Nathaniel Martin is the patriarch of the clan this website is devoted to. Accordingly, he gets special attention here. He is also a figure of special interest as part of the history of Green County, WI. In 1901, when Nathaniel was an old man, the following tribute to him was published in the Commemorative Biographical Record of the Counties of Rock, Green, Grant, Iowa, and Lafayette, Wisconsin on pages 755-756. (The capitalization and abbreviation style has been altered to conform to modern common usage. The parentheses you see were part of the original text.)
NATHANIEL MARTIN, whose name in Cadiz Township, Green County, is “familiar as household words,” is a native of Virginia, born December 14, 1816.
James and Rebecca (Pearcy) Martin, his parents, were also Virginians, and came of Irish and English ancestry, respectively, Grandfather Martin having been born in Ireland, and Grandfather Pearcy in England. James and Rebecca Martin had ten children: Sidney, Redmond, Isaiah, Elias, Nathaniel, Rebecca, Nancy, Charles, Polly (who died in childhood), and one whose name is not given, all now deceased except Nathaniel and Rebecca (Mrs. Burrell), the latter of whom is residing in Nora, Illinois.
Nathaniel Martin was reared and educated in Virginia, whence, at the age of twenty, he went to St. Louis, MO, and chopped wood for one winter. In the spring of 1837 he removed to Stephenson County, IL, where for several years he worked at day wages. In 1848 he came to Green County, WI, and built a dam on the Pecatonica River, at a point where the present village of Martintown now stands, and the same year he erected a sawmill and later a gristmill. Here for over fifty-two years he has conducted a general milling business with remarkable success. Mr. Martin commenced life a poor boy, but by hard work, persistent and judicious economy he has become one of the wealthiest men of Green County, at one time owning 1200 acres of fine land, over 200 of which were under cultivation. However, he has given away most of his land, and is now devoting his time exclusively to operating the mills. For more than half a century he has been one of the leading business men of Cadiz Township, and the village of Martintown (known as “Martin” before the railroad was built to that point), where he has his home, was platted by and named for him.
On February 25, 1847, Nathaniel Martin married Miss Hannah Strader, daughter of Jacob and Rachel (Starr) Strader, who were among the early settlers of Green County, and fourteen children were born of this union, viz.: Elias, who lives at Cripple Creek, CO, married Lavina, daughter of Thomas Watson; Alice is deceased; her twin sister, Eleanor A., married John Warner, of Winslow, IL; Jennie Edith, now deceased, was the wife of Jacob Hodge, late of Minnesota; Horatio makes his home in Martintown, WI, being in partnership with his father in the milling business (he married Laura Hart, and has four children); William and Charles are both deceased; Emma is the wife of Cullen P. Brown, of Saint Marys, MO; Christa B. and Abraham L. are deceased; Mary L. is the wife of Elwood Bucher, of Illinois; James F. is deceased; Juliet B. is the wife of Edwin E. Savage, a machinist of Seattle, WA; and Hannah is deceased. There are twenty-eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. In politics Mr. Martin leans toward Prohibition, but was originally a Whig, later a Republican, and during his long career in Green County has always declined to fill any offices of honor and trust. In religious faith he accepts the strict interpretation of the Scriptures, and is opposed to all dogmas and creed doctrines. He and his estimable wife, who has been his faithful helpmeet for fifty-four years of joys and sorrows, live in the enjoyment of the respect and esteem of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.
This and other tributes portray Nathaniel as a noble and generous pioneer, not merely a pillar of his community but the bedrock upon which it was laid. This portrait is consistent with the description offered by descendants who knew him, such as his grandson Albert Frederick “Bert” Warner, who spent most of his childhood in Martintown and knew Nathaniel well -- Nathaniel did not die until Bert was twenty. Bert characterized his grandfather in glowing terms, calling him “quite a fellow” and leading any listener to believe that Nathaniel was the sort of person depended upon by the people around him. Modern-day investigation has shown Nathaniel was very much that man, deserving of his accolades. However, he was a complex person, and his full story has some wrinkles. What follows is as much of that full story as can be assembled at this time:
Nathaniel was, as mentioned above, a son of James Martin and Rebecca Pearcy. James’s origin, other than that he was a Virginian of Irish stock, is unknown. Rebecca Pearcy, daughter of James Pearcy and Elizabeth “Betsy” Smelser, was born and raised in Bedford County, VA. About 1809, when Rebecca was nineteen, the Pearcy family moved to Franklin County. Their new home was as little as a few miles, and at most a few dozen miles, from their previous one; however, it was enough of a change of venue to put them among new neighbors. This may have been how Rebecca met James Martin, whom she married in Franklin County in the autumn of 1811. (For more about James and Rebecca, and about Rebecca’s ancestry, see the page on this website devoted to that subject. Click here to go straight to that page.) James Pearcy and Betsy Smelser and a number of their children and grandchildren relocated in the spring of 1817 to Wayne County, KY. James Martin and Rebecca Pearcy were not part of this move. They appear to have ventured off as soon as they were married to establish their own in Monroe County in what is now West Virginia. Unfortunately, their paper trail vanishes after the 1811 Franklin County marriage record and does not reappear until the 1838 record of the marriage of their daughter Sydney Martin to Jacob King in Monroe County. This quarter-century-plus span of invisibility is a genealogical frustration, leaving open the possibility they were somewhere other than Monroe County, but they do not appear in records elsewhere and there is one document that points to them being in Monroe County right from the time they were newlyweds. That document is the county death register entry for their daughter Sydney, who died of measles in 1853. Her birthplace is cited as being Monroe County. The informant was her husband Jacob King. Although Jacob might have had an imperfect understanding of his wife’s birthplace, he had every reason to know the correct stat and there is no evidence found so far that would prove him wrong. We are left with speculation as to why the Martin family does not appear in the expected spot in the 1820 and 1830 censuses. Perhaps they resided on property that was isolated and was not reached by the censustakers. Perhaps they were part of a larger household and were enumerated under the name of someone other than James. But taking Jacob King at his word, then it would seem that all of James and Rebecca’s children were born in Monroe County. It can also be said that they were all raised to adulthood there with the possible exception of the youngest member of the brood, Charles Alexander Martin, who was probably still in his teens when James and Rebecca moved on to Raleigh County, VA.
Nathaniel’s boyhood home was a good one by the standards of the day. Monroe County is only some sixty miles northwest of Franklin and Bedford Counties, so James and Rebecca would have found their new environment much different from what they were accustomed to. True, it was closer to the frontier, but by the time they got there in late 1811 or early 1812, pioneers had been improving the region for a couple of decades. At the same time, the population was still sparse enough that prime alluvial-soil farmland was available along Second Creek. The stream itself ran fast, which had led to, and would continue to lead to, the building of successful sawmills and grist mills. The creek -- a tributary of the Greenbrier River -- and its feeder streams also provided excellent fishing. These attributes help explain why Nathaniel would end up making his career as a miller and would be remembered as a fisherman. The nature of the place unquestionably had a formative influence upon him. It is remarkable that he left it behind so completely when he reached manhood. Presumably he made visits back, but if not, then his departure for St. Louis meant he never again saw his siblings Sydney and Redmond, who spent the rest of their lives in West Virginia, and did not see his parents again for about fifteen years. To head off on such an adventure with such boldness and commitment seems to have been characteristic of Nathaniel. Fortunately he was able to preserve an on-going connection to his past. He was not alone during his wanderings. His slightly older brother Isaiah came along. (Given that Isaiah was senior in age, it might be more appropriate to say Nathaniel was the one who “came along.”) Nathaniel and Isaiah would be each other’s regular companions and business partners through the late 1850s, a span covering a full twenty years.
Despite Monroe County’s relative isolation and its backwoods culture, Nathaniel somehow received a good education. This is remarkable. A measure of how remarkable is displayed by his brother Redmond’s circumstances. The 1880 Kanawha County, WV census shows that even at that late point in the century, Redmond was the only member of the household who could read and write. Illiteracy was the rule there, and had surely been even more the rule in 1820s and 1830s Monroe County. Who taught the Martin/Pearcy kids is unknown, but the job was properly done. Chances are his mother played a role. A number of Rebecca Pearcy Martin’s uncles and male first cousins are known to have been academically accomplished. Chances are good that education was emphasized among the whole Pearcy clan. Nathaniel was well-read and could express himself in writing in an erudite way. He had no problem doing the mathematical calculations a merchant needs to do. Music was not neglected. He and all of his brothers played violin (fiddle). Nathaniel was reputed to be able to do buck and wing dances equal to a stage artist.
The timing and route of Nathaniel and Isaiah’s journey from St. Louis to Stephenson County mirrors that of land speculator William S. Russell. This is unlikely to be coincidence. Russell probably brought the Martin boys with him, having already hired them for one or more jobs in St. Louis and been favorably impressed with the results -- or he may have sent for them not long after his arrival in northern Illinois. He would have been able to guarantee them work. Russell was the western agent and largest single shareholder of the Boston & Western Land Company, a consortium of forty-three Eastern investors, most of them based in Boston, MA. These speculators had combined forces in 1835 to enter claims for soon-to-be-auctioned government lands in the West -- in their terms, the West consisting of the portions of the upper central Mississippi River Valley that had come to be viewed as safe from attack by native tribes in the wake of the white victories in the Black Hawk Wars of the early 1830s. B&WL sought properties they imagined setters and/or other speculators would so eagerly want to acquire that the partners would be able to sell out within just a few years and make enormous profits, as other men had been able to do earlier in the 1830s. In 1837, William S. Russell set his sights upon a locale in the northern portion of Stephenson County, IL where he felt sure a major town would grow. Per his recommendation, the Boston & Western Land Company invested there heavily. The spot was at a bend in the Pecatonica River one mile south of where Martintown would later rise. Russell decided to call the place Winslow after Edward Winlow, third governor of the Plymouth Colony and one of the Puritan leaders who had journeyed aboard the Mayflower in 1620. In the 1830s in the northern half of the United States, the Pilgrim Fathers were greatly revered figures, and Russell believed that prospective settlers would be impressed by such an evocative and distinguished name.
Russell had no intention of remaining in Illinois any longer than he had to, but given how much B&WL money was stake -- the company’s commitment to Winslow had taken more of the consortium’s investment funds than any single site within a portfolio that also included holdings in Missouri, Wisconsin Territory, and other parts of Illinois -- he was prepared to personally stay in place, overseeing development, until he could honestly report to his partners that all was going according to plan. He appears to have imagined he would only have to make Winslow his home for a couple of years. Maybe three. He was not being realistic. He was underestimating the amount of persistence and continued investment it was going to take to generate a profit for B&WL -- or even, for that matter, avoid building up debt.
What Russell had been trying to do was “get in on the ground floor” and lay claim to property others would soon want, but it took more than a catchy name to get anyone to want what they could have at Winslow. The only improvements at the location when B&WL grabbed up its 1200 acres there consisted of a handful of log cabins, the first built by George Lott in 1834, and a primitive sawmill erected in 1835 by Lott, brothers Jere and Harvey Webster, and Hector Kneeland, and acquired in 1837 by Samuel Fretwell. This was not enough. Prospective settlers didn’t want raw potential. They needed to see some infrastructure. Otherwise they would pass by and settle elsewhere. Russell seems to have counted on some of that infrastructure “falling into place on its own.” By 1838, he had come to understand that B&WL needed to goose the process.
First, Winslow needed to beat out its nearest competition. There were two rival centers of settlement along that small stretch of the Pecatonica. From the site of Winslow the Pecatonica flowed east for a mile and a quarter before turning south again. At that bend was Brewster’s Ferry, where Lyman Brewster -- now regarded as the vicinity’s first white settler -- had established a ferry in 1833, putting up a double log cabin home at the eastern mooring, devoting half of it to his living quarters and setting up a general store in the other half. A mile and a half downstream (i.e. to the south) was Ransomburg, established by Amherst C. Ransom in 1834. Neither was much of a mecca, but in 1838 both had more going for them than Winslow, including higher existing populations. Brewster’s Ferry had not only its store and ferry, but a post office. Ransomburg had a store, a tavern, and a schoolhouse.
Russell went looking for men to build commercial structures in order to provide Winslow with its much-needed village core. He went to Galena, thirty-five miles to the west, a lead-mining center which had been founded in the early 1820s. As far as the northwest corner of Illinois went, Galena was the only true town already in existence. It was still small and still quite rustic, but it was established enough that it was the prime spot where newly-arriving Easterners gathered in order to scope out the region and find out where opportunities might lie. Russell found what he was looking for -- Morton Thompson and Company, seven young men who had come to the West in order to go to the unexploited forests of Wisconsin and set up a sawmill and either make a fortune from the resulting lumber, or sell the operation for a fine price once it was up and running.
Morton Thompson and Company was a brand-new entity formed in the summer of 1838 back in Plymouth County, MA. It was the brainchild of brothers Edwin and Freeman Morton, and brothers Ichabod, Columbus, and Hiram Thompson. Just before heading west, they convinced two other men, a respected millwright named John Bradford (1809-1893) and his friend (and former apprentice) Thomas Loring, to join their venture. By the autumn of 1838 they had made it to Galena, only to be temporarily stranded there because the water was too low for steamboats to proceed north, and because tales of hostile Indians in the region to which they were heading made them want to wait until conditions sounded more secure. William Russell sought them out, having heard of their expertise and the equipment they had brought. He convinced them to abandon their original scheme and come to Winslow to remodel the Fretwell sawmill and put up a shingle mill. Soon they were also erecting a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright shop, and a ten-bed hotel.
The Morton brothers and the Thompson brothers did not much enjoy their time in Winslow. They were often sick. As Easterners, they were unaccustomed to frontier life and found it rougher than they had expected. They left in 1839. The Mortons returned at once to Massachusetts. The Thompsons headed back in the direction of Galena and founded a flour mill at Apple River. But Loring and Bradford stayed, accepting a contract from Russell to build a flour mill. Loring would not leave Winslow until 1846. Bradford continued to reside there for the rest of his long life.
When Bradford and Loring and the rest of Morton Thompson and Company arrived, they found Nathaniel and Isaiah Martin already on site. The pair were living in a log cabin by the mill pond dam. Russell had hired them to refurbish the dam, which the Webster brothers had first erected in 1835 across Indian Creek, a tributary to the Pecatonica. The creation of a mill pond was absolutely essential because the terrain around Winslow was so flat the river ran sluggishly, and to have power for a sawmill absolutely required the creation of a mill race. The original dam had been a mixture of logs, stones, gravel, and whatever else was near at hand. It had not held up. The Martin brothers did a better job -- among the surviving papers of the Boston and Western Land Company is the 1839 contract between Russell and Winslow locals William Penn Cox and Alvah Denton to increase the height of the mill pond dam so that the water flow would generate enough power for the projected flour mill (and help out the sawmill, which had been underpowered all along). Cox and Denton were instructed to meet the standard set by Nathaniel and Isaiah when creating the smaller version of the dam in 1838. One of the bonuses Cox and Alvah received was three months’ free housing in the log cabin that Nathaniel and Isaiah had just vacated.
It’s a fair question to ask why Isaiah and Nathaniel, who had done satisfactory work on the dam in 1838, weren’t given the 1839 contract to make it higher. The answer appears to be timing. Back in the spring of 1838, neighbor Calvin Hoffman, future son-in-law of the aforementioned William P. Cox and a young man of Nathaniel and Isaiah’s generation -- Calvin was just nine weeks younger than Nathaniel -- had finished building a boat at the Winslow mill and began using it to transport goods. Nathaniel went along with Calvin and his relative (probably brother) James Hoffman on the second 1838 voyage, helping take a load of lead produced by the Hamilton mining company of Lafayette County down to St. Louis. This same tandem repeated the trip in the summer of 1939 and would do so again in the summer of 1840. It’s hardly surprising why Nathaniel would have preferred to crew a trading run than rebuild a dam. Expeditions of that sort had the potential for substantial profits -- the way down was paid by Hamilton, leaving the boat able to bring all sorts of cargo back north to a wide variety of customers. River transport was critical to the movement of goods in the region at that time. Railroad lines had not yet arrived in the northwestern corner of Illinois, and there were few proper drayage roads, few bridges, few inns and stables at which to stop and refresh both humans and beasts of burden. Besides, going along on the boat meant Nathaniel got to see new places and meet new people. Work as a laborer in Winslow was always there as a wintertime occupation when snow and river ice confined him to home.
How much work Nathaniel did for B&WL in the late 1830s and early 1840s is not perfectly clear, but there is no doubt he was an employee (or contractee) they valued, even if his intervals of employment were sporadic. Now that the sawmill was remodelled and would soon have better power capacity, it was time to get some lumber cut. B&WL hadn’t managed to make money yet by selling land. Meanwhile they had taxes to pay on their acreage. (Recall that in the 1830s, the government did not run on payroll taxes; it depended heavily on property taxes, and those could be burdensome.) Another critical reason to get timber harvested and put into the form of saleable lumber was to thwart the poaching of the best trees. These factors set up a situation in which Nathaniel and Isaiah’s skill set was perfect. They had come from mill country. They knew how to identify the best timber and how to get it transported and, if need be, could also put in hours at the mill as sawyers. The Martin brothers now had enough assurance of money-earning opportunities that they resisted the lure of longterm possibilities elsewhere. Winslow was home to both of them for the remainder of the 1840s.
At the beginning of 1840, William Russell returned from a trip back East where he had gone to meet with his partners. He was accompanied back west by a new assistant, Cyrus Woodman, a twenty-five-year-old Boston attorney. Cyrus would not return to New England until decades later, and he would make Winslow his home until 1845. Not long after his arrival he persuaded Charlotte Flint, a young woman of his acquaintance, to become his wife. Their log cabin in Winslow was where their first children were born. This is another way of saying that Cyrus understood as soon as he arrived that to do his job right, he would have to stay a while. William Russell had made a mess of things -- not only because he had been too optimistic about the investment, but because he was characteristically disorganized. His lack of competence in handling fairly routine aspects of land transactions and debt collection (and debt payment, including payment of taxes) had jeopardized the good will of clients, business associates, and the government. Even people with whom he had a good relationship had reason to be annoyed with him. Bradford and Loring, for example, could not have taken the news well that there was insufficient money left to pay them as much as promised for establishing the flour mill, the B&WL partners having declined to pony up more than the $14,000 Russell had already spent at Winslow. For what it was worth, Russell was not a con artist. He had genuinely wanted and expected the Winslow project to succeed. He just wasn’t the man to get the job done. By this point, he was fully aware of that. The stress and worry had ruined his health. He was on the verge of exhaustion. Cyrus was the opposite sort -- level-headed, hard-working, scrupulously honest, and brimming with the energy of youth and health. In the summer of 1840, Russell retired and went back East to recuperate, leaving Cyrus to operate the land agency alone. After a five-month apprenticeship, Cyrus was already better at the job than Russell had ever been.
Cyrus quickly fixed a number of organizational problems within the agency and saved the reputation of B&WL among the locals, including talking Bradford and Loring into accepting, in lieu of cash, a lease on the mills free of charge for the time being. (The arrangement would eventually evolve into ownership.) Cyrus was also quick to recognize that he must continue to follow in Russell’s footsteps and find ways to transform Winslow into an attractive place to live. To better manage the hotel, in the spring of 1840 Cyrus leased the hotel to Daniel Sanford, who had experience running a tavern north of Freeport. Sanford’s one-year tenure was financially successful, but Cyrus felt he could do even better, and on 1 May 1841, shifted the lease to Nelson Wait. Cyrus declared in a 20 July 1841 letter that under Wait’s management the hotel was now “better kept than it has been since it was opened.” There was no school yet, and while it was not yet possible to build an actual schoolhouse, classes could still be held. Daniel Sanford’s nineteen-year-old sister-in-law Hannah Hammond was tapped to be the teacher of the first term, held in 1841 in the wagon shop of Edward Hunt. In June, 1841, Cyrus donated a B&WL home lot in Winslow to Hannah’s brother-in-law William Shortreed so that he could build and open a general store. Cyrus also encouraged, designed, and sometimes contributed company funds toward vital infrastructural improvements. One of the most essential was better drainage. Winslow was low-lying and was right on the banks of the Pecatonica and a number of its feeder creeks. Malarial mosquitoes were rampant. Quite a number of residents perished of malaria or other swamp-related fevers in the early 1840s, one victim being Cyrus and Charlotte’s baby son, Frank.
Ingenious and hard-working as Cyrus was, he could do little for quite some time to resolve the main problem he had been sent to deal with -- he needed to sell land. But for the first three to four years of his Winslow tenure, the nation was going through economic contortions, one of the side effects being that cash was in extremely short supply on the frontier. Quite a number of settlers had arrived, but they could not afford to buy title to the land they were clearing and farming. They didn’t have the dollars and cents. Locally they were able to make do by subsistence farming and hunting and by bartering goods or services, but the Boston capitalists (and the government) wanted real money before they would hand over official deeds. Meanwhile, B&WL had bills to pay -- taxes, Cyrus’s salary, capital improvements, etc. -- so for years to come exploitation of timber remained an essential part of what Cyrus did for the forty-three partners, at first as a group and then, when B&WL was split up, for individuals who had acquired portions of the original portfolio. This was no easy task. Few people had money to buy lumber and so the mills could not operate consistently -- eventually the stacks of unsold lumber were as high as there was room for, and Bradford & Loring saw no point in operating full-time. Yet if the timber did not get harvested, poaching in the forests would continue until nothing of value was left on a given parcel. Just getting the timber surveyed and then guarding it was the best Cyrus could do, but here he faced another dilemma -- very few local men were available to conduct those surveys, and few were honest enough to report back accurately, the temptation being to fudge the figures and then conduct a little poaching of their own, a “fox guarding the henhouse” scenario. Cyrus soon came to realize he could trust the Martin brothers. And so began a relationship that would have a profound effect on the destiny of Nathaniel Martin. As Cyrus and Nathaniel continued to work together over the next quarter of a century, they came to greatly admire one another and would remain friends until death. Nathaniel might well have never become so prominent as to be the subject of the 1901 biographical sketch had it not been for Cyrus’s positive influence and support.
Moreover, if not for Cyrus Woodman (shown at right), we would today know very little about Nathaniel’s twenties and early thirties beyond “for several years he worked at day wages.” Cyrus understood that history is encapsulated in the written material left behind after those who lived through a given period have passed away. Accordingly, he kept every letter sent to him from about 1840 onward, and by the mid-1840s he began keeping copies of his outgoing letters as well. He had the correspondence bound into durable volumes and eventually donated it all to the Wisconsin State Historical Society, an institution he helped found after he and Charlotte had moved to Mineral Point, WI. The volumes now make up a large part of the Cyrus Woodman Papers collection at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Within that trove are many letters written to, received from, or that mention Nathaniel and/or Isaiah Martin. The letters Nathaniel sent to Cyrus represent the only examples of Nathaniel’s writings that survive aside from his signature on legal documents such as deeds. This circumstance is somewhat surprising. As mentioned above, Nathaniel was a literate man. His letters in the Woodman Papers show he had an admirable command of spelling, grammar, and diction, and a poetic manner of expressing himself. He must have written a great many pieces of correspondence in his day, yet none appear to have been saved by any of his descendants. Fortunately Cyrus was more concerned about posterity than was the Martin clan.
It is from the letters that we can be sure Nathaniel and Isaiah surveyed timber lands. When the 1901 sketch refers to Nathaniel having “chopped wood” for one winter in St. Louis, it is unlikely that he was just chopping firewood. He and Isaiah were probably selecting and cutting trees for a sawmill owner. William Russell’s confidence in their abilities was probably formed at this time by virtue of having seen them in action, or by speaking to their St. Louis employer(s). As the 1840s went on, Cyrus continued to hire Nathaniel and Isaiah again and again, not just as scouts but as woodcrafters, calling upon them to produce a variety of lumber products from shingles to railroad ties to bedsteads. This in turn strongly implies the Martin boys did a great deal of work at Bradford & Loring’s sawmill -- though later in the 1840s they did have an alternate option, the Wickwire sawmill near the site of Brewster’s Ferry. Whether they worked for themselves by leasing Bradford & Loring’s equipment, or served as Bradford & Loring’s intermediaries with Cyrus, is not possible to discern from the surviving material.
Back in 1842, if someone had told Cyrus and Nathaniel they would have such a long-lasting relationship as both business associates and friends, they might not have predicted it. That was a year that tested the good will of both men toward one another. Things began with bright hopes, though. Having become experienced at river trading, Nathaniel saw an opportunity to move up in the world. His former boss and partner Calvin Hoffman was now a married man. Calvin needed to stay put rather than head off and leave his pregnant wife on her own. Nathaniel, teaming up with Isaiah, built a keel boat at the Winslow mill, hiring Job Churchill (an early Winslow settler, and the original proprietor of the hotel) to serve as carpenter. This gave Nathaniel the means to fulfill the Hoffman 1842 summer contract to take Hamilton Company lead down to St. Louis, James Hoffman and Abe Hoffman taking Calvin’s place. On the trip north, they ventured well up the Des Moines River into Iowa on behalf of other customers.
During that summer trip, Nathaniel was obliged to partner up with the Hoffmans due to their established relationship with the mining company. For other trips, Nathaniel and Isaiah were the men in charge. They took along three others as their crew. A letter in the Cyrus Woodman Papers specifically refers to a trip made in the late spring and another in the early autumn of 1842. The author of the letter was Samuel Fletcher Flint, a brother of Cyrus’s wife. Fletch, as he was known, came to Winslow when Charlotte was a young bride in order to help her with the transition from being an Eastern lady of genteel circumstances to a young mother living in a log cabin on the edge of civilization. Fletch was one of the three men who served as Nathaniel and Isaiah’s crew, another being Joseph Hicks and the other a man whose name Fletch could not recall when he dictated the letter to his wife in 1881 in answer to questions posed by Cyrus, who had agreed to contribute material to a history of early Winslow being written by Thomas Loring. Below is Fletch’s description of the autumn voyage:
“Found plenty of game and good fishing. Had a sail to help when the wind was favorable. One day having caught a barrel of fish with spears and having no salt, the boat was moored where a man was seen putting out flax to rot. He was a Dutchman and we made him a present of the fish, at first he was fearful he would be expected to pay for them, but when he understood it he begged us to wait till he could go to his house. He soon returned with five gallons of whiskey on a wheelbarrow which was presented to the boat. The water was very low and the boat frequently got aground, and when that happened, potatoes enough were sold to float us again. Sometimes we were obliged to sell for six cents per bushel, a Keokuk having sold the cargo. The boat was sold for town lots which became very valuable, but as the taxes were never paid the owners got nothing. The voyage was a long one the wind being upstream and the beam low. One night with a fair wind we raced with a steamboat. When the wind was fair we would beat the steamer, but then an unfavorable turn in the river would beat us. Caught a sturgeon 4 ft 8 in long.”
Whether there were more than three total voyages is not addressed by Fletch’s material. He left for Massachusetts soon after the boat returned to Winslow and would not have been available to crew any further. But his comment “The boat was sold for town lots” is extremely revealing, especially when it is put together with one of Cyrus’s letters to Nathaniel written in 1842 in which Cyrus threatened legal action unless Nathaniel paid a debt. From that indirect evidence, it would appear B&WL had loaned or otherwise advanced Nathaniel and Isaiah money to construct the keel boat and one or more payment(s) on that investment had become overdue. For all his virtues, Cyrus was virtually incapable of letting a month go by without dunning a person for a debt owed, even when he knew perfectly well the reason was not a deficiency of character but strictly a matter of a profoundly empty wallet. So what happened? Why didn’t Nathaniel and Isaiah earn as much as they expected from their expeditions? The answer surely has to do with the price of flour that year. The Winslow flour mill had been up and running in 1841 and had enjoyed a windfall of profit. When Nathaniel and Isaiah had decided to build their boat, undoubtedly they imagined they would be able to transport sack after sack of flour up and down the Pecatonica and find scads of customers willing to pay similarly high prices. But the price of flour plummetted in 1842. Bad news for the Martin brothers. It was even worse news for Cyrus Woodman and B&WL, who did not get the big payments they expected from Bradford and Loring and were left scrambling to try to make up the difference -- hence Cyrus’s impatience and his intemperate demands. He and the Martins must have worked it out by arranging for B&WL to buy the keel boat. It was worth more than the debt. However, Cyrus faced the same dilemma as the Martins, which was that he had no cash to spare. So he paid in town lots. These potentially represented more worth than what was owed for the boat, but everyone realized the land would not actually have much value at all unless the economy shifted in a timely manner and people started paying for deeds. Alas, it did not shift that fast. Nathaniel and Isaiah had to hang on to the properties too long, until the unpaid property tax burden was greater than the market price.
One factor that ruined everyone’s optimism was that 1843 was another terrible year. A lack of rain left the mill pond too low to operate the water wheels at either the sawmill or the flour mill. As a result, nearly everyone in Winslow would have been poorer at the end of the year than at the beginning. But things got better as the decade progressed -- good enough that Nathaniel and Isaiah stayed put.
The fact that Cyrus once dunned Nathaniel for a debt is ironic, because a letter from Nathaniel to Cyrus Woodman written 18 March 1847 reveals Nathaniel was from time to time recruited by Cyrus to try to collect debts owed by other Winslow residents. By 1847, Cyrus and Charlotte and their youngsters were living in Mineral Point, twenty-five miles to the northwest. Cyrus was still doing a substantial amount of Winslow-related business, though -- some of it on behalf of himself and Eastern property holders who owned portions of the now-defunct B&WL, and some on behalf of locals who knew he was the right man to process deeds and arrange mortgages. Cyrus was growing concerned about the mortgage debt owed by Cornelia Kneeland. Cornelia and her brother Charles H. Kneeland had acquired the ten-bed hotel from B&WL in 1843 and had run it together during the mid-1840s, but Charles had died at the beginning of 1847, leaving Cornelia in an unsettled set of circumstances. Nathaniel comments that he “had upon reflection decided not to do anything” about the matter of payment because he had spoken to Cornelia and she thought she “had better pay up the mortgage as it will be lip service in the end” -- i.e. it would affect her reputation. And it was quite the reputation. Thomas Loring thought her so incredible he wrote in his Winslow history of their first enounter in Galena in 1838: “There for the first time we saw the Queen of the West.” The problem of the debt was soon resolved when Cornelia’s sister Sarah and brother-in-law Joseph Rogers Berry bought the hotel. They ran it until Sarah’s death in 1854, during which time it was called Berry House. (It is unclear if the establishment had any name other than “the hotel” until then. After the Civil War its incoming proprietor William Brady named it the American House. When Henry and Harriett Chawgo took over from Brady in 1875, they called it Chawgo House. The hotel remained a major fixture of Winslow until 1902, when a huge fire consumed it along with most of the other commercial downtown structures.)
The timber-scout occupation surely accounts for Nathaniel meeting Hannah Strader. Hannah and her family had arrived in Stephenson County at about the same time as Nathaniel, i.e. about 1837, and had settled in a spot near the present-day community of Waddams Grove, a half a dozen miles southwest of Winslow. Hannah had turned eight years of age in the summer of 1837. She would be about sixteen when she and her family moved on to Jordan Township, Green County, WI in approximately 1845. During those eight years, the Straders were residents of the area then known as Richland Timber. This obsolete place name apparently refers to a particularly fine stretch of timberland that extended through western Stephenson County up into Green County. It was precisely the sort of region where Nathaniel would come to look at and/or harvest trees for Cyrus Woodman or for Bradford & Loring. While there, he would often have been too far afield to make it home to Winslow every night. Given the lack of inns and hotels, he would have paid local settlers to provide a bed and meals while he was working nearby. Hannah was not quite old enough to woo at the time, but she clearly made such a good impression on him that he went to court her up in Green County after she turned seventeen, considered in those days to be a prime age for a female to become a wife.
Nathaniel was apparently something of a dream come true for Hannah. The Straders were part of a religiously like-minded group of families that had tied their fates together for generations from the beginning of the 1700s to the mid-1800s, moving en masse from the Rhine Valley of Germany to the Netherlands to Guilford, NC to Preble County, OH to Vermilion County, IL and finally to the Pecatonia River area. Often members of a given generation of Hannah’s ancestors had married members of the same neighboring family. This pattern was being maintained even in Green County. Ultimately three of Hannah’s sisters married sons of James Frame and Susannah Bradshaw. Hannah was being urged to marry Thomas Frame, another son of that family. If she had done so, she would have been embedded in an interwoven set of households and would have remained under the day-to-day scrutiny of her parents. Hannah clearly craved greater independence than that, and wanted a mate who was more than just another farm boy of a family she knew so well it must have seemed stifling to consider marrying into. So she chose Nathaniel. The couple were married at Jordan Center -- the crossroads in the midst of Jordan Township, never an incorporated place and one that ceased to exist by the end of the pioneer era -- by John Kennedy, a local justice of the peace. For the rest of his life, Nathaniel is said to have chuckled out loud whenever the matter came up of Hannah “almost” marrying Thomas Frame.
This is the only portrait available of Nathaniel Martin and Hannah Strader posing together. This was scanned from one of the several tintypes made at the time of the original photography session. A tintype, also known as a ferrotype, consists of a positive image etched onto a metal plate. This sort of photography became widely used beginning in the mid-1850s and remained the standard until the mid-1880s, when it was supplanted by film-negative photography. (The absence of smiles in ferrotypes is because they required the subject to remain motionless for forty-five seconds or more, too long to maintain a steady smile.) Crude though the photographic industry was back then, the method could capture fine detail in the hands of a professional. This one has suffered some corrosion as tintypes often do over time, but it still retains an astonishing fidelity considering that the original is only two inches tall by one-and-a-half inches wide. (You will not be able to appreciate that fidelity through your web browser, of course. It would be quickly apparent if you had the full-resolution version of the scan in your computer and kept hitting the magnification tab.) Judging by their apparent ages, Nathaniel and Hannah probably sat for this picture in the mid to late 1860s. It resembles the wedding portrait photograph of their daughter Nellie and her bridegroom John Warner, taken in 1869. (The other photos of Nathaniel on this page, with the exception of the one of him in his eighties, were also tintypes to begin with, but the scans for this website were made from prints created at various points over the decades; unfortunately that means not all detail was preserved.)
Nathaniel and Hannah settled at first in Winslow. Children began arriving at once and would continue appearing at a steady clip. Elias was the first child, born in early 1848 about eleven months after the wedding, then came twins Nellie and Alice, the latter of whom sadly died at less than five months of age. Winslow was still in a primitive phase but was growing steadily. Some people were even living in wood-frame houses now rather than log cabins. (The first frame house had been thrown up by Samuel Fretwell. The next -- a truly fine “built to last” dwelling that remains standing to this day -- was constructed by Bradford and Loring early in their tenure and went on to be the long-term residence of the Bradford family.) Cyrus and Nathaniel, along with Isaiah, no doubt found plenty of work producing lumber and other finished goods from the wood they cut, as described above. Yet both brothers were still mostly just laborers, still in search of lasting means of prosperity.
The year 1850 proved to be the critical turning point. Despite what was said in the 1901 biographical sketch, Nathaniel was by no means the originator of the plan to dam the Pecatonica at the state line and build a sawmill there. It was yet another of Cyrus Woodman’s schemes. Cyrus represented the owners of the water rights to that section of the river, and knew that to get the full value for those rights, the water power needed to be developed. In 1848, Cyrus convinced a man named Edwin Hanchett to establish a sawmill there. Naturally Hanchett needed to build a dam first -- the Pecatonica was as slow there as it was at Winslow. Given Nathaniel and Isaiah’s experience with dam-building, they were natural people to hire to do the work, yet in fact it is unconfirmed that Isaiah worked on the project at all, and even Nathaniel may not have been involved at the very beginning, though certainly he was involved early enough that he was credited in the 1901 sketch as having “built a dam on the Pecatonica River.” However, in the early stages of the project, he was a laborer, not an owner. Hanchett was in charge, and by 1849 had started work on the mill itself. Nathaniel must have helped build the structure and install equipment. He is described in the 1850 census as a lumberman. His role was significant enough that he had by then seen fit to relocate the family, putting up a house at what would soon become the village of Martin (but was at that point officially just a corner of Cadiz Township). The move occurred some time between the late spring of 1849 and the late spring of 1850 because the twins are known to have been born in Winslow 11 May 1849, while the census, dated 1 June 1850, shows the family at their new home.
By early 1850, the construction project was floundering. Hanchett must have run out of funds, or realized he had been overoptimistic about what it would take to get the mill up and running. He may simply have lacked the expertise to complete the venture. Cyrus Woodman was not to be thwarted. He knew people back in Boston who might serve as “venture capitalists.” But Cyrus doubted that Edwin Hanchett was the man to impress these potential investors. Nathaniel Martin, on the other hand, possessed the charm, intelligence, honesty, and competence as a sawmill man to pull off the trick. The catch was, Nathaniel had to show up in person and shake the appropriate hands.
At this point in time, Wisconsin, like so many other parts of the western edge of the settled part of the United States, was rapidly emptying out of able-bodied men. Gold fever had struck. Thousands had headed and were still heading to California. Isaiah Martin was one of those who would succumb to the lure. He and about sixty other Winslow-area men left on their journey in late May or early June, 1850. This proved to have overwhelming consequences for Isaiah. For the first time, Isaiah was forging a destiny separate from Nathaniel, and as it turned out, it was precisely when Nathaniel would launch on a path of incredible and lasting success. Isaiah would probably have shared that success as a full partner, given the brothers’ pattern until then. Instead, Isaiah spent a largely fruitless period out West and returned having fared no better than break-even, if that much. Among other losses, his absence meant he was deprived of nearly all the opportunity he would ever have to hold his son James T. Martin, who was only weeks old when Isaiah left and who subsequently died in infancy.
Cyrus Woodman doubted the potential of the Gold Rush, but the exodus of people from Wisconsin was depressing his land-agency business, and he felt obliged to at least check out the possibilities for himself. He made enough arrangements that he knew he would at least be able to re-coup the cost of the expedition, and by May of 1850 was on his way, heading first to Boston and New York to see his brothers, then travelling by steamer to the Isthmus of Panama. He would spend about six weeks in Sacramento trying to drum up business. He saw potential, but realized he would have to spend several years bolstering his client base. He figured he would not only be more comfortable back in Wisconsin, but in the long run would probably make more money, so back he came.
When Cyrus went East, Nathaniel went with him. How Hannah coped with her spouse’s absence is unknown -- she had toddlers Elias and Nellie to care for, and had recently become pregnant with what would be the couple’s fourth child, Jennie Edith Martin. Cyrus familiarized Nathaniel with Boston and then proceeded on to New York to await the departure of his ship. Nathaniel remained with Cyrus’s brother Horatio Woodman, an attorney best recalled today as an editor of some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. Horatio completed the process of introducing Nathaniel to the “right people.” The latter were indeed impressed by Nathaniel, just as Cyrus had hoped. Nathaniel headed home with the means to take over where Hanchett had failed. Ultimately he would regard Horatio’s role in his fortunes with such favor he would name his next son Horatio Woodman Martin.
One of the best examples of Nathaniel’s means of expressing himself is his 6 June 1850 letter to Cyrus, written in Boston three days after Cyrus had departed for New York. The letter ended up being sent to Cyrus’s home in Mineral Point, and Cyrus did not actually read it until December, 1850, but it remained in his papers and the original is now in the history room of the library at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Below is one paragraph in which Nathaniel laments not having said a better farewell to Cyrus. They parted with the knowledge they might never see one another again, given that Cyrus was to stay an indefinite interval, and given that his journey involved a certain amount of peril. Nathaniel waxed on for a line or so about mortality and the value of comrades with whom one shares the road of life.
I should have been well pleased to have taken you by the hand when you were last here. I leave Saturday for the old country like Antrim. Death has left but a small answer of those who travel life together, and I vow that there may be no regrets to the one who may be left alone in the world when the blow always falls.
(It must be said that Nathaniel’s penmanship was such that a couple of the words in this transcript are guesses. A scan of that section of the actual letter is shown below.)
Hanchett stayed on as partner long enough to see the sawmill completed and then operated it with Nathaniel for a year. From 1851 onward, Nathaniel was the principal owner. Given how well the business did through the 1850s, the money men were probably paid off sooner rather than later, and everyone who had committed in some way to the project in 1850 appears to have been happy with the results, even Hanchett, who if Nathaniel had not rescued him might never have ended up with anything for his early efforts. Hanchett’s place was taken by Isaiah, who had returned from California. The Martin brothers became a team again, and Isaiah deserves full credit for much of the initial growth that put the village on the map. It was no doubt because his brother was available to keep the sawmill going smoothly that Nathaniel could proceed with the building of a flour mill in 1854, and then began to contemplate adding a woolen mill. During these years Isaiah may have been a co-owner -- certainly he is described as having been Nathaniel’s partner -- but he was subordinate to Nathaniel. This probably rankled him to at least a small degree, given that Nathaniel was the younger brother, but there was no getting around the fact that when someone was needed to step into the leadership role and win the confidence of the investors, Nathaniel had been The Man, whereas Isaiah had been off chasing get-rich-quick dreams. The difference between the two siblings could probably be summed up no better than by the divergence in their choices in 1850. Nathaniel had done well by himself and Hannah and he held on to his reward -- which was primary ownership and final-word control -- even while exhibiting his usual generosity and welcoming his brother back to play a big role.
And not just one brother. Things were now going so well that quite a number of members of the Martin clan turned up. By the middle of the 1850s the village of Martin or the nearby communities of Winslow or Nora, IL became home to his younger siblings Nancy Mew, Rebecca Burwell, and Charles Alexander Martin, as well as to his elderly parents, James and Rebecca. It was in Martin that James passed away in the autumn of 1856, to be buried in the family graveyard on the hilltop overlooking the mills. That was the year a proper bridge was completed across the Pecatonica, uniting the mills with the Winslow side of the river. This is probably also the point when Nathaniel completed the fine big white house he and Hannah would live in for the remainder of their days. The original residence was one story tall and had been constructed quickly of basswood (linden) lumber -- the local equivalent of cheap pine. The exterior had not even been painted. The place was sub-standard and now too small given that the Martins were now up to five living children. (It would have been seven had Alice not perished in 1849 and had William not died at birth in 1854.) They needed the room, so up went a fine two-story replacement of materials worthy of the family’s prosperity. A newspaper article written in the late 1800s reminiscing about Martintown and Winslow as they were in the mid-1850s reveals that the new structure was erected a slight distance downhill from its predecessor. Once the bigger place was completed, it was often home to additional family members including the aforementioned Charles Martin, Nathaniel’s nephew William Burwell, and Hannah’s younger brother Daniel Strader, all of whom were still bachelors. The permanent schoolhouse (which still stands) was probably erected about then as well, replacing the first school, a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot square hut where Belle Bradford, daughter of John, taught the first terms. The hut had been adequate for the initial group of students, who appear to have consisted of only the eldest few Martin children and the eldest offspring of local gunsmith Tracy Lockman, but now there were more families in the village with children of school age. Inasmuch as the bridge afforded a safe and convenient means for little Elias, Nellie, and Jennie Martin to cross the river, the new schoolhouse was constructed on the south side of the river, something which became true of nearly all the subsequent structures built in the village.
Things were going so well in 1855 that Nathaniel turned down an opportunity extended by Cyrus Woodman. Cyrus had acquired timber lands and timber rights along the Kickapoo River of Wisconsin and wanted someone competent and trustworthy to build a sawmill there and get it going. He had been unable to find anyone suitable and extended a plea to Nathaniel, even though Nathaniel was well set. After Nathaniel said no, Cyrus made the same overture to Isaiah and was again met with rejection. In the end, Cyrus was never able to find the right man and ended up selling off the Kickapoo River holdings without realizing the profit that would have come had he been able to fully exploit the timber. It was a mark of Cyrus’s desperation that he even made the overtures to the Martins at all, because he had ample reason to want them to stay in place. One brother or the other (usually Nathaniel) had often been and were continuing to be the delegates he depended upon to “look in on” properties Cyrus owned or represented in Stephenson County or Green County. On many occasions Nathaniel and/or Isaiah would arrange to harvest and mill the wood from those lands, and in return Cyrus would pay them in cash, in land, in a portion of the lumber, or by forgiving of debts they owed. Turning Cyrus down concerning the Kickapoo River opportunity was only one example of Nathaniel’s level-headedness. He was not afraid to “do business,” but he made sure not to over-extend himself. A letter by him to Cyrus dated 18 April 1856 has him choosing not to purchase nearby land Cyrus had offered in order to free up some capital Cyrus needed for other purposes, and simultaneously backing out of a proposal to open a wagon shop in Martin in tandem with John Bradford. (Such a shop was soon established, but it was operated by Frank Lueck and it is not clear if Bradford was involved in the financing.)
The surge of prosperity finally slowed in 1857, no doubt due to the effects of the so-called Bank Panic of 1857, which developed in the autumn of that year. The nation did not fully shake off the slow-down until the early 1860s. But things were going so well in the village of Martin in 1855 and 1856 (aside from such bits of misfortune as the death of James Martin) that it is almost difficult to imagine that by early 1858, Nathaniel would experience one of the most troubling and alarming periods of his whole life: He literally went crazy.
Naturally, no family likes to talk about its members going nuts, particular back then, and the Martin clan was no exception. Nathaniel was a beloved figure and it is apparent that when he was not crazy, he was not just a solid fellow, but the sort of person others wished they could be. So the family did not speak of his problem in later years. By the the middle of the Twentieth Century when all of his children and the eldest of his grandchildren were dead, there was no one left to tell the tale. Because of that reticence, it is impossible to know all the particulars of what went on. His insanity is one of the big mysteries about Nathaniel Martin. There is no doubt, though, that on at least three occasions, he really was mentally and emotionally altered in a severe way.
The skeleton in the closet began to come to light in 1972. By then, Howard Frame of Porterville, CA, a descendant of Hannah’s sister Elizabeth Strader Frame, was engaged in sustained research into the history of the Strader and Frame lineages. One of the correspondents he enlisted in this effort was Mildred Yeazel, who believed that her husband Ralph William Yeazel’s great great grandmother Sophia Strader belonged to the same clan of Straders to which Hannah belonged. (Mildred was uncertain of her hunch at the time, but in fact she was correct. Sophia Strader Yeazel was a first cousin of Hannah’s grandfather Daniel Strader -- and as it happens, Sophia spent the last years of her life residing a few miles north of Martintown.) Howard preferred not to leave California, but Mildred, a former Green County resident still based in southern Wisconsin, was not so logistically challenged. And a good thing, too, because in those pre-internet days genealogical discoveries often depended upon physical travel to vital statistics bureaus in the counties where given relatives had dwelled. Mildred visited the Green County courthouse in 1972 and unearthed the transcripts of three court hearings involving Nathaniel Martin’s mental competency. It is clear from context that on each of those occasions, the petitioners had good reason to want a judge to step in.
The first instance is noted in Green County Court File 229. On 18 January 1858, Nathaniel’s new stepfather, Lewis John Enger (also known as Anger and as Johnson, and rendered as Engert in the court transcript), filed a protest of the guardianship of Nathaniel apparently previously granted to Nathaniel’s brother-in-law, Jeremiah Frame, husband of the aforementioned Elizabeth Strader. Enger wanted himself appointed. Nathaniel’s brother-in-law John Burwell (name rendered as McBurwell in the court transcript and likewise misspelled as Burrell in the 1901 commemorative sketch) similarly argued that Jeremiah Frame was not suitable because Jerry (as he was known to the family) had no business experience. John B. suggested that Daniel Gaylord of Stephenson County be tapped to serve. The latter, though it does not say so in the transcript, was an attorney based in Winslow. John and Rebecca Burwell were then residents of Winslow and had come to know Daniel Gaylord, accounting for their confidence in him. All in all Daniel Gaylord was not a bad candidate, as he was no doubt well acquainted with Nathaniel.
The need for a guardianship was apparently little in dispute. Yet another brother-in-law, Daniel Strader, who lived with Nathaniel and Hannah, testified as to what he had witnessed at the family home. As rendered in abbreviated sentences by the court recorder, Daniel said of Nathaniel:
Jerry Frame retained guardianship in a decision rendered 20 January 1858.
The 1858 incident would not be the only one. Nathaniel seems to have been able to hold his own through the 1860s, though apparently not perfectly, and not without building up some debt. Fortunately, by the time someone needed to step up, eldest son Elias Martin had come of age and was able to hold power-of-attorney. Court File 836 contains a petition dated 17 January 1870 asking that guardianship be granted to Elias, who then used this authority 28 April 1870 to sell a parcel of family acreage to Miles Smith (whose grandson Ray Burnette Smith would eventually marry Nathaniel’s granddaughter Vivian Blanche Martin), raising $1400 to pay debts for the estate of “Nathaniel Martin, Insane.”
Court File 1446, dated 18 February 1878, contains an authorization to commit Nathaniel to the Mendota State Hospital for the Insane in Madison, visitors other than his wife not allowed without court approval.
What on earth happened? Customers and business partners continued to have confidence in Nathaniel. Cyrus Woodman did additional business with him well into the mid-1860s. Nathaniel was well thought of and often praised in lasting public records. Hannah had six more kids with him after 1858. He obviously did not spend much of his life in guardianship. The incidents of hysteria appear to have been short-lived and atypical of him. Yet the petitions cannot be dismissed as legal ploys by others to seize control of Nathaniel’s wealth -- though his stepfather might in fact have had just such nefarious designs in his heart. The problem, whatever it was, was real.
Perhaps the symptoms arose from alcohol poisoning, either from too much liquor or from liquor that was badly made. Perhaps it was some other kind of poisoning. The environment of pioneer-era Martintown did have its toxins. Many southern Wisconsin men worked in the Lafayette County lead mines and became thick-witted from exposure to the metal. It is ironic that Jeremiah Frame was chosen to act on Nathaniel’s behalf in 1858, because Jerry was one of those Lafayette County lead miners and therefore himself at risk of impaired mental function. It is tempting to explain Nathaniel’s affliction as the result of toxic build-up in his bloodstream from the contaminated water (and/or the fish) of the Pecatonica River. Martintown was downstream from the mines. However, the symptoms of lead poisoning are typically such things as lethargy, pain, nausea, and confusion, rather than the sort of manic and/or hysterical behavior Nathaniel exhibited. Nathaniel’s problem may well have been genetic. His daughter Jennie Edith Martin Hodge was committed to Mendota State Hospital in the late 1870s and died there in 1882, at age thirty-one, under circumstances that suggest she committed suicide. Julia Beard Martin Savage was temporarily confined at Bangor State Hospital in Maine in her late middle age. At least two of Nathaniel’s grandchildren committed suicide, and so did at least two great-grandchildren. Others had troubles of the brain, running from migraines to anatomical aberrations.
Genetic or environmental, the 1858 incident was possibly the first time he had behaved so strangely, and it is worth wondering if there was a precipitating event. A likely culprit would be the bank panic. It hit the nation unexpectedly. Nathaniel would have in the early autumn of 1857 been thinking of himself as a thriving Lord of All He Surveyed sort of figure, and a few short weeks later might have perceived himself as ruined. The shock may have unhinged him. Yet there may have been another, more personal development that acted as the trigger. Notice whose name is not mentioned in the court proceedings as a potential guardian? Isaiah Martin. The two brothers had been each other’s right-hand-men throughout their adult lives. But by early 1858, Isaiah was apparently no longer part of the scene in the village of Martin. This would mean he had proceeded on to the next chapter of his life, departing with wife Mary Gibler Martin and their little girl Minnie and Mary’s brother Jesse and his family for Van Zandt County, TX. Jesse remained the primary brother figure in Isaiah’s life from that point on, taking the place Nathaniel had occupied. The two households were established on adjacent farms in Texas and then, after worries about Indian predation chased them out in the early 1860s, were reestablished on adjacent farms in Perry County, MO. The latter locale was where Isaiah died in 1873, collapsing and dying as he attempted to pass through his garden gate. It is quite possible he and Nathaniel never laid eyes on one another even once during the sixteen years leading up to that death. The only hint suggesting that contact was maintained is that Nathaniel and Hannah’s daughter Emma ended up marrying Cullen Penny Brown. Cullen, who like Isaiah had sawmill expertise, was raised less than ten miles north of Isaiah’s home in Perry County. It could be that Emma met Cullen by going to spend some time with her uncle as a teenager in the early 1870s. (This is speculation -- there is no direct evidence Emma made such a visit.)
Did Isaiah and Nathaniel have a falling out? Whatever went on, it appears to have been sudden. A surviving letter written 17 November 1857 by John Warner, father of Nathaniel’s future son-in-law of the same name, mentions that Isaiah was nearly done dredging out the mill race to increase the water flow at Bradford & Hicks’s mill in Winslow (the successor of Bradford & Loring’s mill). So Isaiah was around in late November, 1857, but seems to have vanished by early January, 1858. (John Warner was gone by then, too, having suddenly died less than eight weeks after writing the letter.) Might it have been Nathaniel’s fault Isaiah went away? Was Nathaniel left with a case of unresolvable guilt? Maybe there was no actual rift, and Isaiah simply decided that he and Mary would go along with Jesse and Rebecca Gibler as the latter went in search of greener pastures. Inasmuch as Isaiah had been Nathaniel’s anchor, the combination of his departure and the bank panic happening within a short span of time perhaps was more than Nathaniel’s psyche could handle. Impossible to say. We are left with the mystery. We can be sure, though, that one way or another Nathaniel deeply felt the absence of his brother.
With the troubles, and the departure of Isaiah, the village of Martin no longer grew by leaps and bounds the way it had from 1850 to 1857. However, business at both the grist mill and sawmill was steady and for the next few years Nathaniel did try to expand his holdings, if not with the same degree of success. In the postscript of a letter written 3 June 1861 by Cyrus Woodman, Cyrus recommends that Nathaniel purchase the same model of modern, efficient stove that Cyrus had recently installed in Mineral Point. Cyrus points out that it would be appropriate for the new Martintown woolen mill, and that there was still time to get one delivered before the cold weather set in. (Cyrus had an ulterior motive. He was the local sales representative of the stove manufacturer and would earn a commission if Nathaniel made a purchase.) Cyrus’s comment is evidence that progress was being made on the woolen mill at that point. Nathaniel may even have ended up acquiring one of the stoves. If so, all it would end up doing would be to provide heat to an empty building. The woolen mill manufacturing equipment was not installed, and the building remained an empty shell for nearly thirty years, used primarily as extra warehouse space. Construction manpower and economic optimism drained away as everyone came to accept that the Civil War was going to be terrible and was going to last a long time.
It is worth asking where Nathaniel’s sympathies lay in the matter of North vs. South, if only because he hailed from Monroe County. As you can see from the map above, Monroe County lies along the southern end of West Virginia. When the new state was created in 1863, Monroe County could be said to have been dragged back into the Union. A great many of its residents sympathized with the Confederacy. Nathaniel exhibited no sign he shared the attitudes of these once-upon-a-time neighbors. He had been an anti-Jacksonian from an early age. His political leanings may even have been part of the reason he settled so far to the north of his birthplace. He made substantial contributions to the donations collected for local men who had gone off to serve in the Union Army, and to the bounty funds designed to encourage further volunteers. He also provided support in various ways to the wives and families of absent men. A letter survives written in the winter of 1862-63 (or about then) by Martintown blacksmith John Dunn’s wife Priscilla to her husband, who had joined the fight the previous summer. She mentions that “Nate” had been supplying her with firewood at only a dollar per cord even though he was in a position to get twelve to fourteen dollars per cord because the war had drastically driven up the cost of basic household necessities. Nathaniel even went so far in his support of the Yankee cause as to name the two children born during the war years Abraham Lincoln Martin and Mary Lincoln Martin. (Nicknamed Linky and Tinty.) The only “adjustment” his origins seemed to have required of him is that he may have started to infer he was from a more northerly part of West Virginia in order to be more politically correct within his staunchly-Union community. When his daughter Juliette and various granddaughters came up with the first genealogical lists of the Martin/Strader clan in the 1940s, someone recalled Nathaniel saying his birthplace was Harpers Ferry. That is a town up against Maryland and about as far away from Monroe County as one can get and still be in West Virginia. Harpers Ferry was home to the most active tunnels of the “underground railroad.” Harpers Ferry was therefore lauded among abolitionists as the place where runaway slaves managed to slip away to freedom. Nathaniel may have felt it “sounded better” to claim to have been from that part of West Virginia.
Nathaniel did not personally serve in the war, nor did his own children get swept up. The eldest, Elias, did not reach eighteen until the war was over. But the war took its toll of Martintown and Winslow men, both of neighbors and kinfolk. Among the losses that cut the deepest were Hannah’s brother Daniel Strader and Nathaniel’s nephew William Burwell, both of whom had lived with Nathaniel and Hannah in the years leading up to their enlistment. Both died in uniform in 1863, Daniel in Kentucky and William in Mississippi. Daniel left a pregnant widow behind. Nathaniel’s brother-in-law James W. Mew was injured but eventually made it home alive. When it was all over and a large group of soldiers returned home at the same time in 1865, Nathaniel organized and sponsored a huge party in the empty woolen mill to welcome them back. This was apparently the follow-through of a long-held promise. Priscilla Dunn’s letter contains this line: “Nate says he is going to give the soldiers a free dance when all the rebels are dead.”
The early 1860s were a dark time because of the war, but on a more personal note were undoubtedly treasured years for Nathaniel, because this was the period more than any other when he had a full bevy of offspring in his home of all ages from infants to teenagers. He loved being a father. He doted upon his kids. He and Hannah gave many of them sentimental nicknames, some of the usual sort (Nellie, Jennie, Christie, Juliette) and the unique (Linky and Tinty). This tendency was so pronounced that if not for a 1947 letter written by Julia (Juliette), we would not today know that Christie Belle’s first name was actually Christa after Christa Turnbull, who was renowed as one of Winslow’s prettiest young ladies. The name on the cemetery headstone is Christie, just as her older sister is memorialized as Jennie. To this day, it is unknown whether Jennie’s name may have been a derivation of a more formal name such as Virginia or Genevieve. One visitor to Marintown in the mid-1860s wrote how Nathaniel proudly held up and showed off his then-youngest son, Linky. He would later be similarly affectionate and demonstrative with his grandchildren, nearly all of whom were raised in Martintown and/or Winslow. One of the few who did not spend much time in Martintown was the very firstborn grandchild of all, Nathaniel Martin Hodge, who in 1897 as an adult wrote of how, when the Hodge family travelled from Minnesota to stay in Martintown for Christmas, Nathaniel carried his grandson upstairs to see the gifts -- doing so even though he was about sixty by that point, and Nathaniel Hodge was already at least five and must have been quite a load to tote up a set of stairs. It is one of the heartwrenching parts of Nathaniel’s life story that so many of his children predeceased him. Six (Alice, William, Charles, Christie, James, and Hannah) died very young. Linky died in 1879 at age eighteen of drowning, Jennie in 1882 of apparent suicide, Tinty in 1902 of an infection in her lower abdomen -- probably from a burst appendix. Strangely, Nathaniel’s three known utter collapses of sanity do not correspond to these tragedies. It seems he managed to hold himself together. One would think if anything would unhinge him badly enough to require guardianship of his estate, it would be his grief on those occasions.
As America rebounded from the war -- and even as the South remained devastated -- the West went through a tremendous and sustained boom period. Some of this was due to the opening of frontier lands as the U.S. Army aggressively pushed back the native tribes of the Plains. Much of it was due to the rapid expansion of the network of railroads. Martintown enjoyed its share of the economic surge. There had been some non-family business presence for several years, but now more entrepreneurs found the settlement a good place to set up shop. The first post office was opened by William Hodges in 1865. In 1868, Nathaniel had a surveyor plat a grid of streets, establishing a formal plan for a village of forty-seven acres, a bureaucratic step that Nathaniel had witnessed Cyrus Woodman coordinate for Winslow a quarter century earlier. Within the year several businesses were established, including a general merchandise store. The latter enterprise was founded by J.W. Mitchell then briefly run by William Hodges and a relative of his with the same surname (i.e. the store was known as Hodges & Hodges during their tenure). There was talk of a railroad line reaching Martintown, which if it had happened probably would have been enough to allow the woolen mill to start up. Things were going very well indeed. (A longer description of Martintown, and details of its development, can be found on a separate page of this website. Click here to go to that page.)
It was in these promising years that Nathaniel and Hannah made the transition from being parents to being grandparents. The couple’s last child was Hannah Martin, born 26 May 1870 -- and alas, perishing the day after Christmas that same year. By the time little Hannah arrived in the world, the couple’s first grandchild, Nathaniel Martin Hodge, was already nine months old. By the time Hannah died so heartbreakingly young, the second grandchild, John Martin Warner, was three months old. Two new sons-in-law were now part of the scene. The first was Jacob Sylvester Hodge, who had married Jennie Martin 1 November 1868. The second was John Warner, who had married Nellie Martin 21 April 1869. John’s father John Warner, who when he had died in 1858 had only been forty-one years of age, had been a coworker of Nathaniel and Isaiah at Bradford & Loring’s sawmill in the 1840s. The younger John probably helped maintain equipment at the Martin mills before he wed Nellie. Both sons-in-law received “hand up, not handout” opportunities from Nathaniel to get established as heads-of-household, and both seized these chances. Each oversaw eighty acres of local land that comprised their brides’ dowries. In addition, John helped with the sawmill business (particularly on the sales side), while Jacob combined forces with Horatio Woodman Martin to take over the Hodges & Hodges general store in the early 1870s.
The only family member who does not appear to have tied his fortunes to Nathaniel’s business interests was the very individual whom one would have expected to take the lead in this regard -- Elias, the eldest son. Elias did assume the role of guardian in 1870 long enough to clear up estate debts by selling property to Miles Smith. That seems to have been the last time he was involved in his father’s (or parents’) financial affairs. He did become the owner of a substantial tract of the family land that lay between Martintown and Winslow, taking title either when he turned twenty-one in 1869, or in 1870 while he was guardian. He appears to have been content to get by as a farmer of that land until departing in the early 1890s for Colorado, where he became a successful miner at Cripple Creek. The circumstances are enough to make one wonder if there might have been a clash of wills between father and son. None of the surviving family accounts speak to this matter, so the most that can be said at this time is, Elias appears to have preferred to be his own man once he had the means to do so.
In 1873, the federal government ended its subsidies of railroad construction. In the wake of that policy change, the national economy went into freefall. It was called the Panic of 1873, but like the Panic of 1857, its effects lasted longer than a year. And then some. Americans were still feeling the blow at the end of the decade. In Europe, the hard times lasted well into the 1880s. Again, Martintown’s prosperity -- or lack of it -- mimicked the larger-scale scene. Things were so bad that Jacob Hodge and Horatio Martin gave up the general store. The Hodge family moved away, never to return save for the aforementioned Christmas visit and the 1882 funeral of Jennie Martin Hodge. Nathaniel’s wealth and the fact that people always needed flour and lumber insulated the Martin family from the worst of the crisis, but it was not so for many neighbors, who chose this time to pack up and head west to start new lives. For the first time since Cadiz Township had been settled, more families were leaving than arriving.
How much wealth? It is worth commenting on. As the 1901 sketch says, Nathaniel was one of the richest men in Green County. Within Cadiz Township, he was number one. The 1870 census is a useful measure of just how well he was doing in the midst of the boom period -- despite the debts mentioned in the 1870 court case. That year’s survey, unlike those of other years, had a column for the worth of a householder’s real estate and a column for the worth of his personal estate. To the right of Nathaniel’s name are the figures $60,000 worth of real estate and $6500 in personal wealth. This dwarfs the means of his immediate neighbors listed in the accompanying pages. In most cases those neighbors owned only their houses and the lots beneath them, which were typically worth between two hundred dollars and eight hundred dollars depending on age and construction quality of the buildings, and seldom topped a thousand dollars. The largest landowners of the nearer parts of the township had acreage worth only one-sixth to one-half of the Martin holdings. The next-richest man in the immediate Martintown area was Henry Rush, who was married to Hannah’s sister Anna Catherine (Katie Anne) Strader. The census reports Henry Rush as having $11,000 in real estate -- not even a fifth as much as Nathaniel.
By the end of the 1870s, things finally improved. By then, though, Nathaniel was less interested in investment opportunities than concerns of legacy, a change of perspective brought on by sheer mortality. He was becoming an “old man looking back” instead of a man in his prime looking for new successes. A tangible expression of this sea change was his founding of the Martintown church in 1879. Later people would say Nathaniel built the church, but surely he “built” it in the sense that he requisitioned it, donated the land, and was the single largest source of the $1800 spent by the Church Society of Martin for construction and acquisition of the furnishings and the bell. This structure is now the greatest remaining architectural landmark of the original Martintown. (The church is shown at right as it looked in 2005. For more about its history, see the Martintown page of this website.)
Nathaniel continued to act as Martintown’s leading citizen and guiding force even as he let younger men assume the active management of the mills. His main lieutenant was his son Horatio, who married Laura Hart in 1883 and then raised his family in the next house to the east of Nathaniel and Hannah’s own residence. He could also count on three capable sons-in-law, John Warner, Cullen Penny Brown (who had married Emma Martin in 1874) and Elwood Bucher (who married Tinty Martin in 1882). More and more, however, Martintown was shaped by others. Development hit its stride through the 1880s and spiked with the establishment of Illinois Centrail Railroad’s Freeport, Dodgeville & Northern line, which reached the village in the winter of 1887-88 and provided a connection to the shipping network of the entire United States. The general store did better and better under the capable management of William Edwards, who operated at first in tandem with partner Watson W. Wright and then continued on his own. William’s tenure would last thirty years, coinciding with the final thirty years of Nathaniel’s lifetime. Before all was said and done, Martintown’s commercial heart boasted of a cheese factory (which doubled as a creamery), an elementary school, two dozen residences (not counting the outlying farmhouses), a funeral home, a second general merchandise store, and various shops to go along with the long-established wheelwright, blacksmith, and furniture (cabinet-making) shops. A quarry was established on other side of the river, just west of the mills, an enterprise made possible because such heavy things as limestone blocks -- and cement made from this material -- could now be shipped cheaply by rail. By now, steam power had come into vogue. One of the big advantages of the rail line was that coal needed for these engines and generators could be easily obtained. A large warehouse went up beside the tracks just for the storage of this essential commodity.
The arrival of the railroad had a couple of unanticipated effects. One was that the depot was designated as Martintown rather than Martin. By 1892, the village had fully embraced this alternate name and it became official and permanent. Another consequence was that the shell of the woolen mill, which had stood for perhaps as many as thirty years, had to be torn down to make way for the new trestle bridge across the Pecatonica. Nathaniel arranged for this demolition to be done under his supervision rather than leaving it to the Illinois Central crew. The lumber was salvaged and used for a replacement woolen mill on top of the hill about a block from the church. However, it would appear that the mill again failed to achieve its destiny. Nathaniel opted not to install the equipment, an encore of the choice he had made back in the early 1860s. Perhaps he sensed that by then, he could not compete with larger factories. The equipment would have been an expensive investment, and he would have had to ship in most of the raw wool, too. According to a profile of Martintown written in the late 1890s or early 1900s (but still during Nathaniel’s lifetime), he had the building outfitted for a store and as living space and transferred ownership to a daughter -- probably Tinty -- who did not keep it long before selling it.
The fact is, Nathaniel was getting worn down. He was in his seventies by the time the railroad line arrived, and past the point of launching big new ventures. He was becoming content to rest upon his laurels. It is fair to say those laurels were being bestowed upon him on a regular basis. His reputation and status meant he was described in any published item that had anything to do with Martintown and/or Cadiz Township, the 1901 sketch being only one example. He was touted throughout the region as a superlative businessman -- and a superlatively honest one. It was said of him, “Nate Martin would sooner give all the toll to a patron of his mill, than take an ounce too much.” That is to say, when a person brought his raw grain in, it was added to the rest of the supply going through the machinery and at the end of the process it was impossible to say precisely how much flour the customer’s contribution yielded -- so Nathaniel characteristically erred on the side of generosity. Instead of devoting himself and his funds to something as unproven as a woolen mill, he reinvested in an old stand-by, the flour mill, re-outfitting it with state-of-the-art roller mills with a capacity of a thousand barrels of flour a day, knowing he had the loyal customer base to justify such a capital expenditure.
Nathaniel was about eighty when the photograph shown at left was taken. By then, he had embraced his “distinguished elder” phase and grown his beard out. Many copies of the photo were made, and these were distributed among family members, including those who were by then living far away. One of the latter was Nathaniel Hodge, then of Pasadena, CA, who commented on the change of appearance in a letter written 4 August 1897 to his aunt Emma Ann Martin Brown: “I received pictures of Grandfather and Grandmother from Aunt Julia today. I think that they are both very good looking old people. Grandfather looks fine with a beard. I remember him always with a clean shaved face.” Nathaniel Hodge had at that point not seen Nathaniel and Hannah for fifteen years. (The scan you see here was made by Gary Frame from a print preserved among the genealogical artifacts belonging to his father, Howard Frame. The original must have been sent by Hannah to her nephew Elias Frame in California. Elias Frame was the grandfather of Howard Frame.)
As the Twentieth Century dawned, Nathaniel and Hannah were already great-grandparents. The sawmill was being run by William Kiel, leaving Horatio to oversee the flour mill. Elias was in Colorado. Juliette and her husband Ed Savage were in the Pacific Northwest. Nellie and husband John Warner moved in 1900 ten miles southeast to Scioto Mills, IL. Daughter Emma and son-in-law Cullen Penny Brown, having long lived in Martintown only part-time, were now living year-round in Arkansas. Tinty was to die in just a couple of years. Nathaniel was now the old fellow in his comfy chair, and visitors to Martintown were far more likely to be greeted by other movers-and-shakers of the community. These included blacksmith and hardware merchant Gustave Schultze; Carl Haase, maker of cabinets and custom furniture; John Martin Warner, who operated the village’s second general store in friendly competition with William Edwards; Thomas Devlin, the manager (buttermaker) of the creamery; and Thomas Bucher, whose kiln converted the quarry limestone into dry cement, and who kept his hand in all sorts of local enterprises, often in tandem with his brother Elwood, Tinty’s husband.
It is easy to imagine Nathaniel, as he wound down through his final days, may have been troubled by one of the unlucky aspects of his life on earth -- he had survived too many of his descendants. The tally included not only the children mentioned above, but five grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He also had seen many members of his clan move away, and probably understood that many of his great-great grandchildren (yet to be born) might never know the place he had founded. If he could look down from on high today, he would be pleased to see that even though none of his kids lived as long as he and Hannah did, extreme longevity was the rule among the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Over a third of the members of those generations would live to be over eighty-five years old, fifteen individuals would top ninety, and three would live more than a century. And though many of his descendants lived (or are still living) in places far from Wisconsin, a few are still there, residing right in the village.
Nathaniel expired at home of an apparent heart attack Friday evening, 13 January 1905, and was laid to rest in the Martin cemetery Sunday, 15 January 1905. Reverend O.F. Jordan, pastor of Central Christian Church of Rockford, IL, officiated at the funeral. (The funeral and death certificate having both been completed on the 15th caused some family members to cite the 15th as his date of death when they created the first genealogical charts of his family several decades later, and the error has unfortunately been propagated.) His tombstone cites 1817 as his birth year, which must be an error because every other source cites 1816. Hannah died 12 November 1919, having survived her husband by nearly fifteen years. (This was mostly a result of her being born so much later than he; her total lifespan was only slightly longer than his.)
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