JOHN CATLIN


From History of Dane County, Wisconsin, publ. by Western Historical Company, Chicago, 1880, page 519-521

JOHN CATLIN was born the 18th of October, 1803, at Orwell, Vt. His genealogy has been successfully traced back through six generations to Thomas CATLIN, who resided at Hartford, Conn., more than two and a quarter centuries ago. His father was John B. CATLIN, and his mother's maiden name Rosa ORMSBEE, daughter of John ORMSBEE, of Shoreham, Vt. John CATLIN came of excellent American stock as both his paternal and maternal grandfathers were Revolutionary soldiers, and conspicuous for their patriotic zeal in the war which resulted in the consummation of American independence.

In his paternal grandfather's family there were seven brothers, all of whom shouldered the Revolutionary musket and joined the ranks of the patriotic army. They were all of them fine specimens of stalwart manhood, standing full six feet high, heavy, muscular, and well proportioned. His mother's father held a Lieutenant's commission in the Continental army, and continued in the service until the close of the war, when he received an honorable discharge, together with the sum of $1,400, the amount of his pay. The currency of the country was somewhat inflated at that time, as on his return to his home in Massachusetts, Lieut. ORMSBEE paid $60 of his money for a single bushel of corn.

John CATLIN's father was engaged in the mercantile business until 1812. At the beginning of the war which broke out that year, he abandoned his mercantile vocation and took up his residence in the town of Bridgeport, Addison Co., Vt. Having purchased a farm bordering upon Lake Champlain, he became a tiller of the soil. The subject of our sketch was then about nine years of age; and in that place and vicinity he began and ended the scholastic training which was to prepare him for the business of life. His educational advantages were quite limited, being only such as the common district school afforded, with the exception of one year which he spent in Newton Academy, located at Shoreham. At the age of eighteen he quit school and resorted to the vocation of teaching as a temporary means of livelihood. He followed this occupation for nine successive winters, devoting his summers to self-culture, and to the study of law in the office of Augustus C. HAND, of Elizabethtown, N.Y. In 1833, he was admitted to the bar at the age of thirty.

In 1836, he joined the comparatively small band of early pioneers who were following the course of empire westward. That was forty years ago, and emigrating as far west as Wisconsin was no holiday excursion as now. The pioneer of 1836 had no palace car, furnished with luxurious accommodations, in which he could repose at his ease, reading the latest paper of magazine, or sleep away the swift hours, rolling him over the iron track at the rate of four hundred miles a day. The emigrant of forty years ago was compelled to travel by the slow stage-coach, dragging its weary way over muddy roads, at the rate of thirty to fifty miles a day; or by the tedious canal-boat, with its scanty accommodations, or the ill-provided lake steamer, laboring against opposing waves to make six miles an hour, and, even when the wished-for destination was reached, the traveler found himself encompassed with difficulties, danger and privations.

Mr. CATLIN first settled at Mineral Point, where he formed a co-partnership with Moses M. STRONG in the business of his chosen profession. He, however, remained there but two years; for the capital of the Territory having been located at Madison, and he having received the appointment of Postmaster at that place, in the spring of 1838, he removed there, with a view of making it his permanent residence. He held the position of Postmaster until the election of Gen. Harrison as President, when he was removed to make way for a political antagonist; but, upon the accession of John Tyler to the Presidency, he was re-instated and continued to hold the office until 1844, when he was elected a member of the Territorial Council, and, the two offices being incompatible under the law, he resigned his post office appointment.

In the fall of 1836, Mr. CATLIN was appointed Clerk of the Supreme Court. He was also chosen Clerk of the Territorial House of Representatives in 1838; and was re-elected to that position for eight successive years. He was the first District Attorney of Dane County, and on the removal of George C. FLOYD from the office of Secretary of the Territory, in 1846, he was appointed his successor, and continued to hold that position until Wisconsin was admitted into the Union in 1848. A bill was introduced into Congress by Morgan L. MARTIN, the delegate of Wisconsin, to organize a Territorial government for Minnesota, including the district left out on the admission of Wisconsin as a State. The citizens of what is now Minnesota, were very anxious to obtain a Territorial government; and two public meetings were held - one at St. Paul, and the other at Stillwater - advising and soliciting Mr. CATLIN, who was Secretary of Wisconsin, to issue a proclamation, as the Acting Governor, for the election of a delegate. After some consideration, Mr. CATLIN repaired to Stillwater, and issued the proclamation. H. H. SIBLEY was elected; and he did much toward hastening the passage of a bill for organizing a Territorial government for Minnesota. Mr. CATLIN was afterward elected County Judge of Dane County, an office which he resigned in order to accept the position of President of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad Company. His appointment to this position necessitated his removal to Milwaukee.

In the discharge of the duties of the important position of President of the primitive railroad of Wisconsin, Mr. CATLIN displayed a great energy and skill. He procured the passage of a law which made the first mortgage bonds of this railroad, to the amount of 50 per cent, a foundation for banking. This feature appreciated the obligations of the company to such an extent that he was enabled to effect a loan of $600,000, which gave to the road the first great impulse, and the work of construction was vigorously begun, and as vigorously prosecuted. He was President of this road for five years, or until 1856, when he declined a re-election. His retirement was made the occasion of a highly complimentary resolution adopted by the Board of Directors, thanking him for his eminent services in behalf of the road.

In 1857 the company failed, and Mr. CATLIN was once more induced to accept the position of President, and he proceeded to re-organize the association. He continued his official connection with that corporation until it was subsequently consolidated with the Milwaukee & ST. Paul Railroad Company.

Mr. CATLIN was married on the 19th day of September 1843, at Rochester, N.Y., to Miss Clarissa BRISTOL, daughter of Charles BRISTOL, once a prominent wholesale merchant of New York City. The fruit of this marriage was one child, a daughter, who is still living.

Among the pioneers of Wisconsin, John CATLIN held a conspicuous place. The various important official positions which, as we have seen, he was called upon to fill, furnish sufficient proof in confirmation of this statement. He was chosen Secretary of the Territory, was the first Postmaster of Madison, first Clerk of the Supreme Court and of the Territorial House of Representatives, first District Attorney of Dane County, its first County Judge, was President of the first railroad company, and a member of the Territorial Legislature.

His energetic character and practical ability peculiarly fitted him for the work of aiding in the building up the fabric of a new State. All enterprises that promised to promote the growth and prosperity of Wisconsin, found in him a zealous supporter and a determined advocate. In its infancy, he became a life member of the State Historical Society, and to the time of his death he was one of its most active and inflexible friends. His efforts and influence contributed in no very slight degree toward the collection of literary treasures which now fill one wing of the capitol, forming a library of which the State is justly proud. Mr. CATLIN's friendship for the Historical Society was not impulsive or spasmodic, but a continuing regard which lasted throughout his active life. It is perhaps but just in this connection to allude to the liberal bequest which he made of a section of land in the State of Texas, for the benefit of the society.

John CATLIN was pre-eminently a self-made man. He owned but little of the success which he achieved to the gifts of fortune, or to extraordinary natural endowments.

His intellectual parts were more solid than showy, more useful than ornamental. His aim was success, and he sought it in the slow, but sure and solid pathways of industry, and perseverance.

He knew the race was not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. He saw the prize of victory in the far distance, waiting for all who would labor to achieve it; and he entered upon the pursuits, not with the impulsive flights of genius, but with the steady gait of practical common sense.

It may be said that Mr. CATLIN's intellectual character was neither illustrated nor marred by any of the faculties or of the faults of genius. He laid no claim to the natural gifts which are essential attributes in the character of the successful advocate; and yet, he devoted his life exclusively to the duties of his chosen profession, he would doubtless have gained distinction at the bar. He was a kind and faithful husband, an indulgent parent and a most exemplary citizen. He died August 4, 1874, in Elizabeth, N.J.


Transcribed and contributed to this site by Carol

 

 

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