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.