Voices from History: The Enigmatic Mr. Colton - Published 4/1/2019

By Pat Schley, DDMF Researcher

In October 1939, when Winston Churchill, referring to the Soviet Union, described it as being “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, he might as easily been describing David Davis’ only law partner, Wells Colton (1812-1849)[1].  For years we have known very little about his short life other than that he was a native of Lenox MA, as was Sarah Walker Davis.  His 3 sisters and Sarah Davis were childhood friends and remained friends even after they all had married.

Recently, thanks to some new information from Tim Ogle[2], I have been able to piece together a fairly complete biography of this enigmatic man.

He was born in Lenox MA, the 1st surviving child of Rhodolphus and Love Wells Colton. According to the handwritten record of his birth, his name was Beriah Wells Colton.[3]  He was named for his maternal uncle, Beriah Wells (1782-1861), however, it seems that he rarely, if ever, used Beriah as his 1st name. In 1831, he is listed in class records of the Lenox Academy, a preparatory school in Lenox MA, under the name Wells Colton. 

He was followed by 3 sisters, Elizabeth Colton (1814-1848), Martha Colton (1816-1859), and Rachel Colton (March 1823-1890).  There was also a sister, Rachel (1819- January 1823) and a brother Thomas (1825-1826), who died very early.

Wells Colton’s father, Rhodolphus, came from a long line of cabinetmakers in Connecticut.   He had trained with his paternal uncle, Aaron Colton (1758-1840), in New Haven CT.[4]  It appears that at some point in his teen years Wells Colton also began to learn the cabinetmaking  trade.  The Lenox Historical Society, has a desk in their collection that is attributed to Wells Colton, c. 1828, when he was only 16 years old.[5]  Whether he trained with his father or with someone else is not known.

By 1831, Colton is listed in the Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Lenox Academy, 1831-32, as being a one of 94 male students, out of a total enrollment of 114 students.  Interestingly, there were also 20 female students listed, one of whom was Martha Colton (1816-1859), younger sister of Wells Colton, and another of whom was Cornelia Walker (1823-1895), youngest sister of Sarah Walker Davis!

After finishing his studies at the Lenox Academy, Wells Colton attended Williams College in Williamstown MA.  Many Lenox men attended Williams, including Sarah Davis’ father, William Perrin Walker (1778-1858), class of 1798, and her younger brother, John Adam Walker (1821-1864).  Colton studied classical languages, such as Latin and Greek, mathematics, rhetoric, and literature, etc. and graduated in the class of 1834.

Here is where the story becomes a bit murky.  In the Williams Biographical Annals[6], it states that, “after graduation he was for several years an assistant teacher in the Washington Institute in the city of New York, where at the same time he studied law under private tuition.”

However, in the biography David Davis, Lincoln’s Manager,[7]  it states that Wells Colton was a fellow law student in Lenox MA.  David Davis came to Lenox almost immediately after he graduated from Kenyon College, Gambier OH, at age 17, in the class of 1832,

“A few months after his graduation Davis became a law student in the office of Henry W. Bishop in Lenox MA.” 

Since graduation for the Kenyon class of ’32 was in September, he was probably not in Lenox until late 1832 or early 1833.  Wells Colton did not graduate from Williams College until 1834 and Davis left Lenox to go to Bloomington IL in the summer of 1835.  If Colton did indeed work in New York City for several years after his graduation from Williams, it is unlikely that they would have been law students together in Lenox before Davis moved West.  It is possible that they might have met if Colton came back to Lenox to visit his parents and sisters. As it is, I tend to think that he came straight to Lenox after his time at Williams and clerked in a law office there, the same as Davis did.

We do know that David Davis left Lenox in the summer of 1835, when he went West to Pekin IL, a river town on the Illinois River. By the fall of 1836, Davis had bought Jesse Fell’s law practice in the central Illinois town of Bloomington, about 40 miles east of Pekin. 

In January of 1837, Wells Colton arrived in Bloomington.  At first, Colton didn’t make much of an impression on Davis but by mid-summer of that same year Davis had completely changed his mind.

“Wells has improved more rapidly in the space of six months, than I ever knew any young man ^to do before – I was completely astonished upon my return – to find that he had made such progress – His manners are altered, and he is exceedingly well liked – I am fully of the opinion, that if he chooses, he is destined to be a very important lawyer in the State – I did not think when I saw you – that he was likely to make a popular man, or a good ‘Succer[8] Lawyer’-“ Bloomington IL,   July 1 1837 (ALPL)  DD-WPW

It was apparent from the letters that Davis wrote to Sarah’s younger sister, Frances Mary “Fanny” Walker (1817-1903),  that he and Colton lived a typical bachelor life:

“Colton and myself intend taking a short ride this evening.  If you were only here – how happy we would be.”  Bloomington IL,   June 27, 1837 (WMS) DD-FMW

“We had a ball here the 8th of January and although there were not many young ladies yet it passed off quite pleasantly.  I did not see any Courting going on, as we are sometimes apt to witness in our country.  I have attended a few card parties at Mrs. Ewings’[9] and enjoyed myself pretty well.  They played Smut[10] and ____ed Bachelor and I was minus nearly everytime… Mr Berry[11] –… gave a party at his rooms the other evening – which seemed to take altogether better than the ball of the 8th of January –… It was got up in good style as well as it could have been anywhere else.  They danced till very late – had supper about 10.  Wine cake &c…” Vandalia IL,  January 19, 1836  (WMS)  DD-FMW

After October 30, 1838, when David Davis was finally allowed to marry Sarah and to bring her back West with him, there was still socializing but most of it took place with Mr. Colton and other friends in their home. Wells Colton boarded with David & Sarah from the time she came out to Illinois until just before their 1st child was born in May of 1840.  Afterwards, Colton seems to have mostly lived in his law office, at the homes of friends, at boarding houses or hotels, and, occasionally, at the Davis home (especially when Davis was gone on business or when Colton was ill):

“I went to Vandalia about the 1st of the month & left Sarah in the charge of Mr Colton.”  Bloomington IL  January 26, 1839  (ALPL)  DD-WPW

“Saturday the Mother of Mr. Allen invited us to her house to eat a Turkey.  Wells and Dr. Hobbs[12] were of the party… Wells Colton boards with us at present = He is not yet married & does not seem likely to be.  He has been elected Probate Justice of the Peace, … His honors sit light upon him =”   Bloomington IL  February 7, 1839 (WMS) DD+SWD+WC- 6 Lenox girls  

“Our boarding at Mr Dean’s is broken up – by the illness of Mrs D[ean]  …  I find on my return that Mr Colton is boarding at Mr Drake’s - & I shall do so for the few remaining weeks….” Bloomington IL  March 25 1841 (ALPL)  DD-SWD

“Mr. Colton boards at the Hotel but calls very often –“  Bloomington IL  January 10 1842  (WMS)  SWD-FWW

“Mr Davis was absent 4 days last week and Mr Colton came down the day he left and remained till last night – for the sake of a quiet room.  He has suffered latterly from the [hemorrhoids] [which] made him unfit to attend to business – …Dr Henry[13] thought it best to remove a small tumour that had formed.  He did so last Tuesday at my house.  …  Mr C. is now at the Office, and in a few days I hope will be permanently cured.”  Bloomington IL  July 19 1842   (ALPL)  SWD-LAW

“I am thus here sole “locum tenens”[14] and to make myself more comfortable have “reformed” my office imprimis[15] - by scrubbing- second by white washing & painting - & lastly by cleaning up & putting to rights generally.  My office hath an outer as also an inner porch the latter of which constitutes my dormitory & dressing room & is furnished by my book case, bed, glass – curtains – valence wash table – pictures, etc- and in the glare of its new polish looks pleasant enough. “ Bloomington IL  June 29 1843 (BC)  WC-ALC

After the still birth of the Davises 1st child in 1840, Colton wrote to Sarah’s father in Lenox, to reassure him of Sarah’s health:

“Mr Davis was compelled yesterday to leave home for a few days – Sarah’s health being such as to permit it – And thus at her request I write in her behalf – She is too well apprised of your concern at home on her account – And has too much filial kindness to suffer your anxieties to rest unsatisfied =”  Bloomington IL  May 17 1840 (ALPL)  WC-WPW

Sarah’s mother arrived in mid- to late May, to take care of Sarah.  Later that summer, in August, Wells Colton accompanied Sarah and her mother on the arduous trip back to Lenox, where Sarah would stay to recover until the following April.  The trip served a double purpose for Colton as he could then stand up in his sister, Elizabeth’s wedding:

“Sarah’s health is delicate and last week she was confined to her chamber.  She has mended fast for 3 days – and is able to ride a few miles – she rode with Mr Colton this morning – Mr Colton is wishing to start for the east the first week in August and if Sarah can perform the journey…. if so, Mr C must will be the Beau[16] for us all [on] the journey…. Mr Colton is my Beau in all my excursions and the young Ladies look on me with an envious eye – ”    Bloomington IL  July 21 1840 (LL)  LAW+SWD-GW+FMW  

“I am very apprehensive that you are not going to start soon enough, to come home … how unhappy and disappointed I should be, if I should be deprived of the most of your visit and Sarah’s too.  I think now, my wedding will come about the first of Sept. … I want to have you and Martha stand up.”  Lenox MA  July 19 1840 (BC)  EC-WC

Wells Colton’s father, Rhodolphus, died in July 1838.  While his death did not leave the family destitute, money was tight and the Colton daughters, ages 24, 22, and 19, contributed to the family income by running a school in their home, while Mrs. Colton provided board for students who could not attend on a daily basis.

Several months after their father’s death, the eldest Colton sister, Elizabeth, wrote to Wells to reassure him that they were doing well:

We are surrounded with friends and comfort, and you, dear Wells, though so far from us are an unspeakable comfort, for which we thank God, as well as you …  Do not regret that you are not with us. Mother said … a while ago, ‘Wells is a stirring fellow; he’ll do something, and I would rather have him off at Illinois or any where else, than home here tending his elbows.’ So we all feel. We should not wish you to neglect your own interest and stay here where there is neither business nor enterprise, to take care of us.  Last year improvements were made in the wing for my school room… You know we have also new blinds to the whole house, for which father made a furniture trade two years ago.”  Lenox MA  October 13 1838  (BC)  EC-WC 

Music had been a large part of the Colton family home. Rhodolphus Colton had been a music leader in their church for years. After his father’s death, Colton’s mother and sisters sent him a remembrance of their father:

“Sabbath P.M. I went in the gallery this afternoon after meeting and got father’s psalm book for you. It has been there ever since his death. It was not that [his psalm book] that he meant to be sent to you, but his Village Hymns[17], I think, as he said his Hymn Book. Mother remarked to him that there were a good many leaves [pages] turned down to hymns that you used to sing together. He replied ‘Yes, and a good many had been turned back again.’ We send it to you with the leaves as he left them. We send the psalm book also, as you mention that, and probably it is the more familiar to you of the two. There is no place where I miss father more than in the gallery at meetings, which he always led.  I always think when I see his place vacant, Can it be that he is singing the praises of God in heaven!   Lenox MA  October 13 1838  (BC)  EC-WC 

Wells Colton played the fiddle which, in Illinois, became a source of entertainment for the Davises and their guests:                                         

“Dinner is over and Messrs. Colton & Davis are in my room – how I wish you were all here with us.  Wells has a fine fiddle, and he often says he should play for you with a great deal of spirit if he had the opportunity.  It is a great comfort to me to have the Partners call on me.  They mend my pens- rail my paper[18] – make my fire –… I sat in my large rocking chair … with two gentlemen on each side.  I was asked to sing – and gave The Charming Woman – which seemed to please.  Mr. Colton sung Billy Barton and the gentlemen joined.  David appeared to great advantage in the Chorus.  You know he has a fine voice… Bloomington IL,  February 7, 1839 (WMS) DD+SWD+WC- 6 Lenox girls 

Mr. Colton was up here to night.  He is still a bachelor which I greatly regret – He plays the violin occasionally and R[achel][19] & I accompany him.  She sings very sweetly.  I should be very lonely without her –… Bloomington IL  January 17 1844 (WMS)  SWD-FWW

Despite the close friendship between the Davises and Wells Colton, and the near universal admiration of Colton by the people of Bloomington, there was a sort of melancholy, and a pervasive restlessness or inability to settle down in Colton which mystified, concerned,  and saddened his friends and family, especially when it came to marriage

The melancholy seems to have stemmed from a sense that the world was passing him by, that he was feeling his age (he was only in his 30s), and that he wasn’t accomplishing much with his life.  Men in previous generations had known most of their lives what occupation they would follow, most likely that of their father. They either worked on the farm, apprenticed to a craft, or went into the church.

The generation of educated men like Lincoln, Colton, and Davis was one of the first to have options open to them. The West was opening up and if a man had no family name and connections to rely on back East, as was the case with all 3 men, they could go out to the frontier and try to make a name and a living for themselves there, on their own merit and not on their family name.

Colton was what we would today call a “Renaissance man” – someone who was widely read, had varied interests, was creative or artistic, and was of a somewhat romantic nature.  If you listen to the clip of the song which he refers to here, you will have a sense of his mood when he wrote this next letter. (To hear a clip, go to: http://www.james-joyce-music.com/sndclips/song04_clip.html )It must have felt to him that he was just spinning his wheels in a little town like Bloomington. This was especially true when it came to marriage:

“This matter of a bachelors accomplishments in the ‘savoir vivre’[20] is a bad symptom = It indicates a confirmed case – and such mayhap mine is - I must confess I feel the verst[21] of age settling on me.  One after another of my “fellow craftsmen” have deserted the ranks – wisely I doubt not – and I am left alone”.  It reminds me of the song of “Oft in the stilly night”

    When I remember all the friends so link’d together

    I’ve seen around me fall but Like leaves in winter weather

    I feel like one who treads alone some banquet hall deserted-[22]

But I must wind up the chapter = somewhat more I could add of desultory chat had I room which you see & probably are glad I have not.”   Bloomington IL  March 19 1844   (WMS)  WC-FWW

Wells Colton never married, though it was not for lack of trying or that he was avoiding marriage. When he came West in 1838, consensus seemed to be that he left at least 2 Lenox girls behind who thought that he might come back for them. One girl who was thought to be waiting for him was Sarah’s younger sister, Frances Mary [Fanny] Williams, who ultimately married Daniel Williams of Stockbridge MA.  Fanny was a favorite correspondent of both Colton and Davis.

Marriage was very important for a man who wanted to make something of himself. For men like Davis and Colton, making a proper marriage was of paramount importance, because it linked the public networks that they had formed in the law and in politics to the private, domestic world of a morally upright woman.  To not be able to make a good match must have been very distressing to an ambitious man like Wells Colton, especially when everyone seemed to be free in expressing their opinions on the subject:

“ I hope you will not be a bachelor, and I suppose you will not do as Esau did, and “take a wife of the daughters of the land.[23] But I will write no more.”   Lenox MA  October 13 1838  (BC)  EC-WC 

Wells Colton … is not yet married & does not seem likely to be.  Bloomington IL   September 8, 1839  (WMS)  DD+SWD-FMW

“We find Mr. Colton a very pleasant boarder.  I think we cannot keep him much longer at present[24] – but I shall be sorry when he goes – and I think he prefers living with us, to any one [sic] here. Indeed he has told me repeatedly that he would not stay in B.[loomington] – another month if Mr. D. & I were to leave.  He is a man of Reading consequently a pleasant companion.  I hope some of the Lenox girls will accept him – if he sees fit to make choice of a wife there.…” Bloomington IL  February 13 1840  (ALPL)  SWD-WPW

One of the Lenox women who was thought to be waiting for Colton’s decision was Sarah’s cousin:

“What do you suppose she [Harriet W. Worthington] is keeping [Henry W. Taft] along for? ... I do not think it is at all impossible that she is reserving her decision till next Fall, when she can tell better whether she would prefer you [Wells Colton] or not. … she will certainly lose Taft in this way, for no man will be dallied with so. And what would you think of such conduct? Would you, after she had kept Taft along all summer in the partial expectation of marrying her & then should decide that she preferred you, would you marry her? “ … Lenox MA  April 11 1840 (BC)  EC-WC

“…I shall have to send Mr. Colton to Stockbridge for a wife as he seems to prefer eastern ladies.” Bloomington IL  January 17 1844 (WMS)  SWD-FWW

Even Colton’s new brother-in-law chimed in with advice and encouragement:

Let me tell you I have been made a far happier man by marriage. I know of nothing in this world which would make you happier than just such a companion.  And believe me the best thing you can do is to bestir yrself anon in this matter .  I regret to learn from Lenox that Fanny[25] is probably disposed of[26] Daniel Williams of Stockbridge.[27]  This is a sad affair. I had been hoping that “somehow or other” you & F- might be brought together.  I do not but think that yr heart was rather that way & that the only difficulty on the other side of the house was – Illinois.  But don’t give up the ship. Union SC  March 1 1841  (BC)  LWC2+ECC-WC

That even Colton himself, at times, was perplexed by and despairing of his situation is evident by the following letters written by him. The first is to Sarah’s younger sisters, Fanny Walker, who was about to marry, and Cornelia Walker:

That Frances[28] is to use a geological phrase in a state of transition passing over from the territory of celibacy where I myself am commorant [living] into the domain of conjugality a land whereon my foot hath yet found no resting place I am both glad and sorry – Glad, if she be pleased-  Sorry also that the circle of unmarried whereof as before hinted I am an unworthy member should lose an ornament – It is a change – one of a thousand changes going on constantly and the tranquillity [sic] of my mind which you must know to be naturally placid is fiercely invaded by these perpetual changes – And in confidence (strict of course) I can let you into the secret of the matter a little further – If the world about me, men women, and children would just be pleased to remain stationary I should hardly seem to be growing older – But these changes – bah! they are always throwing in my [teeth] the march of time –… If it should occur before this letter reaches its destination …  no person can be found to respond to the name of Miss Frances Walker[29] – And in that case I wish Cornelia[30] in my behalf to make my congratulations on the event …  I constitute her my “attorney in fact” to kiss the bride in my behalf… – I will express a very mortifying fear at this mo[ment?- damaged] rising in my mind – that the proxy will be more acceptable than the principal-   Bloomington IL  December 8 1841 (WMS) WC-FMW +CW

The second letter is to his childhood friend, Sarah Davis’ older brother, George Walker[31], who was himself, at the time, unmarried:

“For myself I must confess it the old maid’s seem to have an especial claim upon me – the old widows talk confidentially with me … while the girls – the girls bless their souls whenever I am found near them become as grave and prim and demure and silent as if I were an old grandfather – quite too aged and venerable to have any sympathy with their feelings and joys [he was 30 years old]– … I know not whom I “might could would or should” court or marry – But for you there is no such excuse; the young, the beautiful, the accomplished, are all around you and I will do you the grace to say you are a very decent looking fellow and might in reason do something in the only way in which relief could be had from this our mutual woe –… Of my personal welfare I have little to say – Indeed were I disposed to be communicative on the subject the whole could be summed up in a very short compass = I am well enough bodily – and have no very severe maladies of mind – am little harassed with the fear of my money being stolen for I have none to steal = do not fear my house being burnt for I have none to burn  – no crops to lose – no horse to die no wife to be sick no child to cry and my sleep is measurably good for I have just exterminated the bed bugs – …  Furthermore it is not impossible that my good fortune might stand me in stead in the matter of beguiling the unwary ear of some Yankee nymph and by direct persuasion inducing her to take up the theme of “Westward Ho”… I had many more things my dear fellow to speak and save [them] for your own good but my paper is gone and I must “twist off” – Give us a yarn at your convenience – Pray give my love to Mrs. W[alker] & Cornelia and others ad libitum   Yours in the bonds of Celibacy -- Wells Colton                    Bloomington IL  August 20 1842 (ALPL)  WC-GW   

Colton’s restlessness was something which David Davis could understand and share, but while, over time as his family grew, Davis became more resigned to staying in Bloomington, Colton’s restlessness grew stronger:

Were it not for the dread of change & in view of the old adage “that a rolling stone gathers no moss”, Colton & myself would move to Springfield & establish ourselves as Collecting lawyers.  Springfield will be the great point when the collecting of this state will be done=  Bloomington IL   March 18, 1839 (ALPL)  DD-WPW

Mr Colton remains with me … = He seems determined to go to some large place in the West and settle himself for life=  Bloomington IL  December 22 1841 (ALPL)  DD-WPW

A visit to the East has no tendency to make us better content.  The things we have lost by a voluntary banishment to the western world on our return from seeing our relatives & friends of childhoo [sic] – come ref vividly to the mind.  Thoughts thick & fast – then corresponding after a while – the height of our feelings – is calmed -& we take the every day routine of life, as formerly – ones town – then looks duller – the people less interesting -& his ordinary business – duller.  But my reflections are somber [sic], Fanny, and I will in the language of Mr Colton – “pretermit”[32] them .  Bloomington IL  December 26 1843  (WMS)  DD-FWW

Mr Colton will leave here this season, either for St. Louis or some large town on the Mississippi River.  I shall stay, and when I can leave is more than I can tell.  Business, property, and various considerations tie me down here. I feel more sorry on Sarah’s account than my own.  She idolizes Lenox & Canaan ____ , and loves her old friends more than she ever can new ones… Bloomington IL  May 14 1844  (LL)   DD-JR

Mr Colton has concluded to leave this State.  He is going to spend some time in visiting the different large towns on the Mississippi river [sic], but I have no doubt he will go to Saint Louis– I cannot leave Illinois without too great a Sacrifice at present.  There is practice enough to support one, though not two.  If I were a single man, as he is, I should not hesitate the greater part of a second about going to Saint Louis.  The place is an expensive one – a married man cannot live & support a family in Saint Louis “. Lenox MA  May 25 1844 (ALPL)  WPW-DD

“Mr Colton …certainly appears to great advantage, and I think is destined to be not only an useful but a distinguished man, in whatever place he locates himself – I regret that his interest requires, that he should leave your village, for the loss of such a man from any society, will be sensibly felt –“  Lenox MA  September 2,  1844  (ALPL)  WPW-SWD

The lure of the big city – St. Louis – finally won out and on January 1, 1845,  Wells Colton moved permanently to St. Louis, much to David Davis’ regret:

“Mr Colton leaves for St Louis tomorrow – It is hard separating from him – We have been together since May 1838 – done a great deal of business – became accustomed to each other’s ways and many reminiscences come in review at the prospect of parting – Mr C- has good talents & will succeed in a city – If I was foot loose as to property, I would go too – But I have made up my mind to be contented & happy in Illinois, & money I can make=” Springfield IL  December 31 1844  (ALPL)  DD-WPW

“I miss him very much, though I am well persuaded he must do well in St Louis – The Judge of this Circuit thought him second to but two Lawyers in it – Illinois notwithstanding her embarrassments, has increased more in population in the last five years, than any one dreamed of – …  I am resolved upon living in Illinois – I stay in the State, because at present, I can do here better than any where else, and probably I always can – I certainly shall never go, until I am satisfied beyond the possibility of a doubt that I lose nothing by the change – However, I prefer New England…”  Bloomington IL   December 13 1845 (ALPL)  DD-WPW

David Davis felt the absence of Wells Colton acutely on a personal level, especially after the sudden death of his 10 mo. old son, Mercer Davis in the fall of 1846.  No other male friendship filled the void left by Colton’s relocation to St. Louis. Colton’s letter of condolence and Davis’ reply show the depth of their friendship and the pain of its loss:

“The intelligence of the afflictive bereavment [sic] you have suffered causes me deep concern and most truly do I sympathise [sic] with you. Your little Mercer was indeed a sweet babe and could not have failed to win the warmest affections of a parent.  Alas, how brief has been his Course upon earth!  That a few weeks since when I saw him his rosy cheeks & lively playfulness seemed anything but the precursers [sic]of so untimely a fate… What can I do for you & for Sarah but to say that in your sufferings our long & intimate friendship makes me too in part a sufferer.  I cannot relieve you but I can feel for your loss. ….In what I have said I have addressed you but in my thoughts Sarah & you are blended together –“ Yours most Truly –    Wells Colton    St. Louis MO  September 28 1846 (ALPL)  WC-DD

“Dear Colton,  It has been a long time since I tried to write you a letter that was worth the reading – The sorrows of life have borne heavily on me since I last saw you and it is hard even with the lapse of time to reconcile ones self to his lot – I miss you more this winter than ever – It seems to me that I want some male friend – to talk to – freely – unreservedly – who has intelligence enough to make a pleasant companion – and in whom one has entire confidence – I have no such one here –“  Bloomington IL  January 4 1847 (ALPL)  DD-WC

Davis visited Colton in the spring of 1847. After his return, Davis wrote to Sarah’s father tell him what he found and to commiserate on the plethora of lawyers:

“I found my friend Mr Colton pleasantly situated in Saint Louis – but not as full of business as I could wish – Saint Louis seems to be the place – that all of the young men from the Eastern States select as their residence – It is nearly as full of Lawyers as New York city – It requires a long residence in the city – to command its business – I believe that Mr Colton will ultimately command a plenty of business – and I honestly believe, that there are not a dozen better Lawyers in the city –“   Bloomington IL  March 22  1847  (ALPL)  DD-WPW

“You mention having lately visited St. Louis & of Mr Colton’s prospects – He must succeed as he is certainly a good lawyer – but among such a shoal of lawyers as you speak of there, it will be hard for any one to get fast hold of many clients, till he grows very large.     The whole country is full of lawyers – we are overflowing here –“   Lenox MA  April 23 1847 (ALPL)  WPW-DD

By the summer of 1847, Davis was concerned that Colton was not prospering in St. Louis, that he was socializing too much, and he bemoaned, once again,  Colton’s single state:

“Mr Crow[33] says Mr Colton is quite smitten with a niece of General Taylor’s – He thinks he is too much of a ladies man to succeed well in business – Perhaps he might do better if he was married–“ Lenox MA   July 12  1847 (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“Mr Crow & myself agree about Mr Colton’s prospects unless he ceases his hunt after the Ladies – He will futter down to nothing at all – I believe sincerely that it was a sorry day for him, when he went to St Louis –“  Springfield IL  July 24  1847  (ALPL)  DD-SWD

“It seems to me that those who come from St. Louis dont [sic] speak of Mr Colton as doing much business.  I fear he has got more the reputation of a Lady’s man than a business man..” Bloomington IL  July 8  1848 (ALPL)  DD-SWD

In late July, 1848, Wells Colton made what would be his last visit to Bloomington. His sister, Elizabeth Colton [Mrs. Rev. Lupton W.] Curtis, had died on May 6, 1848.  Just 2 weeks before, her 3 ½ mo. old son, William (7 Jan.-24 April 1848) had died. Everyone expected Wells to support his family in their time of bereavement. His family expected him to come up to Milwaukee WI, where his sister, Martha Colton Chapin, lived with her husband, Rev. Aaron Lucius Chapin, along with her mother, Love Wells Colton, and her unmarried youngest sister, Rachel Colton:

“I enclose you a letter, received from Mr Colton – Poor Elizabeth I feel sorry for her – I was always fond of her and I know you will sympathize deeply with her & her family – Mr Colton ought to accompany Martha – He has not got the right sort of feeling ––“ [34]… Danville IL  May 7  1848  (ALPL)  DD-SWD

“I wish Wells would accompany Martha.  I suppose his expenses are so great that he does not feel able to do so – What is he doing in the way of business?  I fear that his prospects are not improved by his removal to St Louis – Poor Mrs. Colton! how [sic] must she suffer from anxiety–… I always loved her.  I will write to Rachel soon and learn more of the particulars…” Lenox MA  May 19  1848  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“John Strong told me to day that he heard of the death of E. Curtis in Hartford.  Anson Colton told him and I fear that it is too true.  It will make them all sad at Milwaukie[35].  ... “  Pittsfield MA   May 26  1848   (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“The trees about town have grown very much and Mr Colton thinks the town has greatly improved …. Mr Colton ought to have gone & seen his mother this summer.  I am sorry he did not do it = “  Bloomington IL  July 30  1848  (IHPA)  DD-SWD

And, again, the subject of marriage comes up but this time, Wells Colton brings it up and his statement is surprising:

“Mr Colton … says he approves of early marriages, & that he wishes he had married ten years ago.”  Bloomington IL  August 6  1848  (ALPL)  DD-SWD

The death of the wife and baby of Colton’s friend and fellow lawyer, Russell Prentiss, was a portent of what was to be a year filled with tragedy.

“My friend Prentiss has lost his wife – She died of fever consequent on confinement   The babe also died soon after…” St. Louis MO  December 14  1848  (ALPL)  WC-DD

In St. Louis,  the year 1849 did not get off to an auspicious start:

“On Jan. 2, 1849, the steamboats Aleck Scott and St. Paul arrived from New Orleans. Many of their passengers were seriously ill. Ten were dead.

Other boats soon brought more sick cases and bodies — victims of cholera, a deadly and contagious illness that ravaged America in waves of epidemics.[36]

The cholera was present in many places that year, mostly in towns and cities along inland waterways, and also along the Eastern seaboard.  It was especially bad in St. Louis:

“We have had some alarm here about cholera; all is quiet on the subject at present – I expect it will break out again when warm weather comes. All we can do is to be careful and [hope] for the best. The Erysipelas is in Town also the small pox – it has been a sickly winter … A friend of mine Mr Havens was taken with the cholera one night at his room where he slept alone & was too ill to give an alarm or get help & before he was found in the morning was past help.  Since this case occurred I have felt unwilling to sleep in my office alone and have taken lodgings with my friend Prentiss at his rooms in a private boarding house at which place I also board – I saw Havens about 9 o clock in the evening of the night on which he was attacked with the cholera apparently in his ordinary health = …Such a death seems like quick work – The people of St Louis have sung and danced and piped and harped and frolicked much as usual, the cholera to the contrary notwithstanding –…  I have fallen off as a member of the fashionable circles – and at present are scarcely known as a visitor in society – For this I have no specific reason nor has it happened by predetermination but rather by chance, I know not why…”   St. Louis MO  February 12  1849 (ALPL)  WC-SWD

“We hope to see Wells here this season, but we shall not have an intimation of a visit from him, if he designs it, till he rings the bell.  I was concerned for him when the cholera was daily reported at St. Louis, especially as he is so much alone, he wrote me that he should change his office lodging for a place in the house of a friend.”     Milwaukee WI  March 28  1849 (ALPL)  LWC-DD

And then came the night of May 17-18th….

“ST. LOUIS • Crewmen doused a mattress fire on the steamboat White Cloud, moored on the north end of the city's landing. They aired the bedding on deck, then dragged it back into a cabin.

They must have missed an ember. About 10 p.m., flames burst from the passenger deck. Watchmen along the crowded landing clanged bells of alarm. Volunteers of Missouri Fire Co. No. 5, first to the scene, saw fire leaping from the White Cloud onto the adjoining steamboat, the Edward Bates.

A hard wind blew from the northeast across the Mississippi River. It would serve as a bellows for the long, destructive night of May 17-18, 1849 - St. Louis' Great Fire.

The firestorm added misery to the city's worst single disaster, a cholera epidemic that would kill at least 4,317 people. The May 17 newspapers were filled with news of death. The White Cloud was just another steamboat from New Orleans.

The Bates burned free of its mooring on what is today's Laclede's Landing and drifted downriver, spreading fire. Crews on boats without steam cut their lines and tried to escape in the current, but wind pushed them back into the gathering inferno. In 30 minutes, 23 steamboats were ablaze along the riverfront.

Embers fell on hemp, tobacco, wood and other freight stacked upon the landing, which then was made of limestone blocks. Fire jumped Front Street onto shanties along Locust and Vine streets. It spread south and west into the business district, where lawyers and bankers frantically retrieved books and papers. Another fire south of Market Street, sparked by burning boats, roared through wooden homes.

Firefighters and residents retreated while still battling with bucket brigades and weak streams from hoses fed with river water. The fire skipped a few all-brick buildings but consumed almost everything on nine blocks north of Market Street. It moved toward the (Old) Cathedral at Walnut and Third streets.

Firefighters saved the cathedral block with a firebreak by blowing up buildings along Market. A premature blast at Phillips Music Store, Market and Second, killed fire Capt. Thomas Targee. Firefighters protected the Market Building, the city hall at Market and Front, by kicking embers off the roof.

Not until dawn, when the wind finally stilled, could they make headway…”[37]

Of course, the news was delayed reaching the Davises, especially David who was out on the circuit:

 “Last week on Thursday [May 24th] I was startled by hearing that a report had reached us from Peoria that Wells had died with the cholera – I did not credit it – but it made me very uneasy, and he was in my mind all the time – Friday evening Mr Robinson called and gave me a paper containing the account of the St. Louis fire and the sad story connected with it.  This paper spoke discouragingly of Wells’ recovery – and I gave myself up to grief – Saturday evening the mail brought a line to Mr Davis’ address – from our dear friend, saying the wound was severe, and he should be confined to the bed for some weeks probably – I could hardly believe that he wrote the letter, so completely had I given him up – But hope whispered that he would recover and I set about thinking of little things that would give him pleasure when he came to see us – We had expected him to spend the month of June with us – in order that Mr Davis and he should settle all business that remained unsettled between them -   Under the impression I got from his letter – I started for this place on Tuesday – “  Decatur IL  May 31  1849 (MCMH)  SWD-LWC

The following is the complete letter that Mr. Davis received on Saturday night from Wells Colton himself. He wrote it just 2 days after he was injured. You can see why she was filled with hope after reading it:

“Dear Davis – Last Friday night or Morning in the great fire it chanced to me to be struck in the left shoulder by some missile I think a heavy bit of wood by which I was Knocked over and a very Serious flesh wound inflicted and the Clavicle so much shattered that I fear my left arm must be for the future nearly useless.  It came from a building which was blown up to arrest the fire.  I am on my bed utterly helpless and though Said to be doing well expect to be bed fast for many weeks.  I write this with my right hand on my leg.  A hard lick.   Yrs Colton”             St. Louis MO  May 20 1849  (AL)  WC-DD

You can imagine the shock, then, to hear the news when they arrived in Decatur.

“We reached here yesterday [Wednesday] at noon Colonel [Asahel] and Mrs- Gridley being in company – Mr- Davis arrived before evening and his first words were “Is Mr. Colton dead?”  I replied cheerfully that I had a letter from him in the trunk, and that the statement was exaggerrated [sic] in the paper – Mrs- Gridley who was in the room said “I must tell you Mr Davis that he is dead”-  Her husband had seen the announcement in a St- Louis paper and did not wish me to be informed till Mr Davis arrived – His kindness tho well meant was mistaken –“  Decatur IL  May 31  1849 (MCMH)  SWD-LWC

“Mr Davis can hardly command his feelings sufficiently to hold Court to day – We both loved Wells as a brother, and mourn for him as such – He was a tried and a true friend, and we feel that his loss can never be made up to us – But while we mourn for ourselves we also mourn for you – If we loved him so well – how great must be the loss to his Mother who has watched him from his earliest infancy – 

May God in his mercy grant us all grace to bear this trial and improve it as we should – Mr Davis will telegraph to St Louis and we hope to get a full account of the last moments of our dear friend in a few days –“  Decatur IL  May 31  1849 (MCMH)  SWD-LWC

“…The Great Fire destroyed 418 buildings on 15 blocks. Three people [1 of whom was Capt. Targee] were confirmed dead, but more probably perished on the steamboats. At least one burning boat blew up.

St. Louis rebounded from fire and cholera and rebuilt the river district with brick and iron. Targee became a hero of the St. Louis Fire Department, formed in 1857. The Gateway Arch towers over the heart of the old fire zone.” [38]

For years, this is where the story of Wells Colton ended…until recently.  An account of the evening is in a MSS Notebook of A.L. Chapin, the 1st president of Beloit College, and brother-in-law of Wells Colton.  It states:

“The great fire in St. Louis which besides involving disaster to many & death to some others was the occasion of death to Wells Colton Esq. broke out about 10 O’c P.M. of the 17th of May 1849.  Mr. C had been spending the evening in company at the house of his friend Mr. Tevis[39]. Mr. T left him there to go to the scene of the fire.  After a while Mr. C left & probably went directly to view the progress of the conflagration.  He found occasion to apprehend that it might extend to his office & accordingly repaired thither where, with Mr. Prentiss[40] who occupied the rooms with him, he was engaged for some time in removing his books & papers.  The office was No. [59] Pine St.[41] between Second & Third Sts.  After completing the removal, Mr. C. in company with Mr. Prentiss walked down Third St. to Market & then down Market to the corner of Second to see the fire.” c. 1849 Holograph Account of Death of Wells Colton  (BC)  MSS Notebook A. L.

In an 1894 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the fire, it was reported that both Mr. Prentiss and Colton were hit by debris and seriously wounded:

“The progress of the fire was stayed on Market street on the blowing up of some buildings with gunpowder.  Mr. T. B. Targee, the City Weigher, was blown to atoms in the operation, while Wells Colton and Russell Prentiss were seriously injured.” [42]  

Wells Colton died as a result of his injuries on May 25, 1849.  Russell Prentiss lingered on until July 3, 1849.

Wells Colton was buried in the Old Presbyterian Cemetery in St. Louis, where Mr. Prentiss would also be buried near his wife and child.  A number of years later, when the cemetery land was needed for something else, the burials were moved to other cemeteries. Unfortunately, there were no records kept of what burials were moved to which cemetery.

Early in 2018, it came to my attention that Russell Prentiss’ and Wells Colton’s graves are in the Fireman’s Fund plot in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis! It is an elliptical plot roughly 95 feet by 100 feet in the northeast quadrant of the cemetery, a prominent location when the main entrance was off North Broadway Avenue.  The plot contains the remains of 34 people, mostly early firemen and family members.[43] 

Why would they have been relocated there?  It turns out that Prentiss and Colton were actually fighting the fire that night. 

In 1849, St. Louis did not yet have a paid, professional fire department.  That would not be established for 8 more years, in 1857.

An ordinance had been passed in 1822,  which allowed the 3 wards of the city then in existence to purchase the equipment necessary for a volunteer corps of firefighters.  That equipment consisted of a strong leather bucket and a badge of white muslin with the name of the district they represented was painted on it. With this ordinance, the volunteer firemen began. When the alarm sounded each person who was designated would respond to his home and secure his bucket, attach the white muslin badge to his hat, and hurry to the scene of the fire. The members of the fire companies came from all walks of life. They were the power in the city and wielded considerable political influence by their numbers and strong organization. The volunteer firemen were expected to stop whatever he was doing, whether he was at work or play, and rush to a fire when the alarm sounded. If he failed to show or violated any rules or regulations, he was fined, sometimes very heavily. The pride and ambition of each fire company was to be the first to reach the fire and the most efficient to extinguish the fire.[44]

 In 1849, all businessmen were expected to serve as volunteer fire fighters in the event that fire should break out.  Since Colton’s law office at 59 Pine St., as well as their boarding house, were in the area threatened by the fire, Colton and Prentiss were doing their civic duty when they were injured.

Several weeks after the fire, in the handwritten director’s notes from a meeting of the Fireman’s Fund, which had been established in 1841, both Wells Colton and Russell Prentiss were declared to be heroes, along with Capt. Targee, in light of their injuries and, at the time, subsequent deaths of two them, suffered in the line of duty.  Somehow, probably due to the rather spectacular nature of his death, Capt. Targee’s name was memorialized, while both Russell Prentiss and Wells Colton’s sacrifices were forgotten.[45]

Every year the St. Louis fire department holds an honor day to remember firefighters, past and present, who gave their lives in the line of duty. Finally, on May 18, 2018, both men were recognized at the Honor Day celebration in St. Louis.



[1] Wells Colton (1812-1849) Courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History

[2] While this article isn’t about Wells Colton, it does mention Tim Ogle and his mission to recover lost burials and graves.  https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/st-louis-man-uncovers-long-forgotten-grave-of-officer-killed/article_166d925b-76e9-5b56-bd0e-832672d6fe6b.html


[4] Lionetti, Joseph and Trent, Robert F., (1986, May), New Information about Chapin Chairs, The Magazine Antiques, 129-05, 1083-1095.

[5]  Desk made by Wells Colton c. 1828. Photograph courtesy of Lenox Historical Society, Lenox, MA.        Wells Colton would have been 16 years when he made this desk in 1828.

[6] Williams Biographical Annals , Calvin Durfee, Boston, 1871, 481.

[7] David Davis, Lincoln’s Manager David Davis, Willard King, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2018, c1960, 15.

[8] “Illinoisans were called ‘Suckers’ or ‘Succers’ because of the movement each spring of the early settlers up the Mississippi to work the lead mines at Galena – comparable to the sucker fish ascending the streams to spawn.”  ibid. 33.

[9] William Lee Davidson Ewing (1795-1846), Democrat from Fayette Co. …William Ewing's wife was Caroline Berry.  http://www.iltrails.org/govs.html

[10] Card game.  See article Catawba Games and Amusements,  Frank G. Speck, Primitive Man, vol. 17, no. 1-2 (Jan.-April 1944), p. 19-28.

[11] Possibly the brother of Mrs. William Lee Ewing. See the end of endnote #9.

[12] William C. Hobbs (1800-1861).  He was a dentist, teacher, man of letters, and the fashion “go to” person for the ladies of early Bloomington. He, too, was a sort of Renaissance man, like Wells Colton.

[13] Dr. John F. Henry

[14] A person, especially a physician or cleric, who substitutes temporarily for another.

[15] imprimis:in the first place

[16] It was considered improper for women to travel unaccompanied by a man for much of the 19th century.  When women needed to travel, they found a trustworthy male acquaintance to accompany them as their “beau”.

[17] Village Hymns for Social Worship, Asahel Nettleton, Goodwin & Co., 1824?

[18] Draw faint lines on her stationery to help her to write straight when writing a letter.

[19] Rachel Colton, sister of Wells Colton, who was making a prolonged visit with the Davises.

[20]  the ability to live life well and with intelligent enjoyment, meeting every situation with poise, good manners, and elegance. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/savoir-vivre

[21] verst: Russian unit of length (1.067 km) http://www.wordreference.com/definition/verst

[22] Oft in the Stilly Night

 Words by Thomas Moore  (to listen to a clip of this song: http://www.james-joyce-music.com/song04_discussion.html )

       Oft in the stilly night
       Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
       Fond Mem'ry brings the light
      Of other days around me:
      The smiles, the tears of boyhood's years,
      The words of love then spoken;
      The eyes that shone,
      Now dimm'd and gone,
      The cheerful hearts now broken!
      Thus in the stilly night
      Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
      Sad Mem'ry brings the light
      Of other days around me.
     When I remember all
     The friends, so link'd together,
     I've seen around me fall
    Like leaves in wintry weather,
    I feel like one
    Who treads alone
    Some banquet-hall deserted
    Whose lights are fled,
    Whose garlands dead,
    And all but he departed!
    Thus in the stilly night
    Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
   Sad Mem'ry brings the light
   Of other days around me.

[23] And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?  Genesis 27:46 KJV

The reference here is to Wells Colton being married to a native of Lenox or Berkshire Co. – a daughter of the land of his birth.

[24] Most likely because their 1st child was expected to arrive soon. Sarah gave birth in May 1840 to a atillborn son who was not named.

[25] Frances Mary Walker, younger sister of Sarah Davis.

[26] Having a certain inclination or disposition; inclined (usually fol. by to  or an infinitive) Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disposed (accessed: May 26, 2012)

[27] Daniel Rogers Williams of Stockbridge MA and Frances Mary Walker, were married on December 29 1841, in the Walker family home in Lenox MA.

[28]  Frances Mary “Fanny” Walker, daughter of William Perrin & Lucy Adam Walker; younger sister of Sarah Davis.

[29] Frances Mary Walker would marry Daniel Rogers Williams on December 29 1841 in Lenox MA.

[30] Cornelia Walker, daughter of William Perrin & Lucy Adam Walker; youngest sister of Sarah Davis.

[31]  George Walker (1812-1860) Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield IL.  

[32] to let pass without mention

[33] Wayman Crow (1808-1885), St. Louis MO merchant (Crow & McCreery Dry Goods) and benefactor of St. Louis University.

[34] Apparently they first heard that Elizabeth Colton Curtis was gravely ill, not dead.  Martha Colton Chapin was going to go to Union, South Carolina, where the Curtis family lived, to help nurse her through her illness.

[35] Milwaukee WI.  The spelling of the name of the city began as “Milwaukie” but was changed to Milwaukee for the first time in 1843 due to a newly-elected postmaster.  It seems that the issue of the “proper” spelling of the city’s name became a bit of a political football, until 1862, when it was permanently changed to Milwaukee. http://dalbello.comminfo.rutgers.edu/FLVA/infrastructure/infoinfra/post/postmasters/milwaukee.html

[36] O’Neil, T.,  A Look Back-Great Fire of 1849 ravaged riverfront. (2009, May 15). St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/a-look-back-great-fire-of-ravaged-riverfront/article_ff8faca9-1ba5-5f52-9252-e8397b705240.html

[37]  Image from The Missouri History Museum

O’Neil, T.,  A Look Back-Great Fire of 1849 ravaged riverfront. (2009, May 15). St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/a-look-back-great-fire-of-ravaged-riverfront/article_ff8faca9-1ba5-5f52-9252-e8397b705240.html

[38] See previous endnote above.

[39] Joshua Tevis (1786-1852) - of Philadelphia, He was in partnership with his cousin, Wayman Crow. They established the wholesale dry goods house of Crow & Tevis. In later years, the business would be known as Crow, McCreery & Company; Crow, Hargadine & Company; and Hargadine-McKittrick Dry Goods Company. http://library.wustl.edu/units/spec/archives/facts/co-founders.html

[40] Russell Prentiss (1807-July 3, 1849) lawyer and friend of Wells Colton in St. Louis.  See The history and genealogy of the Prentice, or Prentiss family : in New England, etc., from 1631 to 1883 by C.J. F.Binney, 1883,  301

[41] The 1848 St. Louis City Directory,  lists Wells Colton’s office as being 59 Pine St.

[42] A Stray Spark, (1894, January 7), St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 21.

[43] Holleman, J., Retired St. Louis firefighters lead drive to re-cap monument. (2016, October 1). St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/joe-holleman/spotlight-retired-st-louis-firefighters-lead-drive-to-re-cap/article_96884b7c-9c9b-5548-b29c-b84d517d5aca.html

[44] https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/public-safety/fire/fire-department-history.cfm

[45] https://www.supportingheroes.org/memorial/hero.php?hero_id=2841 and https://www.newspapers.com/clip/10883405/the_great_fire_of_1849/

Key to Correspondent Abbreviations

CW  =  Cornelia Walker, youngest sister of Sarah Davis

DD  =  David Davis

EC or ECC  =  Elizabeth Colton or Elizabeth Colton Curtis, eldest sister of Wells Colton

FMW or FWW  =  Frances Mary [Fanny] Walker or Frances Mary [Fanny] Williams,  younger sister of Sarah Davis

GW  =  George Walker,  elder brother of Sarah Davis

LAW  =  Lucy Adam Walker,  mother of Sarah Davis

LWC  =  Love Wells Colton,  Wells Colton’s mother

LWC2  =  Lupton W. Curtis, husband of Elizabeth Colton Curtis

SWD  =  Sarah Walker Davis

WC  =  Wells Colton

WPW  =  William Perrin Walker,  father of Sarah Davis

Key to Archives

 ALPL  =  Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield IL, The David Davis Family Collection

BC  =  Beloit College,  Beloit WI,  The A.L. Chapin Papers Collection

LL  =  Lenox Library,  Lenox MA,  The Julius Rockwell Collection

MCMH  =  McLean County Museum of History,  The David Davis Collection

WMS  =  Williams College, Williamstown MA,  The Samuel Chapman Armstrong Collection

David Davis Mansion

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