Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Just passing through: J.W. and Maria Wilkerson

The badly weathered tombstone above in the original part of Chariton Cemetery marks the graves of “babes,” infant children who died in the 1860s of once-prominent attorney Joseph W. Wilkerson and his wife, Maria Louisa, and is the only physical reminder in Lucas County of them. Their surviving child, Joseph A., who died in 1889 at age 23 probably is buried here, too, although is grave is unmarked. J.W. and Maria are buried in Aspen Grove Cemetery at Burlington, her hometown. Like many others who played a part in Chariton’s founding, the Wilkersons as it turned out were just passing through. In their case, death was the vehicle by which they departed.

I got to thinking about Chariton’s old elite not long ago after glancing over at the Copeland mausoleum while on a genealogical errand at the cemetery. “Howard Darlington Copeland” is writ large in stone across the façade of this classic little granite structure in a manner intended to ensure that no one ever forgets him. But clearly nearly everyone has.

Double-checking a minor H.D.C. fact, I stopped by the Lucas County Genealogical Society’s library later to look for the Copeland book. Errr. What Copeland book? Couldn’t even locate a copy of the guy’s obit in the card file. Not a single “Copeland” in the index of the latest Lucas County history, published in 2000. How the mighty have fallen!

When I say old elite (and new elite, too, I suppose) I’m thinking of Charitonians who are important, are thought to be important or who think of themselves as important --- or some combination of the above. You’ll find relatively few of these types on the jam-packed shelves lining the walls of the library’s main research room. They’ve died out, dried up, lost or spent their money and/or gone away.

Who you do find on those shelves are the ancestors of hard-working farm and small business families who stuck around and whose descendants have laboriously compiled data about their forbears into genealogies great and small.

But it’s fun to think now and then and write about the old elite even if in most cases they seem to have been just passing through in one way or another. Aren’t we all, after all?

Take the organizing vestry of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, for example, elected on 13 June 1867, less than a month before the first train reached Chariton on the newly-constructed Burlington & Missouri River Railroad tracks (later Chicago Burlington & Quincy, now the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe). On that fine summer day, Chariton still was the wild west. Sheriff Gaylord Lyman still was patrolling the streets. On the 6th of July three years later, he would be gunned down on the square and his killer, Hiram Wilson, tossed from a courthouse window with a rope around his neck by a lynch mob..

Chariton’s elite at that time tended to be Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian. Pity the poor Baptist, or Catholic, or Lutheran, or Disciple of Christ.

The following account of that Episcopal vestry organizational meeting is taken from a 1904 newspaper article, written when the parish’s second building --- important, thought to be important and considered by its parishioners to be important --- was consecrated. That building succumbed to construction flaws and poverty-induced neglect in 1955 after a 20-year rough spot 1920s-1940s in parish history when too many parishioners died, dried up, lost or spent their money and/or went away.,

Note that all members of the vestry --- governing board of an Episcopal parish --- are men. Women, at that time, were allowed to form guilds, teach Sunday school, raise money and form themselves into the backbone of a congregation. But serve on the vestry and vote when important matters were to be decided? The very idea would have caused Bishop Henry Washington Lee to swoon. Parish history is a sideline of mine and I can guarantee you that had it not been for Episcopalian women who declined to give up, St. Andrew’s would have just been passing through, too.

“St. Andrew’s Parish, Chariton, Lucas County, Iowa, was organized June 13, 1867, by the election of Edward T. Edgington, C. W. Kittredge, Harmon Heed, R. Q. Tenney, S. H. Mallory and E. B. Woodward as members of the first Vestry.”

In September of that year, attorney Joseph W. Wilkerson, was the first addition to the vestry, perhaps replacing the highly-respected Edginton, who by that time was in disgrace after having lifted for personal pursuits some thousands of dollars in county funds. Some may recognize the name of Smith H. Mallory, for 40 years Chariton’s leading light, but who remembers the others, once thought to be unforgettable?
Just Passing Through

Joseph Wade Wilkerson may have been present at the organizational meeting of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Parish on Aug. 13, 1867, when a six-member vestry was elected. He was added to that vestry on Sept. 2, 1867, perhaps as a replacement (Edward T. Edginton, by then in considerable disgrace in Lucas County, may have resigned).

On March 28, 1868, J.W. and his wife, Maria Louisa, were baptized by the Rev. Isaac P. Labagh, founding rector of St. Andrew’s, along with Margaret M. McCormick, Emmet B. Woodward and Smith H. and Annie L. Mallory.

The Rt. Rev. Henry Washington Lee, first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, confirmed all those baptized as well as Mrs. Woodward, Laura Elizabeth, during services in the old brick Lucas County Courthouse on Thursday evening, April 2, 1868.

J.W., in his mid-30s during 1867, was a rising young Chariton attorney then in partnership with Napoleon Bonaparte Branner as Wilkerson and Branner, Attorneys at Law and Land Agents. Their office was in the courthouse, too, then Chariton’s principal public building.

Census records 1850-1860 of Jo Daviess County, Illinois, and Lucas County, Iowa, 1860-1870, show that he was born in Indiana. His parents, James and Margaret A. Wilkerson, who were farmers, brought their family west soon after J.W.’s birth and they lived briefly in Illinois and then in Scott County, Iowa, before settling down in Jo Daviess County, perhaps during 1850, the birth locations for their children given in census records suggest. His obituary (Chariton Patriot, Dec. 25, 1872) gives his birth date as Dec. 23, 1833.

J.W. had arrived in Chariton by June 11, 1860, when he was enumerated in the federal census of that year as an attorney boarding in the home of James Baker, also an attorney, and Baker’s family. His assets were modest, $200 in real estate and $200 in personal property, suggesting he had not been in the profession long. His obituary states that he had studied law in Galena, Ill., located in Jo Daviess County. James Baker may have been his first partner.

According to Wilkerson’s obituary, his health had been badly impaired at age 19 by an attack of the measles that affected his lungs. The result was tuberculosis (then called “consumption”). Because of his impaired health, he did not serve during the Civil War but continued a solo practice in Chariton. His 1867 partner, N.B. Branner, had recently returned to Chariton from service in the Confederate army. He reportedly had studied law at Dandridge in Jefferson County, Tennessee, his birthplace, prior to the war. Branner had come first to Chariton in 1853 with his father, John, who had made one of Lucas County’s first fortunes by buying up military land warrants in Tennessee and then using them to enter large tracts of land in Iowa when it opened for settlement, selling that land in turn to emigrants. John Branner had remained in Lucas County during the Civil War, but his wife, Jane Cowan Branner, had never moved from Tennessee.

J.W. married during the early 1860s, probably at Burlington, Maria Louisa Cock. Maria’s father, Oliver Cock, of Burlington, was a brother of Robert Coles, who had changed his name from “Cock” to “Coles” by act of the Iowa Legislature in 1853, the year he settled with his family in Chariton. It may have been that family connection with Lucas County that provided the opportunity for J.W. and Maria to meet.

J.W. and Maria probably had three children during the 1860s, two of whom died as infants. A badly weathered tombstone in the Chariton Cemetery marks the graves of “Our Babes,” children of J.W. and M.L. Wilkerson. The surviving child, Joseph A., was born about 1867 in Chariton, but died at age 23, on June 20, 1889, in Chariton, like his father of consumption.

Maria died at Chariton in the late 1860s “suddenly of heart disease,” according to J.W’s obituary. Although her death is cited in published accounts as the first in St. Andrew’s Parish, no year is cited. Her body was taken to Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington for burial beside her father, who had died in 1861.

When the 1870 census was taken on Sept. 1 of that year, the widowed J.W. and his son, age 3, were living with several of his siblings, perhaps on the farm adjoining Chariton to the east called Cottage Grove that he and Maria had developed into something of a showplace. Those siblings were his sister, Maria (actually, Emeriah), age 26; and brothers John V., 24, Eugene, 22, and Willard, 17. Although all of the younger Wilkerson males were enumerated as farmers, Eugene had studied law, too, and reportedly practiced with his brother for a time.

Although J.W.’s assets had increased substantially between 1860 and 1870 ($12,000 in real estate and $10,500 in personal property according to the census entry) his health had declined. He attempted to recover in California during 1872, but returned home in the fall of that year and died in Chariton on Dec. 23, 1872. After funeral services in Chariton, his body was taken to Burlington by train and buried in Aspen Grove beside Maria.

Joseph A. Wilkerson, age 5 at the time of his father’s death, was raised in Chariton by his aunt, Emeriah, who never married and remained a Lucas County resident until after 1900 when she moved to California. Although his health apparently had been impaired since childhood, Joseph A. was working as a printer by the time of his death in 1889.

During 1887-1888, Joseph sought relief in California and in the mountains of Arizona Territory and thought for a time that he had found it, but the remission was temporary and he returned to Chariton, where he died.

The Chariton Patriot of June 26, 1889, characterizes him thus: “His natural intellectual endowments were of high order, and with adequate health would have gained him distinguished position. His sense of humor was quick and incisive, and he perceived intuitively the weakness and shams of human nature. He had a wise head for one so young and many a quiet smile will come at the memory of his quaint and pungent wit.”

Lucas County death records show that Joseph was buried in the Chariton Cemetery, most likely beside his infant siblings who had died in the 1860s. His grave is not marked, however.


J Wilkerson said...

Thank you for your research, it gave me much needed information--may I use it in a book our Cambridge Museum is putting together on homesteaders in our valley--when it was called Salubria--the Wilkersons, three brothers came to Idaho in 1864 to homestead. I found brother Joseph, Eugene, John and Milton in the 1970census, Lucas Co. These are brothers to the three that came to Idaho. John and Milton came to Idaho later and Eugene went to California after Joseph died. Thanks again--J Wilkerson

Frank D. Myers said...

Feel free to use the Wilkerson information in any way you like. And thanks for filling me in on the destinations of Joseph's brothers who also, as it turned out, were just passing through Chariton. It makes me happy to learn that Joseph and his vanished family have family still who will remember them. Best regards!