Friday, August 13, 2010

Spending a Day in Colchester

Road to Colchester

I know a lot about the middle of my 3rd great grandfather Joseph Baker's life but know little about his beginning and end. So on a whim, I decided to spend a day closer to his beginning in an attempt to decipher some of his past. I hopped in the car and drove to Colchester, Illinois.

I have no official record that Joseph Baker ever resided in Colchester during the time that he was there from the late 1860's to the early 1870's, not even a census record. All I have are two obituaries of two of his kids who mentioned being born in the town. Birth records for 1869 and 1870 when Joseph's two children Frances Ellen and 2nd great grandfather John Henry were born do not exist as did most birth records across the nation pre-1880 when it became law. My hope was to dig through non-transcribed records such as deeds, naturalization, marriage and tax records in hopes of finding the anchor tying to the area and perhaps get some insight as to where they came from.

I first went to the regional records archive in nearby Macomb and thanks to a very helpful young lady named Heather, was soon flipping through books 140 years old. I started with the deeds hoping that perhaps Joseph bought and eventually sold some property but came up empty. I wasn't surprised since he only lived in the area a few years and knowing the history of the area, probably never did more than rent. Even when he finally made it to Iowa, he was listed as a farmhand two years before he mysteriously died at age 35. I did find a John H. Baker, too old to be my 2nd great grandfather John Henry Baker who was obviously an influential person in the area and bought several dozen properties between the years of 1861 and 1879. There were also numerous records for a Jonathan, William and Lewis Baker during that same time period so perhaps my Joseph came over with his family and settled in the area. Perhaps John H. Baker is Joseph's father and the person Joseph named his son and my 2nd great grandfather John Henry after. All questions that I would like to get answered someday as time permits.

I've written earlier about Joseph Baker being a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and tracking down his Iowa membership record only to find that it said, "Index Only," which I have taken to mean he was a member elsewhere. Seeing that he lived in western Illinois in the years after the Civil War, I had hoped that perhaps he had joined there and they might have a record. Although Heather was able to locate several Civil War record indexes for the area, she was unable to get any other GAR records other than a roster of the dead for the local area. Since my 3rd great grandfather Joseph Baker died several hundred miles away, it wasn't surprising that he wasn't listed.

Since Joseph Baker was an immigrant, I checked out the naturalization records but found none. I also looked into tax records, marriage records and a few more misc. records but found no record pertaining to him or his family. Perhaps that is explained by the history of the town of Colchester which I read up on my next stop at the local library.

Colchester was largely a boom town largely populated by British immigrants who came in the mid 1850's to the area to mine the plentiful coal nearby. The coal had been mined for a couple decades previously but it wasn't until the railroad came to town that it really took off. These "colliers", the British term for coal miners in England, found that they could mine coal for more profit and in safer conditions than they could back in their native country and so arrived in droves. Soon the Civil War interrupted things and the coal business grew stagnate while many of the young men were fighting down south.

It is said, that the mining men of Colchester played an important part in the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863 during the Civil War. The Confederate Fort Hill was so protected that the north lost many lives trying to capture it without success. So the Colchester miners were enlisted to dig a tunnel underneath the fort and blow it up. On June 25th, Fort Hill was indeed blown up though not very successful as the explosion caused a protective ridge to form right behind a depression that offered shelter for the Confederate soldiers. So the miners were sent back in to dig another tunnel and on July 1rst, Fort Hill was blown up successfully this time and three days later on July 4th, the Confederates surrendered. General McPherson personally congratulated the miners for their efforts and awarded them a new suit of clothes and a furlough as soon as possible. The mining men of Colchester would continue on fighting in more battles such as Shiloh and many would not return.

Upon those that could return, the coal business again thrived but several strikes and the depression in the mid 1870's caused the price of coal to be depressed forcing many in town to leave. My Joseph Baker was one of those who left and headed northwest into northeast Iowa where his descendents would live until the time of my grandmother and they left for the warmer climates of southeast Iowa.

I drove onto Colchester where I ate lunch at a corner cafe and tried to imagine life 140 years ago there. The railroad still goes through town and still carries coal but doesn't stop to pick up any local coal. Like many modern rural towns, it seemed depressed with more businesses boarded up than were open. Other than a couple of the older churches and a few buildings in the older part of town, most of the Colchester that my 3rd great grandfather Joseph knew has been torn down. I spent some time walking around hoping that I crossed his path a time or two and reluctantly headed home as the rain began to fall. Colchester may have been a dead end in tracing my ancestry of the Baker line but at least I got a sense of what the life of Joseph may have been like.


sage said...

Grant tried the same trick (blowing up Confederate lines) in Petersburg, VA. I didn't know he learned it in Vicksburg. There he used PA miners to tunnel under the southern defences and packed it with gunpower and blew a huge hold in the lines. Northern troops rushed in but the explosion was too powerful and created a crater. A confederate calvary unit was nearby and quickly lined the other side of the crater, plugging the break in the line while more reinforcements arrived. The soldiers that went charging in couldn't scale the other side of the crater and as more packed in, it became a disaster for the north. When we moved to Petersburg just before I started school, the "Battle of the Crater" site was just down the road.

Ed said...

Sage - That almost sounds identical to this battle. The first attempt that created a ridge that the Union soldiers couldn't scale easily yet provided ample protection for the Confederate soldiers. Many Union soldiers died before they withdrew and tried their second attempt which was ended up being successful. I didn't include all that because it was off the subject but it is fascinating to know. Evidently we yanks were slow learners if we repeated the mistake up in Pennsylvania.

Vince said...

This they got right but only because they played a hand of cards before ignition.

Baker is the chap from Derbyshire in England ?.
The other Baker you found was he a farmer or miner. For there would have a strict demarcation in the home country which would have been used to control in the first generation of settlers. This control would only last for one generation or about 15 years or so.

Ed said...

Vince - I'm not sure where my Joseph Baker is from in England. His wife whom I wrote about more recently here, was from Cumberworth Half, Yorkshire, England. I'm not sure the proximity to Derbyshire. I've not spent time looking into the census records of the other Bakers I found on my trip to Colchester to determine their occupations but in the only census I have of Joseph Baker in 1880, he was listed as a farm laborer. This however would have been after he left the mining industry in Colchester, assuming he was a miner and not a store clerk or some other occupation supporting the mining industry.

R. Sherman said...

Mining never works. It was tried by the Brits at Messines Ridge, I think, during WWI and did nothing except blow a big hole in the ground.


R. Sherman said...

Whoops. I posted the above before seeing Vince's comment.


PhilippinesPhil said...

I beg to differ with you Mr Sherman. Military sappers & miners as siege busters have been around for as long as fortresses and city walls have been, and "undermining" as a military tactic has been very successful for literally thousands of years. Many of the largest crusader castles were taken down by their Muslim besiegers by way of mining, using fire instead of explosives to undermine and bring down even the largest of Crusader walls. I was on temporary assignment at Ft Lee, which abutts the Petersburgh Crater Memorial a few years ago. Awesome historical site. I spent days exploring every inch of it. There is an interesting footnote to the subsequent Union failure to take advantage of the Pennsylvannia miners' successful blowing up of the Rebel line. Two brigades of US colored soldiers had trained intensely to attack around the edges of the crater but at the last second were replaced by untrained white troops. The stupid decision to do this was made for racist and political reasons: if the blacks were successful they'd get all the credit (couldn't have that!), and if they weren't, the commander would get all the blame (even worse). The white replacement assault troops were simply told to attack and given no specific orders as to how. As soon as the last of the big stuff stopped falling out of the sky these poor suckers charged directly into the huge hole and soon found there was no way to scale the other side of the pit. They were sitting ducks and were shot like fish in a barrel (how's that for mixing metaphors?).