New Diggings is an Old Diggings - Early Settlers

Margaret S. Carter

Early Settlers
Pages 6 - 10

(PAGE 6)  

Among these, many of the men whose names were to become known for their work in organization and development of the state of Wisconsin came to the New Diggings, and from there spread in all directions over the southwestern part of the state.

"In the spring of 1826, " wrote Dr. Moses Meeker, "I went to New Diggings for the first time.  Ferguson's diggings were then very good; he had gone down to the water.  John  and Cuyler Armstrong had struck a sheet of mineral immediately south and higher up the hill than Ferguson's, which they wanted to sell me for three hundred dollars."  6

Daniel M. Parkinson,  in his sketch Pioneer Life in Wisconsin wrote:

I removed my family to the mines in the fall of 1827 and settled at New Diggings, now in Lafayette County.  So intent were the newcomers on making money by mining that they could not take time to erect for themselves and families even a comfortable dwelling place.  Instead of houses, they usually lived in dens or caves; a large hole or excavation being made in the side of a hill or bluff, the top being covered over with poles, grass and sods.  A level way, from the edge of the hole at the bottom was dug out, some 10 or 12 feet, and this gangway being closed upon either side, was covered over on top, thus forming a sheltered entrance or "dug-out," as such places are usually called.  In these holes or dug-outs, families lived in apparent comfort and the most perfect satisfaction for years, buoyed up by the constant expectation of soon striking a big lead. 7

 Note all who came could have lived in this "badger-like" manner, however, since it is recorded

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that the little settlement called Natchez boasted one hundred people in 1828, and that along the Fever River near what is now the Benton line had settled Solomon and Durrett Oliver, Abraham Looney, Peter Sheffer, a Mr. Leland, Caleb Dunstene, Alexander Willard, a brother-in-law of Governor Henry Dodge, P. A. Loramier, Warren Johnson, and others.  On the site of the present village of New Diggings lived A. D. Wakefield, Peter and Benjamin Carr, George Wiley, James Hutchinson, Harvey Caverner, John W. Blackstone, Calvin Curry, a Mr. Vosburg, a Mr. Harper, and others.

Many of these names are not familiar to present day inhabitants of the village, but there are a few whose names are still remembered by the older people in the community, although no direct descendents are living here now.  Among these is Solomon Oliver, who is buried in the Masonic Cemetery on the hill, and John W. Blackstone, who lived for many years in the neighboring town of White Oak Springs, and whose name was given to a hill and mine east of the village of New Diggings.  Peter and Benjamin Carr moved north to farm and mine in the vicinity of a place called, for some unknown reason, Buzzard's Roost, near the present Carr school and cemetery.  

Mention should here be made of a man named Ahab Bean, who in 1827 came to Galena from Missouri and thence up the Fever River to Coon Branch, where he settled with his family not far from the present Benton Depot.  Although the land he purchased from the government is in and near the present village of Benton, it was in the territory then generally designated "the new diggins," as is also true of land near Horseshoe Bend where James and Dennis Murphy and their families settled in 1827.  Ahab Bean's direct connection with the history of the present town of New Diggings, however, lies in the fact that he brought with him to Coon Branch in 1827 three daughters, who married three of New Diggings' earliest settlers, all of whom arrived during 1826 and 1827.  Alzina Bean became Mrs. Warren Johnson, Hulda married Abraham Looney, and Elizabeth in 1829 became Mrs. Peter Sheffer.  All  

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six of these earliest settlers are buried in the Looney and Leadmine Methodist cemeteries and descendents of the Looneys and the Sheffers still live in the vicinity.  

Of the very earliest settlers, probably William Field has more living descendents in New Diggings than any other.  Mr. & Mrs. Field came from Louisville, Kentucky in 1828 and raised a large family of children, most of whom remained in the community after marriage.  The old home is still occupied by Mrs. Silas Field, wife of Mr. Field's youngest son.  She is now 92 years of age.

Robert H. Champion, who came from Alabama in 1827, eventually struck a "lead" so rich in ore that mines on his property have been in almost constant operation ever since, and the mine named for him is still one of the big producers of the district.

William Baldwin, James Nagle, Henry Potwin, James and Philip Earnest, Jesse Williams and John Gray are others who came during these early years and remained long enough so that their names are recalled by many present old time residents.  Joseph Thompson's name appears in the 1836 Census for Iowa County of which Lafayette County was then a part.  Although we do not have the date for his arrival, the Joseph Thompson , who was buried in Shawnee Cemetery in 1854 , has been followed by four generations of Thompsons who have since that time lived in the community, some of the youngest generation being pupils in New Diggins High School at the present time.

Ammi Dodge came from Vermont, farmed in north New Diggings, was first chairman of the town board, and held many town offices.  He is buried in the Methodist Cemetery behind Leadmine School.

William Baldwin was proprietor of the first hotel in the village.  James Nagle was "an Irish lawyer, very eccentric and audacious," who took an active part in affairs of the village at an early date and for many years.  An interesting sketch of Mr. Nagle was written by William W. Murphy in his History of Lafayette County.  8  

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He wrote,

"Characters somewhat unique also came in with the human tide that flowed into the lead region.  Among them was an Irishman, best know as Jimmy Nagle, who was very versatile in his way - a miner, farmer, dispenser of justice and attorney-at-law, all at one and the same time.  He was of the type that we occasionally meet, self-confident, who always occupies the front seat, takes the middle of the sidewalk, hat on the back of his head, shoulders thrown back, thumbs in the armholes of his vest, always in the limelight."  

Mr. Nagle had the questionable distiction of being, probably, the first lawyer in Wisconsin to be disbarred from the practice of law, for, writes Mr. Murphy,

"in Judge Dunn's court at its first session in Mineral Point, the Judge was endeavoring to eliminate the liberal methods incident to justice court procedure and insisted that a certain decorum should be maintained in the circuit court.  Mr. Nagle rather chafed under the restraint, as he was accustomed to use expressions in his pleadings not in conformity with the statutes.  After repeated warnings from the court, right in the middle of a plea, the judge stopped him and entered an order for Nagle's disbarment.  Mr. Nagle remarked, "This court is getting damnably impregnated with dignity all at once."

Henry Potwin was, as far as is know, the first village merchant.  Having disposed of his initial stock in trade, a few yards of dry goods and some notions, at considerable profit, he procured fresh stock, built a small hut, and went into business as storekeeper.  Later he erected, with his brother Caleb and one Seldon Quimby, the mills and postoffice at Aetna, two miles north of New Diggings on the Fever River, and remained a partner in the business until 1851.  He was also New Diggings' first postmaster.

James and Philip Earnest, natives of Kentucky, farmed on land near New Diggings in later years, but for many years lived in the village of New Diggings where James kept store from 1844 to 1852.  He later served in the House of Representatives and in the Senate for a period of about fourteen years. (PAGE 10)   John Gray was the first doctor in the town and served the early settlers in that capacity for several years before moving to Darlington.  His daughter Adaline was the first village school teacher, and his son Hamilton H. Gray was a well known and much respected Darlington pioneer.

It is recorded that the first marriage in Lafayette County took place in New Diggings in January or February, 1828, when Rosanna J. Parkinson became the bride of Thomas P. Connors of Bond City, Illinois.  "The event was duly celebrated at New Diggings, though there was an absence of the forms and ceremonies which elegant life, as today existing, deems indispensable in that connection." 9

(6)  Wisconsin Historical Collections, Draper, Vol VI
(7)  Wisconsin Hisorical Collections, Draper, Vol. II, pp. 332-3
(8)   Darlington Republican Journal, July, 1909
(9)   Lafayette County History, Butterfield, E.M., p. 457

The Indian Wars and "Hard Times"    Pages 11 - 14

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