Hitting Close to Home
H. Scott Wolfe
As should be evident from my prior contributions to this blog, I have, for the past several decades, traversed The Republic in search of John Brown and his associates. Wherever the Old Man went, so went yours truly. I was, indeed, a passionately peripatetic, some might say pathological, patron of John Brown pedagogy.
The Author is Easy to Find When Chasing John Brown
But this travel, though consistently rewarding and always enjoyable, was transient...a purely fleeting activity. For the great majority of my time, I remained firmly rooted at my residence in Galena, Illinois -- fully engaged in a host of rather mundane tasks such as making an honest living, mowing the grass, chasing spindly-legged ungulates from my long suffering flower beds and, of course, providing incalculably valuable advice to my devoted wife.
So, while restricted to quarters, I began to ponder a question which had often rattled about within the confines of my distracted and vacuous mind. That question was this: Were there any connections between my place of residence, Galena, and the Old Man or his men? I could find little documentation. John Brown had been in Rockford...an hour and a half to the east; and he had crossed northern Illinois along the diagonal train route between Chicago and Rock Island. And, of course, he had spent a good deal of time in Iowa...Springdale, the spot where many of his “soldiers” had trained for the Harper’s Ferry raid, is a mere two hours to the west. But it seemed likely that he had not visited our little corner of paradise.
Not to be discouraged, I continued to consult the sources...including Richard J. Hinton’s John Brown and His Men: With Some Account of the Roads They Traveled to Reach Harper’s Ferry, (1894). Perhaps you are all familiar with Colonel Richard Josiah Hinton, the loquacious, self-aggrandizing comrade of John Brown in Kansas, whose writings have contributed clouds of silt to the clear waters of truth. He was one of those thousands of courageous, potential Heroes who clogged the highways to Harper’s Ferry, intending to join Brown’s Provisional Army, only to be stymied when the raid came off without them. If only they had known!! Baloney sausage! Hinton was also involved in a so-called plot to release the Old Man from the Charlestown hoosegow. As if verbosity could set him free.
Anyway, my attention was drawn to Hinton’s account of raider Francis Jackson Merriam. And you may know Merriam. He was the well-heeled, weakly constituted, one-eyed scion of abolitionist antecedents (his grandfather was Francis Jackson, president of the American Anti-Slavery Society), whose role was mainly that of a candyman, arriving on the eve of the raid with his pockets full of gold and accompanied by a cartload of munitions. As part of the triumvirate left at the Kennedy Farm, he was able to escape to the surrounding mountains...only to die in New York City in the autumn of 1865.
What caught my eye in Hinton’s book was the following: “Early in the Civil War, Merriam married Minerva Caldwell, of Galena, Ill., the daughter and sister of physicians, who also became herself a physician of note.”
|Francis Jackson Merriam|
(Kansas State Historical Society)
Here was my chance, so I set off to seek Galena Caldwells, Doctor Caldwells, Minerva Caldwells, any flavor of Caldwells. I could find no trace of a Dr. Caldwell in Galena. I could find no likely Minerva Caldwells in the census. Upon checking the trusty “Ancestry.com,” I found several researchers laboring on the Merriam family...and all said Minerva was born in Galena about 1840. And, in addition, many stated that she and Merriam were actually married at Galena in about 1861. Well, in my sanctum sanctorum at the local library, I possess listings of all marriages performed in this county. And there is absolutely no record of a Merriam/Caldwell nuptial. Curses! Foiled again! It remains an open question.
But, like Captain John Paul Jones, I had not yet begun to fight. And a clue soon appeared in a local newspaper, the Galena Daily Gazette, published in November of 1874. It was a letter written to the local editor from Rohnerville, California...and was cryptically signed by “J.F.”
The story commences with George Fablinger, a native of the Kingdom of Bavaria. Possessing but a limited education, the youth sought economic security through the trade of stone masonry...but, in 1838, set sail to America, seeking to realize the universal dream of prosperity. Landing at Baltimore, he soon was employed in the construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and at sundry sawmills and iron furnaces. He met and married Miss Margaret Pope, who soon produced a flock of six children (the couple were to produce an even dozen).
Then, in 1849, the family removed to northwestern Illinois, to Jo Daviess County, settling briefly in Galena. He soon entered 120 acres of land in what would become Hanover Township...and began to pursue the livelihood of farming. Their home was situated near the Mississippi River, at what became known as Blanding Station. The vicinity was also known as Sand Prairie, due to the numerous sand dunes deposited by wind and water during the remote Ice Ages. Even today, the sandy soil is noted for its culture of melons and potatoes.
It was here, on “one of the best farms in the township,” that a son, James Beatty Fablinger (a Beatty family occupied a neighboring property), was born in July of 1852. According to a county history, the Fablingers, by degrees, built fences and planted trees, gathered together farming machinery and livestock and, after arduous labor, with much waiting and outlay of money, found themselves the possessors of a fine property. The patriarch, George, a devout Lutheran and avid Republican, was to live until 1904.
Some of the family progeny remained to cultivate the ancestral ground. But some moved on to other parts of Illinois; several migrated to Nebraska; and son James Beatty, with brother George, Jr., located in Humboldt County, California...to practice what they had learned at Sand Prairie. And it was James Fablinger, “J.F.,” who on November 12, 1874, penned a letter to his hometown newspaper. Besides discussing agriculture, he also mentions a number of liberal causes...temperance, woman suffrage, the farmers’ movement...and the letter deserves transcription, due to what transpired two years hence;
Rohnerville, Cal., Nov. 12
Within the last two weeks considerable rain has fallen in this section, and it is said farther up in the mountains they had a snow storm which was quite severe. We had frost for the first time this season on the night of the 28th of Oct., but old settlers say that this is an unusually late fall for Humboldt County. The weather at present is exceedingly fine - indeed I think I never saw weather so lovely. It little forebodes the dark and melancholy days of winter which will so soon cast their shadows around us, when the windows of heaven will be opened and as it were, “the fountains of the great deep broken up.”
Farmers are busy digging potatoes and shipping them to San Francisco markets, where Humboldt potatoes rejoice the heart and fill the stomachs of epicures and lovers of sumptuous dinners. Apples still hang on the trees, whose branches are bending ‘neath their loads of rosy cheeked mellow fruit, and the easy going horticulturist fears that Jack Frost will bite them ere he can place them out of his reach; and they will be left on the trees until they are wanted for use.
In Illinois, the farmer knew hardly how to raise hogs without corn, and if that crop fails, he looks with sadness at his herds of swine, and thinks within himself, “Now poor rooters, for you it will be, ‘Root hog or die,’” when the ground is covered with snow; and I dare say, the poor fellows realize it much more than their owners before spring or death comes to relieve them. But here it is quite different as they do not have the long cold, snowy, frosty winters of the States. They have no corn, as it will not grow here, but feed hogs exclusively on peas, which grow here very readily, as the soil is a rich sand loam, and well adapted to grow them; they produce about from one and one-half to two tons per acre, being sown broad cast. Then when ripe they are mown with the scythe and thrown to the hogs, straw and all, which seem to prefer them to corn and fatten on them very rapidly. I think the pork of pea fat hogs is of a much finer flavor than those fed on corn alone. Pork is from four to seven cents per pound here, and beef about the same.
Those farmers who raise more peas than they can consume, ship them to San Francisco, where they sell for about $35 per ton, and are dried and ground up and mixed with a little coffee, which mixture constitutes the ground coffee of commerce. It is said that during the war, coffee became so high that the people used coffee made from peas exclusively, as many in the States used rye. It is said to be very healthful and nourishing.
The temperance cause is slowly yet surely working itself into the hearts of the people; and public sentiment wherever expressed by the ballot, was in favor of a prohibitory law. The Local Option Law, though shortlived, has not been without its effects. Its fruits have ripened, and no doubt many poor souls will rise up to bless it, although it now is in its grave.
Woman suffrage in this State is gradually gaining ground on the public mind; and public sentiment is being worked up to that point when woman will only speak for the right to vote and it shall be hers, as they are already eligible to school offices in this State.
The farmers movement is steadily increasing in numbers and power, and at present wields a mighty influence in the social, political and commercial circles of the State. J.F.
On January 3, 1876, James Beatty Fablinger married Ellen Brown, the youngest daughter of the Old Hero, John Brown. The ceremony took place at the Rohnerville Methodist Episcopal Church.
My local John Brown connection has been realized. My appetite is restored. I sleep like a baby. And I am once more prepared to hit the road.--HSW
Engagement Photographs of James Fablinger and Ellen Brown
(Saratoga Historical Foundation, Saratoga, Calif.)