Another Road into the Woods, 1841

An Infrastructure Week Fortnight Month mystery!

Another episode in our Infrastructure! series, a group of posts focused on the first government “improvements” in old Washington/Ozaukee county. If you need to catch up, start with Monday: Map Day – The First County Roads, 1841, then Marking Out the Roads, and our most recent post, Roads into the Woods, 1841, where we rediscovered the routes of old Washington/Ozaukee county’s very first roads.

First federal and county roads

In early 1841, before the commissioners approved county roads Nos. 1, 2, and 3, there was already one federal road in the county. The Green Bay road was a federal road, cut by the troops of the U.S. army’s 5th regiment. It ran generally south to north, joining Ft. Dearborn in Chicago to the regiment’s headquarters at Ft. Howard in Green Bay. Along the way it passed through a number of growing settlements including the three villages that would become Milwaukee, and the future towns of Mequon, Cedarburg, and Grafton. On the map below the Green Bay road is west of and occasionally parallels the Milwaukee River. It is sometimes labeled Green Bay Road, and sometimes—in the southern part of this map—Plank Road (the planking came later, in the 1850s).

Mapping out the first three Washington/Ozaukee county roads is not difficult. The proposals by the road supervisors, as recorded in the official minutes1, were quite precise. Clear starting and ending points were given, using the standard terminology of towns, ranges, sections, quarter sections and so on, and the lengths of each proposed road had been precisely measured in miles, with fractional miles given as a number of additional chains, rods or links. A map of those first three roads—superimposed on a later map of Washington and Ozaukee counties from 1874—looks like this:

Map of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, Wisconsin 1873-4 / drawn, compiled and published by G.V. Nash & M.G. Tucker ; engraved & printed by J. Knauber & Co. ; colored and mounted by E.M. Harney. University of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeAmerican Geographical Society Digital Map Collection, detail edited to show approximate routes of the first three county roads, 1841. Full copyright notice here, presented in this post as a public domain item and/or under fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Click to open larger image in new window.

A fourth county road is proposed

The first three county roads were approved by the county commissioners on February 24, 1841. The next meeting of the commissioners was on April 5th of the same year. The sole order of business was a proposal for a fourth county road.

A petition was presented by Reuben Wells for viewing and laying a road commencing at Jonathan M. Clark’s + Jesse Hubbard’s south line on the line between said Clark’s + Hubbard’s north line, thence in a north easterly direction by Reuben Wells’ Saw mill to intersect the Green Bay road near Samuel Drake’s south line. After proving the notices were put up according to law, and fileing [sic] bonds for viewing the said road, Charles Higgins, Daniel Strickland + Barton Salisbury were appointed viewers on said road. A motion was made by Levi Ostrander that the board should adjourn.

[Minutes of the County Commissioners, Washington County, Wisconsin Territory, “Germantown Vol. A,” 1841-1846, page 5.] Accessed at https://webdocs.washcowisco.gov/hwybooks/Germantown-VolA.pdf, May 26, 2021.

How’s that again?

Unlike the petitions for the first three roads, this petition is confusingly worded and lacks a few necessary references to town, range and section.2 Let’s see what we can know for certain about the proposed route for this new road:

  • The road is to begin along the south property line shared by Jonathan M. Clark and his next-door-neighbor to the west, Jesse Hubbard. This means that the proposed fourth road will begin at a T-intersection on the north side of new Road No. 1. Road No. 1 connects the Bonniwell District—including the Jonathan Clark house—to Green Bay road and the Milwaukee River.

  • Then the original petition continues, confusingly: “commencing at Jonathan M. Clark’s + Jesse Hubbard’s south line on the line between said Clark’s + Hubbard’s north line”

    As it stands, this makes no sense. I think what Wells meant to say was something like: “commencing at Jonathan M. Clark’s + Jesse Hubbard’s south line on along the quarter section line between said south line and Clark’s + Hubbard’s north line.” Anything else seems meaningless, so I have drawn the first, northbound, part of road no. 4 to match these amended instructions.

  • Assuming we’ve resolved the confusing start, things get even more vague. After leaving the adjacent north corners of the Hubbard and Clark properties, the proposed road is supposed to head in a northeasterly direction until it goes “by Reuben Wells’ Saw mill.”

  • Finally, the petition gives a reasonably precise endpoint for the proposed road no. 4, at the intersection of the Green Bay road near Samuel Drake’s south property line. Settler Samuel Drake did buy federal land. He owned the southwest quarter of Sec. 24, T10-N, R21-E, in present-day Grafton.

Where was Reuben Wells’s sawmill?

Reuben (or Ruben) Wells was one of the county’s early settlers and was active in old Washington/Ozaukee county government and civic projects in the first years of the county’s existence. In spite of that, we know very little about him. According to the 1850 federal census, he was born in New York state in about 1785. He appears to have had a large family, though the family relationships are currently unclear to me. He may have married (a second time?) in Washington county in 1851. I do not know when or where he died or is buried.

The 1850 census records that he was a “Mill Wright” living north of Mequon, somewhere in the current town of Cedarburg or the western part of the town of Grafton. The 1842 territorial census records him as head of one of the only 17 families in this area. Notable settlers nearby included John Weston and E. N. Danforth.

Unlike the vast majority of early settlers, Reuben Wells did not purchase land from the federal government when it became available in the late 1830s and early 1840s. It looks like one or more other Wells family members did purchase government land in the Cedarburg/Grafton area. It’s not clear how—or if—these younger Wells men are related to Reuben; given their ages, it’s possible they are Reuben’s sons. The “Reuben Wells” sawmill may have belonged to one of these other Wells men; more research is needed to be certain.

The best clue we have about the location of Ruben Wells’s sawmill are a few brief mentions in the History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties…Illustrated (1881). Page 317 quotes county records stating that in December, 1842, “Reuben Wells was allowed $75 for building a bridge across Cedar Creek near his house.” Page 321 lists Wells as the county supervisor representing Grafton in 1847-48. And in an 1874 speech to the Washington County Old Settlers’ Club, William F Opitz remembered early settlers “Reuben Wells and Charley Higgins at the falls of Cedar Creek” (p. 476)3.

Mapping the proposed road

Based on the information in the April 5, 1841, petition, I have tried to map out the general lines of the proposed fourth county road. As in the previous map, the first three roads are highlighted in red. The proposed fourth road, and the property owners landmarks associated with it, are indicated in blue. (Click on the map to open a larger map in a new window and then zoom in to see the details.)

Map of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, Wisconsin 1873-4 / drawn, compiled and published by G.V. Nash & M.G. Tucker ; engraved & printed by J. Knauber & Co. ; colored and mounted by E.M. Harney. University of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeAmerican Geographical Society Digital Map Collection, detail edited to show approximate routes of the first three county roads and the proposed fourth road, April, 1841. Full copyright notice here, presented in this post as a public domain item and/or under fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law.

What happened to road No. 4?

My sketch of the proposed road No. 4 is, at best, an educated guess of the route that Reuben Wells proposed back in the spring of 1841. If you’ve visited the Jonathan Clark House, you know that this particular road does not exist now, and may never have been built as described. So what happened?

It’s possible—but I have no evidence—that the 1841 road builders grubbed out a road along the lines suggested in the April 5 proposal, and then that route was abandoned in later years. I think it’s more likely that the road crew took a closer look at the terrain and moved the starting point of the road about a third of a mile east to what is now called Cedarburg Road. (On the 1874 map this is labeled Plank Road.)

I think Reuben Wells’s April 5, 1841 proposal was built, but not quite as originally planned. I think—and I’d love to hear from anyone that knows more about this—that road No. 4 was the first segment of the current Cedarburg Road. In 1841 it would have been the first connection between the most-populated district in the area, the Bonniwell District, and the growing hamlets of Hamilton, Cedarburg, and Grafton, and with the existing Green Bay road to the northeast.

Finally, follow the dotted blue line of proposed road No. 4, as superimposed on this 1874 map. Zoom in and take a look at where the line connecting the Hubbard and Clark farms with the Drake property crosses Cedar Creek in 1874 Cedarburg. Yep, there’s a sawmill there. Is it possible that this 1874 mill was on the site of Reuben Wells’s 1840s sawmill? I don’t know, but it may be a good clue for further investigation.

Infrastructure Week Fortnight Month! is almost done!

Next time: paying for county services, 1841-style.

Until then, be well.

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NOTES:

  1. [Minutes of the County Commissioners, Washington County, Wisconsin Territory, “Germantown Vol. A,” 1841-1846, page 5.] Accessed at https://webdocs.washcowisco.gov/hwybooks/Germantown-VolA.pdf, May 26, 2021. See our post County Government – Early Records, for more details and full bibliographic information. The April 5, 1841, meeting is recorded on page 5 of the original document.

  2. Unlike the first three county roads, the road proposed and approved on April 5, 1841, was not officially named. In the spirit of the original three roads, I will refer to it as “road No. 4” in this post.

  3. Just to make things more confusing, a “Charles Higgins” did patent federal land, but not until 1848. His three patents are all in Washington county, T11-N, R19-E, sections 12, 13, and 14. These are the sections that include the present city of West Bend and parts of the towns of Barton and West Bend. Is this the same “Charley Higgins”? I don’t know.

    It appears that Higgins, like Wells, did not purchase his land along Cedar Creek in the Cedarburg/Grafton area from the federal government. More research is needed in the Washington and Ozaukee deed books to figure out whether Higgins or Wells actually owned the sites of their homes or the Wells sawmill.