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THE BIRTH OF FORT ATKINSON
Miss Virginia Rogers
(Originally appeared in the Jefferson County Union, June 19, 1936)
Today we must do our adventuring and exploring in the air above us, in the realm of science, in the field of medicine. What manner of men and women were these pioneers of an undisturbed wilderness?
Immigrants to Jefferson County came largely from New England and old York State. Middle class, respectable, hard working, forced West by lack of land, the panic of Ď37, and a rising tide of excitement as the country began her period of mighty expansion. There was no gold fever in the air here--no elusive promise of enormous wealth--but there was a sure certainty of land and a chance for life and living. Everyday sturdy folk were these first settlers for the most part; yet any new land must have drawn to it inevitably those who color its expansion and development with something of adventure.
In the spring of 1837 E. N. Foster and Alvin Foster joined their brother, Dwight, at Fort Atkinson, bringing their families with them. And in a log cabin one mile up Rock River on the north side was born Edward J. Foster--the first white child born in Jefferson County. Others joined them soon. "Mason and William Reynolds made claims between this place and Jefferson. Rufus C. Dodge and family and Robert Barrie came in June. Edward Foster, Senior, and wife, and Charles Rockwell and family came about the first of July." In this year, too, William Pritchard met his affianced wife, Miss Susan Lewis, in Milwaukee, where they were married, and from which he brought her as a bride to the little settlement.
And so in that first year the pioneers knew marriage, and birth, and death.
"Man, that is born of woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
"In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek succor, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased. Yet O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death!"
Solemn and slow the age-old words sounded upon the cool quiet of that fall day, where before only the language of the savage Indian had broken the stillness in the lamentation of death.
The year 1837 brought settlers not only to our tiny village, but to lands that were to form our present surrounding townships. Families settled at Koshkonong whose history is inextricably woven into that of residents---The Winslow brothers, Aaron Allen and his family with John Allen, Mr. Gorton. Among the most dangerously colorful of these pioneers were the "Fighting Finches".
"In 1832, when a call was made by the Government for volunteers to fight that redoubtable warrior, Black Hawk, a family named Finch, then residing in St. Joe, Michigan, immediately offered all its available war material--the father and twelve sons. Finch, Sr., was rejected, but all the juniors were mustered in. They passed through the conflict without a scratch" and settled here soon after. St. Joe viewed their departure with relief, and to the east side of Lake Koshkonong they brought such eccentricities as periodic "war-dances", and obliviousness to the existence of other settlers. A few days after their arrival they unmercifully beat and rove from his home a Norwegian who was a previous settler in their locality.
"Sheriff Bird, of Dane County, hearing of the affair, repaired to the dominion of the Finches, for the purpose of asserting his power as an officer of the law; but he found the belligerents to be so numerous that he wisely concluded not to make a single-handed attack. Returning to Madison for reinforcements, he met and informed Gov. Dodge of the situation.
"Exhaust the power of the county, Sir," replied the Governor, in his usual brusque and emphatic manner, "and if that donít do, Iíll call out the militia, by G-d, sir. If that Finch tribe is going to run this Territory, Iíll find it out mighty soon, now I tell you."
Sheriffs Bird and Cole arrested one of the tribe, by exercising much strategy, and got him to Fort Atkinson. Ben and Nat Finch caught up with them just as they were sitting down to a hot dinner, but the doughty officials got the drop on them and they departed for reinforcements. At Lake Mills they took a new road to Madison, but left instructions with the proprietor of the tavern to tell any questioners they had taken the old road.
"The noise of the wagon rolling over the frozen earth had scarce died away in the adjacent forest, when ten men, armed with rifles and pistols, each mounted, appeared in front of the tavern door at Lake Mills. It was the Finch brigade. Alighting from their jaded animals they filed into the bar-room, and, by way of introducing themselves to the affrighted inn-keeper, called for "the best in the shop."
"Did you see three men in a wagon pass this way?" queried Ben Finch, diving into the inner recesses of a corduroy coat and bringing forth a roll of "wildcat scrip" with which to settle for the drinks.
"Yah! Tree vagons and a men--da old road py Madison," quickly replied the inn-keeper.
"The old road, eh? The give us another dose, and weíll take the same route," replied Finch, drawing his slouch hat mysteriously low upon his weather-beaten brow.
"To the great relief of the inhabitants of Lake Mills, the Finch cavalry were soon in their saddles and galloping away over the hills in the direction of Madison."
But the Finches were in the minority. Most settlers came with a far different purpose, background, and temperament.