Date in History: c. 1850 – 1914
In Fort Atkinson’s Evergreen Cemetery, a simple gravestone notes the lives of James E. Ellis (1849 – 1911), and his wife Ann (1857-1914). Nothing sets it apart from its neighbors—just ordinary names and dates. But as a young black couple living in Fort Atkinson after the Civil War, they could hardly be considered ordinary.
The early history on both of the Ellises is a bit sketchy. From the Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers we know that as Co A. of the 29th Wisconsin Regiment marched through Louisiana in the spring of 1864, a young black teenager named James Ellis joined their unit as a cook. Ellis stayed with Co. A for the rest of the war, mustering out with the men in June 1865. It’s not too hard to imagine that a young man, so torn from his past life, might follow his fellow soldiers who returned home to Wisconsin. Ellis settled down in Fort Atkinson where he would earn the respect of the townsfolk with his friendly, hardworking nature.
The Civil War also brought his future wife to Fort Atkinson. Whether they were escaping slavery or just the chaos of war is unclear, but in the early 1860s a black woman and her two young daughters fled to Cairo, the southernmost town in the state of Illinois at the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There they were befriended by Dr. Lewis Bicknell of Fort Atkinson (perhaps there working in the Cairo Hospital?). After the mother died, Dr. Bicknell arranged to have one of the young girls sent North – all alone, with only a tag attached to her – to live with his wife and extended family. Ann Bicknell received a good education in Fort Atkinson and appears to have lived in what must have been an awkward position as both part of the family and part servant. In 1875 at age 18 she married James Ellis who worked part time for Dr. Bicknell.
James worked as a laborer and carpenter, building a number of houses including the one they lived in at the corner of South Fourth and South High Streets. The location near the schools on High Street was perfect for Ann who made a living making penny candy in the morning and selling it from the entryway of her home after school. Accounts portray Ann as a petite woman who greatly enjoyed the children who came to her home in droves. They themselves had two boys – Arthur, who died at age 2, and Clark, who survived both his parents.
While contemporary accounts may try a bit too hard to point out how enlightened the good folks of Fort Atkinson were, it is clear that the Ellises were accepted into the everyday life of the community. Mr. Ellis was the flag-bearer in all the local GAR funerals and parades, and they were members of the Congregational Church. A story about the prize yam he managed to grow made it into an 1896 edition of the Jefferson County Union just like it might appear today in the “Up the Street and Back” Column.
When Mr. Ellis died in 1911 he was buried with full military honors. Former Governor William Hoard joined other prominent men in the procession. Clark stayed with his mother until her death in 1914. Soon after, Clark would marry a black woman from Tennessee and convince her to move to Fort Atkinson with him. But his young wife soon felt very isolated in all-white Fort Atkinson, and the couple moved south, thus ending the Fort Atkinson chapter of a uniquely American story.