SIFTING OUT THE TRUTH FROM THE FRENCH FAMILY LEGENDS
FROM THE ISLE OF WIGHT TO THE MESABI IRON RANGE AND BEYOND
by Louis Lehmann
Many stories have morphed fact and fiction into puzzling mysteries which can challenge family historians.. Three stories about my gr-gr-grandfather, Lewis Daniel French, were clarified over time using conventional genealogical methods. But a fourth, stemming from my brother's vague recollection of an overheard conversation during his childhood, stymied me for decades.
The first story stated that Lewis French's English father, Daniel French, was born at St. Helens on the Isle of Wight, graduated from Oxford with a Master's degree, became a Methodist minister, married Fanny Willis at St. Helens, and emigrated to America where he eventually died in Illinois of "accidental poisoning". The second claimed that his ancestors included a "major general" and a "Chief of the Coastguard in Ireland. The third said that his ancestors could be found in Burke's Peerage and traced back to 1066;
I clarified the first story by examining 1841 and 1851 census records, which identified Daniel as a shoemaker (an unlikely occupation for an Oxford graduate) and Oxford reported no record of any graduate named Daniel French. Methodist records yielded no record of him as a minister. English birth records of his first two children, Edwin M. French and Lewis D. French, showed that he emigrated after August, 1854 and before December, 1856 when his next child, Louisa, was born in Canada. His youngest child, Elizabeth, was born about 1858 as indicated by the 1861 Canadian census for Cartwright township in Durham county, Ontario, which listed his wife and his four children but did not list Daniel. The record of Fanny's second marriage at Bowmanville in Durham county, September, 1863, to William Simmons plus the blended family' subsequent appearance on the 1870 census in Loda, Illinois indicated that Daniel died in Canada, apparently sometime between 1858 and 1861.
Investigating the second story, I found no record that any of Lewis Daniel French's ancestral relatives had been a general although many of them had been in the English coastguard. I suspect that some relatives were aware that Sir John French was a notable British general in World War I and may have assumed some connection, perhaps through wishful thinking. The "Chief of Coastguard in Ireland" claim was easily dispelled when I examined the coastguard records of Daniel's father (also named Daniel) and found that he was stationed in Ireland during part of 1823. The coastguard records of that Daniel's father (yet another Daniel) showed that he was appointed Chief Officer of the Shanklin station on the Isle of Wight in 1819 shortly before his death.
I quickly debunked the third story by reviewing Burke's Peerage which had many records of a French family but none connecting to Lewis Daniel French or his ancestors.
The fourth story took decades to clarify. About twenty years ago my now-deceased older brother, Leslie, told me that he had overheard a conversation during his childhood among older relatives indicating the Lewis Daniel French or his wife, Mary Ellen Dower, were somehow related to the Merritt family - famous for their discovery and development of Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range, renowned as one of the world's best known deposits of iron ore . Les did not remember who had been talking nor could he recall any details. Regretfully I told him that none of my extensive genealogical research had suggested any such relationship. Nevertheless during the remainder of his life Les continued to insist that he had overheard that our family was somehow related to the Merritts.. I privately concluded that his recollection was just a confused memory until a review of an overlooked census record led me to some exciting discoveries revealing some degree of truth in his story.
I had indeed thought that I had thoroughly investigated the families of Lewis French and Mary Ellen Dower. The Minnesota Marriage Index and a brief Duluth newspaper notice both told me that Lewis French and Mary Ellen Dower were married at Duluth in April, 1876, at the residence of her father, Sampson Dower. An April 6, 1878 edition of the "Northern Pacific Farmer" revealed surprisingly that young Lewis French was then serving as Superintendent of Schools in Wadena County. I surmised that he and his wife may have been living with his father-in-law, Sampson Dower whose obituary said he had moved his family in the spring of 1877 from Duluth to a farm in Wadena county where he was "engaged in getting out cord wood, piling and ties for the N.P.R.R." and "gradually worked into the manufacturing of lumber..." I knew that Sampson Dower's large family remained in western Minnesota, settling in Wadena and Todd counties as shown by the 1880 and subsequent federal census reports as well as by numerous local newspaper articles and notices. Such records also revealed that Lewis French and his wife remained there raising a family until 1889 (according to his obituary) when they returned to Duluth where Lewis Daniel French engaged in the real estate business. I didn't know why the two families had made these moves and had no idea that it would relate to the Merritt family until I finally did what I should have done long ago. I found Lewis French on the 1875 Minnesota State Census for Ward 4 in Duluth.
When I first looked at that record (dated May 1), I almost jumped out of my chair as I read the following listing:... "Family #107 - Cassius C. Merritt, Edwin M. French, Lewis D. French." I realized that the "Family" column on the census form essentially meant "dwelling" but nevertheless I wondered what on earth had brought Lewis and Edwin French to share a domicile with Cassius Merritt - the man who was destined fourteen years later to discover specimens of ore which led to the discovery and development of the Mesabi Iron Range.
I knew that when thousands of people went to Duluth between 1869 and 1870 seeking work in the breakwater project, railroad development, and building projects. they faced a critical housing shortage If Lewis and Edwin French arrived in Duluth during a continuing scarcity of housing n 1871 or 1872, they very well may have attended the Oneota Methodist church. (Lewis French's 1895 obituary stated that he regularly attended the Oneota Methodist Church). The Merritt family had been attending that church for many years. Sampson Dower and his family were also Methodist and they may also have been attending that church in 1871-72 as they had come to Duluth late in 1869 or sometime in 1870 from Michigan where Sampson had been a miner A biography told me that after Cassius Merritt visited New York and Pennsylvania in 1872, he returned to Duluth where he became deputy county treasurer (Oct 10), for the next three years. So he too was probably attending the Oneota Church late in 1872. Perhaps Lewis's associations at church led to the sharing of the residence listed in the census on May 1, 1875. Whatever the reason, the three men had some notable neighbors. The 1875 census listings on pages 556-558, included three judges - J.J. Egan; J.R. Carey, and J.D Ensign; two former aldermen - J.D. Ray and Luke Marvin; and a man destined to be Mayor in 1876 - John Drew).
If Lewis and Edwin did arrive in 1871 or 1872 they would have experienced difficult living conditions during the financial crash of 1873, probably extending into 1875/6. Some of the effects of that crash lingered. According to one Duluth history ...."In the crash of 1873 Duluth got a fearful setback; the bottom fell completely out of real estate, especially city property, and in 1874 people began to scatter up and down the lakes and to the wheat fields of Dakota and Minnesota in the Red River valley. Houses were dirt cheap; one could not sell a lot for a barrel of flour to save him from starvation. Duluth lost a large per cent of her population. The construction of the Northern Pacific railroad was delayed" . In 1875 the Northern Pacific went into bankruptcy. Another Duluth history described 1876...... " Those were dark days indeed; business was at a standstill; no one had money with which to pay taxes; city debts were unpaid; interest on the bonded indebtedness was permitted to run on; and the city officials were driven to desperation in an attempt to save the sinking government".
Knowing that Lewis French married Mary Ellen Dower at Duluth during those dark days of 1876, I also suspect that they too may have come together via the Oneota Methodist Church. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate any records of this church for these years. But I also wondered if Lewis French's association with Cassius Merritt and their illustrious neighbors in 1875 was connected in any way to this marriage. So I examined Sampson Dower's neighbors to see if they connected to Lewis French's neighbors in any ways which may have contributed to the French-Dower relationship.
I did find that Sampson Dower's neighbor, W.W. Spaulding, had been on the first Duluth Chamber of Commerce with Lewis French's neighbor, J.D. Ensign. (W.W. Spaulding came to Duluth from Ontonogan, Michigan in 1869 or 1870, about the same time when Sampson Dower came from Greenland, Michigan, twelve miles from Ontonogan.) And serving on the first Duluth city administration were Sampson Dower's neighbors, R.S. Munger and W.W. Spaulding along with Lewis French's neighbors; J.C. Egan, J.D. Ray, and Luke Marvin. Ray, Munger, and Ensign were also all directors of the First National Bank of Duluth in 1872.
So now I had a theory. Lewis and Edwin French may have come from Illinois to Duluth seeking work during the boom years of 1870-72. The Oneota Methodist Church could have connected them with the Merritt family, perhaps at or near the time when Cassius Merritt returned to Duluth to become deputy county treasurer. Maybe Cassius invited them to share his dwelling. Lewis could have met Mary Ellen Dower at church and/or through their interconnected neighbors. And now I could better understand why Lewis French and Sampson Dower took their families to Wadena county in western Minnesota about 1877 , why Sampson Dower, formerly a miner, then became a farmer and lumberman, and perhaps why Lewis French chose to return with his family to Duluth about 1889/91.
The "dark days" of Duluth in 1876 caused many of its citizens to migrate elsewhere. Sampson Dower's neighbor, R. C. Munger, had invested heavily in grain and lumber and probably encouraged him to consider these areas, especially sinc e wheat farms were expanding along the route of the Northern Pacific which was extending westward. But the earliest record of Sampson Dower's occupation after he left Duluth was in 1879 when he reportedly "had fifty men in the woods making ties and getting out wood and lumber for the railroad company." R.C. Munger's recollections suggest that he very well may have employed Sampson for such work.... "When the Northern Pacific railroad was building I took big contracts to supply it with lumber and ties, and tended my operations as the road was built westward. Some of the lumber was carried westward from Duluth, where I had enlarged the capacity of my mills, but I had gangs of men out all along the line, cutting down timber and cutting out ties for the road. When the road reached Bismarck, N.D., I erected the first 100 houses in the town.."
Sampson Dower and Lewis French are both listed as farmers on the 1880 census in Todd county. Lewis was probably encouraged by Sampson to join the larger Dower family in their 1877 move to Wadena county but the move may also have been encouraged by Lewis's neighbor, Judge J.J. Egan, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the expanding Northern Pacific railroad. Whatever the reasons for the move, Sampson settled permanently in the area building a large farm and developing what would later become the Dower Lumber Company. Lewis French remained nearby until 1889 when he and his family moved back to Duluth.
Puzzling over why Lewis would return to Duluth after twelve years as a farmer, I once again guessed that he was influenced by past (and perhaps continuing) associations with the Merritts and his former Duluth neighbors. But I suspected that the major attraction may have been the emerging opportunities in land and real estate then generated by the Merritt family's 1889 discovery and development of the Mesabi Iron Range. That speculation was strengthened when I examined the 1891 Duluth directories and found Lewis French in the real estate business in an office next to the office of John E. Merritt, a nephew of Cassius Merritt. John was also in the real estate business, as were two of Cassius's brothers, Leonidas Merritt and Lewis J. Merritt, each in a separate real estate office but all in the same office building. The directory also listed Rev.Lucien Merritt (another of Cassius's brothers) as pastor of the Methodist church where Lewis French probably once again worshiped with the Merritt family.
I now have at least a plausible theory about how my French and Dower ancestors could have been connected with the Merritt family. Exploration of all these sources indicated social and business relationships rather than family relationships. But the mysterious conversation overheard by my brother during his childhood might have nevertheless suggested a family relationship. Families sometimes fondly referred to cherished friends as "Aunt", "Uncle", "Cousin", etc. Any of Lewis French's children (and perhaps any of Sampson Dower's) might have heard parents talk about "Uncle Cassius". That, of course, is pure speculation but not an impossibility.
Biography of Cassius C. Merritt in Prominent Men of the Great West A Biographical history, with portraits, of prominent men of the great West. Chicago, Ill.: Manhattan Pub. Co., 1894.
Birth certificate for Lewis Daniel French
Census: Canada: 1861. Cartwright Township, Durham county, Ontario
Census: England, 1841, Madron, Cornwall; 1851- St. Helens, Isle of Wight
Census: Minnesota State Census: - 1875 - Duluth, St. Louis County, MN; 1885 - Staples (Dower Lake) Todd County, MN
Census: U.S., 1870 - Loda, Iroquois county, Illinois and Duluth, St. Louis County, MN, .....1880 - Staples, Todd county, MN
Coastguard Records for Daniel French. National Archives, Kew.
Directory: Duluth, MN: R. L. Polk & Co., 1891.
Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota : their story and people : an authentic narrative of the past, with particular attention to the modern era in the commercial, industrial, educational, civic and social development. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1921.
"Duluth News Tribune" Nov 19, 1895; Obituary of Lewis D. French.
History of Duluth and St. Louis County : past and present. Chicago: C.F. Cooper & Co., 1910
Marriage record for William H. Simmons and Fanny Wallis (Fanny Willis French).
Martin, Rachel. "North Country History - Duluth's Early Churches" in "The Senior Reporter" April 2005
Minnesota Marriage Index
Newspaper announcement (undated) of the marriage of Lewis D. French to Miss Ellen M. Dower at Duluth
"Northern Pacific Farmer" April 6, 1878; Teachers Examination notice identifying L.D. French as Wadena county Superintendent of Schools.
"Northern Pacific Farmer" Dec 25, 1879. "Official Directory" listing L.D. French as Superindent of School, Wadena County
"Marshall New Messenger", Marshall, Minnesota. July 4, 1919. Obituary of Fanny (Willis) Simmons (formerly Fanny French).
"Portage Lake Mining Gazette", Houghton, Michigan. April 8, 1869; News item identifying Sampson Dower as a constable in Greenland Township, Ontonogan county, Michigan.
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