Date in History: 1821 – 1914
“To any enterprising young man, America threw out the most tempting promises. So, in the hopes of bettering my condition in life, I sailed for the United States, making southern Wisconsin my goal. There we lived in log cabins, ate venison and other wild game, shook with the ague, and made the best of backwoods life and enjoyed the beauties of nature in all their wildness.”
“I turned my hand to almost anything that brought me good wages, dug wells and ditches and worked at my trade. I had come to American to gain time in the acquisition of my fortune and as the discovery of gold in California had opened a new field for my ambitions, I determined to leave Wisconsin and by skill or will make my way to the gold bearing fields of the new El Dorado.” – Charles J. Lee
Cobbler – Immigrant – Pioneer – Forty-Niner – Farmer – like so many nineteenth-century settlers Charles J. Lee wore many hats during his long, extraordinary life. Lee was born near London in 1821 and was apprenticed to a London cobbler. He married first in 1842 and then again in 1845 after his young wife died leaving him with two small children (2-year-old Annie died five days after the wedding). Soon after their marriage, Charles and his new wife Sarah immigrated to Albany, Wisconsin and over the next four years Sarah would give birth to two girls.
When news of the gold strikes in California reached Wisconsin, Charles Lee joined the rush leaving his young family behind. He traveled first to New York City where he booked a passage through to San Francisco on a steamer with 400 others via the Isthmus of Panama. Unfortunately once they arrived in Panama the company’s agent was unable to charter a vessel to continue the Pacific leg of their journey so he refunded their money and left them to fend for themselves. The assorted group found an old hulk anchored in the bay. “She was an old sailship and condemned as unseaworthy,” Lee remembered, “there being a hole in the stern large enough to throw a good-sized dog through.”
Finally reaching San Francisco Lee found work in the gold mines along the Yuba River. He later purchased a claim in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and opened a dry goods shop in Forest City. “All went well as far as my business was concerned,” Lee noted, “but I had too many inconveniences to put up with. A man without a wife is but half a man at best; at least that is my experience in life; so I determined to close out and return to Wisconsin for my family, hoping to return again and set up business anew in the same city.”
Lee did make it back to Wisconsin, by way of Panama again, and returned with his wife and three children. They stayed in Forest City until 1867 when they returned to Wisconsin and bought a 200-acre farm along the western shore of Lake Koshkonong. Lee built his home, which is now the Carcajou Hunting Club, on the site of White Crow’s old Winnebago village, also known as Wolverine Point (“Carcajou” is French for wolverine). It was an environment rich in Native American artifacts and a perfect surrounding for youngest son Frank who arrived at Lake Koshkonong at the ripe exploring age of nine. Collecting Native American artifacts became Frank’s lifelong interest and upon his death in 1939 a portion of the Frank Lee collection was donated to the Fort Atkinson Historical Society for which we remain grateful.
California remained in Charles’ blood and in 1893 at age 72 he and Sarah and assorted family members, made one more trip back to Golden State. Sarah died in 1909 at age 90 and Charles followed her in 1914 at age 93. Both Charles and Sarah are buried in Carpinteria, California.
We are indebted to Charles Lee’s great granddaughters, Elizabeth Marsden Johnson of Washington state and Frances Marsden Johnson of Edgerton for the Lee genealogy they recently donated to the museum. As anyone who does genealogy knows, it is a labor of love reflecting years of research, patience and endurance. We are thankful for your efforts.