NEW DIGGINGS ON THE FEVER 1824-1864
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Into "The New Diggins"
Pages - 8-14
(PAGE 8) So few of the hundreds of men who came into the diggings during the 1820's remained to live out their lives within the nine-by-three mile boundary of the present day Town of New Diggings that it is possible now, without taking up too much space, to name most of those who stayed.
Of those settlers listed in the County History as residents of the village called Natchez,1 only George Ferguson seems to have remained in the new diggings area after the Indian uprisings of 1827 and 1832. When the first government survey was made in 1833, the surveyor pinpointed Ferguson's home near the mouth of New Diggings Branch, but sometime within the next few years he returned to Galena, where he spent the remaining years of his life. Of the others mentioned by the county historian as having settled in or near New Diggings during the early 1820's, Charles Gear operated a smelter near Buncombe; Solomon Oliver lived on the Ridge; Peter and Benjamin Carr located on the Branch; George Wiley and John W. Blackstone had cabins somewhere in the vicinity of the present village. North of the village, on the Fever, Abraham Looney in 1827 built a cabin on land which has remained until recently in possession of the family and on which the Looney family graveyard is located. Just beyond, at the Horseshoe Bend of the Fever, James and Dennis Murphy with members of their family settled that same year and soon afterward built a mill and smelter near the narrow neck of land where the Fever almost runs into itself after a two mile swing to the east.
Still further north on the river, Warren Johnson settled at about the same time, while near by, Peter Sheffer and Ammi Dodge built their cabins. Meanwhile, up Coon Branch on the west side of the river had come Ahab Bean of Tennessee with three young daughters who were speedily transferred to the east bank when they married the above mentioned Warren Johnson, Peter Sheffer and Abe Looney.
When the Winnebago uprising took place in 1827, a portion of the settlers fled to Galena, while the rest took refuge in a stockade "40 yards square with 2 blockhouses', near the Looney cabin. After Red Bird surrendered and peace was declared, the timber in the stockade was used to feed the smelting furnace of
(picture) John W. Blackstone -- Early Settler
Peter A. Lorimier who a few years later became one of Dubuque's leading citizens. In March of 1827, a prospective settler on the site of the future village of New Diggings wrote to Mr. McKnight, the government's agent at Galena:
I am now able to designate the place I wish to build and would (you) send me a Permit to build a cabin in Washington (as the inhabitants are pleased to call it) that is the New Diggings... 2
But those inhabitants who were "pleased to call" their settlement 'Washington' must have changed their minds or have had their minds changed for them, for from that time on, the cluster of cabins that sprang up along the Branch was known as 'NEW diggins".
The defeat of the Winnebago was a signal for a rush to the lead mines. Tales of the mines long had been drifting down the Mississippi and up the Ohio. Old Buck, a Fox Indian, had unearthed a nugget so large that it had taken his whole band of Indians to move it; a prospector had gone up the river a few miles and had taken out 17,000 pounds of mineral in a single day; another who had gone penniless into the mines had been offered thirty thousand dollars for his diggings and had laughed at the offer. A man had passed the word around to his neighbors in southern Illinois that he could make a good living in the mines during the summer months by using his team and wagon to haul lead between diggings, smelters and shipping points. If he wanted to put in the winter there, he had only to find himself a
partner, get a permit to dig, stake out a claim wherever he found an unoccupied spot that looked promising, and with a little luck, he might strike it rich. Word had come back that the soil was rich; the land well watered. Newspapers in the area reported that 500 men could be assured of steady and profitable employment in 1828.
Men pondered these things and decided to see for themselves what was happening along the Fever. Some elected to travel overland, in wagons or on foot or horseback. Some boarded flatboats, keelboats, or, after 1823, steamboats, and came up the Mississippi from St. Louis to Galena, the focal point from which the newcomers spread out into the mines. The Fever at that time was navigable to a point a mile or so beyond the settlement, and being so, had long been known to the French traders and trappers, explorers and voyageurs who for a hundred or more years had been making their way up and down the Mississippi. The village at 'the Point' lay on the west bank of the river, some six miles or so above where the stream enters the Mississippi, this location having been for as long as anyone could remember a favorite gathering place for the Fox, Sauk and Winnebagoes, whose squaws had worked the shallow lead diggings along the river's banks.
'The Point" had sprouted into a settlement in 1822, when the Johnson brothers of Kentucky were given permission by the federal government to begin mining operations there under government protection. The settlement's growth, after the first two or three years, was rapid. In 1827, Dr. Horatio Newhall, newly arrived in the village, described the place as "a nondescript".
'It is such a place as no one could conceive of without seeing it," he wrote to his brother in Massachusetts. "Strangers hate it, and residents like it. The appearance of the country', he continued, "would convince anyone that it must be healthy; yet, last season, it was more sickly than Havana or New Orleans. There is no civil law here, nor has the Gospel been yet introduced...The country is one immense prairie, from the Rock River on the south to the Wisconsin on the north, and from the Mississippi on the west to Lake Michigan on the east.. It is a hilly country, and abounding with lead ore of that species called by mineralogists 'galena", whence is derived the name of our town...Not much lead was made here until last year. There were then four log buildings in Galena. Now there are
115 houses and stores in the place. It is the place of deposit for lead and provisions, etc. for all the mining country. There is no spot in America of the same size, where there is one-fourth of the capital, or where so much business is done. There was manufactured here, in the year ending September last, 5,000,740 pounds of lead. The population consists mainly of Americans, Irish and French (that is, in the diggings). There are but comparatively few females. Hence every female, unmarried, who lands on these shores is immediately married." 3
Two years later, in 1829, a Presbyterian minister named Aratus Kent made his appearance in Galena. He found the settlement
"compactly built on two streets or benches, one about 20 or 30 feet above the other, closely copying the circular direction of Fever River in front and a high bluff of 100 feet immediately in the rear. The hum of business is heard on the margin of the river," the Reverend Kent went on to say, &while abundant scope is afforded for the display of taste in the little yards and gardens which seem already to be creeping up the steep ascent of the surrounding hill Here are thrown together, like the tenants of the graveyard, without any order, people of every country and every character, and you may see in one day Indians, French, Irish, English, Germans, Swiss and Americans and such a variety of national customs and costumes as are rarely to be met with in any other place. " 4
During that same year of 1829, Morgan L. Martin accompanied his friend Lucius Lyon on a journey through the lead region. Of Galena he wrote:
'It was a lively little town The houses were none of them painted, but there was that 'snap' about the place that gave promise of great things in the future." 5
From the 'lively little town", those miners who were headed for the new diggings moved northward along the Fever. There was no road. Men rode horseback along the Indian trails or rattled along in carts or wagons over the rutted 'traces' that followed these old trails. Many walked.
'The country was overflowing with prospectors, miners and those who thought to pick up a living in various ways while the excitement lasted,' wrote Martin. "We
frequently came up with little groups of two or more, trudging painfully along with their bundles slung over their shoulders, or perhaps encamped by the wayside; while to come upon a couple of rough fellows sitting on a log or stone, playing old sledge for each other's last dollar, was no uncommon experience." 6
At a point perhaps six miles north of Galena, where Hardscrabble, Bull and Coon Branches join up with the Fever, the Langworthy brothers had put up a stockade, opened a store, and in 1829 were mining along the north- south ridge while they waited for the Dubuque mines to be opened to white settlers. Their little settlement near where all these waters converge and where some of the richest strikes had by then been made, someone had named Buncombe. Between Buncombe and Natchez, Kelsey Branch and the East Fork of the Fever are fed by streams in the vicinity of the Wisconsin-Illinois border. The miner who headed for what was known as the New Diggins Ridge either followed the mainstream of the river north from Buncombe or turned at the East Fork and followed a trail to Council Hill, where a little settlement containing a blacksmith shop, two groceries and a small store provided refreshment and supplies for the incoming settlers. From the hilltop the newcomers could look out toward the New Diggings Ridge on the north, or to the prairie stretching away toward the east, where their fellow adventurers were busily digging into the earth or throwing together their temporary shelters.
It seems likely, if the locations of their permanent homes are any indication of their initial choice of land, that William Field of Kentucky may have come into the New Diggings by way of Council Hill, while Robert H. Champion of Vermont may first have glimpsed the countryside east of the Fever from Natchez-on-top-of-the-Hill. Both men arrived in 1829. Both were to make their fortunes on the Ridge. Each represented a 'type' of settler. Field, a semi-literate Southwesterner, was a typical frontiersman, hardy, shrewd and ambitious. Champion, a former Yankee hatter, was an austere, determined Presbyterian businessman. With them into the diggings came William S. Dering and James Nagle of Pennsylvania, Henry Potwin of New Hampshire, James and Phillip Earnest and Jesse Williams of Kentucky, and John Gray of New York.
These men were to remain in the area for the rest of their lives. William Field, beginning in the year 1833, kept a journal, on the pages of which the names of these early comers were to
appear, some of them again and again, through the 1830's and '40's and up until 1858, the year Field died. Of all the early comers mentioned heretofore, only the Murphys were not American born. Of the others, four came from Kentucky, one from Connecticut, three from Tennessee, two from New York, three from Vermont, three from Pennsylvania, one from Maryland and one from New Hampshire.
Not all of them set out to mine. Henry Potwin quickly sold his suitcase full of notions, and after returning to Illinois to replenish his stock, opened up the first store in the village of New Diggings. William Baldwin is said to have been the village's first innkeeper; John Gray served as its first doctor. James Nagle, who had read some law, hung up his shingle near Council Hill.
But Champion and Dering, Field, the Williamses and the Earnest brothers were looking for land -- land that might prove immediately profitable as diggings and eventually useful for its timber and for farming. How successful they were in their quest will appear as this story progresses.
"...A Great Itching for Privilege" Page 15-19
County Coordinator Dori Leekley
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© 1997-1999 Dori Leekley
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