By Dennis A. Wilson
Judge J. T. Mills has been the subject of a number of articles. Jon Angeli wrote about him in three articles in the Grant county Herald Independent. You can read these stories on his web site under the year 2004 at: http://www.grantcountyhistorian.com/ . It would seem that with as many written accounts of his life and activities there would be nothing left to say: but I’ll try anyway.
Joseph Trotter Mills was born on December 13, 1812 on Cane Ridge, near Paris, in Bourbon County Kentucky. He was the eighth of twelve children.2 His mother’s family was originally from Augusta County, Virginia. Judge Mills’s maternal grandfather, James Trotter, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Kentucky Militia under General Josiah Harmar in the 1790 campaign against the Miami tribe, and also fought in the American Revolutionary War. His paternal grandfather, Benjamin Mills was a private in the 6th Maryland Regiment of Foot in the Revolution.1 His uncle was a judge in the court of appeals of Kentucky.5
It is reported that his family were slaveholders at one time, but gave up their slaves, and thereafter assisted slaves in escaping across the Ohio River.4 Judge Mills was a very religious man and in Kentucky prior to 1850 there was a significant anti-slavery movement led by the Whig party and the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist Episcopal churches.3 It is not improbable that his family members under this influence freed their slaves. Mill, a Sunday school teacher, became an abolitionist before leaving Kentucky. As time went on anti-slavery individuals and the organizations they belonged to in Kentucky were harassed, and no doubt J. T. Mills decided upon the course of leaving the environs of that state.
In 1833 he walked to Illinois College in Jacksonville, the first college in that state to conduct classes (1829) and grant a baccalaureate degree. Among the alumni of this school are William Jennings Bryan (class of 1881), as well as two senators, twenty congressmen, and six state governors. This institution was under the leadership of President Edward Beecher, Congregational minister, graduate of Yale, and an outspoken abolitionist. Beecher started the first anti-slavery society in Illinois, and was a close friend of Elijah Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister who was killed by a mob attacking his abolitionist press in Alton, Illinois in 1837. Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which many credit with precipitating the Civil War.
Mills did not complete his studies at Illinois College. General Zachary Taylor, residing in fort Crawford, Prairie Du Chien wrote Beecher asking for a tutor for his children. Mills was offered the job, and left for Fort Crawford in September of 1834. At Quincy Illinois the defeated Chief Blackhawk returning from his eastern tour came on board, and Judge Mills recalled how “sad and dejected” he seemed. He arrived at Fort Crawford shortly after Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederacy, had allegedly eloped with General Taylor’s daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, known as “Knoxie” to her family. Judge Mills was sure that the elopement did happen, because he heard rumors among the soldiers about it. Taylor did oppose the marriage. As he said; “I’ll be damned if another daughter of mine will marry into the army. I know enough about the family life of officers. I scarcely know my own children or they me. I have no objection to Lieutenant Davis as a man.”5 They were married in General Taylor’s sister’s home in Louisville Kentucky. Tragically, she died of “fever” a few months later.
Judge Mills did not like General Taylor, who would in the future become President of The United States. He said Taylor was uncouth and bullying in his manner, and he “failed to discover any particular trait worthy of admiration.”7 He was also less than impressed with Prairie Du Chien. The town was a hodgepodge of shacks and Wigwams. “By the light of a lard-oil lamp I could discover full-blood and half-blood Indian faces, tangled and platted hair, black as a raven’s wing, all stretched out upon the floors, and the mosquitoes, fleas and bed bugs in thousands would satisfy any census bureau. As I watched, my whole being, flesh and blood was curdled into one mass of disgust and shame when I saw a shriveled faced dame catch one of these blood swelled vampires and thrust it into her nursling’s mouth.”8
Eventually he settled in with “the primitive inhabitants of Prairie Du Chien”, and sought out a church.
Rev. David Lowry, having recently come from Tennessee to serve as superintendent of a Ho-Chunk Indian school in Iowa started the Cumberland Presbyterian church of Prairie Du Chien. “I never saw a place where the gospel was more needed” he said.9 Lowry himself had been a slaveholder but upon leaving Tennessee he freed his slaves and took a firm antislavery position. Mills joined his church. Andrew Cochrane, a contractor who came from Missouri joined too, and he was a slave owner. The debate over slavery caused serious conflict. Mills refused to continue in the church as long as a slaveholder was also a member. The issue was resolved when Cochrane returned to Missouri. Mills had made himself known as a staunch abolitionist, and that would cause him trouble when he moved to Lancaster.
He came to Grant County in either 1840 or May of 1843.12 After teaching a few years he decided to study the law and was admitted to the bar on March 27, 1844. Sometime after hanging his shingle, trouble began with other southerners. In July of 1847, ex-sheriff Enos S. Baker, feeling he had been demeaned by Mills in arguments over the settlement of an estate, attacked Mills on the street in Lancaster and horsewhipped him.10 Judge Mills was a very gentle man of frail physique. He decided that Baker had gone too far, so he borrowed a double-barreled shotgun and confronted Baker in the street. “Baker, defend yourself!” Mills shouted in his high pitched voice. Baker drew his pistol and Mills fired, hitting Bakers hand. Baker fled cursing in pain. The specifics of this story will never be known since it has been altered and exaggerated in so many accounts that the knot will never be untied. Some account for Bakers horsewhipping of Mills as being in retaliation for his being a Kentuckian and a “Black Abolitionist”, a shame on the reputation the numerous southerners living in Grant County at the time.11 There is another distinct dueling story which has Mills being challenged to a duel and responding to the challenge by specifying that the duel should be at a mine shaft, with rocks as weapons. He would be at the top of the shaft and his opponent at the bottom. That story is probably more legend than fact.
The next story concerns the Rev. Edward Mathews, an evangelist with the American Home Baptist Mission. Mathews was a strong abolitionist and an irritant to the pro-slavery crowd. He was such an irritant that he was often beaten and run out of towns under threat of tar and feathers – or worse. In 1842 Mills, advocating abolition participated in debates over the slavery issue in Fairplay and Potosi. One evening when Rev. Matthews was giving a lecture at the courthouse in Lancaster, the crowd became ugly. They cursed and threatened him. He was struck by a rock. Mathews later wrote: “Mr. J. T. Mills, who assisted me in the debate at Potosi, kindly invited me to his house. As Mr. Mills and myself walked along, large stones, thrown by the mob rumbled by without striking either of us. After conversing some little time on the overawing influence of the slave power, I retired to bed, but could not sleep on account of music and singing, which I supposed proceeded from a public-house near by. It seemed, however, so near the front of the house that I got up, and opened my room door to ascertain the cause. To my surprise, Mr. Mills was standing as guard at the door. He said, "Don't be alarmed, no one shall touch you in my house!" The music and singing were from the mob who had gathered round the street door. The serenading of negro songs having ceased, a young man came into the house, who stated that the performers had gone to "the groggery to liquor up, and that they designed to bring down a cannon to fire off." We put up all the windows to prevent the panes of glass from being broken by the report. A cannon belonging to Mr. Banfils was brought, but the men were so intoxicated that they had some difficulty in firing it; at last they did so several times to their satisfaction. One of them then boasted that he had been engaged in the scrape when Lovejoy was killed, and wished to be engaged in just such another scrape." As they were proposing to enter the house and take me, I thought it prudent to retire to the house of a friend at some distance. Mrs. Mills was as calm and self possessed as her husband. I wished them both good night, and opening the window of a back-room on the ground-floor, escaped into the garden and, unobserved by the mob, crossed the garden and reached a grove of trees.” That was Mills; principled and fearless, kind and generous.
When Mills became judge of the 5th judicial circuit there were a number who mocked his odd mannerisms. The Darlington Independent printed what it called a “first rate notice” of the new judge:
“Judge Mills is certainly one of the most eccentric men we have ever seen. We are told that when a lawyer is pleading he will sometimes stop him and commence pleading the case himself. His appearance on the bench is eccentric. We called on day while court was in session, and there sat the Judge, with disheveled hair, coat collar at a vertical, neck tie making for the top of his head having travelled more than half the distance, and ever and anon rolling his peculiar eye in a peculiar manner while striving to get the points of a peculiar case through his peculiar brain.
One morning we happened at the Russell House where the Judge stops, between nine and ten o’clock. Presently out came the Judge from the dining room …. He cast his eye on the clock which was then marking some minutes after nine, (the hour the court was to open) and exclaimed, ‘why, landlord, what kind of a clock is this you keep? This won’t do. I’ll have that clock taken for contempt of court’, and back to his room he went for his cap and overcoat. He soon came down again and passed into the street leaving every door, from his room to the street open.”13
In time, when people got to know him they respected and loved him despite his odd ways. His friends called him “Joe Mills”, and he was proud to wear the appellation of a common man. One author wrote: “There was a moral force in Mr. Mills which no coward or evildoer could withstand. He was incorruptible.”14 Despite being described as having a “peculiar brain”, he was a brilliant man. He was a member of the State Assembly in the sessions of 1856, 1857, 1862, and 1879 and from 1865 -1877 served as a judge of the fifth judicial circuit court.5
1. The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution Volume 98, page 293 at: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~genea/Ddarlineage7.html
2. From website: Descendants of W. Ruthven
3. The Anti-Slavery Movement in Kentucky, Prior to 1850
By Asa Earl Martin
4. The life of Jonathan Baldwin Turner, by his daughter, Mary Turner Carriel, The first woman elected to the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. copyright 1911, At: http://archive.org/stream/cu31924030583300/cu31924030583300_djvu.txt
5. Proceedings of the State Bar Association of Wisconsin, Volume 3 – 1901 – Joseph Trotter Mills Biography on Google Books.
6. Milwaukee Journal, Sunday May 21, 1922, page 5. Article entitled “Truth about the “Elopement” of Jefferson Davis and Sarah Knox Taylor”
7. Grant County Herald, March 4, 1893 article “A picturesque Character – Judge Joseph T. Mills and Some of the Incidents of His Life”
8. Negro slavery in Wisconsin, by John Nelson Davidson, 1896. Pages 25-28
9. Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (2011), page 72, by Christopher P. Lehman
10. History of Grant County, Wisconsin: Including Its Civil, Political (etc) (1900) By Castello N Holford – page 405
11. The Los Angeles Times, date unknown (est 1897). The Last Duel in Wisconsin, By Clay Dillon, From State Historical Society site at: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/wlhba/articleView.asp?pg=1&id=2954&hdl=&np=&adv=yes&ln=mills&fn=joseph&q=&y1=&y2=&ci=&co=&mhd=&shd=
12. The Semi-Weekly Wisconsin, Milwaukee, July 17, 1867, page 4 - A Visit to Lancaster, Wis.
13. The Wisconsin State Journal, Madison – quoting the Darlington Independent, February 23, 1870, page 2.
14. The Biographical Record of the Counties of Rock, Green, Iowa, and LaFayette, Wisconsin (1901), page 631