Henry & Sarah Wheeler: the Personification of “Duluth Pioneers”

Henry and Sarah Wheeler, ca. 1847. (Image: Tom Wheeler)

Most Duluthians know Wheeler Field, the softball complex off Grand Avenue at 34th Avenue West—about as far east as you can go and still be in West Duluth. Its name comes from the property’s former owners, Henry and Sarah Wheeler. They once had a farm on that site, which was later home to a horse race track that was also used as the local circus grounds. Henry and Sarah first arrived here in 1855, before there even was a Duluth. He built a sawmill, and with their neighbors they helped build Oneota Township. Their strength, faith, tireless effort, and perseverance personifies the kind of people that helped shaped Duluth, and without them the Zenith City may not look quite like it does today.

From New York to Minnesota

Henry Wakeman Wheeler was born March 19, 1821, in Oneida County, New York, the youngest of John and Catherine Holberton Wheeler’s ten children. John, born in 1765, served as a “drummer boy” in the American Revolution. The Wheeler family still has a “continental dollar” that was once John’s; by family tradition it is passed passed along to the youngest Wheeler male in each generation.

John was a farmer in upstate New York until 1841 when the family moved to Michigan. Henry helped his father erect the new farmstead before setting out on his own, walking approximately 400 miles across Michigan, passing through Chicago, and ultimately arriving in Galena, Illinois. There he found work in the lead mines. He later wrote to his parents that “Chicago is a swampy, little place with a few shacks and Indian wigwams. I don’t think it will ever amount to anything.”

In Galena Henry met Sarah Caroline Brewster. Sarah was born on August 17, 1828 in Broom County, New York, on the banks of the Susquehanna River. She was the oldest of five daughters born to James Ripley Brewster and Heather Christophe Brewster, direct descendants of Elder William Brewster, chaplain of the Mayflower. At age 18, Sarah and her family moved “west,” settling in Galena, Illinois. Sarah had early on demonstrated a variety of talents and interests including writing, unusual for a woman of that era and likely fostered by attending school away from home, which meant writing many letters to her parents.

In January 1847 Sarah wrote a short essay called “Slavery,” which displayed the religious faith and moral fortitude that would help her family thrive at the head of the lakes. “It is a disgrace to our country to pretend to be a free and independent people, when at the same time a portion of her inhabitants are bowed down under the oppressors’ yoke…,” she wrote. “We cannot expect the blessing of God upon us until we change our course in this respect.” That same month—ten months before her marriage—she wrote a piece titled “Contentment,” which started, “If anyone is to be envied it certainly is the person who possess a contented mind. Such a person is almost always a happy person and happy as anyone can be in this sinful world.” Sarah Brewster found her contentment, and happiness, partnering with Henry Wheeler.

Henry and Sarah were married on November 25, 1847, in New Diggings, Wisconsin, where Henry had begun work as a carpenter; he was 26 and she was 19. In 1848 they moved to Neenah, Wisconsin, where Henry invested in property and a steam boat on the Fox River. Their first two children, Marty and Lizzie (who would later marry Leonidas Merritt) were born in Neenah. Unfortunately Henry’s business partner went into serious debt, forcing Henry to sell everything.

In 1853, Henry and Sarah traveled by stage to the Mississippi River and then by boat to St. Paul. There he secured a summer job as an engineer on the steamboat Governor Ramsey, traveling both down river to Galena and upriver to Sauk Rapids. He also found time to organize Minnesota’s Republican Party. In the winter he became an engineer in a lumber mill. It was there he was approached by Edmund F. Ely, a Presbyterian missionary who previously ran an Ojibwe school at Fond du Lac, to come to Duluth to build a sawmill.

At the Head of the Lakes

In April of 1855 Henry set out alone on foot with his bedroll to trek the Old Military Road—then no more than a path of muddy ruts. Horses could barely traverse it. Upon his safe arrival and undertaking construction of the sawmill and a one-room cabin as living quarters for the family, Henry sent for Sarah and their three children, ages 6, 4 and 18 months. They obviously could not walk to Duluth, so Henry made other arrangements. Sara and her children first traveled down the Mississippi by boat, then across Illinois and Michigan by stage, stopping to visit Henry’s family in Grass Lake, Michigan. They crossed Lake Michigan in a boat and landed in Green Bay, where they boarded a steamship. The steamship carried through the newly constructed locks at Saulte Sainte Marie and on to Madeline Island among Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. They then ferried to Bayfield, rested briefly, then set out for Duluth—90 miles away—in an open Mackinaw boat piloted by an Ojibwe guide. (Consider that the next time you jump on I-35 for the 2.5-hour drive to St. Paul in your heated/air conditioned automobile.)

Henry constructed the first sawmill at the Head of the Lakes on the St. Louis River shoreline near 45th Avenue West. For the building’s foundation he traveled up the St. Louis River to Fond du lac, quarrying brownstone 14 years before the brownstone industry would emerge in Duluth. He sent for equipment from Detroit, including an oxen wagon said to have later helped build the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad. (The wagon, now dismantled, is still with us, stored at the Wirtanen Pioneer Farm.)

Some of Duluth’s prominent early pioneers worked at the sawmill, including John Carey, later the area’s first judge; E. G. Swanstrom, one of the first men to represent the region in the state legislature; Hiram Hayes, who helped establish the Northern Pacific railroad even before Jay Cooke became involved; Freeman Keene, namesake of Keene Creek; and Fred. A. Buckingham, namesake of Buckingham Creek. Alfred Merritt and his son Leonidas Merritt—who would eventually become Henry and Sarah’s son-in-law—also worked at the mill and also did some logging. The Merritts were reputed to be the swiftest men on a cross cut saw in the North woods.

Oneota School, built with lumber milled at Henry Wheeler’s sawmill.

Not far away from the sawmill Henry also constructed a one-room cabin—the children slept in a trundle bed under Henry and Sarah’s bed. Later additions to the cabin converted it to a house for the growing Wheeler family. When streets arrived, the house was assigned an address—4516 Magellan Street—and survived until it was demolished to make room for the expansion of Interstate 35.

Sarah Wheeler worked hard, at least as hard as her tireless husband—perhaps harder. She cooked not only for her ever-growing family (daughter Julia Augusta—the first non-native child born in what is now Duluth—arrived nine months after Sara set foot in Oneota) but also for the sawmill workers. She sewed and knit clothes, churned butter, and she and Merritt matriarch Hephzibah Merritt acted as the township’s midwives; they also nursed sick neighbors.

Sarah—and Henry—developed an abiding interest in medicine, partly out of necessity: neither druggists nor doctors were available. He studied medical books loaned to him by his brother-in-law, a physician. Henry performed several operations (including amputations), whittled splints, set fractures and used concoctions such as blue mass, iodine and mustard. Ayer’s cherry pectoral and quinine were used liberally. The Wheelers—who never touched alcohol nor tobacco—also employed laudanum, a derivative of opium.

They treated the mill workers, their neighbors, and their own children. When son Marty was struck in the head by a flying piece of timber and thought dead, Sarah helped Henry revive him. When daughter Lizzie dived into the Bay, emerging with her brother Harry’s apparently lifeless body, Sarah helped Henry roll him on a barrel until he breathed again.

The Henry and Sarah Wheeler family, year unknown. Click to enlarge the image. (Image: Tom Wheeler)

Henry taught the children—boys and girls alike—to swim, skate, and sail on the St. Louis Bay. Sara made certain the children were well read. Books were in short supply, but subscriptions to The Northwestern Christian Advocate and the Youth’s Companion helped, and the family also read essays, poetry, and sermons. She had memorized Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” her favorite poem.

Sarah Wheeler, according to her youngest son Bert, was “a deeply religious woman of serious demeanor but kindhearted and sympathetic to a wonderful degree. Never have I heard her utter a disparaging remark about any of her neighbors and she would always try to find something good to be said in favor of anyone under discussion, She would say grace at the table when father was absent and would lead the devotions on Sunday morning. She superintended Sunday schools when men could not be found and waged a real war against alcohol and tobacco among her Sunday school boys.”

Stories of Sarah’s encounters with local Ojibwe reflect her strong Christian faith, and sense of humor. More than once she came home to discover Ojibwe men who had entered the cabin seeking shelter from the cold; most were welcomed, but once Henry had to evict a “greased Indian.” Another time she discovered three Ojibwe women in the Wheeler cabin—and laughed when she saw her children hiding under the bed.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

6 Responses to Henry & Sarah Wheeler: the Personification of “Duluth Pioneers”

  1. Hello. My great grandmother is Sara Wheeler from Beloit Wis. (married Bunge) moved to
    LaCrosse Wi. Sara Wheeler’s grandparents were Leonard and Harriet Wheeler, Oneida Wisconsin.

    Harriet Wheeler was an Ojibway Shaman in Oneida. Her dreams and visions saved many stranded on the remote islands in Lake Superior.

    Do you have information about her?
    Thank you, Jane Wheeler Bunge

  2. It made me gasp with delight to see that the Wheelers were married in New Diggings, Wisconsin. That’s one of the places that really made me love learning about history, and I spent some significant time there in the 1980s. It was quite a strange little nearly-abandoned town at the time.

  3. That’s fantastic, Peter! I love it when connections like this are made. You know what they say, Duluthians have about 1.5 degrees of separation, not 6.

  4. Wow, turns out I am related to these people through William Brewster! He is my family’s Mayflower connection – my uncle in Vermont proved the connection for us, and he’s actually a member of the Mayflower Society. (I haven’t gone that far yet.)

    Maybe this is why I felt compelled to move to Duluth, not that I need a reason.

    Peter Spooner

  5. Thanks, Bill! All fixed. That’s what happens when you’re proofreader is gone for the Holidays!

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