Biography of Capt. Jahn M. Willson
Erie County, OH Biographies





CAPT. JOHN M. WILLSON. Erie County had no finer character among its old settlers than the late Capt. John M. Willson, whose last years were spent in quiet retirement at the beautiful home overlooking Lake Erie near Huron in section 3 of Berlin Township, where Mrs. Willson is still living at the venerable age of past fourscore. For half a century Captain and Mrs. Willson had lived together as man and wife, and they fully deserved the wealth of affection and esteem that surrounded them both in early and later years.

John M. Willson was born at Whitestown, Oneida County, New York, July 4, 1825, and lived to be a few weeks beyond seventy six years of age. He was of an old American family, of Scotch or English origin. His grandfather was Charles Willson, probably a native of Massachusetts. The father was Lucius Willson, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and when a young man located in Oneida County, New York. Lucius Willson married Betsey Bateman, a native of New York State. Betsey Bateman was a daughter of Frederick B. and Catherine (Brewer) Bateman, who were natives of Holland and came when young to America, locating in Erie County, New York, where they married and spent the rest of their lives on a farm near Henpeck, what is now probably called Sandusky, New York. The Batemans were a long lived family. Frederick Bateman had a special fondness for his granddaughter, Mrs. John Willson, and when one hundred and eight years of age as a mark of his affection for Mrs. Willson he walked three miles each way in order to have a photograph taken for her. This photograph shows him as a remarkably well preserved man in spite of more than a century of life. He lived three years beyond the time of this photograph, and passed away at the age of one hundred and eleven. His wife was also a centenarian. Mrs. Willson has a photograph of this venerable woman when she was nearly a hundred, and her death occurred at the age of one hundred and eight. Frederick Bateman served as a soldier in the war of the Revolution, and after he was a hundred years of age was granted a pension for his services. Two years after the election of General Grant to the presidency in 1868, Frederick Bateman was invited to become a guest of the President at Washington, and he was preparing to make this trip at the expense of the Government when he died.

In 1833, after their marriage, Lucius Willson and wife came from Western New York to Ohio, locating at the Village of Vermilion in Erie County. In the following year Lucius Willson died, while still in the prime of life His widow subsequently removed to Clinton, Michigan, to live with her daughter by marriage, Mrs. D. H. Willson, and died there when seventy years of age. She and her husband were both Baptists.

The death of the father left the mother and her seven small children in straitened circumstances. The late Captain Willson was at that time nine years old, and the children were all "put out" with different families in the neighborhood. John found a place with a kindly and substantial Lake Erie farmer, Isaac Fowler, who took the pains to erect a log house on his land for the boy and his mother, and both lived there for a number of years. Captain Willson was regarded as one of the Fowler family, and the Fowler children called him Brother John even up to the day of his death. He early gained the respect of people at home and in the neighborhood by his faithfulness to duty and diligence, but at the age of seventeen, like most boys, determined to make his own way in the world independently. As he had always lived within sight of the blue waters of Lake Erie, he was drawn to the vocation of sailor, and first shipped on the schooner William Woodbridge, commanded by Capt. James Monroe, an old salt originally from Nantucket. He sailed with this master for two seasons, following which he was in the employ of a Vermilion firm, and next with Stevens & Ryan of Milan. He was on the schooner Plymouth from 1848 to 1852 with Capt. A. A. Kirby. The Plymouth was sunk in a collision with the passenger steamer Northern Indiana, being struck amidships and sinking in five minutes in the lake off Cleveland. Luckily all on board were taken to the steamer Northern Indiana, including Captain Willson's wife and baby. Captain Willson while sailing the Great Lakes rose from galley boy to master, and saw much of his service on the lake before the waters had been charted. He was known as a trusty sailor, and one of his captains said when Captain Willson died: "John was a good man, one to be trusted in all kinds of weather, and as good a sailor as ever walked the deck of a vessel." For a number of years Captain Willson was engaged in the fitting out of schooners. He fitted out the Live Oak and the Cape Horn of Huron, the Hawley of Milan, the John Weden of Toledo and many others. In 1858 he retired from this business to the quiet of home life at his wife's beautiful place overlooking Lake Erie. During his absence on the lakes he had left the farm management to Jacob Sarr, a boy of sixteen, who lived in Captain Willson's family for more than nine years, and is now one of the substantial citizens of Northern Ohio. It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful and interesting place than the home in which Captain Willson spent his last years and still occupied by Mrs. Willson. It is a beautiful tract of thirty six acres, lying along the shore of Lake Erie, and a portion of the old Stephen Meeker homestead.

On January 27, 1851, Captain Willson married Roseanna M. Wright. Mrs. Willson was born at the old home in Berlin Township on the shore of Lake Erie February. 18, 1833, grew up there and spent all of her wonderfully active and interesting life near the lake and close to the scenes of her birth. Though now eighty two years of age, she still has a wonderfully accurate memory, and is almost unexcelled as an authority on local history. On the clear panorama of her mind are impressed the events of more than sixty years, and she has a fluent expression for all that is important and essential in the life of this community during that time. Everyone in Berlin Township knows and loves "Aunt Roseanna," as she is affectionately known, and aside from the experiences and activities of her lifetime her best distinction is this love and respect which she has so fully merited.

Mrs. Willson represents one of the finest old families located in Northern Ohio during the pioneer times. Her parents were Norman L. and Maria G. (Meeker) Wright. Her father was born in Watertown, New York, June 4, 1807, and her mother was born in Reading, Connecticut, June 28, 1811. They were married in Ohio March 28, 1829, at Huron, Erie County, and not far from the shores of Lake Erie, where they spent the rest of their lives. Norman L. Wright was a clerk and for a number of years was connected with the transportation business on the Great Lakes. He died in Berlin Township October 10, 1846, and his widow survived until May 26, 1893. Norman L. Wright was a son of Freedom and Jerusha Wright, of New York State, where they lived and died as substantial farming people. Freedom Wright was born June 22, 1748, and died August 10, 1825, while his wife was born June 12, 1765, and died when in advanced years. Both were members of the Daptist Church.

Maria G. Meeker, the mother of Mrs. Willson, was a daughter of Stephen and Polly (Platt) Meeker. The record of Stephen Meeker has a most appropriate place in any history of Northern Ohio, particularly Erie County. He was born in Vermont January 28, 1781, while his wife was born October 24, 1778. They were married in Redding, Connecticut, in 1800, and in the following year left Connecticut and by means of ox teams journeyed as far west as Buffalo, New York, and then came by sailing vessel to Huron, in Erie County, being of the same class of Connecticut people who colonized the Western Reserve and laid the foundations of civilization which have ever since given character to this section of Northern Ohio. When they arrived at Huron they found hardly a hamlet, and all the country back from the lake shores was a wilderness filled with Indians and wild animals. Stephen Meeker located a place at Florence in Erie County. Ohio had been a state only a few years, the great bulk of population in the new state being in the south along the Ohio River Valley, while only a fringe of settlements marked the lake shore. After one year in Erie County Stephen Meeker returned to Connecticut, and brought back to Ohio on horseback $700 in gold. With this money he bought 700 acres of land at $1.00 per acre, fronting on the lake shore for two miles and extending back about 200 rods. A permanent settlement was made on this land in 1813, and there not far from where Mrs. Willson now lives, Stephen Meeker built his first habitation, a log cabin, with all the primitive furniture and equipment that went with frontier life. In one of the logs of the cabin wall holes were bored, pins were inserted, and slats laid across, thus making the bedstead. This was only a sample of all the crude furniture with which they did their housekeeping for several years. It was not long until the Indians became troublesome, largely through the incentive of the British Government, and while Stephen' Meeker remained behind to fight and hold his own, he sent his wife and daughter back forty miles to the settlement at Rocky River. Stephen Meeker was a blacksmith and gunsmith and soon after planting his home near Lake Erie set up a smithy. In the following year the War of 1812 began between Great Britain and the United States. The Meeker shop was visited by Gen. William H. Harrison during his memorable campaign against the British and Indians. The general was in a great hurry when he arrived at Mr. Meeker's place and offered the latter $16.00 if the blacksmith could shoe his horse in fifteen minutes. Mr. Meeker accepted the office without hesitation, and won the reward. From Mrs. Meeker General Harrison bought butter and other supplies for his staff, and paid her $1.00 a pound for the butter. While not an eye witness to Perry's victory on Lake Erie, Stephen Meeker could hear the guns, and like all his neighbors suspended business to await the news of the outcome. It was a critical time in the lives of many people along the shore of Lake Erie. It the British fleet triumphed, it would mean the immediate abandonment of all the settlements, since the inhabitants would be captured or killed, and all were accordingly very jubilant when the news came that Perry had fought and vanquished the enemy. In spite of all these vicissitudes resulting from war and turbulence, from the lack of mills, markets and settled institutions, Stephen Meeker gradually worked his way into prosperity, cleared off some of the woods from the land, and became a grower of grain, using the flour to replace the early continuous diet of fish and wild meat. He was thrifty and progressive, and in 1821 erected a substantial brick house, the first in the county. He was also more or less active in politics, and some years before his death was elected to the office of probate judge in Erie County. Stephen Meeker and wife were strict Presbyterians of the blue stocking type, but after coming to Ohio joined the Baptist Church.

Mrs. Willson is the only living child of her father's family, and is one of the few living descendants of her grandfather Meeker. All her life she has been a member of the Baptist Church and for many years sang in the choir. To her and Captain Willson was born only one child, John H., who died when twenty months old. Mrs. Willson has many interesting things in her beautiful home near Huron, and probably no place in Erie County has more attractive memories and associations. She still keeps the baby dress which her mother made for her in 1832 and which was her first garment after she came into the world. She also has the silver spoons which her grandfather made more than a century ago.

From:
A Standard History of Erie County, Ohio
By: Hewson L. Peeke
Assisted by a Board of Advisory Editors
The Lewis Publishing Company Chicago and New York 1916


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