The Life Before the Death of Joseph Chicken Sr.

 Every now and then when doing genealogy research, I strike gold so to speak. I come across a bit of information that leaves my mind blown away and makes me realizes how much I still have to learn. Sometimes it is good like a picture or the name of an unknown ancestor and sometimes it is details about an ancestor previously unknown to me. This time it falls into the latter category.

As you recall, I ended the last post with the above clipping from a newspaper. When I hit the publish button, I thought it was probably then end of my research on Joseph. But over a night's sleep, I decided to dig a little deeper. The above article was one of about a half dozen exact boilerplate versions printed in regional newspapers but not from the one closest to where he lived where many of the other articles I shared came from. It seemed odd that the local one didn't publish one. I hoped it was just the search function didn't capture his name and than manually scanning the newspaper might yield a result. Boy did it. Because the original article is hard to read, I will transcribe it and just attach the actual article to the end of this post.


This community was terribly shocked last Saturday morning by the news that Joseph Chicken had committed suicide the night before. Saturday morning Henry Leach went over to Mr. Chicken's home, as was his custom every morning, and upon gaining entrance to the house was met by a spectacle which horrified him. The body of Mr. Chicken lay across a box on the floor with a terrible gash cut in his throat. Henry Leach immediately summoned aid but his body was found to be quite cold and stiff and it was evident that he had committed the deed early the previous evening and supposedly soon after James Leach and Dr. Jones had taken him home and fixed everything comfortably for him for the night.

Justice W. R. Eastman, acting coroner, went to the house and viewed the corpse and it being so palpable how death was caused, did not consider it necessary or advisable to hold an inquest.

Mr. Chicken has lived in this state for 20 years, most of which have been passed in this county and was respected and admired by all who knew him. It is less than four months ago that this paper gave a history of his life upon his attaining the great age of 91 years, which occurred on November 3rd, 1902, and little did we think at that time that we would so soon be called on to chronicle his death in such a sad and sudden manner.

It is thought from remarks made by the deceased within the past few weeks, which were thought little of at the time, that he had been contemplating the idea for some little while and possibly the terrible storm of Friday night prompted him to commit the deed at that time.  Mr. and Mrs. James Leach and other relatives here have pleaded with him earnestly to come and live with them since his wife died, but the old gentleman was of an independent nature and preferred to live in his own home. His relatives here have done every thing possible to make his declining years easy and comfortable for him.

Mr. Chicken leaves a son named Robert living at West Union, Iowa, and one daughter, Mrs. E. A. Sawtell, Stevens Point, Wis.

Short funeral services were conducted at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Leach Monday afternoon, by Rev. E. Dietrich, at which a special selection of the deceased's was read and afterwards his body was laid to rest in the Spring Hill cemetery.

The Dakota Chief - 5 Mar 1903 - page 4 

I have read a lot of death notices of ancestors over the years but few have ever provided such detail about the death or provided other clues worthy of investigation. First and foremost was the mention of a history of his life written "less than four months ago" in the same newspaper. I started with the first newspaper after his birthday which until this article, was unknown to me. It wasn't there but the newspaper published the following week had what I was looking for. 


Joseph Chicken, a highly respected citizen of this place has long since passed the allotted span of life and Monday of last week rounded out a busy and eventful life of four score and eleven years.

Mr. Chicken was born in the city and county of Durham, England, on November 3, 1811, during the reign of old King George the Third the crusty old monarch who won an unenviable place in American history during revolutionary times. He resided in his native country during the reigns of George the Fourth, William the Fourth, and marched in the procession in 1837 at the coronation of the good Queen Victoria.

Mr. Chicken's life has been one of incessant toil and many hardships, but even at his advanced age he is remarkably active, retains his mental faculties to a remarkable degree, keeps posted on current events of the day through the papers which he reads thoroughly; he discussed the topics of the day in a most comprehensive manner, chops his own wood, does his own chores and cares for a little flock of chickens from which he derives an income that almost supplies his daily wants.

Left without a mother's care at an age when memory left no impression of her upon his mind, his childhood days were spent in toil and drudgery. Often up to the time he was 13 years of age he was compelled to get up at 1 o'clock in the morning to harness his team and haul goods from the seaport to the inland towns. He only had six months of schooling during this time, which was all the schooling he ever had.

At thirteen he entered the Durham hirings, where the wealthier classes came to hire their servants and secured employment for five years in a family, his compensation being his board and clothes. Later he secured a better place, where he received a salary of £4 or about $20.00 a year. During these years he learned to read, write and figure, studying at nights and Sundays. Possessed of good memory and extraordinary natural ability, he acquired a taste for good literature, which has been a source of great benefit and comfort to him in his later years. He afterwards married and worked in the English coal mines, many hundred feet under ground, where wages were higher and he could better support his wife and children.

In 1849 he embarked for America and landed at New Orleans. He ascended the Mississippi river in a steamboat, when nearly all on board were stricken with cholera and many died. He however withstood the ravages of the disease and finally landed at New Diggings, Wisconsin, at which place was located an English lead mining colony and where his family followed him the next year.

In 1883 he emigrated to South Dakota and was one of the pioneer settlers of Buffalo county. He has always had a loyal and abiding faith in a glorious future for our country and is a typical frontier citizen. 

His faithful wife who through long years of sunshine and storm followed him down the decline of life's pathway, sharing alike the  joys and sorrows of their humble life, passed to her reward a year and a half ago, and although she was blind for many years, their home was an inspiration, even to those enjoying more abundantly the comforts and luxuries of life. 

Mr. Chicken's life, spanning as it does nearly a century of time, most forcibly illustrates the wonderful progress that has been made in the world during a single lifetime. The railroads, now the artery of commerce all over the world, the steamships, telegraph, telephone, ocean cable, the thousands of appliances of electricity, the mowers, binders sewing machines, and nearly all the modern appliances of the present time which go to make up, not only the luxuries but the seeming necessities of our modern civilization, have all been invented or brought to their present state of perfection during the life of this one man. The educational facilities of today are a most remarkable contrast to the opportunities - or rather lack of opportunities - which he experienced in his childhood, and the advantages of today shine more resplendent by such comparisons.

We hope that Mr. Chicken may live to reach the century mark and from that eminence of time review the progress of a hundred years, and the prospects are that his chances are excellent for doing so.

The Dakota Chief - 13 November 1902 - page 4 

The detail of the article leaves me almost breathless, especially when describing his childhood. I do not know his parents though have suspected his father might be named John according to one English record I have found. But since there are lots of Chickens in the area, I'm not going to conclusively say that by any stretch of the imagination. Many online family trees list his mother as Elizabeth Waddle who lived to 1850 or when Joseph was in his late 30's, a direct contradiction to this article obtained from him firsthand. So another reason to never trust what other's have put in their trees without verifying with evidence.

These two articles have made me want to drop everything and chew on this awhile. His childhood sounds just terrible and is part of a history I have not studied. Unfortunately the article doesn't really mention his first wife by name, well either wife for that matter, but does say she was blind for many years. So many things that make my mind itch that I now need to scratch.

Copies of the original articles:

The Dakota Chief - 13 Nov 1902 - p4

The Dakota Chief - 5 Mar 1903 - p4


  1. I suppose at one time, members of the community were the most interesting news, and it is indeed interesting that so much detail was given. Even so, it's hard to imagine killing oneself that way.

    1. I can't imagine. But taking a step back, he probably didn't own a gun, lived far away from pharmacies stocked with drugs and in a land of one story sod houses. He didn't have as many options as we do.

  2. What an incredible story (and horrific death!!). No, they don't write newspaper stories like they use to!

    1. It sounds horrific but other than the initial pain of the cut, it probably wasn't too bad. I certainly can think of many other ways I would prefer not to go over that way.

  3. My parents used the expression "gone to his/her reward" so I do also. I'm thankful that old newpaper articles went into such great detail; we find out so much information from them. I pity future genealogists.

    1. This one was a goldmine of information. I can't think of another ancestor where I learned so much detail about their childhood, especially overseas.

  4. Wow Ed. That is quite a write up - and quite a history. Part of me wants to say that we, on the whole, are not made of such sterner stuff, but perhaps it is just my myopic view of the world.

    His unfortunate end does not surprise me in that he seemed (from the write up) to very much be a man of independent nature who wanted to provide for himself and his family and not be "taken care of". Such things weigh heavily on the mind of those individuals when suddenly they find at some level, their independence coming to an end. I have seen it in my own family and it can be handled very differently. Too, I am sure losing your spouse of many years and, as you note, being alone in a one story sod house weighs heavily on the mind.

    1. That is a very good way of looking at things and not one that I had considered. Although this is a bit of foreshadowing, his mother died when he was just a toddler and it sounds like his father wasn't much of one, so he was pretty much independent as long as he could remember. Losing all that had to have been a blow.

  5. Wow. What a gold mine of information! Maybe I've watched too many true crime TV shows, but am I the only one who thinks his death sounds suspicious? Would someone really cut their own throat with a pocket knife? How did they know he wasn't attacked by someone?

    1. I suppose it is possible but I'm not sure what there would be to gain by doing so to a 92 year old man. By all accounts, he wasn't wealthy and I'm not sure estates could be planned in a sophisticated manner back then so that someone other than surviving children could benefit.


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