John Wilder Wilson

by David Johnson

For many years there was very little that could be definitively said about this particular generation in the Wilson ancestral line. Among the handful of available documentary items with information on John Wilder was a 1947 D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) application. Mildred Wilson Muirhead filed for membership in the D.A.R. based upon her descent from John Willson, Jr. (father of John W. Willson). As part of the documentation she submitted the names and dates of birth for all of John Willson’s children were listed. According to her source (a family Bible) John Wilder Wilson was born 22 February 1807 in Louisville, St. Lawrence county, New York.

Census records offered a few additional scraps of information. A John Wilson appeared as the head of a Louisville household in the 1830 census for a home that included a male aged 60-70 and a female 50-60 as well as other members which likely include his wife and children. His older brothers also appeared in this census heading households of their own at Massena Island (Hiram Willson) and in Louisville (Peter Willson). John Wilder’s household had obviously changed with the passage of time but can be found again in Louisville in the 1840 census. It would appear, however, that John Wilder’s wife had died as there is no female of the appropriate age in the home at this time. I further believe this to be the case when one considers as well that a wife, Mary Taylor, is identified in the 1850 census but she is only 32. Not nearly old enough to have been the mother of John Wilder’s son, Charles, born in 1831 when this woman would have been a mere thirteen! Possible of course, but not likely.

The 1850 federal census finally offered more tangible details on this family. Still residing in Louisville at age 43, John W. and his wife Mary had five children ranging in ages from nine years to four months: Norman, John, James, Alice and Albert respectively. All but the youngest attended school within the year though eight year old John was classified as an “Idiot” by the census. Also in the household was his 78 year old mother from Massachusetts, Mercy, as well as 18 year old Dana Wilson and 14 year old Emma Prouty whose relationship to the family are not precisely known. For many years this was the extent of our information on John Wilder and family.

Then in 1997-98 came assistance from an entirely unforeseen source – an internet contact and a cache of 57 letters written to Moses Taylor (brother of John Wilder’s wife) between 1842-67.

Computers and internet access with accompanying email have provided an enormous boost to genealogical research if for no other reason than as a means of linking genealogists to others researching common ancestral lines across the country. Precisely this kind of internet linkage brought an exchange of information with Arlene McAvoy in 1997 that unraveled the Wilson line back to the 17th century and uncovered this cache of letters. Arlene stumbled upon these letters in a Taylor file at the L.D.S. center in Potsdam, New York. Two letters written by John W. Wilson to Moses Taylor (his brother-in-law in Michigan) are reprinted in full.

Massena, NY

Sept. the 20th, 1857

Respected Brother and Sister, After a long silence I now (take) my pen in hand to write a few lines to let you know that we are all well as usual at present. It is a long time since we have heard anything from you. I enquire of your folks often about you but I hear nothing. I was up to your Father’s last Sunday. They were all well there. They told me that Elias had been down (and) preached for them. He did not call on us so I can’t tell you much about them. Elen and wife made us a visit a month ago and David and wife and little girl made us a good visit about three weeks ago. They were all well then and doing very well. Emaline was the last I heard from her. We are on a farm on shares or rather (at any) rate we milk twelve cows on the place. The farm is hard and stoney. We do not raise much grain. We have a good deal of hay to cut to keep what stock we have and the meadows are rough, a good deal run out. We have of undivided stock 2 cows, 2 two years olds, 6 yearlings and 4 calves 30 sheep. I have a good mare 6 years old, 1 colt two years old and one sucking colt of my own and four hogs that are company stock and we have our two old cows that we took off from the island , but I shall have to sell some stock this fall to pay debts as we do not raise grain enough for our own use. We make considerable butter, but not enough to pay all expenses. But I am in hopes that in a year or two more that we shall get along better as our boys get up a little larger. They are very good boys to work and they help a good deal now. Our children (are) healthy and smart but poor John, he has fits and is very bad a good share of the time and is very troublesome to take care of. He fails a good deal for a year past. It’s not likely he will live long.

I must now tell you about our little fellow. He is about 7 months old now, smart and pretty healthy generally. We call him Frederick Elen. We have to be continued at home. We have so much to do, cows to milk and butter to attend to and the sick boy and baby and all. We can’t be gone overnight. We have not kept any hired help this summer. We all have to work pretty hard, but our children are growing and as long as we are all well I am none concerned but what we shall get along. And now I want you should write and tell me how you are getting along and how fast you are getting rich and what the chances are in your country for taking farms and what a man can do there with but little to do with for if the chances are pretty good I might be tempted to go there someday and try my luck in your country. I have not much news to write. It’s quite still times at present here. As to politics in this town we are most all republicans. As to religion I am just about as I used to be when you was here. I have not heard anything from our folks in Burlington this summer. If you see any of them tell them that we are all well and tell them to write to me and you just write a little about them for fear they won’t write right away. I suppose they are like me, they don’t get about writing very often. And give my compliments to Hosea and family and Harriet if she is there . I always remember the good visit we had when you and sister Taylor was there on the island with us. We do not hear from Samuel and Charlotte very often. If you do please mention it. Now please to write soon. Direct Massena village and I shall get it. So now bid you a good evening. I am, sir, yours respectfully

John W. Willson Mary Willson

Riverton, Mich

May 8, 1867

Brother Moses and Sister Dyantha,

I now sit down to write a few lines to you to let you know that we had not forgotten you. We are well as usual for us. We are growing old pretty fast and we feel the effects of old age pretty sensibly. Mary’s health has been very poor for a year past and mine has not been much better. We have been just able to keep about and do a little but we can’t do much.

We expected to hear from you by Elias when he came back from the east but we did not and we were some disappointed not to. Now there appears to be some thing wrong with regard to matters between you and Elias for I can hardly credit some of his statements. Now has he any reason to make such statements or is it all an imaginary exaggeration? We have heard from him now we just want an explanation from you. For my part it don’t trouble me much but it troubles Mary a good deal for she cannot believe that Moses has got to be such a man nor I can’t nor don’t. I let him say what he is a mind to and let it pass at that. I think that he is partially deranged by times for he has had trouble enough to make a half a dozen men crazy if all is true that he tells. Now I want this to be confidential betwixt your family and mine. I don’t want him to know that I correspond with you at tall. I don’t want to offend him and let him forget his trouble if he can so we hear what he has to say without any contradiction and let him tell his storys as he has a mind to.

We have commenced farming a little, plowing and sowing wheat but the weather is cold and dry yet. My letter did not get sent to the post office and has laid over so I will try again. It is now the 5th of May and we have a fine rain yesterday and last night but the weather is quite cool yet but clear and pleasant.

Elias was here to see us yesterday. He comes when he is in the neighborhood and has time. He works around at little jobs of carpenter work when can get chances. He talks of buying a piece of land some where in our neighborhood but whether he will or not I don’t know. He is so unsteady that we can’t tell what he will do. Moses and his wife have got a young daughter born on March the 11th. They are all well. Margery and her man are getting along very well and Marrion lives with them. My boys are all at home now and will put in our crops and then they will go to work out until harvest. Alice is married and lives in about half a mile of us. So now I believe I have got about done for this time. We send you our respects, not forgetting Gustus and wife and Lula . So I remain yours as ever.

J. W. Wilson

While these two letters are the only ones written by John Wilder Wilson, references to his family are contained in the vast majority of the others. These numerous references and aside comments about the family offer tentative answers to questions such as that mentioned earlier concerning Dana Wilson’s relationship to family. Her relationship to the family was something of a puzzle for quite some time. With the common surname it seemed probable that Dana was a blood relative – perhaps a niece or even a daughter from John Wilder’s first marriage. While it is still possible that Dana was a daughter, from the letters it now seems more likely she was his niece – the daughter of John’s brother Hiram Willson who died circa 1843. Regardless, it is not surprising to find young women living in the home who were not immediate family or even relation. This “domestic” status served as a type of rite of passage for young adolescents in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though more usually experienced by young women, even young men used this social structure as a transitional phase before establishing their own household. John Wilder’s eldest son Charles exemplifies this.

At this time nothing else is known regarding John W. Wilson. Part of the reason for this is simply due to the fact that the records for Louisville are simply not very good. As late as the 1880 census Louisville still warranted a post office. Not today. Though nestled along the shores of the mighty St. Lawrence River as one of the early towns of that region, Louisville today is little more than an unincorporated village of several buildings. Without the development of an industry to keep jobs within the community or a tradition as a major trading port along the river, Louisville has been in a steady population decline for over a century. After inquiring in regards to records dating back to the first third of the 19th century for Louisville, I was informed that no such records exist, having either been lost or destroyed over the years as the community dwindled. As of this writing, the date and place of John W. Wilson’s death is unknown. However, there may yet be hope. There are eight John Wilsons listed in St. Lawrence County for the 1860 census. Perhaps one of these will offer more information. Another avenue of approach currently bearing greater fruit is research in Burlington, Calhoun county, Michigan. Like many other New Englanders and their children, John Wilder’s brother Luther relocated there by 1850 as did others of his siblings.

Luther’s story is more complete than most of the other children of John Willson as his many years in Calhoun county, Michigan and status as an early settler of the region led to the inclusion of his biographical sketch in the History of Calhoun County Michigan published in 1877. The following excerpt is offered.

“Luther Wilson, now living on section 19, on a part of the old Randall

farm is one of the old residents of the county although he has resided in

Tekonsha but for a few years. He came from St. Lawrence county, New

York in October 1834, while yet a single man. He located eighty acres on

the SW quarter of section 23 in Burlington township, and in the fall of 1835

built a log house. He was married in April 1838 to Margaret Warner, who

lived in the same township…. He raised a family of four children, one son

and three daughters. The son, John W. Wilson is now living in Iowa, one

daughter Mercy is dead and another Josephine is the wife of J.C. Blacke of

Tekonsha. Mr. Wilson is now in his seventy-third year. When he came

west he came as far as Cleveland by boat and from thence to his new home

walked nearly the entire distance. After crossing the line into Michigan he

followed an Indian trail.”

Additionally, a little information about Luther’s wife is gleaned from this same text as it mentions that “Mark Woodruff came from Hosmer, Cortland county, New York in 1837 and was accompanied by his family and his wife’s sister, who is now the wife of Luther Wilson.”

Luther and John Wilder’s sister, Harriet, arrived in Michigan during this same general time period. She had wed William Pierce on 17 May 1818 in New York. Interestingly enough, Harriet bestowed upon many of her children the familiar names of her own brothers and sisters: John, Lima, Luther, Lutheria, Fannie, Harriet. She even went so far as to continue the fashion for Romanesque names such as those given to her brother Cassius and Demarius when she named one child, Octavius.


1850 federal census, New York, St. Lawrence Co., Louisville, p.231

(This is the only census which definitively lists John W. Wilson)

1850 federal census, Michigan, Calhoun Co., Burlington

John W. Wilson is listed as a son of John Willson in the latter’s D.A.R. file