William Sturgis was the first permanent white settler in Black Hawk County. Most of us already know this, but can you name anything else he did during his lifetime? The founder of Cedar Falls actually lived quite an active and colorful life.
Sturgisís great-grandfather, Thomas Sturgis, was loyal to King George during the Revolutionary War. Ironically, Thomasís sons served in the American army. Williamís grandfather, Amos Sturgis, even became a captain under General George Washington. As a result of Thomasís loyalty to the English, his land and property were taken from him after the war. In 1800, Thomas and his family moved by ox train to Canada. Their settlement was called Mount Pleasant. Williamís father, John, was born there.
John married Julietta Brindle, and they had a daughter, Mary. Julietta died soon after. John served in the American army in the War of 1812. He was wounded and returned home in 1814. In April 1816, John married Ardillacy Miller. William was born in Canada at Mount Pleasant on 14 April 1817. The war continued, and when British troops reached Mount Pleasant they confiscated Johnís home. In 1818, John, his wife, and William headed west and settled in Brownstown, near present-day Monroe, Michigan.
Various negotiations with Indians over land were taking place, which offered Sturgis a glimpse of Indian life. He was learning the geography and political science he would use for the next 40 years of his life. As William grew older, he helped his father with farming, learning skills needed for life on the frontier. His sisters Jane and Catherine and his brothers John, George, and Amos were all born in Brownstown.
At the age of eleven, William and his family moved to St. Joseph County, Michigan. His brother David was the first white baby born there. Siblings Thomas, Hannah, Sally, Ann, and Henrietta were also born there. Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass received a nice hot breakfast from Ardillacy Sturgis when he passed through the town. Cass was so delighted that he declared their area to be named "Sturgis Prairie." It was later shortened to just "Sturgis."
As William neared his eighteenth birthday, people were inching farther and farther westward. He had always heard his father and grandfather talk about settlers exploring the west and taking a section of land as their own. Sturgis wanted badly to do this. He listened eagerly to the talk of the Black Hawk Purchase.
In 1835, Sturgis left home at the age of 18 and headed for the Black Hawk Purchase, which became Iowa Territory. Sturgis came to find that lands along the Mississippi were no longer available. He finally found a place upon which to settle, on the bank of the Iowa River near Iowa City. His experience as a youth gave him a big advantage here. He built everything he needed out of the environment around him.
Within a year the community of Iowa City had more than 700 people. As the boundaries of Johnson County were being formed, William was named to the first Board of Commissioners. He helped set up the organization of the county. In addition to his political role, William also served on the first grand jury in Johnson County.
The Board of Commissioners granted the first ferry license in Johnson County to William Sturgis and Luke Douglas on 6 March 1840. A man walking was charged 12Ĺ cents to use the ferry, a wagon and yoke of oxen cost 50 cents, a horse and rider 25 cents, and sheep and hogs were 3 cents each.
In November of 1840, Sturgis married Dorothy Joslyn Kidder. On 26 November 1844, their first daughter, Jeannette Ardillacy, was born.
As time passed, Williamís popularity in Johnson County diminished. At his last election for County Commissioner, he received just one vote. Sturgis was notified about a promising mill site on the Cedar River in Black Hawk County. William figured he would give it a try. Three white men had had brief stays there, but none lasted very long. One of the men, William Chambers, is credited with having built the first cabin in Cedar Falls.
In March 1845, traveling on the west bank, William Sturgis followed the Cedar River north. Right below the falls, William found the mill site for which he was searching. Although you may not be able to tell looking at it now, the Cedar River was crystal clear when Sturgis arrived. As he looked around, William found an abundance of building materials and food. He claimed both banks of the Cedar River and much of what is now downtown Cedar Falls. William Sturgis became the first permanent white settler in Black Hawk County. His sister, Catherine, and her husband, Erasmus Adams, soon joined Sturgis and his wife, Dorothy.
William built his log cabin near where the Ice House Museum now stands. He named the area "Sturgis Falls" and did not waste any time turning the soil and planting his crops. It did not take long for news of "Sturgis Falls" to spread and other settlers started to arrive. William hired a man by the name of John Hamilton to help with his farming, but Hamilton did not stay long. The first yearsí crops were not good by any means, but his efforts did help prepare the soil for later crops. In September, Sturgis and his wife returned to Johnson County to pick up their daughter, Jeannette. They then headed back to their new cabin in Black Hawk County. They faced many hardships along the way. His wife was frequently sick and lonely. There was also the threat of wolves, bears, and especially Indians. On 1 October 1846, Dorothy gave birth to the first white child born in Black Hawk County, Sarah Jane Sturgis. They nicknamed her "Jennie." By the spring of 1847, there were ten families living in Sturgis Falls.
Sturgis had been working to build a dam on the Cedar River, but was making little progress. He needed more money and more manpower. In the fall of 1847, John and D.C. Overman and John Barrick arrived in Sturgis Falls. They shared the dream of waterpower with William Sturgis. The Overmans and Barrick offered Sturgis $2,200 for the mill site and his 280 acre claim. The sale was completed in late 1847, and William moved his family north to Minnesota. In 1849, Sturgis Falls was renamed Cedar Falls.
In Minnesota, Sturgis claimed land in what is now part of St. Paulís downtown area. Shortly after moving there, the Sturgises had their first son. John Kidder Sturgis was born on 5 March 1850. William, once again, became involved in his community and served on the Minnesota Territorial Council.
William Sturgis established a large farm and called it Big Meadows. William no longer faced the problem of a labor shortage since the Sturgis-extended household now consisted of 23 men and 4 women. His farm was very successful, and it even drew the attention of local newspapers. He produced more than 2,000 bushels of oats that sold for 75 cents a bushel. He also produced corn and potatoes.
Despite his success, William moved his family to Little Falls, Minnesota. Some people say he was the founder of Little Falls as well. Sturgis wasted no time. He bought a sawmill and started a ferry service across the Mississippi. He also leased out some land for lumbering. In the community, he was a member of the Territorial Legislature. His children attended an Indian mission school.
Tragically, in September 1851, Williamís wife, Dorothy, died. In 1852, Sturgis went to Iowa City and married Rosanna Steele on April 12 and returned to Little Falls shortly thereafter. Soon Rosanna and William had the first of their six children.
James Fergus and Calvin Tuttle built a new dam and mill in Little Falls. Sturgis merged with them to form a company worth $100,000. The venture was initially successful but went under during the panic of 1857. William took part in the Minnesota Constitutional Convention that same year.
Sturgis was admired for his ability to succeed in business with very little money. One writer was quoted as saying; "He had not over a dollar for every ten that his business required."
Sturgis had a lifelong dream to travel out west and, in 1862, William joined an expedition and headed toward Montana. Rosanna remained with their children to run the trading post and sawmill.
Sturgis decided to settle in Bannack, Montana. Instead of pursuing the gold rush like others, William started Bannackís first sawmill. Shortly after, he opened another mill in nearby Argenta. His first boards sold for $250 per thousand feet. Sturgisís sawmills progressed quickly. Soon he was shipping lumber by ox-trains to several mining camps in Montana. In addition, he sold lumber for building houses and sheds and he built a toll road. He established a stage station and line, a post office, and a Wells Fargo Company.
In the spring of 1867, Williamís wife, Rosanna, and their children joined him in Montana. Upon their arrival, Sturgis sold his lumber business. He bought a ranch and formed a big cattle operation.
In one of his last business ventures, Sturgis and four partners opened the Hecla Silver Mine near Glendale, Montana. They quickly turned a profit when they sold the operation to another mining company for $100,000. In 1873, William sold the last of his businesses in Montana after which he and his family returned to Sturgis, Michigan. After their youngest son died there from drowning, they did not stay long. They spent the next few years in Kansas involved in the cattle industry, then moved on to New Mexico and invested in the real estate business. Finally, toward the end of his life, William returned once again to Sturgis, Michigan. Rosanna died there in May 1898. Because of his age and frail health, William spent his winters in Florida and died in New Smyrna, Florida, on 6 April 1901. His body was returned to Sturgis, Michigan, for burial.
Most of us recognize the name William Sturgis because of his role in the establishment of Cedar Falls, but it is clear that he also made his mark on a number of other Midwestern and Western communities. Sturgis was ambitious and restless as well as skilled in many trades. His drive and ability enabled him to live a rich and varied life and in the process he left an important mark on Black Hawk County.