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.
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.