Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Alexander Mitchell of Milwaukee

Alexander Mitchell came from Scotland in 1839 at the age of 21. His granddaughter said he was a “poor country boy,” son of a village doctor in Aberdeenshire. Milwaukee at the time was a village of 1500 people and the entire state had a population of only 30,000. A lot of Scots chose Milwaukee over Chicago. Perhaps because Chicago was a swamp and Milwaukee was not?

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress says he was born in Ellon, Aberdenshire, Scotland. Attended the parish schools and completed a commercial course, studied law, and became a banking-house clerk. He served two terms in the Congress and declined to be a candidate for governor. He died while on a visit to New York City on April 19, 1887.

His granddaughter, Ruth Mitchell, wrote a book published in 1953 entitled “My brother Bill” where she wrote the following: “He quickly found a job and his Scotch good sense, energy and integrity so impressed Daniel Wells that he offered him assistance. The effort was to create an insurance company which was really a bank and it would be first in the territory. He named it The Marine Fire and Insurance Company. They underwrote the project with $200. The bank printed their own money and some bank money was good and some was not. Mitchell’s money was gladly accepted by everyone and everywhere. During the panics of 1857 and 1873, and in the great crash of ‘93, the Mitchell bank was the only one in the middle West which paid 100 cents on every dollar.” She doesn’t mention the banker George Smith who also came from Aberdeen.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Mitchell came to the U.S. to become secretary of the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company, the company being founded by “Chicago capitalist and fellow Scotsman, George Smith.” I’m not sure which story is correct but I tend to believe the Historical Society.

There is a family tradition that the couple lived above the bank which was surrounded by a picket fence. Mrs. Mitchell, who had “flaming red Scottish hair,” would tie her cow to the fence during the milking process. One day an Indian suddenly came out of the forest and stole the cow despite “her vociferous militant protests.” Milwaukee at the time was surrounded for miles and miles by a dense forest. The cow was never found.

So many of you have described your Scottish ancestors to me and the description of Mr. Mitchell reminds me of what has often been said. One man described Mr Mitchell by saying: He was a “stoutish man with a broad round face, a double chin fringed with a gray beard that extended in a semicircle from ear to ear. He walked slowly, his hands folded behind his back. It seemed to me there was something proud and defiant in his manner; and that he did not look as happy as I believed a millionaire should look. Indeed, he seems to have possessed not a spark of humor, life had been too fierce a struggle.”

He is best remembered as a railroad builder and executive. In 1865 he became president of the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad Company. It only had 270 miles of track and was virtually bankrupt when he took over. Within a year it was operating in the black and at the time of his death in 1877 the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul R.R. had over 5000 miles of track in seven states. Of the 100 shares, Mitchell owned 99.  He became one of the wealthiest men in the state of Wisconsin. In his political views he was definitely conservative but would often move between the republicans and democrats. He was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln but after the Civil War leaned towards the democrats. He was elected to Congress on the democratic ticket in 1870 and was re-elected in 1872. He was not a candidate for re-election in 1874 and declined the Democratic nomination for governor. He was not only wealthy but a man of power.

The Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company was organized by George Smith and Alexander Mitchell was the secretary. It was operated with “the sound principles of the Scotch system.” At one time the bank had issued a million dollars in certificates bearing only their two names. During the several “panics” that followed, other banks failed, but their bank redeemed every certificate with gold.

In 1841, Mr. Mitchell married Martha Reed. Her father was Seth Reed a pioneer of Milwaukee. Her brother was Harrison Reed, Governor of Florida. They had one son, John Lendum Mitchell who was 44 at the time of his father’s death and was to succeed his father as president of the bank. There was also an adopted daughter, Mrs. Dr. Mackie, of Milwaukee and a sister and brother in Aberdeenshire. His estate was believed to be worth over $20,000,000. In the Panic of 1873, when there was a run on the banks, John L. used $1.3 million of his own money to satisfy depositors. Mitchell money was always as good as gold.

In 1859, Alexander Mitchell became the first President of the Milwaukee St. Andrew’s Society. He was a avid curler and helped establish the Milwaukee Curling Club in the 1840s. Shortly before his death, he was elected the “patron” of the Grand National Curling Club.

Alexander Mitchell died at the Hoffman House in New York City from the flu. He had been losing weight for about two months but ill from the flu only a week. In early December he traveled with his former pastor, Rev. Dr. Kean, to Florida. He and Mrs. Mitchell had built a large home on San Marco (Jacksonville) near the head of the St. John’s River. Later, they traveled in his private railroad car to New York City where he was joined by his son, John L. Mitchell. He died a short time later and is buried in Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee. (There is a picture on the Internet.)

Their magnificent home in Milwaukee is now the Wisconsin Club. I don’t know if they allow tours of the club but if they do it would make a good History Club trip sometime. I know there is much more to this story and there is more information on the Internet. Our readers who live in Wisconsin are welcome to join in the discussions with more information.

Alexander Mitchell is the grandfather of General William “Billy” Mitchell.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

Note: The first History Club meeting in the new year will be on January 11, 2014. Same place - same time - different date. The speaker will be Tina Beaird and her subject - “The Scottish Diaspora - Migration Chains to Illinois.” Tina is the Reference Librarian at the Plainfield Library. We met Tina on our History Tour last summer. She is smart, full of energy and knows her subject. It will be a good start for 2014.

Personal comment: I need to tell the almost 1,000 people who receive the Blog that our family is having some difficult days. My wife who has cancer is now at home with Hospice care. We will keep her home as long as possible but we are unsure of how much time is left. If the Blog is not regular for the next three months or so, we hope you will understand. Thoughts and prayers are appreciated.

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