• Wisconsin And Iowa Frontier Letters Illustrate Life Of Young Fur Trader, Later Killed At Battle Of Pea Ridge

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    JOSEPH YANTZ (1840-1861) was raised in eastern Wisconsin.  As a teenager, he was engaged as a fur trader.  In this five-letter, 20-page, archive, Yantz provides a first-hand account of fur trapping, the abundance of Indians, a friend’s typhoid fever, his attempt at farming and later building.  His journey begins in Wisconsin and continues in Iowa, where he finally joins the Union Army on September 11, 1861, was mustered into the Iowa 9th Infantry, and, on March 12, 1862, was killed in the Battle of Pea Ridge Arkansas.


    Yantz joined the fur trade at a time when Wisconsin’s economy revolved around it.  Because beaver skins are waterproof, they could be pressed into felt for hats that kept people both warm and dry. The demand for beaver hats was immense.  Beaver skins were easily traded to Indians and others for other goods.  Yantz writes of trapping beavers, mink and otters, killing bears and deer, “kissing pretty girls.”  His friend Hiram said he would “camp with the Indians, there is plenty of them.”  Yantz’s friend Hoel contracted typhoid fever. “He was out of his head all night.”


    Two additional letters were written by and to other family members.  In one, T Thinner thanks her sister “for that lock of my Brother’s hair, to me it is a sacred treasure more priceless than gold,” a possible reference to receiving a lock of Joseph Yantz’s hair after his death, something that was common at the time. The archive also includes a recipe for salve in the hand of Yantz and signed by him and 11 postal covers, two bearing stamps and Wisconsin postmarks.


    Ridgeville, December 26, 1859, Yantz writes to Levi, 4pp, 7 ½ x 12.  “...Yesterday was Christmas & we had a good supper at Mr. Congers...I haven’t said anything to them about making my home here this winter...I am going to get some traps. It has been so cold that it wasn’t no use to set them. Then yesterday it thawed...The snow is about 6 inches deep here...Hiram don’t have anything to do now days. He said he was going down in the pines today & see what he could get to do.  He said that he would camp with the Indians. There is plenty of them down there...Bloom he is pinched...He hasn’t got money enough to pay his taxes. Rather discouraged today he has sold his oxen to Jacob Aney & waits til next fall for his pay & it is doubtful whether he will ever get his pay...You wanted me to know what Henry & John was doing...I haven’t seen them since the first of last month & then [they] said they were going on up to Black River Falls trapping  & didn’t know where they would go...I went to Sparta last Wednesday to have my likeness taken but they wouldn’t take it...I did not have [enough] money...They wanted 50 cents for taking it on a card or 50 cents for a case & it would cost 10 cents to send it so I thought I wouldn’t have it taken ...I have been making a reel today & just got it done. Tomorrow I think I shall set some traps...” 


    Wilton, Wis., January 6, 1860, to his sister. 4 pp, 7 ½ x 12. “...Hoel...is past cure. He has got the typhoid fever...He complained of having a lame beak & was very sleepy...He has been getting worse. Last evening after ten o’clock they sent down & got the Dr. & he stayed all night...He said Hoel was a very sick boy. His pulse run up to 104 & if they got up to 120 he was past cure. He was out of his head all night....This morning he vomited nothing but slime & his nose bled quite hard. The Dr. said if the fever rushed up in his head they should pour water on his head & not let it run up in his head...You wanted me to save all the white weasel skins for you. Well I will. I have got 2 now. It is so cold now days that I don’t set traps. There is lots of them here...The snow this morning is 4 inches on the level so it makes quite good sleighing again. George wanted to know if I sold his pistol & cowbell...I have sold your bell & the pistol...for both only 7 shillings. He allowed me 50 cents for mine and 3 shillings for yours...How does Dave’s folks get along...Did Frank go with him if he hasn’t tell him to come out here & we will go up to Black River trapping. There is plenty of fur up there. George didn’t write what coonskins was worth...Hoel is much better this morning...”


    Castalia, (northeast corner of Iowa) 3 pp, 7 ¾ x 9 ¾, writing to his brother John. “...I suppose you want to [know] what we have been doing...it is trapping & kissing the pretty girls...From near the Cedar River we went out there about 2 weeks ago & caught all the mink & beaver & otter, rats & everything...We caught one mink & rats & found one dead beaver with the trap but we found the owner of the trap & we took to our heels...We are going to trap...turkey this week and see what luck we have...About 2 weeks ago, we got an otter in one of our traps & he got away with the trap so we lost that [one]...Sometimes our traps are kicked over...We traveled about 30 miles & carried 47 traps & that heavy gun of mine & a bundle of clothes besides. I had about 40 lbs to carry. I tell you the next day we felt it. Trapping is hard word especially when we don’t catch anything. Well I won’t tell you how many we have caught but we have caught some...I am going up to see my girl this evening. There is a meeting up at the school house. Girls are plenty & willing to wed...”


    Castalia, [Iowa], July 8, 1860, 4 pp, 7 ¾ x 9 ¾, writing to his brother George. “...We have finished one house & built another. A ball room & hall...We commenced it on Monday, 25 of June & July 4 we danced all night...We had a good time, price $2.00, we danced all night. There was 33 couples danced...”  The letter contains natural imprints of various plant leaves with Yantz’s description of each – Rose Leaf, Sage, Cherry, China Oyster Leaf.


    Castalia, [Iowa], Sept. 2, [18]60, 4 pp, 7 ¾ x 9 ¾ writing to his family. “...At the present time, we have been talking of going up north in the cranberry marsh & pick berries & kill bear & deer but there is nothing sure about it...I suppose there will be lots of berries. If there is we could make from 2 to 10 dollars per day...I have got my rifle & I don’t hardly want to come home without trying at first up north in Wisconsin at some of them large deer. Frank & Henry are going up in October some time. It won’t cost much more to go around there than it would to come straight home...I am going down to the river in 2 or 3 weeks to get me some winter clothes, boots, pants & shirts...”


    Letters are generally in good condition.  Punctuation added for clarity. Several folds tears reinforced with archival tape. One letter has what appears to be mouse chews in the fold, affecting several words. Covers have expected wear and soiling.


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