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From Maine to the Midwest

The Sylvester Family Journey to Wisconsin in 1844

View Sylvester Journey - 1844 in a larger map

The Route from Maine to Wisconsin in 1844

Sylvester Family Plot

Sylvester Family Plot
Graceland Cemetery, Mineral Point, Iowa Co., WI, Located at
Lat/Long 42.857883,-90.195717

The following article was originally published in Desert Tracker, the journal of the West Valley Genealogical Society serving Northwest Maricopa County, Arizona: Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2004. The Desert Tracker's policy is that the copyright is retained by the author (in this case me). As copyright owner I grant permission to those who wish to use this article for their personal genealogical research and records. I do not grant permission for commercial or other purposes. I also have a copy of the article in Adobe Acrobat PDF format and I will be glad to share it by e-mail upon request.

Caleb Barker Sylvester and his wife Joanna (Whitney) Sylvester, and family moved halfway across the country to southwestern Wisconsin in 1844, settling in Grant County.

While the Sylvester's precise motives may never be known, their decision took them away from a lifetime of familiar surroundings. Even though Caleb and Joanna came from old families long associated with New England(1), they nonetheless gathered their belongings and traveled to the new frontier.

The Eastern United States stood at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. New modes of travel made the Sylvester's journey easier than it would have even a generation earlier. Still the trip took about a month, and it required financial commitment, personal inconvenience and presented a little danger. Railroads, canals, and steamers brought the family steadily towards Chicago. Upon hitting the frontier, the Sylvesters switched to horse and foot. Settlers had begun moving into the area ahead of the Sylvesters and signs of infrastructure could already be seen. Even as the family arrived in these relatively untouched areas, the frontier continued to move west.

Upon his arrival, Caleb wrote a letter to his brother Charles back home, recalling the details of the family's journey, and presented a fascinating first-hand account of geography, transportation, agriculture and commerce in the Great Lakes Region mid-century.

In August 2002 I received a packet of material from a fellow Caleb Sylvester descendant(2) which included a typewritten copy of the letter(3). By examining other of the packet's documents, produced using the same typewriter, I believe that the transcription of the original letter likely took place circa 1910. While it would be optimal to have the original letter in-hand to help determine its authenticity, a basic search of facts presented in the letter shows that they are appropriate to the times, places, and people mentioned. What follows is a lightly edited version of the letter (to remove obvious typographical errors) from the 1910 transcription while attempting to preserve the original 1844 wording and syntax. Footnotes have been added to provide further context and clarity.

The 1910 transcription of the letter includes the following introduction:

COPY OF AN ANCIENT LETTER recently in the possession of Mr. Wm. H. True(4), of New Gloucester, Maine. He is the youngest son of Eliza Sylvester(5) (Widow Hanscom) later wife of Jonathan True; and a sister of Caleb, William, Charles, etc., children of Charles and Lucy Barker Sylvester.

This letter was mailed at Jamestown, Wis.(6) Nov. 22, 1844., postage paid in cash 25¢; addressed to Charles Sylvester, Jr. Esq.(7), Phillips, Me.; remailed to Charles Sylvester, Sr(8): Caleb's father at Mt. Vernon Hill, for 10¢ additional postage; and written on a single sheet of paper, folded so that it formed the wrapper, and sealed with a wafer, because the law required extra postage for each separate piece of paper.

This letter is now ["now" as in approximately 1910 - ed.] in the possession of Velma Sylvester Barber(9) of Washington, D.C.

And the 1910 transcription of the letter is as follows:

Jamestown, Wis., Nov. 17, 1844

Dear Charles:

We arrived at this place on the fifth Instant, having been just one month on our Journey. We stood the Journey very well except the three little ones, (viz) Fairfield(10) and Emma(11) and Eliza's boy(12). They were taken sick in New York and continued unwell through the remainder of the Journey.

I shall not attempt to give you a description of the Country this time, but will give you a Sketch of our Journey, and some of the places as we passed along. We arrived at Father's the same evening after we left your house and Found them in comfortable health. Left the next morning and arrived in Hallowell in time to take the boat for Boston. Arrived in Boston about daylight next morning. Fare to Boston $13.00, freight $1.37-$14.37. Here we found Lydia(13) and Sylvanus(14), John Haley and Joseph Hinkley. They accompanied us into New York as far as the vicinity of Lyons, where the Lakes live. Sylvanus is with us but we left Lydia in Boston. In Boston we bought our passage to Chicago, (Ill). for $12.64 for every full passenger. We got off with 5-1/2 full passengers, myself and wife, Syl. and Geo(15). Paid each a full passage, the others down to Fairfield paid half price. Fairfield and Emma paid nothing, so that I paid in Boston as passage money $82.16 to Chicago and for freight to the same place, $9.37.

We left Boston in the evening about 7 o'clock and arrived in Worcester, Mass. About 10, and stopped till next day at one. The Worcester agricultural cattle show and fair today. And we saw some excellent specimens of Mass. Husbandry in the shape of sheep, hogs and cattle. Left W. and arrived Springfield the same evening. Springfield is remarkable for nothing but its being a great Rail Road depot.

Left S. and arrived at Albany Thursday evening. At Albany we found three of the young Stevens(16) in waiting for us. We also saw Mr. Lowell of your town in Albany. This is a place of much business lying on the noble Hudson and at the foot of the Erie Canal, makes is a great business place. I saw the largest quantity of lumber here that I ever saw anywhere, brought down mostly for freight.

We left Albany on Friday in the Canal Boat and arrived in Buffalo the next Friday, just one week. We passed many beautiful places on the Canal, such as Troy, Utica, Rochester, Syracuse and many others. We passed Lockport in the night, -- at this place there are five locks, locking up 12 ft. each. This is the grandest work of stone that I ever saw.

I visited as I passed along, some flouring mills in full operation, putting up flour for "Down East". There is 69 miles of this canal without a lock. This is strictly New York. It is in the vicinity of the small lakes where Peltiah Whitney(17) and the Calrtons stopped and where but a few New England men can live. Its soil is very fertile and yields vast quantities of wheat and all the necessaries of life in abundance. The fields of wheat already look like June. Large quantities of Salt are made at various places on this canal. The boats pass down the canal loaded with lumber of all kinds, wheat, flour and salt, and returning, take Merchandise and Passengers.

When we arrived at Buffalo there were four Boats ready to sail that evening, already crowded with passengers. But ourselves being in not quite so much of a hurry chose to sail the next morning. After those boats had been out a few hours there arose such a gale of wind as Buffalo had never before experienced. The wind blew from the Northwest which raised the water 5 or 10 feet above its common tide, filled the groceries and other basement stories near the shore and almost every person who slept in the lower stories and small houses near the shore were drowned. The loss of property and lives must have been immense, as my own eyes can witness. Fifty three bodies were found the next day mostly women and children. Of the four boats which sailed that evening, one became a wreck with the loss of a few lives. The others were driven into different places more or less damaged, with the loss of some few lives(18).

Buffalo is a beautiful city. Its market is bountifully supplied with all the eatables desirable, its beef exceeds anything of the kind I ever saw. Well, after laying in some "necessaries for the Voyage" we sailed on Monday noon in the Steamship Great Western, Capt. Walker, for Chicago, 21st Oct. The weather for the most part was pleasant and we enjoyed ourselves as well as could be expected - for women and children cannot enjoy themselves much in a vessel containing about 700 passengers. We arrived at Chicago the next Saturday evening. We hired a room at this place and tarried four days. Undoubtedly there is more wheat sold at this place than any other one place in the world. The quantity is immense and what is more strange it is all drawn in on wagons by horses and oxen. To satisfy myself as to the quantity I inquired of those who bought, and they stated that the average quantity per day in good travelling was ten thousand bushels. One day they received fifteen Thousand bushels.

The wheat passes through the lakes to Canada and New York to be manufactured into flour. This place too, is the greatest place for horses by a long ways that I ever saw, and if other people say true, the greatest horse-market in the world. You can buy a horse of any description and at any price any day of the week, not excepting Sunday, if you want.

The City of Chicago is situated on a low prairie, the lake shore a little higher than it is back. It is a place where articles of every description except fruit can be bought as cheap as elsewhere. At this place Lorenzo bought a wagon and a span of horses and one harness for which he gave about 160 dollars. He bought of a man about 1r0 [sic.] miles south from the Wabash Country in (Ill,) brought here for sale. Said he had ten all old enough for use. We tarried at this place 4 days and then resumed our Journey farther west having hired a part of our luggage hauled as far as Rock River by a wheat man. We traveled in this way 6 days and for about 40 miles the prairie was rather boggy, with now and then a settler. This was the most fatiguing and expensive of our journey. This part maybe valuable at some future day when it can be drained. After this the land grew higher and drier and began to look like land - In the vicinity of Fox and Rock and Apple River, the soil was all that it was cracked up to be; the fields of wheat were green from 10 to 100 acres each, and corn in like quantities, and roots of every kind flourish in the same way.

This country on the road we traveled has not been settled but about 8 years, yet some of the farms except orchards and buildings, will compare with farms everywhere, the villages indicated thrift. I noticed in the towns a due proportion of meeting houses. I inquired of one man where we stopped for the night who had fifty acres of wheat sowed which he plowed last summer, how much wheat he expected from his fifty acres. He said if he had a small crop he should have 1000 bushels, but if he had a good crop, 1500. Wheat was not so good this year as in general owing to the abundance of wet. Apples and peaches flourish well where they have been sett. The farmers living on prairies are beginning to sow the locust which thrives wonderfully. But there is a general scarcity of wood in this quarter which may be remedied at some future day by cultivation.

Wheat is worth 50¢ and corn 25¢. Corn is scarce and high down south on account of the freshet. If you see old Mr. Stevens tell him Loren and Eliza well. I shall not be able to write to father immediately. Will you write a line informing that we have arrived here safely?

Your Brother, [signed] Caleb Sylvester

The most of us caught colds from Chicago and have not got over it yet, besides the water is having its usual effect upon many of us, viz. diarea. Sylvanus says I must tell you that he and Lorenzo with two of the neighbor's boys shot a noble buck. Its sides weighed 100 each and was very fat.

One inquiry of Sylvanus whether he had paid Josselyn, said had and remembered it well. If he should say he would pay it back receive it and receipt it. Caleb Syl-

I am owing a few dollars in Maine yet. If you hear anything about it, you may say I shall pay as soon as I can make the necessary raise.

Sylvanus has been back to Rockford 85 miles, and got the remainder of our goods. Sylvanus has hired out all winter for 15 dollars per month. I have seen B. C. Eastman and Mr. Lakin. Staid at Eastman's house one night. George is to work for Eastman when he gets little better. C. S.

[note on back of letter] You may send this back by Chester when he comes up. [signed] Charles. [Junior]


Caleb and Joanna Sylvester settled initially in Grant Co., WI at the far southwestern corner of the state where it borders Iowa and Illinois. Here Caleb wrote the above letter to his brother Charles back home. About two years later Caleb and Joanna backtracked one county to the east where they would remain for the rest of their lives. Caleb successfully farmed his homestead, worked as a surveyor, and provided for his family.(19) Caleb and Joanna are both buried in the Graceland Cemetery in Mineral Point, Iowa Co., WI. Several Sylvester children continued the legacy of migration and began moving into Iowa and Minnesota before 1880(20). Subsequent generations quickly spread throughout the United States.

Caleb Barker Sylvester's Close Family Members

(Those mentioned in the 1844 letter are hyperlinked to their genealogy file)

1 Charles Sylvester (1768 - 1847)
...+Lucy Barker (1776 - 1853)
....... 2 Caleb Barker Sylvester (1793 - 1868)
........... +Joanna Whitney (1799 - 1862)
.................. 3 Eben Whitney Sylvester (1820 - 1906)
...................... +Nancy Howard (1837 - 1913)
.................. 3 Eliza Anne Sylvester (1822 - 1902)
...................... +Lorenzo Stephens (1814 - 1888)
.................. 3 Lydia Sylvester (1824 - 1853)
...................... +Loren Ballou
.................. 3 Sylvanus Sylvester (1825 - bet. 1861 - 1865)
.................. 3 George Washington Sylvester (1828 - 1876)
...................... +Matilda A. Cook (1837 - 1901)
.................. 3 Charles Carroll Sylvester (1830 - 1908)
...................... +Charlotte Clare Burns (1842 - ?)
.................. 3 Caleb Barker Sylvester (1832 - 1899)
...................... +Elizabeth Chenoweth (1837 - 1910)
.................. 3 Franklin Sylvester (1834 - 1864)
...................... +Emma J. Cook (abt. 1840 - ?)
.................. 3 Attila Sylvester (1836 - ?)
...................... +Caleb Baker (? - bef. 1877)
.................. 3 Abigail Frances Sylvester (1839 - 1895)
.................. 3 John Fairfield Sylvester (1841 - ?)
...................... +Emma Osborne (1842 - ?)
.................. 3 Emma Luci Sylvester (1843 - ?)
...................... +Orson Clark (1844 - ?)
....... 2 Charles Sylvester (abt. 1793 - ?)
.................. 3 Eliza Sylvester
........... +Mary Robbins
.................. 3 Mary Sylvester
.................. 3 Charles Bowman Sylvester
...................... +Susan Preble
.................. 3 Betsy Sylvester
.................. 3 Daniel Robbins Sylvester (abt. 1827 - ?)
...................... +Clara Hanship (abt. 1833 - ?)
............................. 4 Velma Sylvester (abt. 1853 - ?)
................................. +Amherst Willoughby Barber (abt. 1842 - ?)
.................. 3 Nancy Sylvester
.................. 3 Asa Sylvester
.................. 3 Julia Sylvester
...................... +Tyler Lambert
....... 2 William Sylvester (1797 - 1874)
........... +Mary Humphrey
.................. 3 James Sylvester
.................. 3 Lucy Sylvester
.................. 3 Sarah Sylvester
.................. 3 William Marion Sylvester
....... 2 Eliza Sylvester (1799 - ?)
....... 2 Isaac Sylvester (1802 - ?)
....... 2 Abigail Sylvester (1804 - ?)
....... 2 George Sylvester (1805 - ?)
....... 2 Mary Sylvester (1808 - ?)
....... 2 Franklin Sylvester (1810 - ?)
....... 2 John Sylvester (1812 - ?)
........... +Mary A. Cass
....... 2 Chester Sylvester (1814 - 1864)
....... 2 Phoebe Sylvester (1816 - ?)

If You are Related to this Lineage...

If you descend from this Sylvester family that moved from Maine to Wisconsin to Minnesota, please contact me. I have more information to share. In return, I would like to get copies of any primary sources you have researched and include your family information in my database. You can reach me by e-mail.


(1) Caleb Barker Sylvester was a descendant of Richard Silvester who arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 (Richard-1, Joseph-2, Amos-3, William-4, William-5, Charles-6, Caleb-7). Joanna (Whitney) Sylvester was a descendant of John Whitney who arrived in Massachusetts in 1635 (John-1, Benjamin-2, Nathaniel-3, Abel-4, Micah-5, Joanna-6).

(2) Caleb Sylvester was my 3Gr.-Grandfather. Further information about the family can be found through the website's genealogy index.

(3) A number of Caleb Sylvester descendants have been able to locate each other in recent years using the Internet. Several met at a reunion in Plainview, Minnesota in August 2002 and many items were swapped by participants, with the Caleb Sylvester letter contributed by William Sylvester Jewell of California. For an account of the reunion see "A Family Reunited" or the Rochester [Minnesota] Post-Bulletin, August 17, 2002, "History comes alive for Plainview family, Descendants of once-prominent family hold reunion."

(4) William H. True was still living in New Gloucester, Maine as late as 1920 when he was 80 years old (United States Census, Maine, Cumberland Co., New Gloucester, Enumeration District 21, Page 4B).

(5) Eliza Sylvester, b. 1799. Caleb's sister. See Family History, Volume S(4), Sylvester, Daughters of the American Revolution library, Washington, DC., p. 2.

(6) Jamestown Township is in the far southwestern corner of Grant County, Wisconsin. The small town of Fairplay is presently located therein.

(7) Charles Sylvester Jr., b. 1795. Caleb's brother. See Daughters of the American Revolution membership record 57756 (issued 1906).

(8) Charles Sylvester Sr., b. April 03, 1768, Kennebeck Co., ME; d. March 20, 1847, Mt. Vernon, Kennebec Co., ME. Caleb's father. See Daughters of the American Revolution membership records 481880 (issued 1961) and 569548 (issued 1972).

(9) Velma Sylvester Barker, b. 1853 in Wisconsin, granddaughter of Charles Jr., the original recipient of Caleb's letter. She was still alive in 1930, residing with her daughter in Chevy Chase, MD (United States Census, Maryland, Montgomery Co., Chevy Chase, enumeration district 22, page 23B). While she left descendants, I have not been able to successfully contact any of them to determine whether the original letter still exists.

(10) John Fairfield Sylvester, b. 1841 in Maine. Caleb's son.

(11) Emma L. (Sylvester) Clark, b. June 8, 1843 in Maine. Caleb's daughter.

(12) Eliza Anne Sylvester b. May 23, 1822, Phillips, Franklin Co., ME; d. January 15, 1902, Menno, Hutchinson Co., WI. Caleb's daughter. She married Lorenzo Stevens b. May 23, 1822, Phillips, Franklin Co., ME; d. January 15, 1902, Menno, Hutchinson Co., WI; on April 12, 1842. No records of "Eliza's boy" have been found. There were several Stevens children born after the journey, and in fact, Eliza would have been about five months pregnant during the trip.

(13) Believed to be Lydia Sylvester, b. 1824; d. 1853. Caleb's daughter.

(14) Believed to be Sylvanus Sylvester, b. 1825. Caleb's son. Sylvanus reportedly died while fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, although no primary records have been found to confirm this.

(15) George Washington Sylvester, b. April 06, 1828, Phillips, Franklin Co., ME; d. September 10, 1876, Plainview, Wabasha Co., MN. Caleb's son. See the Sylvester biographies in the book by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge & Others, "The History of Wabasha County Minnesota" (Winona, MN: H. C. Cooper, Jr., & Co., 1920).

(16) It is not known whether or how these Stevens family members are related to Lorenzo Stevens, Caleb's son-in-law.

(17) Although various records exist for one or more "Peltiah Whitneys," it is not know whether or how he/they may be related to Caleb's wife Joanna (Whitney) Sylvester.

(18) This storm is known to have taken place on October 19, 1844, and is a well-documented event in the history of Buffalo, NY. Numerous accounts can be found with a quick Internet search using the date coupled with Lower Great Lakes Storm.

(19) Commemorative Biographical Record of the Counties of Rock, Green, Grant, Iowa and Lafayette Wisconsin. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1901. Pages 432-433.

(20) Twelve children are known to exist. Most have been located in the 1880 United States Census: Eben W. Sylvester (Mineral Point, Iowa Co., WI, Enumeration District 156, Page 175A), Eliza A. (Sylvester) Stevens and her husband Lorenzo (Eden, Iowa Co., WI, Enumeration District 158, Page 202B); George W. Sylvester's widow Matilda (Plainview, Wabasha Co., MN, Enumeration District 190, Page 572A.); Charles C. Sylvester (Fieldon, Wantonwan Co., MN, Enumeration District 265, Page 401A); Caleb B. Sylvester, Jr. (Ogden, Boone Co., IA, Enumeration District 5, Page 70A); Attila (Sylvester) Wells (Grinnell, Poweshiek Co., IA, Enumeration District 190, Page 538B); John Fairfield Sylvester (Yell, Boone Co., IA, Enumeration District 5, Page 74B); and Emma L (Sylvester) Clark (Ogden, Boone Co., IA, Enumeration District 5, Page 68B). No census record could be found for Abigail F. (Sylvester) Yetter, although a Daughter of the American Revolution membership record (#569548) notes that Abigail passed away in 1895 in Monte Vista, Rio Grande Co., CO. Lydia, Sylvanus, and Franklin Sylvester are all believed to have passed away prior to 1880.