1850 census: more neighbors “in Wisconsin”– while prospecting in California

Recently, we took a closer look at the 1850 census for old Washington county1 and noticed that six men from the neighboring Bonniwell families—men that we know from other records were actually half a continent away, prospecting for gold in California—were officially enumerated as members of their Wisconsin families in census schedules for Mequon and Grafton. In addition, we now know that those six Bonniwell men were not the only members of their expedition to be enumerated with the families they left behind in old Washington county.

Persons “whose usual place of abode…”

In the months since my original attempt to identify and list all the members of the Bonniwell 1849 and 1850 expeditions in Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?, I have been able to identify—with varying degrees of confidence—several other members of their California expeditions. I have more details to share about the lives of these men later, when time permits. For today, I’d like to briefly introduce each of them and make note of their presence on the 1850 census schedules for old Washington Co., Wisconsin, even though all were still seeking fortunes in California at the time they were enumerated.

Phineas Miller “P.M.” Johnson (1808-1876)

P. M. Johnson was, with William T. Bonniwell, one of the co-organizers of the Bonniwell 1849 and 1850 expeditions to the California gold region. We know that he was still in California in 1849-1850, but he was enumerated on lines 37-42, page 229a of the 1850 census for Grafton, Washington Co., Wisconsin with his wife, Orra Ann (Collins) Johnson and his four eldest children: Ransom W., Samuel C., William H., and George.2

The P.M Johnson family’s 1850 enumeration concludes on the reverse of this schedule, lines 1-4, page 229b, with the information for their youngest four offspring, Anna, Edwin, Julia, and four-month-old Harriet.

Spoiler alert: Yes, P. M. Johnson’s son Samuel Curtis Johnson (1833-1919) is, indeed, the “S.C. Johnson,” of “Johnson’s Wax” and S. C. Johnson & Son fame. We’ll have more on the Johnson family in a future post.

Thomas Day (1809-1901)

Another Grafton neighbor that participated in the Bonniwell expedition was Thomas Day. Thomas Day came to Wisconsin from Bristol, England, in May, 1846. accompanied by his wife Mary Ann and two children, Frederick and Thomas. Thomas Day (senior) was mentioned frequently in Rev. Woodworth’s autobiography, where it appears that “brother T. Day” was an enthusiastic convert to Rev. Woodworth’s evangelical Methodism. Day went from preaching the gospel locally to ordination as a Methodist minister and was responsible for establishing several early churches in Minnesota. In 1850 he was prospecting in California with the Bonniwell party, but was enumerated, in Grafton, on page 227a, line 42:

It seems that Thomas Day’s first wife, Mary Ann (Gould) was born around 1813 and died sometime between about mid-1846 to mid-1849. (Her death date is a surmise, based on Mary Ann’s documented arrival in New York City on May 15, 1846, and the fact that she is not listed on the 1850 census’s Mortality Schedule, which recorded the deaths of area residents in the year preceding June 1, 1850.) The Day’s two children, Frederick and Thomas are listed on the reverse side of this 1850 census schedule, page 227b, along with one “Hellen Day,” whom I suspect may be Thomas Day’s younger sister (lines 1-3):

In 1850, the Thomas Day family lived in southwestern Grafton, not very far from the Jonathan Clark house and farm in northern Mequon. Their neighbors included the Cyrus Clark family (see page 227b, lines 24-29, above). For much more on the Cyrus and Sarah (Strickland) Clark family—including family photos—go back and begin with our post Meet the Neighbors: Cyrus Clark and Sarah A. Strickland

Francis Twentamon/Twentyman (c. 1822-after 1850)

One of the more elusive members of the Bonniwell overland expedition of 1850 is a man George Bonniwell recorded in his gold rush diary as “Mr. Twenteman.” Even with various alternate spellings, such as Twentamon and Twentyman, the name is very unusual, and should be easy to research. And, in the 1850 census I was able to find one family in Wisconsin that fit the bill:

In spite of the distinctive surname, I have not been able to find out much about Francis Twentamon/Twentyman and his family. This 1850 schedule for Grafton, page 232a, lines 33-35, records Francis Twentamon and wife Elizabeth “Betsy” (Mason) and their daughter, Lucretia E. “Libbie” Twentamon. We believe Francis was in California with the Bonniwell expedition in October, 1850, and it looks like young mother Betsy and daughter Libbie have moved in with Betsy’s parents, Alfred and Betsy Mason (lines 34-35).

Daughter Libbie (1849-1931) lived a long life. I believe she married a man named Charles “Charley” Stevens or Steavens and they had at least three children. He served in a Union regiment during the Civil War. I don’t yet know what happened to Francis Twentamon/Twentyman following the gold rush years. I can’t find him on any censuses after this 1850 document. And for the record, daughter Libbie’s 1931 death certificate records her mother’s maiden name as “Elizabeth Sly”; perhaps Elizabeth/Betsey married a Mr. Sly after Francis’s death. All of this needs further research.

Peter Rattery (c. 1818- before May, 1852)

One of the saddest stories of the Bonniwell gold rush adventure appears to be that of “Mr. Rattery.” This is probably Scottish immigrant Peter Rattery, sometimes spelled “Rattray” or, as here in the 1850 census, page 201b, line 32, “Ritira” (another of enumerator Loomis’s phonetic spellings, perhaps?):

Peter Rattery and his wife Susanna “Susan” Steel/Steele, (1822-1908) were married near Dundee, at Mains and Strathmartine, Angus, Scotland in May 21, 1842. They emigrated to Wisconsin ten days later. Presuming this 1850 census is correct, all three of their children were born in Wisconsin, probably in Mequon.

Peter Rattery served as clerk for a meeting of Bonniwell School District No. 1 on December 26, 1844; his manuscript minutes of that meeting still exist and can be read at the Clark House. At about the same time, Rattery was also a (unsuccessful) bidder for constructing the nearby School No. 1 (later known as the “Bonniwell School”). Peter Rattery also signed the citizen’s petition of early 1849 discussed here; his is the tenth signature in the left column:

A transcription of Susanna’s 1908 obituary (published on Ancestry.com by user cweber2716762) relates that “In 1844 [sic] during the gold craze Mr. Rattery went with many others from this place [i.e., the Cedarburg area] to California but was not there long, ere he sickened and died. Left with four small children she maintained the little home, till later she married the late W. J. H. Davis of New York, who preceded her in death ten years ago.” The obituary’s gold rush date of 1844 (should read 1849) is obviously an error on the part of the 1908 obituary author or typesetter.

I have not found any other information about the life, or death, of Peter Rattery. His widow, Susan, must have received word of his passing without much delay, as she married William J. H. Davis in Mequon, on May 7 1852. Susanna had four more children with Davis. Susanna (Steel) Rattery Davis appears to have lived all her life in or near Cedarburg, and is buried there at the Zur Ruhe cemetery.

Richard Taylor (c. 1820 – after c. 1850)

One of Alfred T. Bonniwell’s companions on the 1849 land-and-sea gold rush expedition was one Richard Taylor:

News item, “For California,” Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette, Saturday, April 7, 1849, page 2.

While I’m reasonably certain about the the identities and 1850 census information for Bonniwell expedition members Miller, Day, Twentamon/Twentyman, and Rattery, I’m less sure about Richard Taylor. I have found few clues to his life, family, or death. And as you might imagine, there are a lot of men with the surname “Taylor” on the 1850 and subsequent censuses. However, in all of Washington county—if that is the correct location—there is one family’s enumeration that may be our mysterious “Richard Taylor” and family, found on page 007a, lines 27-29:

This 1850 census contains almost all that I know about this “Richard Taylor.” He was a New Yorker, born about 1820. He married a woman named Catherine, born about 1825. Presumed daughter Mary Ann was born about 1848, while the family ( or at least Catherine) was still in New York. By October, 1850, the family is living, not in Mequon, but in western Washington county, in the town of Wayne. If this is, indeed, the family of Bonniwell prospector Richard Taylor, then from April, 1849, until some time after October, 1850, Catherine was left on her own to raise young Mary Ann, tend to their modest farm, and reply to the census enumerator.

Postscript: “Trust, but verify.”

The authentic government documents in today’s post—images of the original handwritten 1850 census population schedules—are a fine example of how one must always suspicious of even the most contemporary-to-the-event and “official” sources. Good sources, and good history, need to be examined in light of as many relevant sources as possible. And each source needs to be evaluated for it’s probable accuracy, completeness, and potential for error.

This bring to mind a phrase from the Cold War days of the 1980s, what would prove to be the final decade of the USSR. At the time, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev was negotiating a series of nuclear arms treaties with U.S. president Ronald Reagan. The story is told that Reagan learned the old Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify” (Russian: доверяй, но проверяй, tr. doveryay, no proveryay), from a U.S. professor and then shared this proverb with Gorbachev during their negotiations. “Trust, buy verify” ended up getting a lot of coverage in the world press of the day as a sign of the cautious optimism surrounding the pending nuclear disarmament deal.3,4

There is another, similar and relevant, quote from the leading American genealogist and bibliographic expert, Elizabeth Shown Mills. She is the author of the “bible” of genealogy citations and scholarship, “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace,” now in it’s third edition. The quote (supposedly attributable to T. E. Lawrence, i.e. “Lawrence of Arabia”) is: “All sources lie.” 

Which is to say (quoting Ms. Mills), “ Sources err. Sources quibble. Sources exaggerate. Sources mis-remember. Sources are biased,” etc. The point being that all sources are not created equal and therefore all sources have to be evaluated for their provenance and strengths and weaknesses as sources.

Today’s post and it’s predecessor, The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census–part 4: “in” Wisconsin!, have shown us that sometimes even the most reputable documents—such as the decennial federal census—”lie.” We’ve learned that almost a dozen Mequon-area men were enumerated “at home” in old Washington county, Wisconsin, on the 1850 population schedules, when we know from many other documents that they were actually half a continent away, prospecting for gold in California.

Trust, but verify, indeed.

I’ll be back soon with more Clark House history. See you then.



  1. As usual, I use the phrase “old Washington county” when discussing the original, larger Washington county (and places in it such as Mequon and Grafton) prior to the county’s 1853 division into the present Washington and Ozaukee counties. Confused? See our post Where are we? for the full story.

  2. As in this post’s companion, The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census–part 4: “in” Wisconsin!, all of the census schedules reproduced in today’s post are from the Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls. The census schedules for Washington County, Wisconsin Territory, are on roll 1008, the page numbers for our images can be found in the body of the text, above.

  3. Thanks to Clark House board member Kirsten J. Reinhardt, whose stimulating questions during and after a Clark House event last year led me to organize my “Trust, buy verify” thoughts, substantially as above.

  4. For more on this bit of brink-of-doom history, including Gorbachev’s bemused response to the old adage,  here’s a link.  

2 thoughts on “1850 census: more neighbors “in Wisconsin”– while prospecting in California

  1. Pingback: Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 1) | Clark House Historian

  2. Pingback: Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 3) | Clark House Historian

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