I have wanted to take a research trip up north for quite awhile, and when I found out about a work-related conference going on in St. Paul I jumped on the chance to arrive a few days earlier to do some Sturtevant family research.
Joe’s father moved the family from New England to Hudson, Wisconsin in the mid-1850s. The family also spent about two years in the up-and-coming Mississippi River town of Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. After Joe’s father, Samuel, died in the summer of 1859, his mom, Jemima remained in Hudson for several more years to raise her four children before moving to St. Paul around 1866.
I quickly realized that four days of research just wasn’t going to cut it with my ambitious schedule and quite a bit of driving…I’m just going to have to come back again.
I made some really exciting finds, several of which I wasn’t even looking for, and I will do my best to share my discoveries and interpretations. So here we go…
After a long night not sleeping at my hotel, I pondered over my plan of attack for the day at a greasy spoon taking in a LOT of coffee and some eggs and ham. Since the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Area Research Center didn’t open until 10 o’clock I had some time to kill. It was a chilly, drizzly morning and despite the weather I decided to stop by the Old Willow River Cemetery in Hudson to pay homage to several members of the Sturtevant family, including the patriarch, before embarking on my journey. I felt like the right way to start, and I’m glad I made the visit. After experiencing several curiously serendipitous moments through my days of research, I like to think papa Samuel was looking over my shoulder.
Old Willow River Cemetery
Driving north through the small river-front town of Hudson I tried to keep an eye on the old buildings along 2nd Street, the town’s main drag. I recently found out a devastating fire took out Hudson’s business district in 1866, so as I drove along I wondered how many structures survived the blaze.
I turned east onto Vine Street and headed through the older residential area which was a surprisingly hilly landscape. Not extremely hilly, but the current banks of the St. Croix River are more prominent than the old bird’s-eye-view maps suggest. The tree-covered bluffs along the river’s east side hides much of the terrain. There are two Willow River Cemeteries, the old and new, I was definitely looking for the old one. Turning south onto 9th Street I kept my eyes peeled for what I figured would be an illusive entrance on Google Maps. Sure enough, the entrance was not obvious at the top of the hill so missed it and had to double back.
A narrow and rough, meandering dirt road guided me through the small tree-filled cemetery. I wasn’t sure how easily I would find the family plot, but knowing that Sam, Jr.’s headstone was tall I thought I would have a better chance, and I was right. About ten yards off of the north side of the path, I saw the Sturtevant tombstone.
The drizzle eased up a bit but the wind was still making its presence known. I gingerly walked over to the grave site trying to stay warm. There they were. The final resting spot of half of the family I have been researching for over a decade. Facing the main headstones, Samuel Sr. lies to the left, with Samuel Jr. and Blanche sharing a stone in the center, and Florence to the right. Florence’s tombstone faces the other way and unfortunately has deteriorated with weather, moss, and lichen. (See a website for the Old Willow River Cemetery to see older photographs with better detail.) Samuel Jr.’s stone has a second military marker, and a mistakenly placed “Veteran Spanish War” marker on his grave. Samuel served in the Civil War as a private in the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry, Company G, and died long before the Spanish-American War even began.
Visiting the family graves, or graves of anyone I’m researching, is always a sobering experience. These people are of no relation to me, but I feel like I know them. Through my research they become very real as I learn the little details about them as individuals. I am thankful to have found a way into their “lives” and I am honored to tell their stories.
After snapping several photographs of the tombstones and the overall family plot, I shared my appreciation and respect, out loud, to those four people long gone.
University of Wisconsin-River Falls Area Research Center
About twelve miles southeast of Hudson lies River Falls. This small town houses a very nice four-county collection (which includes St. Croix) and is one of several regional university repositories for the Wisconsin Historical Society.
A large street construction project going on along the the school’s main thoroughfare made parking a challenge. There were few options nearby so I opted for a tiny parking lot a few blocks away. I was a bit daunted at the idea of meter parking and grabbed a handful of quarters out of my bag. Shocked as I stared at the meter, it didn’t take quarters! It only took pennies, nickels, and dimes…WHAT?!?! Completely floored, I inserted two dimes in the meter for two hours of parking. Why even bother with parking meters if the fee is so cheap? Maybe the parking tickets are brutally expensive. I wasn’t planning on finding out so I fed the meter at lunch.
As I expected, doing research on the Sturtevants was a hit and miss affair. Digging around in the early years of a town’s development creates certain challenges. Some of the earliest consistent records you can find are land records, but many early documents can be quite random. Unless someone is famous or infamous you need to be creative in finding material. I looked through quite a few records at the Research Center, but unfortunately I didn’t find much on the family. The main culprit facing Hudson was the loss of records during the devastating fire of 1866. I only found a few items, mainly stories about early Hudson, references to newspaper articles, college term papers about Hudson-related topics such as steamboat travel, and some curious details about the schools in St. Croix County in the late 1850s.
The items found that had family significance I found in the newspapers. One was a burial notice of Samuel Sturtevant, Jr. “Samuel Sturtevant, formerly of this city, lately of St. Paul, was buried here on Tuesday. He died of consumption, after a struggle fore life lasting since his early boyhood. This makes four of the Sturtevant family, Mr. Sturtevant and three children, who have died of consumption and been buried here.” (1) I knew Samuel, Jr. and his sisters died of consumption, but since I haven’t been able to find a death record for Samuel Sr., I was never quite sure of my suspicions. While a newspaper obituary is not absolute proof, it’s the only proof I have right now about Samuel Sr.’s cause of death. I’ll take what I can get!
The other key item was a probate notice regarding Samuel Sturtevant Sr.’s death and guardianship matters for Samuel Jr. and Joseph Sturtevant. This was the first of several serendipitous moments mentioned earlier. My initial goal was to locate some kind of death or burial announcement for Joe’s father Samuel. As luck would have it, the weeks surrounding his death in July 1859 were not available on microfilm…possibly lost and never to be available. Examining the label on another microfilm roll case I noticed a confusing note about one issue of the Husdson North Star that had been filmed out of order. It was one oddball newspaper from mid-August 1859 stuck in the middle of some of the June issues. I had little hope but decided to check it out since it was one of the only newspapers available even remotely close to Samuel’s death. Since closing time was getting nearer, I was quickly skimming the paper for any kind of “Sturtevant” sighting. When you research a name long enough, it tends to find a way of jumping off a page when you aren’t looking directly at it. Just as I inched the microfilm reader to take me to the next page of the newspaper, I caught “Probate” “Sturtevant” and “Minor” out of the corner of my eye at the far right-hand side of the page. What was this?!?
“In Probate–St. Croix County Court. In the matter of the Guardianship of Samuel Sturtevant and Joseph Sturtevant, Minors. Notice is hereby given that by virtue and in pursuance of an order of license made in said matter, on the 4th day of August 1859, by the County Court of said county, the undersigned Guardian of said minors will, on the 26th day of August, A.D. 1859, at 10 o’clock in the forenoon, at the City Hotel in the City of Hudson, and county aforesaid, offer for sale at Public Vendue [public auction], the following described lands, to wit: The south half of the north-west quarter and the north half of the south-west quarter of section 14, township 28, range 19, in the county aforesaid. The terms of sale will be made known at the time and place of sale. Silas Staples, Guardian. Hudson, Aug. 10, 1859. 3t” (2)
The name Silas Staples sounded familiar. If I remember correctly he is the same man who signed a letter allowing the underaged Samuel to enlist in the Wisconsin Cavalry in 1863 at the age of sixteen. I was also quite curious about the real estate. A section of land is 160 acres…that’s a large chunk of land held in the name of two boys age eleven and eight…hmmmmm. I added another item to the list of property records to check out at the county deed office the next day.
As the long research day finally ended I left the little town of River Falls and drove back to my hotel, a different and ultimately MUCH more comfortable hotel, in Hudson. I grabbed an early dinner, made some notes for the following day and then crashed for the night.
(1) Hudson Star-Times, 17 September 1880, p 4, c 1.
(2) Hudson North Star, 17 August 1859, p 2, c 7.