Ask now, because the answers are dying off

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

Have you ever wondered about your family history? Ever asked questions whose answers are forever obscured by the mists of time?

The trouble with genealogical research is that most of us don’t become interested until it is too late.

My parents and grandparents could have answered many of my questions. My mother did extensive research. However, while mildly interested, I was too self-absorbed to ask questions about the details.

So it was that last weekend, I found myself tramping around graveyards in St. Cloud and Fari-bault with several cousins, learning about my great-great-grandfathers and great-grandfather. I learned things readers may find interesting.

It turns out that my great-great-grandfather, Josiah West, was one of the founding fathers of St. Cloud.

Born in Ohio in 1833, he lived an extraordinary life. He was orphaned at age 13, and then went to work immediately, all the while moving westward. In the fall of 1854 in Illinois, at age 20, he married Alcetta Mason of Dakota Territory, and in October they landed at Fort Snelling. By the next spring they were in St. Cloud.

He and his brother, Caleb, started the first newspaper in the city, the St. Cloud Visiter (sic), not to be confused with today’s newspaper of the Catholic diocese. One of their editors prior to the Civil War was Jane Grey Swisshelm, a fiery abolitionist who editorialized against Sylvanus Lowry, St. Cloud’s first mayor. Lowry was a slaveholder and Indian trader, and Swisshelm took offense that he held slaves even though Minnesota was a free state. She also claimed he swindled the Winnebago Indians.

Lowry, responded by forming a “Committee of Vigilance.” The group broke into the newspaper office, smashed the press, and dumped the parts in the Mississippi River. I do not know how my ancestors responded.

Regardless, Josiah and Alcetta  produced three boys. The oldest, Willis Mason West, was my great-grandfather, born in 1857.

After the Civil War broke out, Josiah enlisted as a private, but was quickly promoted, and eventually became captain of Company I, 7th Regiment, Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. The volunteers gathered at Fort Snelling, and were preparing to go battle the South, when the Sioux Uprising began. Company I was sent to Camp Ripley instead.

After a year, the uprising ended, and they were then sent into action against the Confederacy in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Josiah returned home almost three years to the day he left. However, things did not go well on the home front, and he and Alcetta soon divorced.

My cousins say Alcetta was “sent back to Dakota” as if she had been ordered out of a Sears Roebuck catalog and found to be damaged goods. All I know is that the boys stayed with Josiah, and, my cousins say, Willis Mason had few good things to say about his mother.

Josiah was a mover and a shaker. The St. Cloud Times said in his obituary, “Any proposition that looked towards aiding St. Cloud found in him a hearty supporter.”

Indeed, Josiah served as president of the library board, was construction superintendent of the first dam across the Mississippi at St. Cloud, and built numerous homes.

Josiah also served as the postmaster of St. Cloud. In those days, postmaster was a political patronage job. Josiah held the job for 21 years after appointments by four U.S. presidents: Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Benjamin Harrison.

In 1878, he was remarried to Emma Cambell. After Emma died, 18 years later Josiah married her sister, Mary M. Cambell, who preceded him in death by only a few months in 1911.

Meanwhile, my great-grandfather, Willis Mason, became the superintendent of schools in Waseca, in the early 1880s. A year or two later, the Faribault School Board was looking for a new superintendent. The board chair, Rodney Mott, was also looking for a single man in hopes of marrying off one of his five daughters. The plan worked. Willis married Melissa Mott. They had seven children, but then Melissa died from an illness when my grandfather, the fourth oldest, was 8.

Rodney Mott had also owned a newspaper in Faribault, and wrote abolitionist editorials., but then left newspapers, becoming an attorney and later a judge. He was also one of the founders of the state School for the Deaf; Mott Hall on the campus is named for him.

When Rodney was elderly, he was walking home from work one day, holding the newspaper in front of him, reading it. Hard of hearing, he walked into the side of a moving train and that was the end of him.

I have vague childhood memories of visiting the “Mott House,” which is on Faribault’s tour of historic homes. One thing about the home is that one room of the house could only be accessed by going out on a flat roof, and entering through a small door. My cousins say that the Motts may have hid runaway slaves there after the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision ruled that slaves brought into free territory by their owners were not automatically free.

Willis Mason went on to chair the History Department at the University of Minnesota and wrote several history textbooks that were widely used in American high schools.

He was assisted in his research and writing by a couple of daughters whom I knew, Ruth and Margaret. Fourteen Motts and Wests are buried together in a Faribault cemetery under a tombstone that reads, “In their death, they were not divided.”

Unfortunately, because of our early lack of curiosity, our family is now  split from those generations by both time and ignorance. I want to know how Alcetta survived while Josiah was off to war, what happened after the press was destroyed, and so much more.

My advice? Ask your parents and grandparents about your family while you still have the chance.


Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected]