Friday, May 11, 2012

Oh, Susanna!

Susanna (Millan) Custer was one of early Lucas County's most engaging characters. Gracious and witty, a great story-teller too, she arrived here with her husband, James, in the fall of 1848 --- months before the county had been organized and Chariton founded.

Susanna bore the trials of pioneer life with a light heart --- most of the time; lived long, and --- to frost the cake --- wrote an autobiography late in life that has survived. There are two transcribed copies of the brief work in Chariton --- one at the Lucas County Genealogical Society library and the other, in the Historical Society library.

Busy all her life, Susanna sat down in her 70s to begin the work, writing in detail about her childhood and teen-age years, then put it aside to do something else. According to notes that accompany the transcripts, she picked it up and finished it during her 86th year. Not quite as energentic then, only one chapter --- the last --- deals with Lucas County. Had she soldiered on in her 70s, we might have had more.

As it is, there are wonderful stories and I'm going to transcribe the parts relevant to Lucas County, building occasional bridges where Susanna started to jump around.


Susanna, whose parents were Henry S. and Caroline M. (Farr) Millan, was born March 23, 1827, at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, the eldest of eight children. Her father served as sheriff of Fairfax County for a time and advanced to the rank of captain in the 60th Regiment, Virginia Militia.

In 1835, Henry and Caroline moved their family west --- to Palmyra, Missouri, inland from the Mississippi and northwest of Hannibal. Susanna was educated there at Miss Somers' Seminary.

During the spring of 1847, she met James Brafford Custer, another Virginian who had moved west with his family, settling first in Howard County, Missouri, and then in Schuyler. Susanna and James were married at Lancaster on the 16th of September 1847. He was "the best of men," Susanna wrote in her memoir, "the noblest work of God." They became the parents of 10 children.

During 1848, James developed what Susanna described as "western fever" and set out with his brothers-in-law, Edward K. Gibbon (married to Amanda Custer) and John S. Sheller (married to Margaret Custer), in search of new land.

They found what they were looking for along Whitebreast Creek in what now is Liberty Township, Lucas County, some 12 miles north of Chariton. Rather than staking new claims, they bought pre-emption rights to claims that already had been improved. Lucas County land was not yet on the market, although open to settlement. According to Susanna, two of the claims had belonged to John and William Myres (Myers?), who then moved on. The Custer claim, according to Susanna, was "up on the hill south of the others, which was on the White Breast River close to the creek."

Susanna and her first baby accompanied James to Iowa in the fall of 1848 and they began to settle in, but it was "nearly winter, so we just packed our baby and knapsacks and went back near to our starting point ... to stay till spring." The "starting point" where they wintered was Wells Mills, a small town on bluffs above the Chariton River in southeast Appanoose County, about a mile from the Missouri state line, where another of James Custer's sisters, Lavenia, and brother-in-law, Ambrose Carpenter, were operating a store. The village later was known was Hilltown and by now has vanished entirely, other than its cemetery.

Her narritave picks up as the family heads back toward Lucas County across Appanoose during the spring of 1849:


Well, we started out one fine morning, a two-horse wagon with one man and wife and baby boy and another wagin with Mr. Sheller, our brother-in-law, loaded with traps and a gun or two and a surveyor's compass. We had two very fine teams, one hitched before and one tied behind. It was hard to tell which done the most pulling sometimes, as we did not get forward very fast.

The first day we had a road, the Mormon Trace, and sometimes the Bee Trace, but pretty soon our roads gave out and we had to pull through the high grass and depend on our compass, and try to keep on the divide between the two great waters, Mississippi and Missouri, so we would have no draws to cross, going many miles out of our way to reach a house or settlement.

On the third day I became discouraged and was crying when John S. Sheller jumped up in the front of our wagon and said, "Susanna, do you see that pole away ahead north or a little east of north?"

I strained my eyes and said, "Yes, it is the north pole."

He said, "No, that is old Xury West's well pole." I was delighted and wiped my weeping eyes.

(Xury West and his family were among the first settlers at Greenville, some distance north of  the Mormon Trace in Washington Township, southeast Lucas County. Xury West's well pole was a landmark noted by others who traveled through that area durinig the early days because it marked the first inhabited place northwest of Dodge's Point in northwest Appanoose County).

James, said, "How far is it?"

He said, "About 8 or 10 miles."

Mr. Custer said, "Yes, we will get there tonight I think, if nothing happens."

Sheller said, "Oh, but there is a great cutoff and we can't cross. See. Over there," pointing to it.

No road, no bridge, but Mr. Custer started for the ravine, took his spade and axe and leveled down that hollow. (Then he) took his baby and wife and carried them across, put both teams before the wagon and crossed that cutoff and (we) reached Mr. West's that evening. (We) got such a cool drink with that "north pole" I shall never forget, and a dandy good supper and bed.

All the way from home we had been drinking water dipped up out of sloughs. It is true I strained the wiggletails all out and set it in a shady place in the wagon to cool, but it was awful anyway.

I shall never forget the West family, that dear, blessed old lady, her daughter Sarah and the funny old man. By the by, I think that family are related to our much esteemed editor (of The Chariton Leader), Mr. (Henry) Gittinger.

Well friends, I expect I may make many statements twice and be a little flighty, but I am nearing my 86th milestone. I am not as active as I was when I came that road 65 years ago, but feel as I am the mother of Lucas County that we tried so hard to find.

Well, next morning we started out much refreshed after our nice accommodations and cool drink of water, and traveled north heading for the Willis settlement near where Newbern is located (in far north Lucas County; the "town" is just over the line in Marion County). But we got lost; traveled all day, such a long way. Rained all day, nearly. At night, came to a small stream and a cabin. This was surely not White Breast! (It was actually English Creek; the Custers had been traveling northeasterly through eastern Lucas County where there were no trails whatsoever).

An old man came out. James asked if we could stay all night. He said, "I guess so," but we would have to come over the stream on a log. The stream was raging high, so we left our wagon on the other side. The man said to his wife, "We can keep these folks, can't we?"

She said, "Yes, only we hain't no meat."

He said, Oh, you forgot the possum."

"Yes, I did, but that is all," (she said). But we did not want any meat that night.

The old man said, "What! You folks come from old Virginia and can't eat possum? I told him we were not hungry, only tired.

This man's name was Dave Ballard (Lucas County's first permanent settler). He was not very old either, but every man that was married was "old man." That was 65 or 66 years ago. We told him we had come a long way and the horses were very tired, like us. The traveling was awful --- so many ravines and branches to cross. He asked us where we stayed last night. James said, "At Xury West's."

He said, "Well, Stranger, that is only eleven miles."

I asked him, "Please don't tell anybody!"

James says, "There is no one to tell!" This was on the head of Cedar or English or some such name. (It was on English Creek).

After we got established in our home, we went every fall down to Canton, Missouri, to visit my father's family, and most often got lost coming this way. Going down we always had our landmarks, such as Shannon Point where Oakley is located, next Chariton Point and next Dodge Point below Mr. West's.

In a few years we had roads to travel on to our little farm,, (which) consisted of 600 acres of land and a twelve-foot square log cabin (with) one door, no window and weight-pole roof. Sixteen acres in cultivation, but my husband could not do without lots of fields so he hired two men and six yoke of cattle to break 65 acres between us and Jimmy Munsford's on the hill west of us.


As noted earlier Susanna and her husband, James,, arrived in what now is Liberty Township, Lucas County, during 1848, as part of a family party that included his sisters and brothers-in-law, Amanda and Edward K. Gibbon and Margaret and John S. Sheller. E.K. Gibbon, for most of his life a merchant, remained in Lucas County, as did the Custers. Amanda (Custer) Gibbon died Sept. 4, 1856, and he did not remarry. Sheller was by profession a surveyor and before long moved his family back into Missouri.

The Custers and the Gibbons seem to have lived in Liberty Township for only about five years, giving up farming and removing to the new town of Chariton to go into business about 1853.

Susanna probably was nearing 90 when her Lucas County chapter was written --- and she was a story-teller. So minor details sometimes do not quite fit. It is unlikely, for example, that she went two years without seeing another white woman's face, for example, since her sisters-in-law lived nearby. She also was writing from memory, so names are not necessarily spelled accurately.

The Indians Susanna writes about most likely were Potawatomi, who had been resettled in southwest Iowa during 1835-36 and expelled to land west of the Missouri River by the late 1840s. Bands of Potawatomi continued to hunt and in some cases live seasonally at least in southwest and south central Iowa into the early 1850s.

When this portion of the memoir begins, Susanna and her family still are living on a claim overlooking Whitebreast Creek in Liberty Township.


There were only three or four families in the settlement and they were many miles apart, those we bought out having moved away. But there were lots of Indians camped a mile or two below our house on the creek, of which I was very much afraid although they were friendly.

As I said, our Indians were friendly but entirely too sociable. They would walk in and sit right down on the floor without being asked, close to the fire. And such beggars! They wanted something to eat mostly. My husband told them his squaw ws afraid, and the old chief said, "No good squaw."

One day (James) was out helping with those cattle (six yoke of cattle breaking prairie) and left me all alone with my baby boy, and 5 or 6 big indians come, but he saw them before they got to the house. He took his horse he always had with him and came toward the house at a great speed. When (the Indians) got to the house they did not see anyone (as) they walked around. I saw the Indians but did not see James. I put the ladder against the house and took my baby and climbed up on the house, laid him against a weightpole and pulled the ladder up after me. They soon spied me, but not until my husband had got on the scene.

As I said, we got two men with the oxen to break prairie, and of course we had to keep the men all in one room --- four beds in the room. Often after this I had to take my boy and carry him out in the night. (With) the floor so full of sleeping folks I could hardly get in or out.

We had been there now two or three years. One day James had to go out to hunt some mules that got away, and he was gone a good while. He found me crying when he came home.

"Oh, don't cry. You don't know what good news I have. I found some men up on the prairie and they said they were going to lay out a town. Now you can go to church when it is done."

I had been there two years and had not seen the face of a white women, but they soon began to come in. In 1853 there were several families came in, but I don't think there was one could read and write.

After Chariton was laid out it settled up pretty soon. The first court in the county was held in our house, the log cabin on the farm. A man down by where Russell now stands had been stealing some timber off the school land and had to have a trial before J.B. Custer, the Justice of the Peace; B.B. Siggins appearing for the State and Mr. Sam Houston for the criminal. The J.P., whom they called "the old squire," was nearly 23 years of age when he said, "I shall fine the man 5 dollars." Siggins jumped up and said, "Well, we will take it to a higher court."

The criminal said, "Thank you, Squire."

Meantime, I was down to the barn dressing chickens for dinner for the gentlemen, which they seemed to relish very much indeed.

They selected the wrong man for Justice of the Peace if they expected anybody punished, but it was for a different pupose he was chosen. There were several young men in the country who wanted to get married. As we had no minister, we had to have a J.P. The first one to be married was Mr. Phillip Comstone to Miss Malone; the next was William Manley and his girl.

In those days there were travelers come two or three times a week, and peddlers, too. My husband always invited them to stay as long as they could, for we were very lonesome; and we never charged one of them a cent, and we insisted on them to come again soon.

Soon we were to have preaching in the new town and we went up, as I had not seen a white woman for so long. The preaching was to be in the new log courthouse erected on the present site of Mr. W.S. Custer's hay scales (just south of the alley on the east side of the square). It was used for various purposes, often for dances.

The preacher was an itinerant Methodist --- you know, they always get ahead of all civilization. There was a woman sat close to me with three babies, one in her lap and two standing by her. I had Billy on my lap. She kept talking, and of course I had to either nod or shake my head in answer to her questions. My husband was horrified at us. She said to me, "That is powerful pretty truck of your dress." I shook my head. Then she (asked), "Is your man the man that has all the mules?" I nodded, "Yes."

She gave each baby a biscuit out of her generus bag. Then she said, "That is powerful good preaching." I laughed out for I am certain she had not heard one word of it. Then she said, "I see lots of Presbyterians here today. He'll rake in some of them. They look like they need a washing." Come to find out, the Methodist minister was to have an immersion down in the creek after the preaching was out. (The Custers were Presbyterian).

When were were going home, James siad, "Susanna, what do you think your father would say if he had seen you talking when the man was preaching."

"O, I can't tell," I said.


Now the town is getting along. We have three or four buildings on the square; one on the southwest corner, two on the northwest run by the Wescott brothers, Jonas and Riley, brothers of Mrs. Dr. Fitch. (We) had a double log house on the southeast corner (the hotel). I thought our first hotel proprietor, Henry Allen, was a dandy. We had prayer meetings and dances there, alternately of course. There were not many travelers those days. The Wescotts had  dry goods and grocery. Pretty soon the land office came on the southwest corner and other offices, and we needed a larger hotel, so J.B. Custer bought a large one.

Oh, I must not forget to tell you about that preaching we had. After the sermon, Mr. Beverly Searcy got up and said, "Oh yes, oh yes," held up his hand and said, "There will be a dance here this evening at 7 o'clock. I want you all to come." It was the Sabbath Day!

Two or three men came to meeting and set their scythes down at the door. They had been out making hay on the Sabbath Day, but wanting to come to preaching as well. This is true. When I look back and contrast that with the style we put on now --- our churches, sidewalks, paved streets --- I really don't know whether this is me or not --- but I hope it is!

Well, the Waynick brothers built a large frame house in he center of the east side of the square, and Mr. Custer sold those mules the woman spoke of and bought it and fitted it up for business.

The land office brought lots of customers. There was Dr. Sales, president; Gilliam, vice president; Col. Leffler, receiver; Mr. Joe Braden, cashier --- and that was in the Searcy room on the southwest corner.

Now we don't have to send to Knoxville for our mail or our doctor, Dr. Huff. Dr. Chas. Fitch has arrived on the scene. Dr. William Waynick and Wyatt Waynick were here before him. In the course of events Dr. Fitch concluded to get married.

I must tell you about Dr. Fitch's wedding. He boarded with us two years before he married Miss Wescott, sister of our merchants. She lived in some other town. One brother went to the wedding. (Dr. Fitch) had considerable practice and rode horseback, often coming home late at night. When our barn door was locked he couldn't get any feed for his horses, so he would cimb up to the high window and get an armful for the horse. The stable boy found out about it and told Mr. Custer. One of the brothers-in-law went with him to the wedding. When the minster asked, "is there anyone here who objects to this couple being joined?" Wescott stepped up and said, "Yes! I want him to quit stealing Jim Custer's corn!"

Well, our hotel was a two-story frame, white as snow, and could be seen miles down the prairie, but Mr. Custer, while very popular as a landlord, was not cut out for the business. He never charged anyone he had seen before, and never charged a preacher --- and they were mostly preachers that came --- so we did not make money very fast.

Now there is another (hotel), the Chariton House, and a new doctor, namely Dr. Gibbon, a nephew of our brother-in-law E.K. Gibbon. Well, he was very much liked, he was genial and a regular M.D. and knew his business. Well pretty soon there was another fine store established on the west side, styled Gibbon, Custer & Gibbon.

In the course of time, the doctor took a notion to get married like all the M.D.'s. Well that was very natural of course, and in due time the big new store must have some new goods, so the doctor had to go east to select tham --- and don't you believe he went to Cincinnati and brought home the cutest little Quaker wife you ever saw. She landed here in Chariton to the utter dismay of all the young ladies in town and a half dozen old maids. Not long after this, the War of the Rebellion broke out and the doctor went into it as a surgeon, I think, and shortly was taken prisoner. His little Quaker wife (went) after him with her little flag of truce and demanded him, and she was escorted into Dixie in fine shape!

I shall quit on doctors now. I think we have 15 or 20 young ones. And when it comes to lawyers, well the supply is grater than the demand. We have had the Hon. T.M. Stuart for a long time. We didn't need any other. We are saving him for President. Some folks think I am getting old, but I am going to live a little longer and go to Washington City to hear him deliver his inaugural address. It will be the proudest day of my life.


And that fairly well concludes Susanna's memoirs. Her parents and many of her siblings moved from Missouri to Chariton in 1862, as the Civil War began, perhaps in part because of the divisiveness that sometimes made Missouri --- a deeply divided slave state --- a dangerous place. Her father, a Virginian and most likely a southern sympathizer, reportedly had been reluctant previously to move into a "free" state.
James B. Custer, after his hotel misadventure, went to work as a clerk in a dry goods store, then was elected county treasurer during 1859. By the time his term expired, he had become a partner in his brother -in-law's store, E.K. Gibbon & Co., and declined to seek re-election. He was elected treasurer again during 1867 and served five consecutive terms. He died in Chariton on March 8, 1893, age 69.

Susanna continued to live in Chariton until her death 25 years later --- on March 9, 1918, nearly 91 years old.

Her obituary characterized her as "a brilliant woman (who) could not only tell her experiences in a most fascinating manner, but could also write them." She was a "lover of children and all children who knew her returned the love," according to the obituary. She also read the Bible through once a year and "was therefore well versed in the word of God and strove to express its truth in her life."

She outlived seven of her 10 children, some of whom died as small children. The survivors were Carrie (Custer) Copeland, Stanton Custer and James Custer, all of Chariton.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Mike Farr the descendant of Richard Ratcliffe Farr of Fairfax Virginia. Did you have any more stories that Susanna wrote? I have Susanna's Memoirs and the position on the family tree chapter one. Home of Henry and Catherine Farr Millan Chapter two. "The Stone House" Chapter Chapter three. "The Mount Gilead House" Chapter four. "Henry's brother Thomas Millan" Chapter five.

"The Planet she called Herschel" Chapter six. "Learning to cook" Chapter seven. "Her story about Sac @ Fox Indians" Chapter eight. "Pioneer Life" Chapter nine.

"To get a Prairie Chicken" Chapter ten. If you have anymore stories please contact me by my email