Elizabeth Otterson: From English coal mines to Wisconsin farms
Contributor: Jim Wagner Created: 2 years ago Updated: 2 years ago
Elizabeth Otterson was the first daughter of 11 children to be born to Nicholas Otterson and Jane Middlemas between 1813 and 1836. We know nothing of her early life other than the fact that she moved with the large family from Sunderland to Jarrow as her father followed the most promising work opportunities in the coal mines of northeastern England or at sea.
Elizabeth was married at Heworth Parish Church on 2 September, 1837 - a Saturday. It was one of the first marriages to be registered in England under the new civil registration laws which made registering a birth, marriage or death compulsory. Her husband was Thomas Parker, who worked as a brakeman at the local coal pit - a miner like her father and his, and like so many others in Jarrow, Hebburn, Heworth and surrounding towns and villages. When England’s first name-by-name census was taken in 1841, Thomas and Elizabeth were still childless. Possibly they had one or two children who died in infancy before then. The infant mortality rate was high, and children born in industrial towns had only about a 50% chance of reaching marriageable age. But in October of 1842, Elizabeth bore a son whom they named Thomas after his father.
It is likely that Elizabeth and Thomas knew from the start they would not stay in England. Even though the industrialization of Britain was gradually raising living standards, the rigid class system and low wages of the times made it almost impossible to break out of the economic straightjacket into which one was born. Elizabeth must have realized that her own new son’s likely future would play out in much the same way as that of her younger brother, John. He was just 15 years old at this time, and had already been working long hours underground in the mines since the age of 8.
When they had accumulated enough to pay the passage to America, Thomas Sr. left. We do not know exactly when - he has not been found on the scanty shipping records of the time - but he located a place to live in Indiana, and his wife and three-year-old son joined him there in 1845.
Indiana in the 1840s
Indiana Territory, so named because of the early trading of land from the Indians, had just 6,650 people in 1800. By 1809 a congressional act gave it roughly its present boundaries and it became a state in 1816. Issues of land speculation, the intractable issue of slavery, the hard-scrabble life that attempted to establish agriculture with no readily accessible markets, and additional treaties with Indian tribes all marked the period between 1800 and 1840. At times, land was selling for between $1.50 and $2 an acre.
There was little industry at that time. Farms were primitive and required hard labor in turning wilderness into productive fields. But from about 1840 things began to change rapidly. The development of the Wabash and Erie Canal was opening up the state. Immigrants began to arrive in larger numbers, land values increased, agriculture found its markets and improved farm machinery began to appear. Soon huge quantities of wheat, flour and corn were being shipped to distant towns in the east, and returning boats brought imports of manufactured goods of all kinds. This was the Indiana that Elizabeth Otterson Parker and her three-year-old son found when they joined their husband and father in 1845.
In June of 1847, a sister to 5-year-old Thomas was born. The Parkers conformed to convention by naming her after her mother (Elizabeth) and her grandmother (Jane), though she would be known in life as Jane or Jannie. Some time between her birth and the summer of 1850, the Parkers moved south across the Ohio River to northern Kentucky, where they set up in Breckinridge County. In the 1850 census, Thomas describes himself as an engineer, so it is unlikely he had taken to farming. Later documentary evidence indicates that in 1852, son Thomas was driving mules pulling coal cars in the Kentucky mines at the age of 10. In fact, familiar work in the Kentucky coal mines may have been a reason for the family’s move from Indiana.
Then, some time still to be discovered between 1850 and 1855, Thomas, Elizabeth’s husband, died, and she was left a widow in her thirties with two children to raise. Elizabeth’s life was about to change again.
The obvious course for a young widow with two children to raise in a vast country was to remarry, and Elizabeth probably married George Blake within two or three years, but certainly before 1855.
How she met George is a puzzle. Years later, a newspaper obituary for son Thomas Parker suggests that George was living in Kentucky in the mid-1850s after he and Elizabeth were married, and that George went north and bought a farm with a friend before building a log cabin for his new family. However, the 1850 federal census has George Blake already working a farm in Wisconsin with Henry Harland, another Englishman, five years earlier than this when the Parkers were still living in Kentucky.
So how and when did Elizabeth and George meet? Either George and the Parkers knew each other before they arrived in America, or they became friends in Indiana or Kentucky in the 1840s before Thomas died. Could they have been friends in England? Like Elizabeth, George was born in England and he was about three years older than his wife. There is, in fact, a George Blake who is an unmarried Durham coal miner about 25 years old on the 1841 census of England, and he is living in the village of Hetton-le-Hole, 12 miles from Jarrow where the Ottersons lived and worked. This is possibly the same George Blake, although we have no confirming evidence that the George in America was born in County Durham. It seems equally likely that the couple first met in Indiana or Kentucky.
Despite the trouble with pinpointing dates and places, George was definitely farming land in Wisconsin in 1850, and by 1855 after the death of Thomas Parker his new family had joined him. Stepson Thomas Parker, now 13, took the train north from Kentucky to the small settlement of Berlin in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, in the autumn of that year, bringing his horse and dog with him. He rode the horse from Berlin to the village of Omro, but from there the road to Winneconne where the cabin was built was so choked with mud that he led the horse by following a rail fence.
It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast for Elizabeth from life in a small English mining town, where the mining company owned the cottages in which the miners lived with their large families and where they survived on virtually a subsistence wage, compared with the sight that must have greeted Elizabeth Otterson Blake every time she stepped out of the front door of her new log cabin, small though it probably was. The farm was substantial - far more than was needed to support one family. Pictures of the farmland as it appears today can be seen on the website otterson.us. It is the very land with its heavy soil where George Blake and Henry Harland lived and farmed in 1850 before George married Elizabeth. It is skirted by two rural roads - Oak Hill Road on its southern edge, with Broderick Road forming its western boundary.
About two years after the Blake family settled this land and planted their first crops (probably wheat, possibly alfalfa and corn), Elizabeth’s mother died in England. Surprisingly, her father Nicholas, despite having to leave a posterity of some 20 grandchildren in England, decided it was time to see his daughter again after 15 years. At the age of around 75 he took passage across the Atlantic. As far as is known, he never returned to England. And about the same time, Nicholas’s son and Elizabeth's brother, Joseph, also emigrated to America.
The Blakes continued to prosper, and by the end of the decade they were successfully farming their quite substantial acreage amounting to one of the largest farms in the area. The Harland land had been split from the original farm they managed together, and was adjacent to the Blake property on its eastern side, but by 1860 it seems to have been rented out to others.
Thomas Parker Jr. (who may have briefly used his stepfather’s name of Blake when he was younger), continued to live on the farm with his parents until 1861, when the issue of slavery and states’ rights that had been simmering for decades in the United States finally boiled over. The American Civil War began in January, with the first shots fired on Fort Sumter on April 12. Thomas left the farm to work with the federal government as a teamster. He always regarded himself as a Civil War veteran, although we have no record of whether he was attached to specific military units. In 1863, with the war still raging, he married Hannah Elliott, an English girl whose parents had turned farmers, and the couple bought the old Harland property next door to his parents.
In 1864, George Blake joined the Union Army, enlisting at nearby Vinland as a member of “G” Company of the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry Regiment. He is listed on page 83 of the Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers as Blake, George F., Corporal.
After the war the Blakes continued to do well. By 1870 their land was worth $7,000. Plat records of Winneconne for 1873 show that George and Elizabeth continued to farm their land to the west while son Thomas and Hannah had the farm to the east, worth a respectable $3,000. A decent section of land was sold to the Elliotts, Hannah’s parents.
A year after the civil war ended, Jannie (Elizabeth Jane) Parker, the only one of the family born in the United States, married Aaron Brogden on 28 January, 1866. Aaron was yet another English-born immigrant. He had come to America at the age of one with his parents, and was working at the nearby saw mill in Omro. Within a year, Jannie had a daughter, and a year after that her brother Thomas and his wife, Hannah, had their first child - a daughter they named Maria Hannah. This gave aging Nicholas Otterson, now in his eighties and still living with daughter Elizabeth on the original farm, two American-born great grandchildren living close by. Daughter Elizabeth was now a grandmother.
In 1878, George Blake - the man with whom Elizabeth had spent her most economically secure years - died at the age of 63. He was buried at the little cemetery over the border of the township of Winneconne, in Poygan, less than two miles to the east along Oak Hill Road. It is a beautiful spot, situated on a rise flanked by pine trees and farmland. Today, a handsome red granite Civil War marker denotes George Blake as a veteran of the American Civil War.
A year later, old Nicholas Otterson died, well into his mid-nineties, although his headstone said 99 years and 9 months. Elizabeth had lost both husband and father within a year and five days.
The center of gravity of the family was now passing to the next generation, and Aaron and Elizabeth Brogden had a large family by 1880, although some of the children died very young.
Thomas Parker saw the passing of his own wife, Hannah, in 1891. Their only child, Maria Hannah, married and had children, and their descendants are probably alive today. Thomas remarried in 1893 to Eunice Jennie Marshall, 12 years his junior, but Jennie as she was known was nearly 40 when they married and they had no children of their own. Thomas’s sister, Jannie - the first of the original pioneering family to be born in the United States - died in 1898.
Thomas and Jennie lived out their lives in Omro Village. He lived until 1933, to the great age of 91, and Jennie died in 1949. A large crowd attended Thomas Parker’s funeral. The local newspaper, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, noted in its obituary that there were five grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren, plus several nieces and nephews. The heading in the newspaper was: “Aged Omro Pioneer, Civil War Vet, Dies.”
Today, the descendant families have drifted away from their early farming roots along the Wolf River, and no memory of the Blakes remains among the farming families who now till the land and grow corn and soybean crops on the same acreage.
[Extracted from the website otterson.us, by the author]