursuits in a small way; but not having the requisite tact for trading soon found himself in embarassed circumstances, and after struggling along for a year or two he applied again for duty as an engineer. The connection between himself and the government had not been entirely severed, as he was at all times in receipt of a small pay as agent in charge of public property and repairs at different harbors along the lake.

Reporting again for duty, he was sent to make the survey of the reef in the northern end of Lake Michigan, on which the far-famed Waugothanee light-house now stands.

Being off duty for six months, he was engaged by the Lake Shore railroad company, and built the greater part of the road between Painesville and Willoughby, with the first bridges, both at Willoughby and Painesville.

While thus engaged he was called to go to Waugothanee and complete the light-house there. From that time he has never left the service. The war found him engaged in surveys on Lake Superior, under the then Captain, but afterwards Major-General, George G. Meade, United States army.

Being ordered back to Detroit, he there found his appointment as lieutenant, Fifteenth Infantry, United States army, and captain in the quartermaster's department, with orders to go to Chicago, to take charge of the fitting out of the troops for Illinois, Wisconsin, and incidentally of Iowa and Minnesota.

Very few know the amount of business devolving upon a quartermaster in time of war. It was no uncommon thing to dispurse two or three million dollars in a month. The numerous employees necessary, the necessity for signing each paper in person, and the entire responsibility for the extended operation, render the position one of great care.

In addition to the regular duties of supplies, the charge of building, maintaining and providing for the prison camps at the west was on his hands. At one time he had thirteen hundred prisoners in Camp Douglas, one thousand at Madison, Wisconsin, and from four to six thousand at Springfield, Illinois.

While stationed in Chicago, he married Mrs. Hattie Spafford, of Hartford, Connecticut, whose sad death, at Galveston, is spoken of farther on.

Made a colonel by act of Congress, July 4, 1864, he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, to the charge of that immense depot, and the districts of Kansas and Nebraska, including the plains to New Mexico, in one direction, and Salt Lake on the other. All the posts on the plains and the new posts in the Territories drew their supplies from this depot and St. Louis, and, as may be supposed, the officers responsible for all could not have what might be called an easy time of it.

The daily pay-roll of men averaged eleven hundred employees, as teamsters and laborers at the dept. Two hundred six-mule wagons daily on duty for depot work. One winter, thirteen thousand mules and four thousand horses on hand, and at one time, twenty-three hundred wagons, with their outfit of mules and men, on the plains.

Early in the spring of 1867 he was ordered to Detroit to settle his accounts, and managed to get there just in time to meet an order directing him to report to General Sheridan in New Orleans. Arriving there in March, he was ordered to Galveston, Texas, to report to General Charles Griffin, as chief of the quartermaster's department.

Previous to leaving Leavenworth, his rank as colonel expired by limitation, and for fourteen days he was a captain again, but he was immediately promoted to the majority. On the 13th day of March he was brevetted major, lieutenant-colonel, colonel, and brigadier-general United States army.

The events of the year 1867 in Galveston will ever fill a page of history of yellow fever epidemics. On the 5th of July the fever was pronounced epidemic, and it was too late to try to get away. Suffice it to say that, worn out by the constant attentions required, the almost daily calls to bury some friend, the only officer except General Griffin left on duty at the headquarters, doing the duty of adjutant-general, inspector-general, and chief quartermaster, he went to his residence on the last day of August, bidding his general good-by, as was their daily custom, for they knew now when they parted daily at two p.m. that they would ever meet again. That evening at seven he was attacked by the fever, and on the evening of the third day was pronounced dying.

His wife, who had kept up her courage until that moment, when her husband was dying in one room, her infant son in a dying condition in another, and the corpse of her nurse-girl being carried out of the house, kneeling down beside the bed, kissing him good-by, she was picked up and carried from his bedside with the fever raging in her veins. She died in six days.

During the night the fever took a favorable turn, and he was saved. After twelve days he was taken from his bed, to find his wife, his commanding general, his two body-servants, dead, and no one left but his little boy, his house in the hands of servants and strangers, and every trunk and drawer ransacked, and all his wife's jewelry, silks, laces, etc., gone.

Immediately he received a telegram, by order of General Grant, giving him three months' leave, and on the 10th of October he was assisted to the steamer bringing him and his little boy north. At the expiration of his leave he reported again for duty at Austin, Texas, where the headquarters had been established. During the time he was stationed in Texas he was charged with the affairs of the quartermaster's department, and the building of several new posts at points selected in the western and northwestern part of the district.

In the course of his duty he had occasion several times to visit the Mexican border, and speaks of his notable trips to the Rio Grande, and his pleasant visits at Matamoras with the different military governors. Being invited, with a number of officers, to an entertainment given to them by General Palacio, governor or Tamaulipas, Nueva Leon, and states bordering on the frontier, he was fortunate enough to meet an old school acquaintance in the person of chief of the Mexican staff, who was a thorough English scholar, and who commanded the firing-party that shot Maximilian, Mejia and Miramon.

The regiment of Zapadores being paraded, the very men who fired on poor Maximilian were pointed out, and he was presented with several pieces of coin as being part of that distrubuted to the men by the emperor just before they shot him. One of the dollar pieces he sent to Horace Steele, Esq., of Painesville.

A history of one notable trip though western Texas beyond Cross Timbers, with a command to select a site for a new post, near the border of the "Llano Estacade," or Staked Plains, would be very interesting. The game killed, the change of base in consequence of Comanche interference, the hurried march to the highlands and the return to Austin by an entirely new route, after a two months' tour, would fill a volume alone.

In the spring of 1869 he was relieved in Texas, and ordered to the charge of the large depot at Jeffersonville, Indiana, and after a year there was sent to New Mexico as chief quartermaster for that district, taking post at Sante Fe.

The year there was most agreeable. During his stay he erected complete sets of officers' quarters, building them of the sun-burst "adobes" of that country, but putting on them civilized roofs of tin, very much to the surprise of the owners of the flat, mud-roofed residences of that country.

He burnt the first brick and built the first brick chimneys in Sante Fe. With a climate unsurpassed on the globe and fertile valleys, the purest of water, hot, cold, and chalybeate springs equal to any known in the world. and more gold than in any known mining country, it does not seem to fill up with settlers.

His health failing he was sent out of the country, and after a year and a half on duty at Detroit, he was sent South, where for the past four years, during all the reconstruction troubles, he has been in New Orleans.

Returning to Painesville, Ohio, to settle his accounts this spring, by order of the War Department, he hopes to be retired from the army, and spend his old age among the companions of his early years, and wind up his long life in a home of his own.

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