Portrait and biographical album of Barry and Eaton counties, Mich. by Chapman Bros: a review

This book–like all Chapman Brothers books with similar titles–is pretty much what the title says: a collection of biographies of folks and families who lived in Eaton and Barry Counties in 1891. The local biographies are preceded by a couple hundred pages of biographical sketches of the presidents of the United States and governors of Michigan.

The Chapman Brothers mass produced similar books for many Midwestern counties by selling subscriptions and sending out questionnaires. If you paid the subscription fee and returned the survey your biography would be printed in a book, which would arrive for you to place on your bookshelf. Chapman’s staff members in Chicago turned the questionnaires into very formulaic biographies, which were gathered into the book in no evident order. The resulting bios are as reliable as their sources–which varies, of course–and as interesting as the information the sources provided. Any impression one might get of local history or local geography is incidental and unintentional. That does not much meet my research interest.

For my purposes, the book is pretty frustrating. With no historical overview in the book, no deliberate organization, and neither maps nor other geographical clues, trying to glean any understanding of local history is difficult. Moreover, the template used to compose the biographies becomes pretty aggravating after the third or fourth example–you get a brief overview of the subject’s life, then reviews of his parents’ life stories, then back to the original person’s bio with more detail and perhaps a story or two. Unless you’re otherwise familiar with the person whose life’s being summarized, by the time you get to the meat of the composition you’ve often forgotten the subject’s name.

Another issue is the subscription model. Lacking either a geographical or alphabetical organization, I made searches for people and places I was aware of in both counties. These searches often came up empty, even for families I know to have been resident in the area around 1890. This, of course, indicates that the Dow and McCargar families, to pick two prominent Roxand Township clans, were uninterested in subscribing–which is OK, to be sure, but it leaves important gaps in the story. Side issue: This book consistently calls this township Roxana, and never calls it Roxand. I’m quite tempted to do so myself.

I do not mean to imply that this book has no value. I found a (somewhat) useful biography of Sylvanus Peabody, for instance, and now know a bit about him; this is information I’d not found elsewhere and knew I wanted. Which is a clue about the book’s usefulness: If one of the biographies is someone who’s interesting to you, it’s probably useful. That’s reason enough to locate a copy, and keep it around. But if you’re looking for an overview of local history, the Chapman books likely won’t meet your need.






This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Pioneer History of Eaton County by Daniel Strange: a review

This book’s subtitle begins “OR the story of the last to lead the simple life…” and goes on for several lines demonstrating that pioneer life was, well, different, if not simple. The subtitle ends: “…Who gave us, their coming sons, their lives, their loves, their labors.” (I rather like that.)

Everyone should read a county history sometime. This one’s structured around identifying the first settlers in each Eaton County (Michigan) township, and how they arrived in the county; he also discusses early township leaders, school beginnings, and suchlike. There are also stories, digressions, and the occasional poem. A few of the stories are repeated, but in each case the perspective’s changed and the tale with it. All in all, an interesting diversion, especially if you’ve Eaton County connections. The potentially dry material is relieved by the author’s wry humor–he’s particularly amused by conflicting claims about the meaning of “first settler.”

The book’s impeccably researched; Strange clearly consulted land office records, county and township archives, memoirs authored by the early settlers, and news accounts. He spent his life teaching in local institutions, and seems to have known most of the county’s early residents.


This ebook, retrieved from the Internet Archive, is based on a Google Scan and has the usual spelling and formatting errors. I’ve seen worse.

A certainly-unimportant note: I notice Strange calls Mulliken’s founder T. Edgar Potter, which supports my impression that folks called Mr. Potter “Ed.”










This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Autobiography of Theodore Edgar Potter: a review

In 1890 I sold my Vermontville farm and bought another in the same county, located on the new line of railroad being built by the Pere Marquette Railroad where I laid out the present village of Mulliken, Michigan, and continued a few years longer as a farmer with an incidental lumber business. My Mulliken farm I soon sold to my eldest son and purchased a quarter interest in the Potter Furniture Manufacturing Company at Lansing, Michigan, which city has been my home for the past thirteen years.

I live on Potter Street in Mulliken, and that quotation explains why I read this book. I’m pretty sure that 1890 date is wrong, as the railroad line and settlement both date from 1888, but we’ll allow an old man that error. I stumbled across this while looking for something else, so I snagged an electronic copy of the book. It’s far better than I expected, though potential readers should be cautioned that it describes many brutal events.

Potter was a competent writer and a gifted story-teller. His memoir is largely concerned with the years from 1852 to 1865, during which the author joined the California gold rush, took part (after a fashion) in William Walker’s Nicaraguan filibuster, visited New York, New Orleans, and Saint Louis, and took up residence in southern Minnesota. He was a captain in the militia which defended New Ulm during the Dakota War of 1862; later he was a Union officer whose troops participated at the fringe of the Battle of Nashville–mostly they chased, and sometimes caught, partisan guerillas. Some years later he was involved in the apprehension of the Younger brothers gang, again in southern Minnesota.

Theodore Potter–it’s pretty clear his friends called him Ed–was born in Saline, Michigan, in 1832. His family moved to Eaton County (at or near what became Potterville) in 1845 and Potter spent his teen years in the area. The first chapter largely tells of his teenage escapades; these tales have a delightful grasp of the local geography. About half the book recounts his California adventure; in tone and in substance it’s much like Twain’s Roughing It, and enjoyable for pretty much the same reasons. The Minnesota portion of the book is largely devoted to describing the Dakota War and the Army’s subsequent efforts to quell the rebellion, and is an exceptional rendering of what folks call “the fog of war.” While the last chapter describes his encounter with the Youngers, it also provides a sketchy overview of his subsequent life (through, apparently, 1904; the book was published in 1913, three years after Potter’s death.)

A few notes: It’s fair to say that Potter was sympathetic to the plight of the plains Indians, except when they were threatening his family and neighbors. He had far less sympathy for the rebel cause. The author’s wife gets surprisingly little mention, though their marriage lasted over fifty years. And the book describes a surprising number of truly gruesome events.

In 1916 the Minnesota Historical Society published a version of Potter’s account of the Indian war, which is available here. (A casual check seems to show it to be nearly identical to the account in this book, with some changes.) The footnotes published with the MNHS account make it clear that while Potter’s memory of details cannot be fully trusted, his account is essentially true. One would reasonably suppose that to hold true for the rest of his story.

Ed Potter’s life wasn’t particularly remarkable, as he notes on the last page of his book. It was, however, not an untypical life for a man born on the American frontier before the Civil War, and he recounted it well. The book deserves more attention than it’s received.


This ebook is a 254-page Google scan, though my copy’s via the Internet Archive. The scan deserves a couple comments. The first 180 pages are excellent, with only the minor punctuation and capitalization errors which plague most OCR scans. These are followed by a half-dozen pages of often-garbled text, with usual result that the reader’s obliged to guess occasional words and to sometimes puzzle out the meaning of entire sentences. After this rocky stretch, the scan returns to the previous excellent rendering. Then from pages 244 through the end the scan remains excellent but the text retains the page headers that had evidently been edited out of the rest of the book. It is, all in all, an odd rendering that defies obvious explanation. Overall, though, it’s unusually readable for a Google scan.










This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History: