Memorial Day, 2022

Lest We Forget

A new edition of our annual Memorial Day post. Previous versions published in 2020 and 2021.

UPDATED: May 30, 2022 to correct a few typos and minor errors.

Graves of Unknown Union Soldiers, Memphis National Cemetery, photo by Clayton B. Fraser, (Library of Congress), public domain. Memphis National Cemetery is the final resting place of Mequon’s Watson Peter Woodworth, and almost 14,000 of his Union Army comrades.

Today is the day our nation officially observes Memorial Day. For many Americans, Memorial Day represents “the first day of summer,” and is traditionally celebrated with trips to the lake, picnics, parades, and sales on cars, appliances, and other consumer goods.

But for many of us, Memorial Day remains rooted in its origins as Decoration Day. The first national observance was in 1868, when retired general John A. Logan, commander and chief of the Grand Army of the Republic—the Union veterans’ organization—issued his General Order Number 11, designating May 30 as a memorial day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

On this Memorial Day, let’s take a moment to remember what this day truly represents.

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A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline

Continuing our look at old and new evidence about the Bonniwell family’s trip west to the gold fields of California. If you’re keeping track, this is also part 9 of our series documenting the life of Clark family neighbor (and in-law) Alfred T. Bonniwell and his family.

We closed our previous post, Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?, with a surprising news item from page 2 of the Saturday, April 7, 1849, edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette:

FOR CALIFORNIA.—Henry V. Bonniwell, Geo B. Bonniwell, Alfred Bonniwell, Joseph Loomis, and Richard Taylor from Mequon, Washington county, are to leave to-day for California. They proceed to Fort Independence, to fit out.

This April 7, 1849, announcement raises a number of questions, and complicates—if not contradicts—our understanding of the Bonniwell family’s better-known overland trek to California in 1850. I think I have figured out what happened, and the easiest way to explain full story of the Bonniwells and their trip West to the gold fields is by making a timeline of our new evidence. And before we do that, we need to remind ourselves that…

There was more than one way to get to California

When “gold fever” first hit the nation in 1848-1849, traveling to California via wagon trail from one of the major departure points—such as Ft. Independence, Missouri, at the head of the Oregon Trail—was the least expensive but most treacherous option for would-be gold seekers. On the one hand, the overland route was the shortest, about 3,000 miles from the eastern states, but it was fraught with dangers that included bad “roads,” lack of food and water, a whole spectrum of diseases and illnesses, as well as potential attacks by Native Americans or wild animals. Whatever their reason, it appears that sometime during the first stage of their journey, between April and September, 1849, our lads decided to skip the overland route and try something safer and faster, if more expensive:

The Panama Shortcut

“For California, Via Chagres,” advertisement for USMS Steamship Co., New Orleans Daily Crescent, Wednesday, 12 Sept 1849, p 3 (tinted, sharpened). As always, click each image to open larger copy in new windows.1

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Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?

UPDATED, May 27, 2022 with a few minor edits for clarity.

Today, in part 8 of our series documenting the life of Clark family neighbor (and in-law) Alfred T. Bonniwell and his large extended family, we begin a fresh look at some documentary evidence that complicates and enriches our understanding of how the national “Gold Fever” that began in 1848 shaped the years around 1848-1851 in the lives of Bonniwells and some of their Mequon neighbors.

Gold, Placerville [formerly Hangtown], El Dorado County, California, Smithsonian Institution, NMNH-79-9911 (public domain, CC0). Click to open larger image in new window.

Our current knowledge of the Bonniwell family’s California adventures is nicely summarized by George B. Bonniwell at the start of chapter 12 of his book, The Bonniwells: 1000 Years.1

In January, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California. By 1849, the gold rush was on. The Bonniwells couldn’t resist an­other adventure. William Bonniwell, as Captain, led a wagon train of six wagons and 16 men, including Charles, James, Henry, George, Alfred and young William who was only 14 at the time. They started from Milwaukee on April 12, 1850, headed down into Illinois, through Iowa, joined the Oregon Trail in Ne­braska, proceeded through Wyoming, into Idaho, down into Nevada and finally to Sacramento, California and the gold region. After four months enduring sick­ness, hostile Indians, more sickness, mountains, desert, more sickness, lack of water, starvation, etc., they finally made it to their destination in California on August 11, 1850.

Then, after “remaining anywhere from two to four years, they returned to the ‘Bonniwell Settlement.’ It is believed that they returned by the Isthmus of Panama (although some thought that they returned home around Cape Horn.”2

The whole story reads like a tale from a movie script or Western novel, but it’s not. It is, indeed, a true story. But what do we really know about the Bonniwells’ epic trek, and how do we know it? Well, we’ve got some outstanding contemporary sources; some are well-known and some are newly-discovered. Let’s start with what we know.

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Under the weather…

I’m feeling a bit under the weather today, so Clark House research will have to wait. Fortunately, I’ve had my shots, so it looks like the usual advice of bed rest, fluids, and such should be all I need. If not, perhaps a swig of a potion like Dr. C. V. Girard’s Ginger Brandy will do the trick.

Dr. C.Y. Girard’s ginger brandy, for sale here / lith. of Robertson, Seibert & Shearman, 93 Fulton St. New York. , ca. 1860. New York: Robertson, Seibert & Shearman, 93 Fulton St. Library of Congress. Click to open larger image in new window.

After all, it’s “A Certain Cure for Cholera Colic Cramps Dysentery, Chills & Fever” and “is a delightful and healthy beverage.” Ya can’t beat that!

Of course, if Dr. Girard’s Ginger Brandy doesn’t help, there were so many other elixirs to choose from during the pre-Pure Food and Drug Act era, such as…

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Brown Bag Series, part 2, is today!

We have new partnership project with the Mequon Nature Preserve and MATC’s Kate Erickson, the Brown Bag Series: Mother Earth is Where We All Meet. Today is the second installment in the series, and our executive director Dana Hansen will be speaking on “European Settlement and the Shift of Mindset About the Earth.”

Old World Wisconsin, July, 2016. Photo credit: Anna Perkins. Click to open larger image in new window.

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Time to mow…

Guess what I did instead of writing a new Clark House Historian post! Here’s a clue, from about this time last year (revised and expanded for 2022)…

Spring weather in southeastern Wisconsin is pretty hard to predict these days. Spring 2021 was awfully dry. This year, spring has been wetter overall—I think—but the days have zigzagged rapidly and unpredictably between chill and damp or hot and humid. It’s almost like we haven’t had a proper Midwestern spring at all. And yet, the grass around the Historian’s house has already gotten pretty tall and scruffy. So it was time to get out the mower and tidy up (some of) the yard.

Maurer, Louis, Artist. The climax mower, most complete and perfect mower in the world, the Corry Machine Co., Corry, Pen. / L. Maurer. United States, None. [NY: the Major & Knapp Eng., Mfg. & Lith. Co., between 1869 and 1872] Photograph. Library of Congress.

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Preparing for planting

I’m still tied up with other projects, so I thought you might enjoy a repeat of this seasonal post from last May. I’ll be back soon with new Clark House history.

It’s mid-May in southeastern Wisconsin, and with luck the last frost is behind us. For the past weeks and months farmers and gardeners have been tending to the soil and preparing for planting. At this time of year in the 1840s and ’50s, Jonathan M. Clark would have done much the same, hitching up his team of oxen to a steel-bladed plow to cut and turn over the tough prairie grasses and break up the soil of his newly-cleared lands.

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Big Bird

I’ve been happily busy doing some special, behind-the-scenes research and event organizing for the Jonathan Clark House museum, and I don’t have a new post ready for our ongoing Alfred T. Bonniwell documents series. So how about a short historical nature break, instead?

It’s spring in southeast Wisconsin, and the birds are returning to the banks of the little creek in our backyard. (Okay, our “creek” is really a man-made storm water drainage ditch, but it’s filled with native plants and grasses and we like to think of it as a creek.) Anyway, the birds love it, and every now and then a really big bird will drop by for a snack. Like this guy, who paid us a visit last week:

Havell, Robert, engraver, after John James Audubon, Snowy Egret or White Heron, 1835, plate 242 from The Birds of America (1828-1838), hand-colored engraving and aquatint on Whatman wove paper. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Walter B. James. Public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

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Help the Historian! – MS “History Mystery” solved!

On Monday, I mentioned how I’ve been reading a lot of interesting documents lately, including some very cool and very old Clark House related manuscripts, and I was puzzled by this bit of manuscript marginalia, found in an old religious book, a real History Mystery:

I noted that this handwriting may (or may not) be a variation on the English writing style known as Secretary hand. I was stumped, and asked you readers to Help the Historian! with this mysterious passage. And although I didn’t have any prizes to award—except eternal fame and glory throughout our vast Clark House Historian readership—I hoped someone would step forward and claim their virtual laurel wreath. Well, the week is over, and the winner is…

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Clark House News: Summer Hours & more!

More Clark House news has arrived from our executive director, Dana Hansen. Starting this month—May, 2022—the Jonathan Clark House Museum, at the corner of Bonniwell and Cedarburg Roads in Mequon, Wisconsin, will be open for tours on the first Friday and second Saturday of each month, from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

If I read my calendar correctly, that means you can just drop in this Friday, May 6, or next Saturday, May 14, between 11 and 2, and enjoy a tour of the historic home of Mequon’s pioneer Clark family. Other open days will follow on first Fridays and second Saturdays throughout the summer. If you have a group of 6 or more, please call ahead. More info on Clark House tours can be found at this link. Questions? Give us a call at 262-618-2051 or send us an e-mail at

History Mystery! update…

Did you see our CHH History Mystery! post on Monday? Have you been working on your transcription of our early English manuscript text? Are you stumped? Do you still want to win eternal fame and glory throughout the Clark House Historian readership? Here’s an update to that initial post, with two more clues to help you solve our handwriting puzzle:

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