October 6, 2001


The area where the Milwaukee River empties into Lake Michigan had few outside visitors until 1673, when Marquette and Joliet passed by on their way back to Montreal from the Mississippi River. And pass by was what they did, leaving no description of the site or the tribes in the area. The next visit came 25 years later when Jesuit priest Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme stopped over for two days to avoid lake winds and to hunt. He mentioned a village on the site consisting of natives of the Mascouten, Reynard (meaning Fox) and Poux tribes. The tribes were left pretty much alone through the 1700s and on into the early 1800s, their primary visitor the occasional French trader. In 1817 a U. S. Indian agent reported that the village was composed mainly of renegades from the Sac, Fox, Chippewa, Menominee, Winnebago and Potawatamie tribes. They had sided with the U. S. during the recent war and, as no good deed goes unpunished, were shoved aside by the Eurpeans as soon as was convenient.

The early settlers were primarily English and French, but when the famines hit Ireland in the 1840s a wave of families from the Emerald Isle washed up on the western shore of Lake Michigan and formed a large part of the population as the Civil War approached. In 1860 the city's Irish ward, nicknamed the Bloody Third, formed a militia unit and began training. The issue of state's rights was hotly debated both north and south, and Wisconsin's governor Alexander Randall was determined to protect his state's sovereignty. He contacted the four militias in the city, two of them German, wanting to know where they stood on the issue. The Third Ward's Union Guards declared that their allegiance was to the Federal government. And Randall immediately disbanded the group. The Guards voted to buy their own arms. Faced with an empty treasury, they decided to raise funds by sponsoring an excursion to Chicago to hear Stephen A. Douglas speak at a Democratic rally and chartered the luxury steamboat Lady Elgin for the trip downlake. On the night of Setember 7th, after the speeches ended and the celebrating wound down, the Guards reboarded the vessel for the return trip. Large numbers would never walk the streets of Milwaukee again.

The weather on the lake turned nasty and the lumber schooner Augusta, on a collision course, somehow failed to swerve aside in time and struck the steamboat amidships. The two captains hollered to each other, but the Elgin's captain Jack Wilson, underestimating his damage and fearing for the safety of the Augusta, urged his counterpart to make for shore. Alone now on the dark lake, the crew tried without success to repair the damage, which turned out to be much worse than it first appeared. The steamer went down, with many of its passengers and crew soon drowning near the spot. Many of those making it to shore were killed by a murderous surf. Captain Wilson was battered to death in the process of rescuing some of the other victims. The final death toll was over 300. The heart had been gouged out of the Third Ward. Many blamed the Augusta, whose owners were forced to change it's name, and she soon left the Lakes.

One passenger aboard ran out of luck after a brief grace period. "Illustrated London News" founder Herbert Ingram, on holiday here, perished that night. Exactly one year before he'd survived a deadly explosion aboard the English vessel Great Eastern.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor



Mention is made in script 238 of Wisconsin governor Alexander Randall, as avid a states' rights advocate as any southern governor, and his disbanding of several Milwaukee militia groups in 1860, as the nation headed down the road to civil war. For further background on this northern governor who threatened succession from the Buchanan administration, check out http://www.hist.unt.edu/09w-acw1.htm .

The site is a collection of documents, links and articles covering the American Civil War; you'll find the piece on Randall in the first section - General Background - as link No. 14, "Wisconsin threatens secession, and The War". There are also sections on Slave Revolts, Slavery and Abolitionism (including the text of a Lady Elgin marker (# 35), The Underground Railroad, African-American Writers of the Period, some of the writngs of Frederick Douglass, and on the war's Aftermath. And if all that doesn't keep you busy, many of the entries carry links to other sites. A good chance to explore many of the issues that faced participants in the coming drama.

© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte