Erie Canal – the Bonniwell Family 1832-39

Inspired by our earlier looks at the influence of the Erie Canal on the early lives of both Jonathan M. Clark and the Peter and Rachael (Gay) Turck family (here and here), I thought I’d share more stories of Mequon settlers that used the canal to make their way westward to the wilds of the Wisconsin Territory in the 1830s and ’40s. Today’s focus is on the Bonniwell family.

England to Montréal to New York

Originally from Chatham, Kent Co., England, the William T. B. and Eleanor (Hills) Bonniwell family came to Lower Canada by ship, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and up the St. Lawrence River to Montréal. Shortly after arrival in 1832, family patriarch William T. B Bonniwell died there of cholera.

Following her husband’s untimely death, Eleanor (Hills) Bonniwell, decided to leave Montréal and take her children south to New York City, via the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain and the new Champlain Canal connecting Whitehall, New York, to the Hudson River. Two of her sons, George and William Bonniwell, had already located and found work in New York City.

After living for a bit in New York City, Eleanor moved upriver to the town of Esopus, Ulster County, on the west bank of the Hudson River. Sometime around 1835 Eleanor Bonniwell married a second time. Her new husband was a widower, Captain Christopher Hyde, of the town of Hyde Park, just across the river in Dutchess County.

Poussin, Guillaume-Tell, Travaux d’ameliorations interieures projetes ou executes par le Gouvernement General des Etats-Unis d’Amerique, de 1824 a 1831 … Atlas. Paris, Anselin, Libraire, pour l’art militaire, les sciences et les arts, […],1834. Imprimerie de Lachevardiere, rue du Colombier, No. 30. Credit, David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries, non-commercial use permitted under Creative Commons license. Click image to open larger map in new window. To open the original, unannotated map in a new window, click here.

Key to the map annotations

The Bonniwells’ route to New York state—from England via Montréal—and settlement in New York City and along the Hudson River are marked in red. Their 1839 migration from New York to Wisconsin is shown in blue.

  1. 1832, from Montréal to New York City, via Lake Champlain, Whitehall, the Champlain Canal and the Hudson River
  2. about 1833 widow Eleanor Bonniwell moves to Esopus, Ulster Co., buys land
  3. about 1835, Eleanor Bonniwell marries Capt. Christopher Hyde of Hyde Park, Dutchess Co.
  4. Nov. 1835, daughter Eleanor Bonniwell marries Philip Moss in New York City, they later live in Albany
  5. “Spring” [probably April or May], 1839, the Bonniwells begin their westward journey, via the Hudson River and Erie Canal
  6. some days or weeks later, they board steamer “Illinois” in Buffalo for Great Lakes voyage to Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory

On to Wisconsin

George B. Bonniwell writes:

In 1839, [Eleanor’s sons] Charles, William, James, George and Henry Bonniwell were all working in New York City as ship carpenters. Their sister, Eleanor Bonniwell had married Phillip Moss on November 24, 1835 at Trinity Church, New York City […] By the end of the 1830’s, this adventuresome family began to get the itch to move again. As Charles puts it in his account of the family, “We had all come to America intending to become farmers and yet we found ourselves working at our [shipbuilding] trade as we had been in the old country. We decided that we would carry out our original plan, and my brothers, James and George went exploring as far as the valley of the Ohio. While they were gone, I read a good deal about Wiscon­sin [Territory], and when they came back with their reports of the lands they had visited, I told them what I had read. The result was that they all came to my way of thinking, and we decided to come to Wisconsin.”

Bonniwell, George B, The Bonniwells: 1000 Years, p. 66

So the Bonniwell siblings, with brother-in-law Philip Moss, decided to leave their homes in New York and move west. Mother Eleanor (Hills) Bonniwell Hyde went too; she sold her Esopus property on April 1, 1839. But her second husband, Capt. Hyde, remained behind, close to his family.

On the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes

Charles Bonniwell recalled:

In the spring, we started west by way of Albany and the Erie Canal. The party consisted of my mother, Mr. & Mrs. Moss, my brothers James, William, Henry, George, Alfred and Walter Bonniwell, my wife and child and myself. When we reached Buf­falo, we found that the steamer Illinois, under command of Capt. Blake, was waiting for a trip and we took passage for Milwaukee. We had rough weather on Lake Huron and ran under the lea of Mackinaw Island for shelter.

Bonniwell, Charles in The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 23, 1899, quoted in The Bonniwells: 1000 Years, p. 67

They reached their destination in the late spring or early summer of 1839. Almost two years had passed since Peter Turck’s family had arrived there, and Milwaukee still had no harbor—or pier—for the new arrivals. It was a small village—actually three competing, semi-autonomous settlements—totaling fewer than two thousand souls. Charles Bonniwell continued:

In due time we reached Milwaukee and when the steamer an­chored in the bay, the family came ashore in a flatboat. We found a boarding house, and walked about taking in the city.” […] After a while, we met Peter Turck, who said he knew just the place for us. He took us up into the town of Mequon where he had a sawmill. Our family found shelter the first night in the sawmill.

Bonniwell, Charles in The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 23, 1899, quoted in The Bonniwells: 1000 Years, p. 67

Bonniwell, Moss and Hyde (and Clark and Turck)…

The Bonniwells were important early settlers in Mequon, and figure prominently in early histories and archival records. If you are researching the old documents, especially land records and state and federal censuses, note that after her second marriage, Eleanor (Hills) Bonniwell was usually known as “Eleanor Hyde” or “Mrs. Hyde.” And remember that Philip Moss is a Bonniwell brother-in-law; he married the one sister among the eight Bonniwell siblings, young Eleanor Bonniwell, and they lived in Mequon as part of the “Bonniwell Settlement.” So—in Mequon—Bonniwell, Moss and Hyde are all members of the same, large, tight-knit family.

And the Bonniwells were more than just civic-minded neighbors to the Clark and Turck families. The youngest Bonniwell son, Alfred T. Bonniwell, married Peter and Rachael (Gay) Turck’s youngest daughter, Sarah Turck, in 1851. And lawyer Philip Moss became a trusted family friend. He often assisted Mary (Turck) Clark and her family as they navigated a series of probate and guardianship cases in the Milwaukee courts from the mid-1860s until Mary’s death in 1881.

Grateful acknowledgement and enthusiastic book recommendation

For this post I’ve drawn heavily on the research of George B. Bonniwell and his excellent book The Bonniwells: 1000 Years, privately printed, 1999. George has done an amazing job researching and writing the story of these important early Mequon settlers, their ancestors and descendants. If you’d like a copy of this unique, handsome, and generously-illustrated hardcover book, George still has some for sale at $30 each. If you’d like to buy one, send me a message via the blog’s Contact form, and I can put you in touch with the author.


UPDATED: February 19, 2021, to correct a few minor typos and other infelicities.