The Life and Experiences of Henry W. Wheeler and Sarah C. Wheeler,

By Bert N. Wheeler, November 23, 1923

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

Let me show you an eight-dollar Continental bill, #44626, dated 1775. This bill was the property of Great-Grandfather Thomas Holberton, who patriotically exchanged $54.00 in gold for $54.00 in paper money to help the American Army in its attempt to invade Canada. With this bill is a letter signed by Thomas Holberton, dated 1775 and endorsed July 4, 1820, reciting the fact that three similar $8.00 bills had been exchanged sometime previous to 1820 with Samuel Gable, a tavern keeper for 4 mugs of flip at $8.00 each. The bill and the letter are exhibited merely to show that the Wheeler family has an ancestral tree extending back into Colonial days.

The Ancestry Of Henry W. Wheeler

The ancestry of the Henry W. Wheeler family on this side of the Atlantic really goes back to 1635 when Thomas Wheeler of Bedfordshire, England, settled at Fairfield, Conn. The line of descent is as follows: John Wheeler, son of Thomas (as above), father of 14 children and owner of 1000 acres of land, the richest man in the county; then his son, Lieut. John Wheeler, father of 12 children, who lived to be 92 years old; then Ichobod Wheeler, the Shipbuilder of Blackrock, Conn. and trader in the West Indies; and then his son John, my father’s father, who was born in 1765 and carried a musket in the Conn. home Guards in 1781 under orders of General George Washington. This John Wheeler, after working in his father’s shipyard, went west with his family and settled in Oneida County, New York, where Henry Wakeman Wheeler was born, March 19, 1821, being the youngest of 10 children and red-headed besides. The family then moved west to a farm near Grass Lake, Mich. in 1840. Grandfather John Wheeler was a devout Congregationalist serving as a deacon in both New York and Michigan. He had three children by his first wife and married Catherine Holberton for his second wife, who became the mother of the subject of this sketch.

After helping his father get started on a new farm in Michigan, Henry W. Wheeler started out at the early age of 20 to seek his fortune. With all of his possessions in a pack on his back, he walked to Chicago and thence across Northern Illinois to Galena, which, at that time, rivaled Chicago as a commercial center, at a distance away of nearly 400 miles. This occurred in 1841.

In the meantime, Sarah Caroline Brewster, direct descendant of William ‘Elder’ Brewster of Mayflower fame, came west from Broome County, New York, with her father James Brewster, a painter by trade, who located at Byron, Illinois in 1841, and then came on to New Diggings, Wisconsin, about the same time that Henry W. Wheeler arrived from Galena. After a short courtship, these young New Yorkers married Nov. 25, 1847, at New Diggings. Mother was 19 years old and Father 26. They celebrated their Golden Wedding on Nov. 25, 1897 at their home in Duluth, Minnesota.

The Wheelers in 1847

From New Diggings, the Wheelers went to Neenah, Wisconsin on Oshkosh Lake, where Henry W. Wheeler followed the trade of a carpenter, building a number of dwellings and then became interested in a steamboat. His ventures were not successful financially, and he then went to St. Paul, Minnesota, arriving July 4, 1852 on the steamer Ben Campbell from Galena, Illinois, and took a position as an engineer on a Mississippi River steamboat between St. Anthony Falls (Minneapolis) and Sauk Rapids, named The Governor Ramsay. When this boat stopped running on account of ice, he became engineer in a saw mill, where he was at work when Mr. Edmund F. Ely, former missionary to the Chippewa Indians, found him and made him a proposition to come to Duluth to build and operate a saw mill and lay out a townsite on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

In April of 1855 he started north, again with a pack walking from St. Paul to Superior. His wife came the following November, taking a journey of nearly six weeks with her three small children, the youngest only 1 year old. She had to go down the Mississippi River nearly to Galena, then across Wisconsin in a stage, then north by boat on Lake Michigan, then by stage (I think) across the land at the Soo, then by boat to Madeline Island and the rest of the way in a Mackinaw sailboat, arriving at Superior in Nov. 1855. That was a journey to try the heart of even a pioneer woman.

When the machinery for the mill arrived, it was necessary to get stone for the foundations for the engine and boiler. This was done by quarrying sandstone at Fond du Lack, just above the present auto bridge, and bringing it down the ever-useful Mackinaw boat. One man was drowner in this operation. Two Frenchmen named Octab and Eusib were placing the stone in the boat. The current was rapid, as the river was high, and the boat, loosening her moorings, swung out into the river. The oars were ashore and the two men, who became panic-stricken, jumped into the river, but as neither could swim, one was rescued but one was drowned. The boat then drifted into an eddy and was easily secured when it came back to its starting point.

The stone was obtained, the mill built and it sawed many feet of lumber at 45th Ave. West and the bay front. This mill furnished employment at various times for some of our best-known citizens such as: Judge Carey, Usiah Ayers, E. G. Swanstrom, Freeman Keene, Henry Kichli, Mitchell Houle, Hiram Hayes, Fred A. Buckingham, Neiamiah Hulet

Alfred and Lon Merritt held the reputation of being the swiftest men on a cross-cut saw in the North woods. They worked at this mill.

About this time the Wheelers built a log house, and later built a frame house on the same location—in fact, they took the logs out of the walls and sawed them into lumber, which was used in the frame dwelling. This frame house still stands at 4510 Michigan Street, and is one of the few remaining land marks of those early Oneota days.

Early Pioneers Were Both Dreamers & Doers

My father, like all these early pioneers, had a vision of a great city at the Head of the Lakes; a second Chicago must surely result from the superb location at the head of navigation; and he told me as early as 1886 that I would live to see Duluth a deep-water ocean port.

He also saw the need for a college in Duluth. The recent agitation for higher educational facilities calls to mind that Henry W. Wheeler, in the 1880s, gave 15 acres of land to the Duluth Collegiate Institute for the beginnings of a college under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church.

But like all pioneers, he was a doer as well as a dreamer. Compelled to look after themselves, these hardy folks of pioneer days got along without a doctor or druggist, for none were nearer than Superior. They assisted each other in times of sickness and nursed whole families through scarlet fever epidemics. My mother or Grandma Merritt presided at the birth of nearly every child born in Oneota during those strenuous days. My father, with his jackknife, picked pieces of bone out of the hand of the an who had been injured on the circular saw; and he whittled cedar splints with which to bind up the broken arm of his granddaughter (Ruth Merritt) after he had reduced the fracture.

They used blue moss, iodine, mustard, Ayor’s Cherry Pictorel and Quinine in liberal quantities and got well either because of or in spite of the medicine taken.

My mother, with four or five small children, fed the mill hands, giving them breakfast in time to start work at 6:00 am. She did her own washing, baking, cooking and sewing without any of the modern conveniences. The Pioneers were doers.

Early Pioneers Were Fearless & Cool-Headed

The above statement needs no proof, but let me cite the following facts to get them into the record.

Mitchell Houle was, at one time, Sheriff of St. Louis County. In the course of his duty, it became necessary to levy an attachment on a raft of logs. He took with him Mr. E. G. Swanstrom, Henry W. Wheeler and several others. The raft was tied to the shore the Wisconsin side. The Sheriff’s party approached the raft with the sailboat, and at once got out upon the logs with pile poles, intending to push the raft out into deep water. The owner was concealed in some bushes on shore and he opened fire with his rifle. The first bullet whined overhead, the second whistled close by and the third struck the pike pole that my father held in his hand. He turned to the boat to get a gun that he might go ashore “and clean out the rascal” but the Sheriff thought that human lives were more important than logs and sailed away, leaving the owner in possession of the raft.

Saving the Swimmer

In the construction of the breakwater at Superior, it was necessary to haul rock on scows and dump these rocks into the cribs to sink them into place. My father had a contract and used the tug Amethyst and scows to haul this rock. One day they were caught in a Northeaster and rather heavy seas were running on the lake so that the scow, laden with rock, careened over so far that the load of rock slid into the lake. it took with it two men who were suddenly thrown into the cold waters of Lake Superior. The Captain, Martyn Wheeler, at once threw off the tow line and turned the tug to reach the men before they sank. One of the men was a fine swimmer. Just as the tug passed him, my father, who was the engineer, reached over the rail of the tug and grasped him by the wrist but was unable to pull him aboard. The tug rolled heavily in the sea. When she rolled to starboard the man was lifted entirely clear of the water, while Father held him as he leaned over the rail, but when the tug rolled to port, the man’s head went under. There was no one else aboard the tug and the captain had his hands full keeping the tug from going into the breakers. After several waves had well nigh wrenched the man loose from Father’s grasp, Mart left the wheel long enough to come back, pull the man aboard and leave him in the engine room, then it was necessary to make a run for the scow, pick up the tow line and take her inside of the harbor before the other men who had remained on the scow were washed off. This was accomplished in spite of the breakers, but one man who went into the lake with the rock was never seen again.

The Greased Indian

During the summertime it was Father’s custom to run a mill on Howard’s Pocket. Sometimes he would move his family to a little house on Connor’s Point near the mill, and other seasons he would come home Saturday nights and spend Sunday with the family, living across near the mill by himself. One summer, when the family was with him, the Indians held a pow-wow on the end of Connor’s Point. Early in the morning, about 2:00 am, Father was awakened by the noise of the door opening and heard someone enter. He lighted the lamp and found an Indian, dressed only in his headgear and breech cloth, with his body shining with grease that they used in these pow-wows. Fearing that the redskin might have imbibed fire water and that he might attempt to start a fire, Father thought that he’d better put him out. After a considerable scuffle, the redskin was pushed through the door and made to understand that he must find some other place in which to get warm. This experience was very similar to catching a greased pig on the 4th of July.

Crossing the bay in a Northeaster

Late on Saturday afternoon, Father and my oldest brother Mart, who was then 12 years old, left Howard’s Pocket in a very small flat-bottom rowboat, the sides of which were not more than 8 or 10 inches high. An old-fashioned Northeaster had been blowing for several days, but the next day was Sunday and Mother was at Oneota alone with the smaller children and with the livestock to take care of. It was necessary to cross the bay. Father took his place at the oars and Mart was seated in the stern with a long edgeon with which to steer and the two started across the angry waves. The youngster was somewhat frightened, but his father took the occasion to say, that God could take care of folks just as well on the water as on land and as long as they were in the line of duty they need not fear, so they went on through the waves. Folks stood on the bank at Oneota and watched the boat as it rose and fell between the waves and often held their breath, thinking that the little skiff would not appear again, but they landed in safety and out of the experience, Mart Wheeler obtained a coolness and fearlessness that made him later one of the best navigators on Lake Superior.

Susie’s Rescue

In the old days, the question of a market for the lumber of the sawmill at Oneota was an important one. Frequently a scow load of lumber would be taken across the bay to Superior for sale. On one of these trips, my father took his little two-year-old girl Susie and her older sister Elizabeth, who later became the wife of Commissioner Leonidas Merritt. When the scow was out in the middle of the bay, the little girl fell off into the water. Immediately her older sister jumped in after her and managed to keep her afloat until a pike pole was thrust down beside her and the little girl and her sister were lifted back on the scow without any harm coming to either. Elizabeth was 12 or 13 years old when she made this rescue.

Saving a Drunkard

Late one fall, the bay froze over then the tug Amethyst was at Fond du Lac. She had not been ironed, hence Mart Wheeler decided to come down through the ice with a scow in front of the tug. They reached St. Louis Bay late in the afternoon after dark. One of the men who had been loading the scow, obtained a bottle and was partly under the influence of liquor. In an attempt to walk from the bow of the tug to the stern, he slipped off of the icy rail in the waters of the bay. Sam Harris, who was on the tug, immediately but the painter of the rowboat, thinking that the man would swim to it and climb in. a cry of a “man overboard” came to the ears of the captain and he at once stopped the engine, ran to the stern of the tug and saw the rowboat 30 or 40 feet in the rear of the tug and the man struggling in the broken ice and water close by, without hesitation he plunged head first into the icy water, swam to the boat, climbed into it, pushed it alongside of the men, pulled him in and paddled back to the tug and laid the form of the unconscious man before the furnace fire. Both the captain and the drunk came out of this experience none the worse for wear.

Saved by a Jacknife

The early pioneers made much use of an axe and a cross-cut saw, but they simply could not live without a jackknife. This statement is proven by the experience of my brother John Wheeler in the fall of ’88 or ’89. The bay had just barely frozen over, the ice thin and glossy. Skating with tremendous speed over the thin ice, he ran into an air hole and was unable to get out. He attempted over and over again to crawl, out on the ice, but there was no rough place where he could obtain any hold; each time the buttons on his mackinaw would catch on the ice and prevent him from getting out. He was fast becoming numb with the cold. He thought of his jackknife and knew that if he could get it out of his pocket and open it, he could cut holes in the inch-thick ice through which he could get his fingers, and in that way, get out. With John, to think was to act. He immediately put his hand in pocket and, of course, commenced to sink. He almost immediately went to the bottom in 10 feet of water, and lying there on his back. He took his jackknife out of his pocket, opened it and came to the top. It was the work of but a moment to cut the holes in the ice, climb out and skate swiftly home.

Frozen Mittens

In the early days, it was the custom of many people in Oneota to cut ice from the bay in the winter time, cover it with sawdust and keep it for summer use. When this was done, a fence was put up around the open place in the bay, as soon as the ice had been taken out. Either through carelessness or through some misunderstanding, no fence was placed about the open hole in the water one winter when Mart Wheeler came walking home from Superior across the Bay. In the darkness of the night he walked directly into this hole and the slippery ice made it impossible for him to get out. Taking off his mittens and wetting them, he placed them about a foot from the edge and remained in the water while the mittens froze fast. When they were solid, he obtained a hold and pulled himself out of the Bay and proceeded home.

Some Material Accomplishments

Henry W. Wheeler owned a half-interest in the dredge that dug the ship canal through Minnesota point about 1870. He brought the tug Agate to the Head of the lakes in 1869 under a charter, and purchased the tug Amethyst in 1870. One of the stories my father enjoyed telling and one to which I certainly rejoiced to listen was the story of the saving of the tug Bob Anderson during the big storm of 1872. The canal had been dug but the piers had not been built. A breakwater had been made projecting south from 4th Ave. East and several docks and elevators had been built on the lakeshore inside the breakwater.

A terrible northeast storm came up in November. Our tug Amethyst was anchored inside the canal. The Bob Anderson was moored to the dock outside, about one block south of the railroad tracks on 1st Ave. East. At dusk, about 5:00 pm, Father and Mart Wheeler, my oldest brother, who was 22 or 23 years old and the pilot on the Amethyst, walked across the Point from the bay side to the lakeside to see whether or not the breakwater was holding against the big waves.

As they looked, a section of the break water gave way and the Bob Anderson felt the full force of the waves. The tug rose, fell and surged at her moorings. Mart said, “What a pity to let a fine tug like that be pounded to pieces on the dock.” Father replied, “If she were ours we’d take her in.” just then, a larger wave hurled the boat high in the air and broke the bow line. Mart said, “I’m going to take her in,” and ran down to the dock where the fireman was just climbing off and said, “Come on, we’ll take her inside.” Mart grabbed an axe and cut the stern line, the tug was free, the fireman handled the engine, and with Mart at the wheel, she steamed out into the open lake.

The waves were mountain-high, darkness was almost upon them, snow flurries dimmed the little light that was left and there were no canal lights for there were no piers at the canal. Father had a lantern in his hand; he found a pike pole and, fastening the light at its end, placed it as near the north side of the canal as he could go. The tug went out into the lake, turned and came straight for the canal, but the darkness and snow made it impossible to see, so almost in the breakers the young pilot turned again to the open lake and, with wonderful skill, managed to turn and head again for the canal. This time the clouds cleared somewhat and he saw the outline of the hills back of West Duluth and found the range he had often used to steer through the canal at night. He brought her safely through on two huge waves and now he carries a solid gold watch and chain given him by the citizens of Duluth for heroic action in time of danger. The captain of the steamer St. Paul attempted to do the same thing, but succeeded in beaching his boat.

When the canal was dug, Superior people feared that the current of the river would be deflected through the ship canal and that would allow the natural entry to fill up with sand, hence they insisted that a dike be built between Rice’s Point and Minnesota Point about half a mile below the canal. My father claimed that he had made the first hole in the dike the year after it was completed. He threw a tow line over one of the piled and then pulled it out with the tug. Then he hitched on again until he had made a hole big enough for the tug to pass through. It was senseless to travel out through the lake, down to the entry and then back from Superior to get up to Oneota. He applied direct action and obtained results.

He built his own log house, frame house and barn. He made his own sleighs for both logging uses and general purposes. He even did the blacksmith work in connection with these sleighs. He built an iceboat, fashioning the iron runners himself. He also built a revolving churn. He established the first shipyard at the Head of the Lakes and built his own floating dry dock. He re-built the wrecked tug Amethyst on the North Shore of Lake Superior, 9 miles beyond Beaver Boy. He repaired the engine and broken steam pipes and brought her into Duluth under her own steam. He brought the first carload of grad Jersey cows to Duluth and owned the first registered full-blooded Jersey sire. He also helped to establish Duluth as a flour milling center, acting as Director and Treasurer of the Duluth Imperial Milling Company for many years and was closely associated with B. C. Church in the operation of that company. He also helped to organize the Old Settler’s Association, was at one time its President and brought about the action which eliminated the use of champagne and other alcoholic liquor at its banquets. He organized the Oneota Cemetery Association and personally supervised the building of its vault.

Henry W. Wheeler helped to organize the Republican Party in St. Paul in 1853 and signed the charter for the first Presbyterian Church in Superior in 1855 or ’56, and ran for the State Legislature in 1860 and received every vote in St. Louis County (just twelve), but was defeated by the Western end of the District in which St. Cloud was located. He was town assessor of Oneota, a member of the School Board of School District No. 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.


Henry W. Wheeler was a Congregationalist by birth and training; he was a Presbyterian by marriage and for years was an Elder in the Presbyterian Church; yet he was Superintendent of a Methodist Sunday School and always entertained the Methodist presiding Elder when he came to town, for the Wheelers had the only spare room in town in those early days. He conducted the family worship every Sunday morning and his voice was always heard in prayer. He was a just man, possessed of Yankee thrift, a clear thinker, endowed with a wonderful memory and his word was as good as his bond.

Sarah C. Wheeler, his wife, was born in Broome County, New York, August 17, 1828. She was the oldest of five sisters, daughters of James Brewster and Hester Christopher Brewster. Mother was a deeply religious woman of serious demeanor, but kind-hearted 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 in the devotions on Sunday morning. She superintended Sunday Schools where men could not be found and waged a real war against alcohol and tobacco among her Sunday School boys. She went to sleep June 9, 1910 in her 82nd year, tired out, yes worn out, in service to her family and friends.


The Henry and Sarah Wheeler family, year unknown. (Image; Tom Wheeler)

The following is a brief record of the children of Henry W. Wheeler and Sarah C. Wheeler and their families:

Martyn Wheeler, steamboat captain, born May 13, 1849; married Mary C. Ely, niece of Edmund F. Ely, May 1870; five children in the family, three of whom grew to womanhood, Miss Winnifred, a school teacher; Ethel, now Mrs. Fred Webster, and Mable, now Mrs. Edward Abeling of Goldendale, Washington.

Elizabeth Wheeler Merritt, born August 27, 1851, died July 28, 1902. She married Leonidas Merritt in 1872; four children in the family, three of whom grew to maturity. They are: Ruth Merritt, Lucien Merritt, mechanical engineer, and Harry Merritt, Secretary of the Northern Dredge & Dock Company.

Etta Wheeler Merritt, born April 3, 1854. She married John E. Merritt (son of Rev. Lucien T. Merritt) Thanksgiving Day, 1887; four children in the family, two grown to maturity. They are: Miss Callie Merritt, teacher of English in the Irving Junior High School and Miss Edna, teacher at Lawler, Minnesota.

Julia A. Wheeler, born September 2, 1856, unmarried, probably the first white child born within the present boundaries of the city of Duluth.

John James Wheeler (missing information). He married Ellen Brown, daughter of Martin Brown; one child, Henry W. Wheeler, Jr.; now living in Seattle, Washington.

Susie May Wheeler, born may 2, 1861, died November 11, 1864.

Harry Wheeler, steam shovel engineer, born March 2, 1863, died August 2, 1913. He married Jennie Clinch. The children are: Ruben Henry and Brewster Wakeman, both of whom served overseas in the World War, Douglass, Paul, Wallace, Carol and Myra. This family is now living in Oregon.

Duane Wheeler, civil engineer, born July 15, 1866. He married Althea Richardson, daughter of Ira k. Richardson, former Duluth Alderman; three children in the family, two of whom grew to maturity. They are: James and Roger, the former is a geologist now in charge of a party in South Africa and the latter, a freshman at the State University.

Carrie L. Wheeler, unmarried, born August 26, 1868, the brightest, happiest of the entire family, honor graduate of the Duluth Central High School Class of ’89 in spite of ill health. He died March 1, 1900.

Bert N. Wheeler, realtor, formerly County Superintendent of Schools, was born August 31, 1870. He married May Whitmore of Montevideo September 12, 1905; two children, Isabelle, a Senior in the Duluth Central High School and Hubert, eleven years old.

Father’s Last Years

The last years of Father’s life were spent at 3407 West Third Street in a house he had planned and built in 1894, surrounded by his children and grandchildren and without any serious regret in his long, useful life. Just a few weeks before he died, while sitting on the chopping block near his wood pile (he split mill wood for exercise and pleasure) he said to me, “Bert, these last 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”.

He died on his birthday, March 19, 1906, having completed 85 years of honest service, leaving the world better and brighter for his living in it.

Henry W. Wheeler and Sarah C. Wheeler are buried yonder on the hill they often climbed, now the cemetery Father organized.

They lived a life of upright usefulness,
They were just, true and neighborly,
They raised a family in the fear of God,
They carried on.
Who can do more?


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