Captain Chelsea Blake tries, fails to avoid cholera

I gave a talk in Milwaukee last week. It was so good! (If you were there, thanks for coming!)

As you might guess, my talks tend to deal strictly with ye olde Detroit. But at this event I wanted to make sure I was at least a little relevant to Milwaukee. My grasp on Milwaukee history is pretty tenuous (I left town before becoming insufferable), so it was tough and involved more research than I was prepared for. I think I pulled it off with a little fawning over Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s French-Canadian fur-trader founder (his last house still stands in Theresa, Wisconsin), and no small quantity of yammering about the years during which Wisconsin and Michigan were part of the same territory. (Milwaukee and Detroit were even tossed together in Wayne County for a few years in the 1790s.)

Luckily, I always overestimate how nerdy other people are; I can’t imagine anyone in the audience was bored by things they already knew about territorial boundaries and original Juneautown land plats of the 1820s.

At the very last minute, I had the stroke of brilliance to check the index of Early Days in Detroit for a reference to Milwaukee. I wasn’t expecting much, but I got REALLY lucky.

General Friend Palmer spends a couple of chapters reminiscing about the day when Great Lakes steamboat captains were kings, regally strolling the streets of old Detroit in nankeen trousers, beaver top-hats and silk cravats. Maybe something like this?

Oh yes.

But Captain Chelsea Blake wasn’t like this. He was rude and he loved to swear. General Palmer wrote that ”unlike most of the lake captains of those days, who were perfect gentlemen in manners and dress, he affected none of these, no courtly phrases, no ruffled shirt, no blue coat with brass buttons … his use or abuse of the king’s English was somewhat phenomenal.”

He fought in the War of 1812 at Lundy’s Lane and thereafter became a titan of Great Lakes shipping. Though he was never afraid to cuss out a superior or fight Indians, Blake was apparently terrified of dying.

”Blake … stood in mortal fear of death and from the cholera in particular. He went to Milwaukee to escape the latter, but unfortunately he did not.”

Captain Chelsea Blake died from cholera in Milwaukee in 1849.

From a flowery elegy by R. E. Roberts:

Of almost giant size and commanding presence, no son of Neptune ever united in his composition a rarer combination of the qualities which make a true seaman, a safe commander, a genuine hero. Rough as the billows whose impotent assaults on his vessel he ever laughed to scorn; with voice as hoarse as the tempest which he delighted to rule, this gallant son of the sea had withal a woman’s tenderness of heart to answer the appeals of distress. Sincere was the grief of many he had relieved, and universal regret among those who had ever sailed with him, when he fell a victim to the cholera at Milwaukee in the year 1849.

Poor Chelsea Blake!

Ho, all ye travelers West;
If ye are bound across the Lake,
And wish to take the boat that’s best,
Go on the Illinois with Blake.

A veteran, both by land and sea,
He long has braved the stormy main;
And amongst the foremost, too, was he,
In the great fight at Lundy’s Lane.

… Success attend your bonny boat,
The pride and glory of the lake;
And may ye both forever float —
The Illinois and Captain Blake.

From the Milwaukee Commercial Herald, 1843.

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