1857: Disaster

As the year 1857 began, things seemed to be going well for the Clark family. Jonathan M. and Mary Turck Clark had been married for seventeen years. On May 25, 1857, they welcomed the birth of their eighth child, daughter Jennie Marietta Clark. She joined six older sisters—Caroline, Elizabeth, Persie, Theresa, Laura and Josie—and one brother, Henry.

The family had been living in their handsome, two-story home of stone and wood—now the Jonathan Clark House Museum—for nine years. They owned 160 acres of fine farmland, and appeared to be one of the more successful and comfortable farm families in the area.

But not all was well in the neighborhood. In November, 1856, typhus struck Rev. James W. Woodworth’s father, Peter. By late December, Rev. Woodworth’s daughters Rosetta and Julietta were both ill with the disease. In early February, Rev. Woodworth’s wife, Cerena Loomer Woodworth was taken ill with typhus, followed by daughter Sophia a few days later.

Peter, Rosetta, and Sophia Woodworth would recover, but young Julietta died on February 7, 1857. Her mother, Cerena Loomer Woodworth died twelve days later, on February 19th1.

Winter illnesses gave way to Midwestern summer weather. On Friday evening, August 21, there was a tornado in Ozaukee county. The story was published in the Ozaukee Advertiser and reprinted on page 5 of the September 2, 1857, edition of the Milwaukee American:

TERRIBLE HURRICANE. The most fearful hurricane that we ever witnessed occurred on Friday evening, 21st. inst[ant]. The storm was from the South West, and passed through the entire Country, sweeping everything before it, making a track of nearly one-fourth of a mile in width.

[Descriptions of various homes, barns and city buildings destroyed or lifted off their foundations follow. Most of the damage appears to have been in Port Washington.]

The storm lasted about ten minutes and then passed on to Lake Michigan, leaving Ozaukeeans to gather up the fragments. What is remarkable to note, no person was injured; all seemed quite as willing to laugh as to cry over the result.

The storm came “from the South West” and ravaged much of Port Washington. Did it pass through Mequon first? Were the Clarks or their close neighbors affected? The third week of August is a busy time on a Midwestern farm. Were ripening crops ruined? Any animals killed or homes or barns damaged? So far, I’ve not found any other information besides this one news report.

Jonathan Morrell Clark, dead at 44

For the Clark family, the great disaster of 1857 came on Sunday, September 20th. James W. Woodworth recorded it in his diary:

Woodworth, James W., My Path, and the Way the Lord Led Me., Milwaukee, 1878, p. 108 (detail)

Sept. 29 [sic]. Sabbath, about 4 o’clock, P.M. Jonathan Clark died; I called in to see him the evening before he died; I felt remarkably tender towards him, and I am not without hope in his case; it may be he is saved […]2

What killed Jonathan Clark? That Rev. Woodworth “called in to see him the evening before he died” implies that Jonathan’s death was not entirely sudden or unexpected. Had Jonathan been ill? Overworked? Injured?

We don’t know. County death records for this era do not exist. I haven’t found a death notice in the Milwaukee papers that I have access to online. There are a few other Milwaukee and Ozaukee county papers from that time that have been microfilmed, but I have not had a chance to search those yet.

Jonathan Clark was probably buried within a day or two of his death, perhaps in the small family graveyard on the nearby farm of his father-in-law, Peter Turck, or possibly in the old cemetery in Cedarburg. Jonathan’s remains—and those of son Henry and daughter Josie—were moved to their final resting place, Lot 3, Block 44, Section 10, at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, on November 16, 1878.

Mary has decisions to make

Suddenly, Mary Turck Clark is a widow, 37 years old, with a nursing infant and seven other children to raise, all under the age of 17. She now has sole charge of her large family and 160-acre farm3. By the time of Jonathan’s death—late September, 1857—the harvest was probably done, food put up for the year ahead, and perhaps there was enough firewood already cut to cook and heat throughout the coming winter.

What would Mary do to maintain her family and their financial security? Remarry, perhaps to one of the neighbors? That might provide a kind of quick security, but as a woman in the 1800s, she would have lost her rights to keep and control the savings and real estate that she and Jonathan had acquired during their seventeen years together.

Would she move to Milwaukee? Many of the early Washington and Ozaukee county settlers were doing just that, often to obtain better educations for their children. Would she move the whole family to the house of her father Peter Turck? He was 59 years old and already living in the city with his second wife, Christina, and their 8 year old daughter. Or perhaps Mary would find a new home of her own in the city?

Mary has decisions to make, and her choices are neither obvious, nor easy. Our next snapshot of the Clark family will be the upcoming federal decennial census. Where will the Clark family be, and what will they be doing, on July 20, 1860?


  1. The information about the Woodworth family illnesses and deaths is found in the early 1857 entries in Rev. Woodworth’s My Path, p. 96ff. I’ve not found other specific references to typhus in Ozaukee county in 1857 in other sources. It was certainly a recurring problem, along with illnesses such as cholera, “consumption” (i.e., tuberculosis), scarlet fever, and the malaria-like “ague.”
  2. The September 29, 1857, “Sabbath” date—as printed in the published version of Rev. Woodworth’s My Path—was not a Sunday, but a Tuesday. I suspect that the typesetter for My Path set “29” in error for the correct date of Sunday, Sept 20, 1857. Our only other relevant documents, the Clark Family Record and Jonathan M. Clark’s grave stone at Forest Home, agree that Jonathan died on [Sunday] September 20, 1857.
  3. Jonathan M. Clark may have died intestate. I cannot locate a will, or evidence of a testate or intestate probate case in Ozaukee, Washington or Milwaukee counties. The 1860 federal population census and various Ozaukee county land records suggest that Mary maintained control of the family farm and finances in the years following Jonathan’s death. How she achieved this without leaving a public record of some kind is a mystery (although, in my experience, not uncommon for the era).

11 thoughts on “1857: Disaster

  1. Reed, you have painted a realistic picture of the times, with the limited family records. Thanks for staying on the hunt for more clues as to Jonathan’s life in Mequon, especially in his last days. Thanks, Liz


    • You’re welcome, Liz. Once the Covid-19 situation is under control (one can hope, eh?), I need to get to the Wisconsin Historical Society. They’re one of the only archives that have any of the pre-c. 1880 Ozaukee newspapers. Other than censuses and land records, good historical sources are slim for the 1850s.


    • From what I have read (N.B., I am not a doctor), the type of typhus that would have likely attacked the Woodworth family was a bacterial infection, spread by body lice and would be very likely to spread to others. On the one hand, this outbreak was during winter in rural, 1857, Wisconsin, and families spent a lot of time indoors, hence the family-wide spread of infection. But families also got out in the winter and visited neighbors, certainly for the Sabbath, and perhaps for other social occasions. I’ll have more on the various epidemics and diseases that regularly vexed Mequon settlers in the 1840s and ’50s in an upcoming post.


  2. Reed –
    You have me on the edge of my desk chair.
    My chair is a D. R. Dimes (New Hampshire) reproduction bird cage Windsor.
    Nina, JCH Museum Director


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