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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Willard Bradley Bonnell & The Two Towns of Homer

This post is based on a chapter in  former editor Charles E. Bunnell (Charlie to his friends) recently compiled Bonnells & Bunnells of Note (And a few Burnells & Burrells for Good Measure). The complete work is available on Internet Archive at this link: Charlie Bunnell's Bonnells & Bunnells of Note.

Charlie wrote, "Ann Marie Middleton provided me with multiple sources for information on Willard Bradley [CB320351], brother of Lafayette Houghton Bunnell. An article about Lafayette was in the Newsletter, Vol. VII, No. 2, 1 April 1993, paged 16 - 20. An article about Willard Bunnell was in Vol. IV, No. 2, 1 Apr 1990, pg 24, but these sources provided a bit more detail.”

Willard Bunnell was born in Homer, Cortland County, NY in 1814, the son of Dr. Bradley and Charlotte (Houghton) Bunnell. By 1815 his family had moved to Rochester, NY and at the age of 10 he ran away from home, first to Buffalo and then as a cabin boy on one of the steamers that plied the Great Lakes. His father caught up with him and brought him back home, but he left again for the lakes and was taken in and trained by a Captain Fox, a friend of his father.  By the time he was 18 he was an excellent ship pilot. 

It was while he was a steam boat captain that he met his future wife, Matilda Desnoyer whose father was a fur trader. The couple married 20 July 1837 in the house of the Justice of the Peace, Abram Whitney, in Saginaw, Michigan Territory.  Matilda’s father signed to allow her to marry though under the age of 18.  At the time both Willard and Matilda listed their residences as the Town of Saginaw.  

In 1841 he evidently was still a seaman as an interesting event occurred. As he was helping to unload some goods from the ship into the cellar of a Mr. McDonald’s trading store in Saginaw, he and two other sailors spotted a box of money containing $800 that McDonald had hidden. Later that evening they went back and stole it and brought it on-board, bringing the ship’s mate into the plot. However one of the sailors, an Englishman, felt that Bunnell and the other sailor (Dezalia) had shortchanged him and the mate.  Seems that the mate and the Englishman had $130 each out of the total $800. The following winter he told Justice Williams at Detroit.  A trial was held for the Englishman, the mate and Dezalia. But Willard had heard about the confession and disappeard. At the time, Willard’s parents, brothers and sisters and wife all lived in the Saginaw vicinity.

One winter night the town heard that Willard was in the neighborhood and a posse set out to capture him. He was hiding in a wood cutter’s shanty and had just kindled a fire to thaw out his moccasins.  With the posse appearing Willard took off barefoot, but an icy crust on the snow lacerated his feet and he had to surrender.   

He was being held in a hotel (there being no jail) waiting for his feet to heal enough so he could travel to another town that had a jail.  The night before his departure one of his brothers, a sister and his wife came to visit him. Evidently a swap was done:  the brother and sister supposedly left, leaving only the wife there with Willard. At the end of the evening however, the sheriff found instead the brother and sister were there and Willard was long gone. 

He ended up with one of the Indian tribes until summer and then went to La Crosse, Wisconsin where his wife joined him. About this time, Willard gave up the ships and sea to become a fur trader like his father-in-law. At some point he had become familiar with the local Indian tribes and had learned some of the languages. He was asked to help with the relocation of the Winnebagoes in 1848 and while doing that he heard that soon the Dakotas led by Chief Wapasha would be relocated. So he obtained a traders license and was allowed by Wapasha onto their summer camp area at the present site of Winona, MN. 

In 1849 the Chief gave him permission to build a log cabin there about 200 feet from the present Bunnell house. After the present house was built, Willard’s brother Lafayette Bunnell lived in the cabin until 1901.

 Apparently Willard was not the right type of person to develop a town site. In 1851, when trying to acquire a claim to the nearby prairie area, another claimant blocked Willard claiming that he was there first. Squatter's rights seemed to prevail and occupation of the place was nine/tenths of the law. The controversy finally led to violence. Bunnell and Johnson each destroyed the other's shanty which was their evidence of a claim on the land. There ended up a fist fight which Willard seemed to have won, but none the less, he gave up on that claim to concentrate on his other site down river. There is a fascinating 8 page (349-356) description of this incident in Lafayette Bunnell’s book,  source  #3 below.

However Willard then turned his attention to trying to build a town on the Bluffs above Homer in 1853.  Once again squatter’s rights came into play and his rival was a Daniel Dougherty. In this fight, Willard’s thumb was bit to the point of mutilation and eventual amputation. Once again Willard lost the fight. Then finally came the issue of selection of a county seat. On January 2, 1854, the elected county board composed of Bunnell, a compatriot named Pike, and John Laird of Winona. The first vote ended in each member picking their own town. On January 30, 1854, Bunnell and Pike voted for Chatfield and that settled it.

In the late 1850s Willard had a new house building the town that he had named Homer, after his home town. It is a rural gothic style and is now owned by the Winona County Historical Society. Willard died in 1861 before the house was actually finished.  But his wife Matilda and their children lived there until her death in 1867.  Willard and Matilda had 8 children: David, John, Louise, Frances, Minnewah, Minnie, Irene, and Willard.

Matilda is as interesting as Willard. Dr. James Cole, a writer said this of her: 

“Mrs. Bunnell was the first white woman that came into this part of the Territory of Minnesota to live and the first to make her home … [in] Winona county.  … Although remarkably domestic in her habits, and observant of matters connected with her household duties, which make home desirable, she was able to paddle her own canoe and was a sure shot with either the rifle or fowling piece. While in general appearance and manners lady like and modestly feminine, she had remarkable courage and self-possession … The Indians respected and feared her although only a ’woman.’ 

Mrs. Bunnell was of French descent.  Besides speaking French, she was able to converse fluently with the Chippewas, Winnegaboes and Sioux, and had some knowledge of other dialects.”

Willard’s lineage is: William1, Benjamin2, Benjamin3, Gershom4, Job5, John6, Bradley7,Willard8.

Charlie based his article on these sources, most of which are available online:

1) History of Saginaw County Michigan, by James Cooke Mills, Saginaw, MI, Seemann & Peters, 1918, pages 111 - 113.

2) History of Winona County, H.H. Hill and Company, Chicago, 188, pages 576 - 579.

3) Winona (We-no-nah) and its Environs on the Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days, by Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, M. D., Winona, MN, Jones and Krosger, 1897, multiple pages throughout the book.

4) "Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, M.D., Discoverer of the Yosemite," by Horace A Kelly, M.D.; Annals of Medical History, Vol. III (Summer,1921), Francis R. Packard, M.D. Editor, Paul B. Hoeber, New York, 1921, pages 179 - 193.

5) Minnesota Geographic Names, Their Origin and Historic Significance, by Warren Upham, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, 1920: pg. 582

6) "The First Criminal Trial in Saginaw County," Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, Vol. VII, Thorp & Godfrey, Lansing, 1886, pages 258 -260.

7) Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at its Sixty-First Annual Meeting, Published by the Society, 1914

8) Timbertown Log, Saginaw Genealogical Society, Winter 1981 - 82, Volume X, Issue 2, pg. 46.

9) Laying the Foundation, an online article on a Winona Historical Society web page that is no longer available but was captured by Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.. 

10) Willard Bunnell-Matilda DesNoyes Narriage Record, Early Saginaw County Marriages, , Transcribed from: Records for the count of Saginaw, Michigan Territory, 1835 - 1864 - Saginaw County Clerk

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