Two letters of the Blake family recently have come to light, each well over a century old, written by parents to their son James Alvin Blake who left his West Virginia home after the Civil War for the forests of Wisconsin.
This chronicle is in three parts. The first part is an introduction to the family and life of James Alvin Blake. The second part is about the letter sent to him by his father Joseph in 1873. The third part is about the letter his stepmother Elizabeth Jane (Sands) Blake sent in 1883. These two letters give us an unusually intimate look at life in the Oil Creek area before the railroad. We also see the hardships experienced by our forefathers. Disease, death and poverty visited the hearths of the log cabins which dotted the hills and valleys of the Oil Creek valley over a hundred years ago, and uncertainty stalked the everyday existence of the common folk who were our ancestors.
Left: map of central western Virginia/ West Virginia showing the Staunton Parkersburg Turnpike and the Gauley Bridge/Weston Turnpike as they we roughly located before and at the time of the Civil War. Click on the map to enlarge it.
Coming from Lewisburg in Greenbrier County, the pioneering Blake family, including parents Andrew and Margaret (Williams) Blake and their adult children, Rebecca, Hannah, Andrew Jr., Hugh, John and probably Patience and their spouses, settled along Clover Fork and over the hill on the waters of Knawls Creek during the early 1830’s.
~ Rebecca was married to Alexander Ocheltree,
~ Hannah was the widow of Isaac Ocheltree,
~ Andrew Jr. was married to Catherine Crysemore.
~ John Burton was married to Catherine’s sister Abigail Crysemore
~ Patience was married to George Matthews.
~ Hugh was married to Martha Williams
Several of these Blake families settled along Knawls Creek. John Burton and Abigail (Crysemore) Blake settled in the Oil Creek watershed on upper Clover Fork, near the Knawls Creek families. Several of the offspring of the Knawls Creek Blakes would also settle in the Oil Creek watershed. For example, George and Patience (Blake) Matthews’ granddaughter Patience Duvall would marry Jackson McWhorter Skinner, son of Alexander and Phoebe (Conrad) Skinner, and live on Clover Fork and in downtown Orlando. Several of Andrew and Catherine (Crysemore) Blake’s grandchildren would live along lower Oil Creek.
Joseph and Elizabeth were parents of (apparently) only two children. One was a son, James Alvin, who was born in 1847. James Alvin was seven years of age when his sister, Mary Anne, was born in April 1854. Regrettably, their mother died two months later from complications of Mary Anne’s birth.
In 1856, two years after the death of his first wife, Joseph married Elizabeth “Betty” Jane Sands. Young James Alvin Blake would have been nine years of age when his father re-married.
Joseph and Betty became parents of nine more children: William, born 1857; John T., born 1859; Francis Marion, born 1860; Sarah, born 1863; Joseph, born 1864; Patrick Newton, born 1867; Martha, born 1869; Virginia, born in 1871; and Charles Victor, born in 1873. James, the child of his father’s first marriage, had grown to manhood and would leave home even before some of his later siblings were born. The younger children would know him only as their brother who lived in the west, but before that there would be the matter of a Civil War.
Annette Frank, his great granddaughter, tells us that James left for the West soon after his discharge from service because of acrimony in the neighborhood from former Southern sympathizers, many of whom were family. At the end of the war, James drew his final pay of $11.70 and his enlistment bounty of $75.00. He elected to retain his cavalry saber and paid the government $5.00 for it.
Left above: Map of Wisconsin showing the towns where the Blakes spent most of their Wisconsin years. Click on the map to enlarge it.
Left below: generic photo from 1905 from the Chippewa Lumber & Boom Company
In 1873, according to our letter, James was considering buying a farm and moving back to West Virginia. However, in the 1880 census James listed his occupation as “lumberman” and his place of residence as Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 1881 found James working as a filer for the Chippewa Lumber & Boom Company in Chippewa Falls. By 1890, James and his family were living at nearby Chippewa, and in 1900 the family was living in Big Bend, also near Chippewa. .
From James’ great granddaughter Annette Frank we learn that James and Jennie and their family visited their West Virginia kinsmen for a brief reunion in 1908. A family story recalls that Jennie was horrified because none of James' female family members used a tera towel to dry the dishes. The census shows that by 1910 the Blake family was back in Eau Claire. But the big move was yet to come.
About 1912 James and Jennie left Wisconsin and migrated farther west to Washington, the Evergreen State. Two of thei daughters had married and moved there. At first they lived in Lents, Washington. In 1913 they settled in Camus, on the north bank of the mighty Columbia River. James worked in the mill at Crown Willamette until he was injured in 1915. His leg was broken in the mill when he was walking near the tracks and a car came by and a protruding piece of lumber hit him. Anna (Hill) "Jennie" Blake died in 1919. James died in 1927.
Braxton Co. West Va
April the 20, 1873
James tell me how much money you can pay on a place Elias Cunningham will let me have a place with good improvement for six(?) hundred dollars.
James, when can you come home if you have got your discharge yet make the best of it you can do if you intend to come make and save all you can I am sure you can do better if you want to farm according to your own letter times is hard hear but if a man has land he can live this country is better than when you left it
I have told you all I can about land I have no news I can tell you at this time we had a hard winter and a cold spring so far the messels is all around us – are in one mile of us at this time None of us has never had them yet Jenny we would all like to see you and the baby I suppose it still grows fine give it a kiss for every one of us can little Mary sit alone yet If she can she is a little woman Come home little Mary We have wrote to you latly and have had no answer yet tell us what you are doing this summer James I am not very able to work any more but I want to do all I can I must tell you about grain ear corn is from sixty to seventy- - wheat one dollar fifty cts bacon 10 cts oats 50 cts eggs 10 cents per dozen butter 50 cts per pound we can get coffee hear from 25 to 30 cts pound I have told you prices of things hear I ask you to wrigt as soon as you get this letter this fall or wen direct your letter to –vil Braxton Co Wes Va I must close for this time so good by for this time
I remain your father until death
According to Annette Frank, great granddaughter of James and Anna Blake, in this letter Joseph was urging his son to return to West Virginia from Wisconsin and take up farming in West Virginia. Joseph discussed two farms of interest: the “Garling” Ocheltree farm (actually “Garland” Ocheltree, son of John and Lucinda (Blake) Ocheltree and the Elias Cunningham farm. The Ocheltree farm could be had for $400 and the Cunningham farm for $600. Both farms were in the Knawls Creek – Clover Fork neighborhood and undoubtedly James would have been familiar with both. We know, of course, James chose lumbering in Wisconsin rather than farming in West Virginia.
Sadly, Joseph died of typhoid fever at age 49 the following year on Christmas Eve, leaving his widow landless and with nine children, five of whom were under the age of ten.
I forgot to tell you May got married. She got married on her birthday. Her man is Joseph Scarff. I will give you the children ages
Frank is 22 Dec 14
May is 20 Feb 13
Joe is 18 March 8
Pat is 16 April 8
Alice is 14 March 27
Bell is 12 June 9
Charley is 10 Oct 21
James if you send me any money send it soon for I am in great need.
May god bless you
Whether any help came from her stepson is lost to the ages. We do know from the 1900 census that the widow Elizabeth (Sands) Blake had married James Donaldson about 1883 and they were living on Oil Creek below Orlando. Fifteen years his senior, Elizabeth was then 59 years of age and James was 44. The 1900 census reports that James was a “day laborer,” presumably in connection with the oil and gas fields which were then being exploited in the area.
He went there years ago.
I guess he must have gone to stay,
At least it seems just so.
He operates a service station.
His name perhaps you know.
He is as ugly as all creation;
We always called him Joe.
When he receives the Democrat
And reads this little poem,
Perhaps he might pick up his pen
And write a letter home.
Left and right: Gravestones of James Alvin Blake and Anna Jane(Hill) Blake
Note 2: about James' mother's family; Elizabeth Walton's family:
During the early summer of 1861 after the Civil War had begun, an Indian of the Lake Flambeau tribe in Wisconsin sold a magnificent bald eagle which had been captured to Daniel McCann of Eagle Point, Wisconsin. McCann, in turn, sold the eagle to a just-forming unit of the Eighth Wisconsin Regiment to use as a mascot.
The handsome eagle was dubbed “Old Abe” and was fitted out with a ribboned necklace and a breast rosette. His cage was resplendently decorated with miniature flags giving the 8th Wisconsin a “one-of-a-kind” mascot to take into battle.
Anna’s brothers, Thomas and John, at various times during the Civil War, were honored by being designated as “War Bearer of the Eagle and Peace Attendant” of “Old Abe.”
This unique mascot was widely envied by other Union units and was much in demand to be seen by the Yankee soldiers. After serving as a mascot during the war, “Old Abe” served his state in an exhibit in the State Capitol of Wisconsin at Madison until its death in 1881.
. . . . .
Many thanks to Barbara Ulowetz Hottle, great grand daughter of James Alvin Blake, for sharing these letters with us. The original letters repose in a safety deposit box, gathering age. We are fortunate to have the transcribed copies of the letters to present with this story.