NEW DIGGINGS ON THE FEVER 1824-1864
by
Margaret S. Carter

The book can still be purchased from:
Southwest Graphics, Box 96, Darlington, WI  53530  
   1-608-776-4042

Of Names and places
Pages - 1-7

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Sometimes, it seems, a term that is applied loosely to indicate a general area is later restricted to pinpoint a particular spot.  This seems to have happened, for instance, in respect to the words "blue mounds" in Wisconsin.  When white men first ventured into the territory south of the Wisconsin River, they used the words, apparently, to indicate a string of mounds that stretch from the Mississippi to Madison's four lakes, since these mounds appear from a distance to be enveloped in a bluish haze.  

"Before us", wrote Mrs. Adele Gratiot in describing the view from a point near the present Wisconsin-Illinois line in the 1820's, "stretched a beautiful rolling prairie extending to the Blue Mounds, a distance of thirty miles."

William Rudolph Smith, who was newly arrived in the mining country of southwestern Wisconsin in 1837, described what he saw as he looked south from Parrish's farm northeast of the present Platteville.  "Here we have a fine view of the blue mounds about 18 miles south of us, " he wrote.  "Belmont is situated at the foot of the eastern mound. The prairie here is rolling, and eastward the eye cannot reach the extent, but southward the view is bounded by the wooded hills beyond the blue mounds."

The elevations of land that these two early settlers had in mind when they spoke of the "Blue Mounds" were not the Blue Mounds of the present day, near Madison, but the Platte Mounds, three in number, lying between Platteville and the village of Belmont.

In like manner, the term "new diggings", widely used in early days, has undergone a change in meaning during the years since the first prospectors followed the Fever River northward from'the Point" (Galena, Illinois) near its mouth into the mining country of what was then Michigan Territory.  Nowadays the words New diggings refer to a little village of perhaps one hundred fifty people, located on a branch of the Fever River in Lafayette county, not far from the state line.  To home folks, the two words also name the town, three miles wide and nine miles long, in which the village stands.

But in the 1820's, "the new diggins" was an area without boundary lines, -- the general area in which the prospectors,  

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finding traces of OLD Indian diggings, uncovered NEW ones.  When word of these discoveries go out, men flocked into "the Point" from south and east and headed for "the new diggins".  Thus the two words denoted an extensive mineral region along the Fever,, not necessarily restricted to either bank.  However, since the first big strikes were made on a ridge of land running east and west on the east side of the river, this land came to be known as "the New Diggins Ridge", and the tributary stream at its base was called "New diggins Branch".  Gradually, as the "new diggins", like the "blue mounds" became limited in extent, the term came to mean something other that what it meant in the beginning.

By the time that white men were allowed to work the "new" diggings, the 'River of the Mines' had been called Fever for so long that no one seemed to know for certain where the name "Fever" originated.  The lead diggings in the vicinity had been worked by the Indians long before the first white man was allowed into the area.  In the year 1700, when the Frenchman LeSueur was sent by his king to explore the upper Mississippi valley, he discovered the little river which came to be known as the Fever.  "Riviere a la Mine", he called it, according to his journalist Penicaut, who wrote,

"it comes from the north to its mouth, and from the northeast.  Seven leagues on, at the right, there is a leadmine in a prairie." (1)

Of the several stories told regarding the place-name "Fever", perhaps the most plausible is that of Colonel Davenport who operated a trading post in the vicinity at a very early day.  When members of an Indian war party returned from the east, he said, presumably sometime late in the eighteenth century, they brought back with them the dread disease, smallpos.  "Macaubee", the Indians called the disease, which, translated, means "fever", or more literally, "fever that blisters".  The scourge spread through the villages along the river and along a smaller stream to the south.  A great many of the Indians died; the survivors fled.  Years later, according to Davenport, those who had survived returned to "Cosh-a-neush-Macaubee-Sepo", Little Small Pox River, and "Moshuck-Macaubee-Sepo", Big Small Pox River.  They gathered up the remains of the smallpox victims and buried them in a mound near the mouth of the fever.

"From that time", said Davenport, "the Indians called both streams Macaubee; hence the name Fever, the smaller stream still being called Small Pox." (2)

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When a resident of Galena in 1829 published a map showing the mines then operating, he noted and accepted this version of the origin of the name. But some objected, claiming that the river was named by French Huguenots who called it 'Riviere au Feve" because of the quantity of wild 'feve" or 'bean' flowers growing along its banks. So widespread was the acceptance of this second explanation that a Gazetteer of Illinois and Missouri, published in 1822, referred to the river as 'Bean (Riviere au Feve, F'r.), a navigable stream in Pike County emptying into the Mississippi. and the Galena Miners Journal in 1830 recorded

"a Bill Authorizing the laying off of a town on Bean River in the State of Illinois by Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled".

However, when the first postoffice was established at "the Point' in 1826, 'Fever River Mines" was the address generally used. The fact that the word 'fever" suggested an unhealthy climate may have led Galena residents to prefer or even to insist upon some other name for the river. Possibly, too, they were irked by the uncomplimentary remarks of some early day travelers. Beltrami, an Italian explorer, in 1823 said he considered the name Fever "in perfect conformity with the effect of the bad air that prevails there",' and Colonel Thomas McKenney observed in 1827, 'The river sent forth a most disagreeable odor.  It appeared to be the very hotbed of bilious fever." (4)

At any rate, in Illinois, dissatisfaction with the name led eventually to its being changed to Galena River, but in Wisconsin it is still known as the Fever. In the spring of 1824, several white men left the Point, and following the twists and turns of the river northward, came to the ridge of land below which New Diggings Branch enters the Fever from the east. Here, where they discovered indications of old diggings, they began their frantic search for new ones. In a pocket of land enclosed by ridges and fed by springs, these first settlers in the Wisconsin lead section built their cluster of cabins and called their little settlement Natchez. Natchez seems a fitting name for the first mining camp in the new diggings, since it resembled in several respects its famous counterpart on the Mississippi, old Natchez-Under-the-Hill.

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The men who came into the diggings from the south and east no doubt were familiar with the implications suggested by that name. They had heard stories of the land pirates who infested the forests bordering the Natchez Trace, along which traders traveled to and from New Orleans markets. Some of them perhaps had seen the shabby, straggling village of Natchez-under-the-Hill. They might even have had first hand experiences with the carousing, fist-cuffing riff-raff of the river town who fought bloody battles with the flat-boatmen during those early days. Quite likely the physical characteristics of their new home, with its bluffs and winding river, reminded the miners of the lower Natchez; but it seems more probable that the character of some of the inhabitants of their village had something to do with their choice of a name. A traveler viewing a mining settlement some years later might well have been comparing it to either Natchez when he wrote:

"Here was to be found at all hours, music, dancing, singing, drinking and gambling of every description to an extent only equalled, probably, by the famed NatchezUnder-the-Hill." (5)

While Natchez flourished at,the mouth of New Diggings Branch, 'Hardscrabble" sprang up on another branch of the Fever to the west. The "hard scrabble" occurred when two men goudged and bit and kicked and wrestled for possession of a claim known to contain a rich lead. Hardscrabble Branch still retains its name, but the settlement along its banks has become Hazel Green.

Hardscrabble Branch enters the Fever about a mile below the site of Natchez, at a point where two other streams also flow into the main stream. The secluded spot where all these waters meet became known as "Buncombe', sometimes spelled 'Bunkham" on the old maps. The origin of this name is interesting, for it arose out of American political life. During the sixteenth congress, a member from the district of North Carolina which included Buncombe County "arose to address the House, without any extraordinary powers, in manner or matter, to interest the audience. Many members left the house. Very naively he told those who remained that they might go too; he should speak for some time, but he was only talking for Buncombe.' The expression 'talking for Buncombe" caught the public fancy and became popular, and the word was widely used. The name of the man who "talked for Buncombe" on the Fever seems not to have been recorded.

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Often a name is self-explanatory, as in the case of Council Hill, where the Winnebagos were said to have met in council before they rose against the miners in 1827. From the hill, just over the Illinois line, one can look far out over the Fever River valley. The rolling prairie extends toward the east; in the north the Platte mounds float in a blue mist on the horizon; to the west Sinsinawa Mound is outlined against the sky. This last named mound, another landmark in the mining country, was called Sin-sin-a-way, 'home of the eagle", by the Indians. Its present day inhabitants, the Dominican Sisters of the Order of the Most- Holy Rosary, think and speak of it as the "Hill of Destiny", the birthplace of their Order and a lasting monument to the Order's illustrious founder, Father Mazzuchelli. Other place names in the Fever River area suggest the nature of the land to which early settlers were attracted. White Oak Springs and Elk Grove, for example, need no explanation. 'Cottonwood Hill" was changed to Benton when that village was platted during the 1840's, at a time when Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had a devoted following in the mines. Before the founder of Benton had chosen 'Cottonwood Hill' as a name for his homesite, the miners had called this stretch of upland 'Swindlers Ridge" when they discovered that certain prospectors on the ridge were tunneling through into their neighbors' diggings. 'Buzzard's Roost" was a name applied to another ridge to the north which came later to be known as Jenkynsville, then Meekers Grove. When the settlement at this point acquired a postoffice, the place was named in honor of Moses Meeker, first postmaster and one of the earliest and most prominent of the early day miners and smelters. Names of other early settlers were recorded for posterity when mining camps and settlements were named Gratiots Grove, Shullsburg, Hamilton's Diggings, Murphysboro, and Dodgeville. One may hazard a guess as to why a camp was called 'Whig' or 'Democrat", and the story regarding 'Shakerag' is well known, but what did the miners have in mind when they called their settlements 'Black Leg", Black Jack", Buriesqueburgh', 'Red Dog", "Nip and Tuck', 'Pin Hook' and 'Grab'? Since these camps have long since vanished from the face of the earth, one can only speculate as to the origin of these names. The village of Etna has been for many years as extinct as the volcano for which it is thought to have been named, the 'Etna" in Wisconsin having been a smelling, smoking limekiln. Leadville on the hill above, with its school, church and graveyards on the "Democrat" road, lived to become the present village of Leadmine.  

 (PAGE 6 picture)   The Upper Fever Winds in and out of Towns of New Diggings and Benton
                                  (is hard to read)

(PAGE 7)  

For the most part, the names mentioned here are the place names of the Fever River Valley above the Wisconsin-Illinois border. The headwaters of this river-with-two-names are the innumerable springs in Elk Grove township just below 'Belle Monte", Wisconsin's first capitol site. West of the river, the feeder streams are called Pat's Creek, Black's Creek, Coon, Bull, Hardscrabble and Meeker's Branches. The northernmost on the east is Madden's Branch. Those below are Shullsburg, Ellis, New Diggings and Kelsey Branches, and East Fork. The distance from the foot of 'Belle Monte" to the mouth of the Fever would be not more than twenty miles as the crow flies, but would constitute a day's journey if one were to follow the twists and turns of the meandering stream from Pat's Creek or Madden's Branch to the 'slough" below Galena where the river of the mines joins the "Ol' Man". No one 'talks for Buncombe' in this day and age. It is a fisherman's paradise, a quiet and secluded spot where huge gray tailing piles along the river banks bespeak a bustling past. And the 'new diggings" have become 'old diggings" once again as great mills and machinery have replaced the sucker hole workings, the picks, gads and windlasses of other days.

Into "The New Diggins"   Pages 8-14

Preface   Pages - V, VI, VII

  "New Diggings on the Fever 1824 - 1864"       Lafayette County Homepage

County Coordinator  Dori Leekley

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