James S. Buck

Safe haven for deserters

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The Water Street store of Ludington, Birchard and Co., where trigger-happy Army officers were not welcome. Illustration from James S. Buck’s Pioneer History of Milwaukee.

In his Pioneer History of Milwaukee, early settler James S. Buck notes the fledgling city became a safe-haven for U.S. Army deserters in the 1830s.

In those years, Buck wrote, the existence of hell as a punishment for the wicked in the hereafter was much debated among theologians but an earthly hell, “certainly as far as the common soldiers were concerned,” was a reality. It was in Portage, Wis., and it was called Fort Winnebago.

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Dead moved to make way for church

St. James Episcopal Church

St. James Episcopal Church occupies an enviable site in downtown Milwaukee. Located on Wisconsin Avenue opposite the public library and the Wisconsin Club, construction of the church involved removing a pioneer cemetery. Carl Swanson photo

The spirits of Milwaukee’s early pioneers may have said, “You can build your church over my dead body.” And that’s just what the founders of St. James Episcopal Church did. The historic church at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave., is squarely atop the Spring Street Burial Ground, once the resting place of many of the city’s first European settlers. (more…)

High-proof whiskey

A prank played on a whiskey-loving visitor in Milwaukee's early days gave a new meaning to the term "strong drink." Illustration by Carl Swanson

A prank played on a whiskey-loving visitor in Milwaukee’s early days gave a new meaning to the term “strong drink.” Illustration by Carl Swanson

Early settler James S. Buck wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee [1881], which chronicled events both great and small – plus a few Buck found too funny not to share. For example, many historians recorded the construction of Milwaukee’s first courthouse, but only Buck gave us “The Courthouse Trouser Disaster.”

In the summer of 1845, John Shields, a fellow resident of the boarding house at which Buck was staying, ran afoul of the historian – and paid the price.

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The great courthouse trouser disaster of 1841

first_courtIn 1836, Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s founder, and his business partner Morgan Martin built the city’s first courthouse. The two story wooden building cost the men $5,000, a considerable sum of money in those days. Upon its completion, Juneau and Martin, who jointly owned much of what is today the East Side, donated the building and its plot of land (today’s Cathedral Square) to the county.

The second floor courtroom witnessed some of the most dramatic moments in early Milwaukee history. It was here, in 1852, that Mary Ann Wheeler stood trial for the murder of her lover John Lace. Here, also, three men faced charges of breaking into the city jail in 1854 and rescuing fugitive slave Joshua Glover. A Milwaukee jury acquitted those men.

Early settler James S. Buck, who wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee [1881], sat on the jury that refused to convict Glover’s rescuers. Thirteen years earlier, Buck had also been present at a less significant but equally memorable scene at the first courthouse. (more…)

Milwaukee: Beautiful then and now

In places, the Milwaukee River still looks much as it did when Native Americans were the only residents. Photo by Carl Swanson

In places the Milwaukee River still looks much as it did when Native Americans were the only residents. Photo by Carl Swanson

James S. Buck was one of Milwaukee’s first white settlers. In his later years, he wrote a four-volume history of the founding and growth of the city. In the following passage, Buck describes the land as it was when he encountered it, when the area was still part of Michigan Territory.

 This description will, I think, give a very correct idea of the appearance of Milwaukee in a state of nature. To say that it was simply beautiful does not express it; it was more than beautiful – those bluffs, so round and bold, covered with just sufficient timber to shade them well, and from whose tops could be seen the lake extending beyond the reach of human vision, while between them ran the river, like a silver thread; not the filthy sewer it is today, but a clear stream, in which the Indian could detect and spear fish at the depth of 12 and even 18 feet, and upon whose surface sparkled the rays of the morning sun, as upon a mirror. No wonder it had received the appellation of the Beautiful Land. I certainly have never seen a more beautiful spot upon the entire lakeshore. Yea, and it is beautiful today, but its beauty today and in 1836 are different. The former was the work of God, the latter of man. – A Pioneer History of Milwaukee, From the First American Settlement in 1833 to 1841, James S. Buck, Swain & Tate publishers, 1890. 

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James S. Buck

James S. Buck