1849: John Magill to John Magill

Even with the address on the stampless cover of this letter, I was unable to confirm the identity of this letter which was signed John Magill and addressed to “Mr. John Magill at Patrick, Care of Messrs. Stevens & Peabody, Merchants, Eastport, Maine.”

Regardless of whoever wrote it, the content of the letter is interesting as it gives us a glimpse of the early settlement of Newburg, Wisconsin—a village located approximately 35 miles north of Milwaukee and 10 miles west of the shore of Lake Michigan. We learn something of the character of the village, the composition of its inhabitants, status of churches, and social affairs during the long, cold winter of 1848-49.

There was a farmer named John Magill identified in 1850 in nearby Cedarburg but his age, occupation, and family profile does not appear to match that of the author.


February 16, 1849

My dear parents & brother and sister,

I received your welcome letter of the 15th of January on the 14th of February. I am very happy that you were all in good health. I hope that you may still continue to enjoy as god health as I do at present and have for some time past. I am very sorry that I caused you so much anxiety. It was not from any feeling of indifference or forgetfulness but from a desire to have some better news to communicate. I did not wish to write until I could say I was fully recovered and at work.

I thank you, my dear parents and brother and sister, for your kind sympathy and your earnest prayers for me and also all those who have been so kind as to enquire for me. Please to remember me to them all—especially Mr. Millain. I was not aware that he was still among you at the time that I wrote. I wrote to you on the 19th of January which I expect you will ave received since that time. I have been at work at what think you? Why making shingles!! out of cedar for Mr. Reynolds, son-in-law to Mr. Frisby, mine host. I engaged to work for him one half month at 16 dollars, food and board. I have not worked the time out yet on account of his absence.

We are about taking a job doing the joiner work on the Poor House which is to be built by the 1st of May. It is to be a log building 50 x 30 feet. The job was taken by Mr. Wise [Weiss], a German Jew. He will put up the logs and then let out the job of finishing it. It is to be hewn down on the inside, roofed, double floors laid above and below portions put up, batten doors made and ten window frames put in. Mr. Reynolds and I have offered to do it for 60 dollars. I went out to see the man yesterday but we did not finally conclude the bargain on account of Mr. Reynolds being absent. I expect that we will take the job. The building is to be put up on the County Farm which is 4.5 miles from here. There is a man living nearby with whom we expect to board. Our offer is low but as for myself, I think I can do better than at present and Reynolds is about as hard up as I am. What I have done for him will be turned over to his father-in-law against my board. There will be plenty of work here in the Spring but when that will be, I cannot even guess. We have had the coldest weather yesterday and the day before that we have had all winter. We have had uninterrupted cold weather and deep snow since it first came. I have been told that the Spring generally opens about the first of March. This is called an extraordinary cold winter and last winter the reverse.

Dear brother, I am very glad that you have begun to build a boat. I like the dimensions you have given very well. I should like to be at home to assist you. I hope you will go on with it and have her ready for sea by the time I get home. I should think she would be very stiff from her breadth of beam. I hope she may realize your expectations in sailing. If you should get her done in time and could make it convenient, I should like to have you come up the St. Lawrence into Lake Ontario, thence through the Welland Canal and Lake Erie and the other Lakes to Millewaukee [Milwaukee]. But my dear brother, do not be offended with me. I mean no slur upon your undertaking. I sincerely hope you will succeed. I think from your letter that Flynn’s folks have got their boat launched.

There was no truth in the report that Mr. Young was dead. I have seen him since I wrote to you and I saw two of his boys on the 13th. They said the family were all well.

There is not much stir in our village at present. It is too cold to do anything in the gristmill. 1 By way of amusing ourselves, we have a lyceum or debating society. We have lately passed a resolution to have but one debate the week and to have a short lecture delivered by one of the members every Saturday evening. I had the honor to deliver the first. The subject was that of “Land limitation”—that is, that the Public Lands should be given to actual settlers in limited quantities. The last question for debate was, “Resolved, that capital punishment ought to be abolished.” I was chosen as one of the chief disputants. My opponent chose the affirmative which obliged me to take the negative. We had four on each side. The questions was decided by the Chairman in the negative.

You wish me to tell you something of the country. I do not know that I can give you much information of interest. It is settling fast. There is little or no government land to be had in this county although it was the last settled. A great amount of land has been taken up by Land Warrants granted to the soldiers of the Mexican War, everyone being allowed 160 acres and to locate it where he can find enough vacant. There are a great many Dutch [Germans] in this county and also a great many Americans, the greater part of whom are from New York State, some from Ohio, and last but not least a number of Irishmen. There is nothing peculiar in the manners or customs.

With regard to religion, the principal denomination are Baptists and Methodists. We have preaching here by the Methodists about once a fortnight. They are endeavoring to have a Meeting house built here this Spring. The plan is drawn out and the estimated cost $1000. There are a number of Universalists here. Frisby is among the most prominent. He is perfectly versed in all the arguments by which it is supported. When he first came here, we used to have frequent arguments but as there did not seem to be much gained on either side and as I had none to support me but one man and he was not here long, I avoid the subject. Since the Methodists have talked of building, the Universalists have been looking round to see what they can do but I think they are too few to do anything.

You see I have filled up my sheet. I do not know as it will give you much information. I have no news of interest to you. You, I presume, do not care much where the county seat is located nor take much interest in the plank road to Janesville, nor wish to hear the latest news from California—the principal topics of discussion with us at present. Write to me soon. I sed my love to you all, my dear Father, Mother, brother and sister, and my respects for all who enquire for me.

I remain your affectionate son and brother, — John Magill

Newburg, Feb. 16, 1849

You mentioned in yours Ja. Kerr had received a letter from Mr. Louden. I have forgotten where he lived—in Indiana or Illinois. If he lives in Indiana, I did not take the most direct route home. I have seen persons from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, in fact all the Western country. They describe it as being all very fine farming land but sickly and subject to the fever ague—especially Indiana and Illinois. There are several men here who would have settled there but for this reason but Mr. Kerr made very well there but from what I have been told, I should not go there. The most direct route for to go home will be the way I came, to go the way Louden went. I should have to go either to Chicago or cross the Lake to St. Joseph, a distance of 100 miles in one case and 70 in the other. I can go from Milwaukee to Buffalo in 3 and a half days, from Buffalo to Albany in 24 hours, from thence to Boston in 10 hours. I have been told that the fare reduced on the Buffalo route. 1st Class from 12 to 82 from 5 to 3 but I am no certain it is so.

My dear Mother, I am very glad to hear that you were well. I long for the time to come when I shall see you again. It has been a very long winter to me and I suppose to you. I have not suffered any with the cold having been mostly in the house. I have bought no flannel shirts. You know that I am not very partial to them. As to price, they can be had at Milwaukee as cheap as anywhere. They ask a little bigger here. I bought a pair of boots here for $2.50. I know I could have bought them in the city for $2.25 or less.

My dear sister, if James takes the proposed voyage, I wish you to come along with him if you are certain there will be no danger, but in the mean time I wish you to write me a letter or part of a letter. You need not be very particular in waiting for me to write. It was more than 7 weeks from the time I wrote until I received an answer. You may say that it was my fault. I grant it, but I suffered no little anxiety during that long time. But I can write no more at present. I send my love to you, my dear sister, and to George. Excuse blunders. Goodbye.

The Webster House in Newburg, Wisconsin (Washington County Historical Society)

1 The Newburg village history informs us that the village was founded in 1848 by Barton Salisbury who built a dam on the Milwaukee river and used it to power a gristmill and sawmill. Salisbury died in 1849 when he fell from a three story inn he was constructing in Newburg which was called the Webster House.

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