From "History of George Rogers Clark's Conquest of Illinois and the Wabash", 1904.
A widely read American author and historian during the mid to late 19th century, Consul Willshire Butterfield authored over a dozen works on American history, extending from the Revolutionary period to histories of the states of Ohio, Wisconsin and the discovery of American northwest. A resident of New York, Ohio, California, Wisconsin, and Nebraska during his life, Butterfield's inclusion here on the site rests on his 1850 candidacy for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, an election he narrowly lost. In preparation for this article, I also discovered that Butterfield had a small connection to my home county of Chautauqua, NY, a tidbit that this author had previously been unaware of!
Born near Colosse, Oswego County, New York on July 28, 1824, Consul Willshire Butterfield was the son of Amroy (also spelled Amory) and Mary Lamb Butterfield. Being bestowed the unusual first name Consul upon his birth, this odd name (Consul nowadays referring to a type of diplomat) initially led me to believe that Butterfield had been in the foreign service at some point during his life, but this proved not to be the case! It is unknown as to why Butterfield received this name, but it could have a historical connection to the title of "Consul", used during the days of the Roman Empire.
Butterfield's early education was limited and is remarked as "having been pursued wholly without instruction." At age ten he removed with his family to Melmore in Seneca County, Ohio. Two years following his resettlement, young Consul was left fatherless when his father was killed by a falling piece of timber, whilst assisting in the construction of a church. At age eighteen Butterfield left Ohio for New York, and around 1842 entered into a teaching position in a district school in Omar, Chautauqua County, New York. Little is known of Butterfield's time in this county, but Omar (as it was known in Butterfield's time) later underwent a name change to Hamlet and still exists under this name today.
In the early 1840s Butterfield began attending the Albany State Normal School, and after two terms of study left due to sickness. Following an extended trip through Europe, he returned to Seneca County, Ohio and soon after began work on his first major historical work, a history of Seneca County. Completed in 1848, the "History of Seneca County" gave detail accounts of that county from the early Indian settlements until the present time, and was later acknowledged as "really the first strictly county history ever issued in book form west of the Allegheny Mountains."
In 1847 Butterfield gained his first taste of public office when he was elected as Superintendent of Schools for Seneca County. He remained in that post until 1849, when, like many other young men of the time, caught the gold rush bug and left for California. Within a short period of his arrival, Butterfield had taken up law studies in San Francisco and had become deeply interested in the educational system of the still young state. At the time of Butterfield's removal to California, the state had no State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and during the 1850 election year, a legislative measure was passed providing for the election of a state educational officer. Beginning in September 1850, both the Whig and Democratic parties offered forth candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and on September 30th Consul W. Butterfield officially threw his hat into the ring as an independent candidate for that office.
From the Sacramento Transcript, Sept. 1850.
Butterfield's jump into the race began with a lengthy address to the voters of California, published in the Sacramento Transcript on September 30. In this address, Butterfield took time to outline his ideas on how best to run the post he hoped to be elected to, stating:
"Judging from the past, we may look forward and anticipate for our rapidly growing state, vast improvements of every kind, and it is to be expected, its institutions will keep pace with its progress in other respects. Simultaneously with the establishment of schools, we may expect the springing into existence of journals devoted to Primary Instruction; establishing of Normal Schools for the education of teachers; Teacher's Institutes for social converse and interchanging of views amongst teachers; introduction to suitable text books to meet the wants of schools, and many of the modern improvements that characterize the system of Public Instruction at the present day. Careful and enlightened supervision, interest by the people at large, competent teachers, and salutary laws, are the corner stones of the great fabric of Public Instruction."As one of nine men vying to become the inaugural holder of the office, Butterfield faced an uphill battle. On election day he polled a respectable 3, 262 votes, placing second behind winning candidate John Gage Marvin's winning total of 3, 823. As California's first state superintendent of education, Marvin (1815-1857) served in that post until 1854 and later died in Hawaii in 1857.
Consul W. Butterfield's stay in the Sunshine State proved to be short, and by 1851 had returned to Ohio. He began studying law in that state and in May 1854 married in Bucyrus to Almira "Mira" Scroggs (1829-1857), to whom he was wed until her death. He would remarry in the year following her death to Letta Merriman Reichenecker (1825-1900), with whom he had at least ten children, all but one (a daughter Allie) dying in infancy.
Admitted to the Ohio bar in 1855, Butterfield established his practice in Bucyrus and for a time held the post of secretary for the Ohio and Indiana Railroad Co. While in this post Butterfield also found time to complete his second book, "A Comprehensive System of Grammatical and Rhetorical Punctuation", which later was to become "a very popular work and was introduced into many schools." In 1872 Butterfield retired from his law practice to better focus his energies on writing, and in 1873 published "An Historical Account of the Expedition Against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford, in 1782". This work gave a detailed account of Col. William Crawford (1722-1782) and his disastrous campaign against Indian tribes and their British allies along the Sandusky River, the end result being the capture of Crawford and a number of his men (the former being tortured and burned at the stake.)
Butterfield's history of the Crawford expedition was met with "general interest and favor" and received glowing praise from the New York Observer, which noted:
"The terrible death of Col. Crawford by torture, is depicted with so much vividness and power that one, in reading it, almost feels that he is a personal witness of the terrible transaction."Two years following the publishing of the above work Butterfield and his wife left Ohio for Wisconsin. Settling in the city of Madison, he began work on a pioneer history of the area with Dr. Lyman Draper, a book that was never published. In 1877 two Butterfield works were published, the first being "The Washington-Crawford Letters", detailing the correspondence between General Washington and Col. William Crawford (along with his brother Valentine). This was followed by a history of Wisconsin that was published in conjunction with the 1877 Historical Atlas of Wisconsin.
Further works flowed from Butterfield's pen at the close of the 1870s, including "The History of University of Wisconsin: From Its First Organization until 1879." Wisconsin history still proved to be the main theme in 1881 when Butterfield authored "Discovery of the Northwest in 1634 by John Nicolet", a detailed write-up on French trader and adventurer John Nicolet's exploration of Lake Michigan (being the first European to do so), as well as his travels through Wisconsin and other portions of the Northwest Territory.
Throughout Butterfield's residency in Wisconsin, he continued to author a steady stream of county histories and for several years was connected with various historical periodicals, including stints with the Northwest Review, Descriptive America, and the Magazine of Western History. In 1888 he removed from Wisconsin to Omaha, Nebraska and in the early part of the next decade authored a "History of South Omaha", that would be published in installments in 1892 and 1893. Consul W. Butterfield died at his home in South Omaha on September 25, 1899, at age 75. As a distinguished American historian and author, Butterfield's death was acknowledged in newspapers in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota. His wife Letta would survive him by only a year and following her death in 1900 was interred alongside him at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Omaha. Butterfield was also survived by a younger sister, Emilie Jane (1833-1910), who would have a colorful life of her own. In 1872 she married in London to French theologian and former monk Charles Loyson, known by the name Pere Hyacinthe, a newsworthy wedding in Catholic circles of the time.
From the Indianapolis Journal, September 26, 1899.