County Government – Early Records

The Jonathan M. Clark House is located in Mequon, Ozaukee (formerly Washington) County, Wisconsin. In our previous post, Mequon – What’s in a name?, we looked into how Mequon became a political entity and how its goverment evolved from the county system to the town system.

From…which archives?

Where do you look when you’d like to read (and download) the handwritten minutes of the meetings of old Washington county’s commissioners, circa 1841-1846? How about…the Washington Co. Highway Department!

This actually makes more sense than you might think, since many of the county’s earliest decisions and expenditures involved proposing, surveying and cutting roads to connect new settlements to each other, to the rest of Wisconsin Territory, and beyond. So—in a fine example of professional organization and public service—the Washington county highway department has gathered together and put online many of their oldest records.

The County Highway Register was an attempt to search out, correlate, and record all known information concerning the laying out of all roads in the county. Some of these books have not been updated since the mid to late 1950’s. Read the forward in the index to understand how these books were created.

(link)

If you follow the link, you’ll find an long list of pdfs, organized by Washington County towns, that contain the collected official highway records and some of the earliest records of county government.

But…Washington County?

Map of Washington and Ozaukee counties, State of Wisconsin. Copyright 1877, by Snyder, Van Vechten & Co. (Compiled and published by Snyder, Van Vechten & Co., Milwaukee. 1878). 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.

Why are we looking at Washington county records? The Clark House is in Ozaukee county, not Washington county.

That’s correct, but Ozaukee county didn’t exist until 1853. From 1839 to 1853, the towns that split off to become Ozaukee county were originally the eastern part of old Washington county. So the earliest records for our part of Wisconsin will be found among Washington county’s archives. So if you look in the online highway department records for Germantown, the Washington county town just west of Mequon, you’ll find the…

Minutes of the County Commissioners, 1841-1846

[Minutes of the County Commissioners, Washington County, Wisconsin Territory, “Germantown Vol. A,” 1841-1846.] Accessed at https://webdocs.washcowisco.gov/hwybooks/Germantown-VolA.pdf, April 16 2021. Click to open larger image in new window.

Go ahead and click the image to open a larger page image in a new window. If you’d like to read and/or download the whole document, you can click the link in the citation, or you can click here.

What’s in the minutes?

The pdf contains 107 pages, about 5.3MB in size. The scanned document begins on its original page 3 (apparently the first two pages are missing). Page 3 begins with the last item of business from the previous meeting, a request to survey and build a road somewhere in the county. Prominent early settlers Daniel Strickland, Jesse Hubbard and Barton Salisbury were appointed road viewers for the project. The meeting was then adjourned on a motion by Levi Ostrander.

The next paragraph begins the record of a special meeting of the commissioners on February 24, 1841. It was held at the home of William T. Bonniwell. All three county commissioners, Levi Ostrander, Reuben Wells and Barton Salisbury, were present. The main order of business was devising road districts and appointing road supervisors.

Jonathan M. Clark was appointed supervisor for road district No. 2. His district is outlined in detail in the fourth paragraph of the pdf page. We’ll have more on JMC’s road work—and other county tasks—in subsequent posts.

The complete list of road supervisors appointed at the February 24, 1841 meeting—and their road districts—are:

• No. 1, John Western1
• No. 2, Jonathan M. Clark
• No. 3, William T. Bonniwell
• No. 4, George Manly
• No. 5, Anthony D. Wisner
• No. 6, Samuel Drake
• No. 7, Aurora Adams

The end of county government, 1846

Over the next five years, the county commissioners continued to build roads and bridges, approve new dams, issue liquor licenses, and provide funds for more and more schools. They took care of the sick and destitute. They levied and collected taxes to pay for it all.

If you’re interested in the growth of the county in the early years, this document is essential. Meeting after meeting, the commissioners approved new roads, connecting the quickly growing settlements and districts of the county. While some of the road descriptions are imprecise, many are clear enough to highlight on a modern map, illustrating the rapid migration of immigrants into newly-opened county lands.

The minutes end with the conclusion of county system government in April, 1846. The final pages document the actions of the commissioners and the other elected officials as they wrap up their business and tally their final accounts in preparation for the new town system of local government.

More than roads and taxes…

I spent several hours reading through these minutes; they are full of unique events and details. If you have an interest in Mequon or Washington/Ozaukee county history, I think you’ll find the document well worth your time. If you have an early Washington county ancestor, you may find his or her name here. And if your (male) ancestor usually called himself by his initials instead of first name, you might find his full name in these minutes. (For example, I finally learned that early settler E. N. Danforth’s first name was Erastus. No wonder he went by “E. N.”)

And for what it’s worth, after reading the commissioners’ minutes, it seems clear to me that the compilers of The History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, Wisconsin […] Illustrated (Western Historical Co., Chicago, 1881), must have had access to these pages when they prepared that book. It turns out that the 1881 History does a very good job of accurately describing and condensing the events of these early county commission meetings; see pages 316 and following of the History for comparison. That said, the hand-written originals have so much more information and colorful detail. I’ll be dipping into these pages for many future posts.

Be well. See you next time.

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NOTES:

  1. Speaking of (possible) errors, the surname of the supervisor of road district No. 1 is clearly spelled Western in the original minutes. I thought this was an error, as John Weston was a key figure in some early census records (and other documents?) of the early Mequon settlers. But the name John Western is used in these 1841 minutes, and appears in several places in the 1881 History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties. This is—probably?—one and the same man, but at this time I’m not quite sure.

UPDATED April 16, 2021, to correct the usual minor typos (and to demonstrate that I really do know the difference between it’s and its).

UPDATED, April 27, 2021, to add footnote no. 1, regarding the surname of the supervisor of road district No. 1