Remembering Those Who Served in the United States Military from Washington Island

About the Archives

Photo of small American yard flags in front of tombstonesThe Washington Island Military Archive is a collaborative effort to remember those who served in the United States military from Washington Island, and to a small extent the few who came from Rock Island during the time when people lived and worked on that island.

The Town of Washington Island was actually incorporated on Rock Island on June 20,1850 at the home of Henry D. Miner, the father of Jessie Miner.  Jessie recounts that he controlled the meeting because he was two weeks old at the time and the men holding the meeting were so loud that his mother said they would have to quiet down or they’d have to continue the meeting elsewhere.   In those days there was a free flow of traffic and activity and habitation between the two islands and they were almost considered one entity.  Notice that they incorporated the “town” of Washington Island, and most early references were to the “Town” of Washington, meaning what we now call Washington Island itself.  Rock Island was still thought of as the controlling municipal reality since that was where the lighthouse was and to where the majority of the first settlers came. Also, that was where the best commercial fishing took place.  That distinction diminished in the next dozen years as the population of Washington Island swelled when many people transferred from Rock Island.  And during the Civil War by far the greatest number of recruits for the military came from Washington Island rather than Rock Island.

Material has been gleaned from a number of sources, notably the Door County Advocate, cemetery documents, lists of those whose names were entered on the monument next to Bethel Church, some military records, Jessie Miner’s booklet “Early Days on Washington Island, and from the remembrances of several long time Island residents.  Jessie Miner also wrote a history of Rock Island, termed a Military Record of Rock Island,  part of which was excerpted in correspondence between Miner and John W. Cornell.  Several men who settled on Rock Island and who also served in the military are mentioned.

Except for bare mentions of military groups that the veterans belonged to, and a possible reference by an Islander to someone’s wartime injury, little is known about the actual military activities of the veterans.  They rarely mentioned what they did in the war.  So, much of the material in each veteran’s listing has to do with their later association with the civilian life of the community.  Also tying them to the Island is the network of marriages and sirings of later Islanders who now live here.  Except for those civilian activities the pages of many veterans would be blank.
Black and white photo of an angel statueMany veterans are still only names in the archives, especially those from the nineteenth century, and we would welcome any data that may still be lurking in family archives or other documents that might help to add more color to their identities.  Records were sketchy affairs until the 1970’s or so, and that leaves a lot of data missing.  Except for the raw military designations of rank, company assignments, and, in some cases, theaters of war, very little information is available from the military records alone.  Once in a while, a commendation saved by the family will be available to let the world know what a veteran did during his service.  Or an article in a newspaper might recount a particular event or achievement.  But those are few and far between, because the servicemen were loath to talk about their experiences.

American Legion logo
American Legion Post #402 – Gislason-Richter Post of Washington Island

Current members of the American Legion Post 402, the Gislason-Richter post of Washington Island,  are being interviewed to explore their actual military experiences.  (Post 402 is the only post on an island, and one of the smallest posts in the country.)  The interviews are in conjunction with a program undertaken nationwide by the Library of Congress to memorialize the contributions of our service members before they are forgotten and lost forever.  A copy of each interview of our post members is being contributed to the archives of the Library of Congress.  It is also included in each serviceman’s short biographical sketch in this archive.

While the initial purpose of this undertaking was to be a memorial resource of the Island’s  American Legion Post, copies will also be available in the AM Legion, Island Archives, the Island Library, internet website, and as an accessory to the teaching materials in the Island School in hopes of giving the children a sense of the sacrifices and service their forebears contributed to the Island and to their country.

Thus, in order to give a fuller understanding of the individual, we have undertaken to fill out a small biography of the serviceman as an individual apart from his military service.  We can see him as a useful member of the Island community.  We can also connect him to the rest of the Island families, and, to an extent, how they have influenced today’s residents and the development of the Island.  Some families have had members involved in various wars down to the present.

We said this was a collaboration, and it is.  In the upper right hand corner of each page is a small reference code.  It names the various sources of information relating to each serviceman.  Much of the information has been taken from the Door County Advocate  (noted as DCA), The Tidings and The Observer which have been referenced and which are stored in various boxes and notebooks in the Island Archives in the town office building.  References such as B10 F2 name specific files in the Island Archives.  Eric Greenfeldt, Janet Berggren, Dave Raup, Steve Reiss, and Dick Purinton have been very helpful in pulling out those  materials for this work.  Generally birth and death dates, marriage details, etc. are derived from the database known as RootsMagic.

Photo of random documents on a tableAlso noted in the upper right hand corner of each page are the initials of some of the long time Island residents who have phenomenal memories and have helped fill out the non-military lives and achievements of these service men and women.  JG stands for Joy Gunnlaugsson; JE for Jake EllefsonCS for Connie Sena; HG for Herb Gibson.  They have terrific memories and have been greatly helpful in filling out these biographies. Some individuals have been memorialized on these pages by family members: Christine Andersen, Joan Zorn, Sue Mason, Dave Alderfer, Valerie Fons .  Carol O’Neill contributed a lot of material on various families, and Ed ONeill brought up to date the records of the actual burial plots of those military buried in our Island cemetery.

Other information has been contributed from a family genealogy, such as the Cornell Book,the McDonald Book, the Koyen Book and others.  We thank all of our collaborators for their helpful contributions, and seek other family biographers.  The most frustrating aspect of this assemblage is that with all of these collaborators and sources some of the pages are mostly blank; nothing has been found other than that they faithfully served our country.  It would help greatly if the reader could come up with something more about them.

One of the exasperating problems in trying to assemble the record of these military members from the Island is getting the names straight.  Spelling was very lax in earlier records, especially those lists compiled by military commissions off Island.  And because of the concentration of Scandinavian families on the Island, there was an abundance of similar names.   Petersens and Petersons, Hansens and Hansons, Andersens and Andersons were mixed randomly and run under both spellings from list to list.  National preferences were not high priorities with military archivists, apparently.  Another problem was trying to decipher whether a person who went by a middle name on the Island was the same person who was listed by his first name in a particular military record.  And of course there are nick names.  So, the current effort may leave a lot of unanswered questions about some of these veterans.  Anything you can do to alleviate some of the mysteries will be welcome.  Simply bring or send the information to the Island Archives or the American Legion Post.

Readers may note that there are a number of men who were commercial fishermen and quite a few teachers.   With only one school here today on the Island, we may be surprised to hear that a hundred years ago there were about a thousand people living on the Island, much of it still forested and yet there were four schools with 20 or 30 to a room serving clusters of residents in Washington Harbor, Jackson Harbor, Jensenville and the west side.  Without paved roads and no easy means of transportation, many of the children of one community might not know the children of the other communities.  Also, there were about 30 commercial fishermen with docks spotted around the Island, catching whitefish and other species, and packing them in fish boxes made from the “popple” trees with ice from the eleven or so ice houses around the shores.

But the Island has a long history of sending men off to fight, and likewise, to be a welcoming place for those who fought before coming to settle here.  It actually began with the Indians.  During our early struggles with the English, we found that the French, who were forever contending with them, were ready to solicit help from the Indians to keep this unexplored territory out of English hands.  Led by a half-breed named Langlade, the Indians from the Island gathered in Green Bay and fought with the French against the English in the lengthy French and English wars during the middle 1700’s.  The Indians were frightened by the sounds the guns made but were told it was “only noise and wouldn’t hurt them”. Thus, near the present site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they engaged the English with knives and tomahawks, turned the tide of battle, and beat the English General Braddock on July 9, 1755..

Panorama photo of Washington Island, Michigan

The early Island resident, Jessie Miner, noted that “In 1854 there lived at West Harbor a Negro who fished and built boats and also preached occasionally.  He was at the Battle of Lake Erie (1812) and was with Commodore Perry when he went from one ship to the other.  If you look at the picture of the Battle of Lake Erie, you will see a young darkie in the boat.  That is Bennitt (sic).  He was about 60 years old when I saw him at West Harbor in 1854.”  Miner noted in his booklet that there lived in West Harbor a group of about seven Negro families that Bennett preached to, along with whites that sat in on the sermons.  It is thought by some that when the Civil War broke out these Negro families migrated up to Canada.

Miner also noted that in the “latter fifties and early sixties, there lived at Harrison’s Point an old man named Burbage, who had been an English drummer boy at Waterloo.”

Closeup photo of an angel hand holding a roseAnother interesting character was a one-time resident of Rock Island.  His name was David Kennison, and said he was the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party, and a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and also another survivor of the War of 1812, at the same battle of Lake Erie.  He was married four times, had 22 children, and came to Rock Island when he was 80 years old.  He lived there for 30 (!) years and left for Chicago at the age of 110 where he died February 24, 1852.  There is a large rock monument to him in Chicago in Lincoln Park, but also a second smaller notice right behind it that disputes much of Kennison’s boasts of his earlier exploits.  He did serve in the War of 1812, though. But the inflation of the facts took place after he got to  Chicago.  It seems he was actually about 85 when he died in 1852 in Chicago.
Much of our early material has come from the Door County Advocate, which was just coming into existence at about the time of the Civil War.  So at the same time that the publication was soliciting subscriptions from the people on the Island, they were also publishing notices about the sign-ups for service by the men of the Island.  Our first account, in an article from September 9, 1862 referring to military service, mentioned that a fourth of the Island men who could be considered for military duty had already volunteered in those first heady days of the Civil War.  Patriotic fervor was very high and many of the boys had quickly signed up.  This was at a time when there were 140 men and 122 women living on the Island, 80 of which were foreign born.

Jesse Miner also noted in a remembrance that David Kagnetosh (sometimes spelled Kaquetosh which could be an Indian name) was  “the only soldier of the Civil War born in the Town (i.e. Washington Island).  He was born about 1830 on the southeast point of the Island near Shellswick’s dock.”  Curiously, no other mention of him has been found.

Photo of tombstone crosses in NormandySome 234 military personnel are buried in the Island cemetery at this date, and they are remembered each Memorial Day with a service that begins at Bethel Church and continues to the cemetery where their names are read out and a short blessing is given by a member of the clergy before taps is played and a gun salute is offered.  But many of those who served from the Island are not buried there.  They were either given burial where they were killed in battle, or died in some prisoner of war camp, or never came back to settle on the Island.  They, too, should have their service noted in this effort at remembrance.

Because of the terrible slaughter suffered by both sides in those Civil War battles, men were conscripted by both the North and the South, three separate times by the North.  The first mention of names drafted in the cause of the North, were noted in a short Door County Advocate article on November 11, 1863.  The Island’s quota was eight, and eight men were named, but a further article on March 3, 1864 listed 11 who were exempted including four of the earlier named draftees.  Reasons given were ‘non-resident’, ‘alienage’ (apparently meaning non-citizen), ‘over 45’, ‘asthma’, ‘loss of an eye’, and ‘heart disease’.

Nonetheless, the spirit of the times prompted the men to enlist, and even toward the end of the Civil War, a few who had been exempted earlier were drafted a second time.  A notice accompanying one of the draft announcements in the Advocate warned:  “We would advise these men to report promptly and not allow any to shrink from their duty.”

Photo of veterans in blue jackets and white helmets with one holding the American flag

That patriotism characterized Islanders throughout the years and many more served in the later conflicts.  The following pages mention them.  If you can add information to any of the military whose pages are mostly blank, it would be a great honor to them, and help to make this memorial more complete.  Send any notes or material to the American Legion Post or the Island Archives.  We’ll bring the pages up to date.  This is an ongoing effort.  Thanks.

Compiled by John Gay in 2015

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