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 him
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.
*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.