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Why Was Ebenezer Childs Left Out of Green Bay History?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016
Last month in Part I of this blog we introduced the colorful character of Ebenezer Childs.  Early in our research for Life and Death at Fort Howard we encountered this larger-than-life figure who was apparently involved in many of the “firsts” in Green Bay’s history.  Childs’ memoirs have been used as a source by countless researchers studying this time period, but no one has taken the time to learn more about Childs himself.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Childs is unknown in Green Bay today and very little was written about him by the people that worked and lived with himLetter from Childs to his lawyer accusing his wife of having an affair (May 28, 1839), Neville Public Museum Collection .  

One of the unfortunate truths about working on exhibits like Life and Death at Fort Howard is that, eventually, you have to stop researching and start actually building the exhibit.  Our team had moved on to researching other aspects of the Fort Howard story when our Research Technician, James, made an unexpected discovery about Childs. 

This discovery was a letter written by Childs which was sent to Morgan L. Martin, his attorney.  (Read the letter here)  In the letter we learned that Childs had married into the prominent Grignon family and that his wife had recently given birth; however, Childs alleges that he is not the father of his wife Margaret’s child.  He names a man who he believes to be the father, and reveals that “one thing is certain… I can never live with my wife anymore.”  This revelation was shocking, as Childs had never mentioned a family in his memoirs.  We later found a reference to the Childs’ wedding in another source, but otherwise this letter was the sole indication that Childs had ever been married.

Recently we had a chance continue researching more about Childs and his life after Green Bay.  We utilized the Area Research Center at UW-Green Bay and were able to find marriage and birth certificates that back up the contents of this letter, along with a Childs v. Childs divorce file.  During the divorce Margaret Childs wrote a scathing and lengthy statement alleging that her husband was often intoxicated and “neglectful”.  

This letter may explain why we know so little of Childs; we can only assume that the divorce was an embarrassment to all involved, and after Childs left Green Bay it is reasonable to assume that it was not a topic of polite conversation.  Perhaps the residents of Green Bay avoided speaking of Childs, and that is why his name has not made it into the history books until now.  It is also quite possible that he was intentionally omitted from the record, essentially “erasing” him from history.

The thing that attracted me to Childs in the beginning was the sheer outrageousness of his claims mixed with an element of mystery.  As we continued to uncover his story, however, I began to think;  Is it really my place to expose this incident in the life of a man who lived 150 years ago that he himself would have preferred to stay secret?  As a historian I try to use the stories of the past to make sense of the present.  Ebenezer Childs was truly a “founding father” of Green Bay, and he deserves to be remembered as such.  Understanding this chapter of his life not only explains why he hasn’t been viewed in this light until now, but explains the decisions he made after his time in Green Bay.  It also reminds us that there are always two sides to every story and that as historians all we have to work with is what has been left behind.

Ryan Swadley

Museum Education

 

*Within two years of his divorce Ebenezer had left Green Bay, served as a state legislator, and spent his final days in La Crosse.  Further research will need to be done regarding Margaret and Louis, but it appears Margaret never remarried and lived near Kaukauna for the rest of her life.  We have not yet found any records of Louis.

Who is Ebenezer Childs?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016
The best part about history is that no matter how much you think you know, there’s always something more to every story.  We’ve been learning that lesson again herEbenezer Childs 1856  From the Wisconsin Historical Societye at the Neville Public Museum as part of our research into Fort Howard and the early foundations of Green Bay.  Wealth and power, marriage and divorce, drunkenness and defiance, and even an alleged affair and paternity scandal come together in the story of Ebenezer Childs.

Over a year ago, when we began our initial research for our exhibit Life and Death at Fort Howard, we naturally looked to our collections from the prominent “founding fathers” of Green Bay.  Men like Morgan L Martin, Henry Baird, and many members of the Grignon family were all connected with the first settlers in Green Bay.  However, we kept coming across a man named Ebenezer Childs, who was mentioned throughout many official records and personal correspondences, but who he was and what he did was never really explained.  Using books and articles that researchers before us had written we finally identified this character, and even found that he had written a very short autobiography.

Childs’ memoirs were the piece of the puzzle we needed…or so we thought.  He writes of his many exploits; some as simple as building the first framed home in Green Bay, building the first ox yolk here, partnering with John Arndt to build the first sawmill in the area, and even claiming to have brought the first piece of lead to Green Bay.  Other tales, such as how he eluded the authorities of the fort to illegally sell alcohol to the soldiers, survived harrowing journeys to St Louis and Madison, and outran tax collectors as a young man in his home state of Massachusetts are more fanciful.  However, in a letter to his lawyer, Morgan L Martin, we discovered a whole side of Childs’ life that he did not share in his remembrances.
Ebenezer signs the letter he wrote to his lawyer Morgan L. Martin in 1839.  This letter revealed an unknown part of his life and his connection to a prominent family in Green Bay.
As historians, the case of Ebenezer Childs reminds us of two things.  First, the process of doing history is messy and murky.  Researchers in the present day can only use the sources that have not been destroyed or lost.  Who knows how many stories, people, and events have been forgotten simply because no record of them survives?  The second lesson is that you can’t always believe everything you read.  Childs makes many claims in his own autobiography, but we can also prove he left many things out.  Neither a modern day Facebook profile nor a 150 year old autobiography can tell us the complete story of a person’s life, and it’s easy for the writer to embellish, omit, or simply misremember the facts.

Stay tuned for Part II of this blog, where we reveal the scandals that may have caused Ebenezer Childs to have been “erased” from history.  Or, even better, visit Life and Death at Fort Howard to discover what we know about Childs’ life.  And even better than that, visit us on Wednesday, August 17 at 6:00 p.m. for our Exhibits Exposed program, where we will share new information about Childs that has been discovered even after the exhibit opened along with additional artifacts and stories about the people of early Green Bay.

Frank Hermans of Let Me Be Frank Productions will be bringing the vivacious character to life this weekend only at the museum.  For more information and tickets visit Ticket Star.  

 

Ryan Swadley 

Museum Education

Exhibits Exposed

Tuesday, January 12, 2016
One of my favorite things about working at the Neville is that there is always something new to see or do at the museum.  This past year we’ve borrowed two great exhibits (Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs and Extreme Deep:  Mission to the Abyss), developed a great exhibit about local history (Building Our Community: 100 Years of Architecture and Design), and hosted several art exhibits showcasing works from the region and beyond. 

When our team met recently to discuss ideas for 2016, one of our goals was to find new ways to provide our visitors with unique, one-of-a-kind experiences.  In response, we developed a new program series called “Exhibits Exposed,” which will take place the third Wednesday evening of each month, starting at 6:00.  In this program you’ll join one of our experts on staff for a tour of a featured exhibit, and learn some of the facts and stories that didn’t make it onto the labels.  Then, you’ll have a chance to view some iconic artifacts pulled from our collection that are usually not available to the public.

My colleagues and I are very excited for the chance to share these rarely-heard stories, and even more rarely-seen artifacts from the Neville’s amazing collection.   We hope you’ll be able to join us for these intimate and lively discussions.

 

 

Exhibits Exposed Schedule
January 20:  Iroquois Beadwork and Sisters in Spirit
February 17:  The Fur Trade in Green Bay
March 16:  Feline Fine and the Art of Cats
April 20:  Stories of Life and Death at Fort Howard
May 18:  Art and Artists of Green Bay
June 15:  The Ice Age is Coming
July 20:  Interstellar Overdrive – Eyes on the Sky
August 17:  More of Life and Death at Fort Howard
September 21:  Frozen Green Bay
October 19:  Haunted Wisconsin
November 16:  Holiday Memories

All programs take place the third Wednesday evening of each month at 6:00 and are free with regular museum admission.  Sessions will be capped to ensure a personalized experience; additional sessions will start on the half hour as needed.

Ryan Swadley
Education Specialist

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