Henry and Sarah Wheeler: A Tribute

The following biographies were written by Henry and Sarah Wheeler’s great-grandson Tom Wheeler in 2013. Tom Wheeler works with Wheeler Associates, an insurance and investment firm that has operated in Duluth since 1934. In 2005 Tom reenacted his grandfather’s 1855 walk from St. Paul to Superior. Following his journey, Tom created the Henry and Sarah Wheeler Historical Awareness Fund as part of the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation, promising match any contributions made in order to build a fund so that others might undertake similar historical projects regarding the rich heritage of the Twin Ports. Today the fund assets exceed $50,000 and, through annual contributions, is still growing. Find out more about the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation—and the Henry and Sarah Wheeler Historical Awareness Fund—here.

Henry Wheeler

Henry and Sarah Wheeler, ca. 1947. (Image: Tom Wheeler)

Henry Wheeler, from whom Wheeler Field derives its name, was a true Duluth pioneer. Walking alone on foot from St. Paul to Duluth via the Old Military Road in 1855, he constructed Duluth’s first saw mill, platted and surveyed Oneota, brought the first tug to Duluth (he also may have owned an interest in the Ishpeming, the dredge for Duluth’s ship canal), operated Duluth’s first drydock, and with his beloved wife Sarah Caroline Brewster Wheeler sired eleven children. Henry and his family survived the financial Panics of 1857, 1873, and 1893 to leave a lasting legacy of community service. Herewith his story (a subsequent sketch of Sarah Caroline to follow).

Henry Wakeman Wheeler was born March 19, 1821 in Oneida County, New York, the youngest of John and Catherine Holberton Wheeler’s 10 children. John, born in 1765, served as a “drummer boy” in the American Revolution. (Note; the Wheeler family still has a “continental dollar” traditionally 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 erect the new farmstead but later that year set out on his own, walking across Michigan, onto Chicago, and ultimately arriving in Galena, Illinois (approximately 400 miles). While passing though Chicago, he wrote to his parents: “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, while working in the lead mines, Henry met Sarah Caroline Brewster. The two 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. His business partner went into serious debt, forcing Henry to sell everything. In 1853, Henry and Sarah travelled by stage to the Mississippi River and then by boat to St. Paul. There he secured a summer job as a steamboat engineer on the Governor Ramsey, traveling both down river to Galena and upriver to Sauk Rapids. In the winter he became an engineer in a lumber mill. It was there he was approached by Edmund F. Ely, a Presbyterian missionary, to come to Duluth to build a sawmill.

In April of 1855 Henry set out alone on foot with his bedroll to trek the Old Military Road (actually more of a path as not even horse could barely traverse the trail). Henry left behind his wife Sarah and their three children, then ages 6, 4 and 18 months; he would later send for them; they did not arrive until November 1855 after a formidable journey (see Sarah Wheeler) essentially becoming Duluth’s first family; nine months later Julia Augusta Wheeler arrived, becoming the first non-native child born in Duluth.

Duluth’s first sawmill, seemingly a natural industry given the plentiful pine forests, was constructed on the St. Louis River shoreline near 45thh Avenue West. The brownstone quarry in Fond du Lac was utilized; equipment had arrived from Detroit, including a wagon which still exists at the Wirtanen Farm. During construction a worker drowned, once again evidence of the arduous times. Some of Duluth’s better known citizens worked at the sawmill: Judge Carey; E.G Swanstrom; Henry Kichli; Hiram Hayes; Uriah Ayers; Freeman Keene; Mitchell Houle; Fred. A. Buckingham; Neimiah Hulet. Alfred and Leonidas Merritt (the latter subsequently married one of Henry and Sarah’s daughters), also worked at the mill, holding the reputation for being the swiftest men on a cross cut saw in the North woods.

Not far away from the sawmill Henry also constructed a one-room cabin. That structure was later enlarged to house the growing Wheeler family, existing at 4516 Magellan Street until freeway construction. In 1893 Henry, having both prospered and struggled financially, was able to build a larger home at 3407 Grand Avenue, the site of present Wheeler Field. Wheeler Field’s origins as an athletic complex date back to those times; the large field behind the Wheeler house was the site of a racetrack; circuses performed there, as did Buffalo Bill’s traveling “Wild West Show.” My father actually got to shake hands with Buffalo Bill.

Having constructed Duluth’s first sawmill, and the log cabin, Henry began 1856 by platting  Oneota, surveying the town site and actually being one of its incorporators. An old settler said: “I have been told that the proper instruments not being available, H.W. Wheeler worked with a carpenter’s square and a level, running the first lines on the Bay ice where it was perfectly level. This work in later years was unchanged”

Those early pioneers were of necessity both dreamers and doers. Having seen his original assessment of Chicago go awry, Henry envisioned Duluth’s superb location as a second Chicago; in the 1880’s he spoke of Duluth eventually becoming a deep water ocean port. He also saw the need for a college in Duluth, giving 15 acres of land in the 1880s for the beginnings of a higher education institution under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church. But beyond dreaming, it was the “doing” i.e. self-reliance/resourcefulness, that was necessary to survive the early challenges Consider that neither druggists nor doctors were available. Henry’s brother-in-law, a physician, had loaned him his medical books. Henry went on to perform several operations (including amputations), whittling splints, setting fractures, etc. on injured millworkers and his own children. Concoctions like Blue Mass, Iodine. Mustard, Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral and Quinine were used liberally; it was unknown whether patients got well because of or in spite of these administrations. Interestingly, Henry and his family, who were ardently anti-tobacco, anti alcohol, also utilized another common treatment, laudanum, a derivative of opium.

Henry’s long-time interest in boats led him to involvement in two of Duluth’s more famous vessels: he owned the tugboat Amethyst, the first tug in the Twin Ports, piloted by his oldest son Martyn Wheeler. Henry may also have had an interest in the Ishpeming, the dredge that dug out the Duluth Canal. The canal controversy is well-known: Superior was concerned that the  changed current flow would “silt” up their natural harbor entry; hence the constructing of a dike between Rice’s Point and Minnesota Point (Park Point). Duluth’s tugboat operators were not happy regarding the dike as they now only had access to the St. Louis River by sailing out Duluth, then the length of Minnesota Point, through the Superior Entry, and then back up the harbor to the river entry, adding about nine miles of steaming to what previously had been a mere ½ mile excursion. Henry claimed that he made the first hole in the dike the year after it was completed; he threw a tow line over one of the piles and then pulled it out with the tug; that was repeated until a hole emerged large enough for a tug to pass through. The dike was effectively dismantled.

Henry was handy:  besides the sawmill, he built his own log house; farm house and barn. He made his own sleighs for both logging and general purposes; he did blacksmith work in connection with these sleighs. He built an iceboat fashioning the iron runners himself. He built a revolving churn; he established the first shipyard and built his own floating dry dock. He rebuilt the wrecked Amethyst on the north shore of Lake Superior 9 miles beyond Beaver Bay; he brought the first carload of Jersey cows to Duluth.

Henry was also active in community, church and civic affairs: while in St. Paul in 1853 he helped organize the Republican Party; he signed the charter for the first Presbyterian church in Superior in 1855; in 1860 he ran for the Minnesota State legislature, receiving every vote in St, Louis County but was defeated by the more populous St. Cloud area. He was town assessor of Oneota, member of School Board District 1, the first school district organized in St. Louis County, Town Supervisor, Treasurer of the Village of West Duluth and Treasurer of St, Louis County. Judge Ensign has written Henry Wheeler tried the first lawsuit in St, Louis County.  In his later years Henry helped organize the Old Settler’s Association, and the Oneota Cemetery Association, personally supervising the building of its vault. Henry was one of the original contributors to the Duluth YMCA.

Other business interests included a broom factory, wheat elevators, and helping to establish Duluth Imperial Milling Company, serving as treasurer and director; he bought and sold real estate.

Yet with all these accomplishments, as in any life, there were numerous tragedies. Of Henry and Sarah’s eleven children, an unnamed son would die at childbirth; Susie, rescued from a drowning at age 2 by older sister Lizzie, would die from disease at age 4. Youngest daughter Carrie, a schoolteacher, would likewise precede both parents, dying at age 30, again from illness. Lizzie too predeceased her parents. Henry’s staunch Christian beliefs upheld his demeanor; he was active in both Presbyterian and Methodist churches. It should also be mentioned that Henry and Sarah were happily married and stalwart companions for nearly 60 years, each relying on the other for strength in their struggles.

Such convictions—“Precept upon Precept”—also helped him and the family survive the roller-coaster economic turmoil. He prospered; he struggled, rags-to-riches-to rags…such were the fortunes of the times. Perseverance, hard work, resourcefulness resilience and giving back were the hard-learned lessons.

A few weeks before his death in 1906 Henry shared with his youngest son Bert: “These last few years have been the happiest years of my life—with nothing to worry about, a good home, and enough money to keep us as long as we live, having raised a family without a black sheep among them, and with no serious regret in my life; I’m just having a good time:”

In early March, 1906 Henry at age 84 was visiting a friend in downtown Duluth, He was stuck by a street car; while not fatal, he went downhill rapidly and died on his 85th birthday. His family followed his wishes: “When I die I want to be placed in an oak casket put together with nails. I want to be wrapped in a blanket so I can sleep as I did so many nights on the trail.” Henry, along with his wife and many of his children and grandchildren, is buried beneath a well-known gravestone in Oneota Cemetery; it is a carved wheel with family names appearing on each of the spokes.

Sarah Wheeler

Sarah Caroline Brewster was born on August 17, 1828 in Broom County, New York on the banks of the Susquehanna River. She was the oldest of five sisters whose parents were James Ripley Brewster and Heather Christophe Brewster. The Brewster surname is noteworthy in that Sarah was a direct descendant of Elder William Brewster, chaplain of the Mayflower arriving in 1620. (Note: Henry Wheeler’s family did not arrive until 1636.)

At age 18, Sarah and her family, as did many others, moved “west,” settling in Galena, Illinois. Sarah had early on demonstrated a variety of talents and interests. One such interest was writing, unusual for a woman of that era, perhaps fostered by attending school away from home. Two pieces she authored, “Slavery” and “Contentment,” indicate she was indeed made of strong stock:

America may boast of her free republican government. of her civil and religious institutions, but there is one dark spot upon her otherwise bright picture I mean slavery. It is the greatest curse that ever was permitted to rest upon our beloved land. it is of no use to try to palliate or excuse it. It cannot be done. It is of too great importance to be passed over in silence, 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. It is high time that something was done. We cannot expect the blessing of God upon us until we change our course in this respect. Let us be up and doing lest the blood of their souls be found in our skirts. We have indulged in sleep too long, while the cries and groans of the poor African have been ascending up to heaven. Let us do what we can to instruct them in the way of truth and may the time speedily come when America shall redeem her character and rank amongst the other civilized nations of the globe.

Sarah Caroline Brewster
Galena, Illinois, January 4, 1847

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. Contentment is the next thing to religion; in fact it is produced by religion in a greater or lesser degree. If people would only make the best of everything and be satisfied to enjoy what they have, half of their troubles would vanish away. One of the inspired writers says “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” And so it is. It is not natural for the human mind to be perfectly satisfied. There are some situations in which we should not be contented; for instance we should not be willing to live in ignorance without making an effort to obtain an education, but even under such circumstances this spirit can be exercised. Although persons’ natural dispositions differ greatly, yet this is no reason why those who have but a small share shouldn’t strive to obtain more. Those who have a great share of it should not think that they have enough, and that there is no need of their striving for it. They should rather try to make more than common attainments. They should recollect that to whom much is given of him much will be required. Those who have but little should not be discouraged but continually making additions to what they have remembering that a person is required to give account for the improvement of what he has and not of what he has not.

Sarah Brewster
Galena, Illinois, January 18, 1847

It was in Galena that she met Henry Wheeler, whom she would marry one year later (November 25, 1847) in New Diggings Wisconsin. Sarah then spent the next nearly 60 years as his beloved wife, and giving birth to 11 children. As the wedding picture shows, she was lithe, spritely, dignified and exceedingly attractive. 50 years later at their Golden Wedding anniversary, Sarah was still able to fit in her wedding dress.

In 1848, the young couple moved to Neenah Wisconsin; her “Contentment” would be tested as Henry lost money on his boat and business ventures. Their first two children, Marty and Lizzie (who would later marry Leonidas Merritt) were born in Neenah. In 1853 the Henry Wheeler family moved by stagecoach and steamship to St. Paul where Etta was born. Henry plied his trade as a steamboat engineer by summer and sawmill worker in the winter. In the spring of 1855 at the invitation of Edmund Ely, Henry set out alone on foot with a bedroll to walk to Duluth and build a sawmill.

Upon his safe arrival and undertaking construction of both the sawmill and a one-room cabin (a trundle bed was used for the three children under the parents’ bed) as living quarters for the family, Henry sent for Sarah and their three children ages 6, 4 and 18 months. They could obviously not walk to Duluth, so Henry made other arrangements: down the Mississippi by boat; across Illinois and Michigan by stage to visit Henry’s family in Grass Lake Michigan; then by boat, boarding the steamship “The Planet” in Green Bay, bound for Madeline Island in the Apostles. En route they passed though the newly constructed Soo Locks which had opened in June, 1855. Sarah and children arrived in Bayfield in November 1855. After a brief rest there, they then set out with an Indian guide in an open Mackinaw boat for Duluth, some 90 miles distant. The next time you hear a mother complain about taking her children to the mall, consider what Sarah Wheeler endured with a “matter-of-fact acceptance” of hardships.

Settling in for Sarah entailed not only cooking, sewing/knitting clothes, churning butter, to provide for her family, but also preparing food daily for the sawmill workers. The Wheeler family was growing: Nine months after arriving Sarah gave birth to Julia Augusta, the first non-native child born in Duluth. Perhaps reflective of her essay on “Slavery” Sarah was accepting of the Native American populace she met, having a variety of encounters with them over the years; once discovering three squaws in the Wheeler cabin, laughing at her three children who were hiding under the bed; several times finding “sleeping” Indians who had come in from the cold; an encounter with a “greased” Indian whom Henry had to forcibly evict.

Courtesy of Sarah, reading was a favorite Wheeler family pastime, Books were in short supply, but subscriptions to The Northwestern Christian Advocate and the Youth’s Companion helped – there were also essays, poetry, and sermons. Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” was her favorite poem which she memorized.

Sarah Wheeler, according to her youngest son Bert, was “a deeply religious woman of serous 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.” (Note: Bert would run for the US Senate in the 1920s under the Prohibition Party; he was not elected). She did, however, also exhibit a sense of humor. After the “Hard times of 1857,” with crops having failed and with little other food than fish, Sarah said: “with so many fish eaten, the boys could not take off their clothes because the fish bones stuck through.”

Like her husband Henry, Sarah, of necessity, developed an abiding interest in medicine. Along with good friend Hephzibah Merritt, the two women acted as mid-wives for countless new births in the community; they also nursed sick neighbors. When son Marty was struck in the head by a flying piece of timber, being carried out supposedly dead, she 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. She buried four year old daughter Susie in the cemetery on the banks of the St, Louis River; later that year a nameless son was placed in that same grave. Two other daughters would predecease their mother. Such were pioneer hardships offset by a make-do/can-do/must-do attitude.

Sarah lived the tough life of a pioneer woman. Being “chief cook and bottle washer (non-alcoholic)” took its toll. A trip to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, supposedly a health resort in the 1880’s did not go well. Both daughter Carrie and Sarah caught fevers, necessitating Henry and son John going to fetch them back, Neither fully recovered their health. Sarah was wracked by coughing fits and in the early 1900s became blind; maintaining “Contentment” was a challenge. Following Henry’s death in 1906, things became truly dark. In 1910 at age 82 Sarah slipped away, survived by nineteen grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, with many more to come. Sarah Caroline Brewster Wheeler was unquestionably of pioneer stock, leaving a legacy of matter-of-fact acceptance of hardships.


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