Vermont to Aztalan, Wisconsin – The Northwest Territory Travels of Philander Vail, 1848

From the Lake Mills Leader article (cited at the bottom of this post), Aztalan Post Office and Church at the time that Philander Vail lived there

From the Lake Mills Leader article (cited at the bottom of this post), Aztalan Post Office and Church at the time that Philander Vail lived there

Philander Vail's Note to his brother-in-law Elijah Ross from Aztalan, Wisconsin 1848.

Philander Vail’s Note to his brother-in-law Elijah Ross from Aztalan, Wisconsin 1848.

The lure of traveling west was strong in the 1840’s for many young men in Vermont. It is unknown at this time just when Elmira’s older half brother Philander Vail journeyed to the “Northwest Territories” of the now state of Wisconsin, but by 1848 he had settled in a small community called Aztalan. However small the community was he was by no means a lonely transplant Vermonter. The wild Wisconsin woods were full of New England men and a few families, hailing from the Vermont communities of Putney, Brattleboro, Middletown (the family home for P.Vail), and other small farming villages along the New York State line. The siren call of “easy tilled fields” was hard to ignore when faced with the difficult and rocky soils of Vermont.

The big impression that discussions of these distant lands made is easily seen in a quote from Elisha Keyes, the son of Pioneer Joseph Keyes who recalled in his memoir “The Founding of Lake Mills, A Reminiscent History by Elisha W. Keys” “I remember that once, when I was a boy in Vermont, my father procured an old-fashioned atlas with the apparently unsettled Northwest Territory traced upon it; and, calling my elder brothers about him, pointed with his forefinger on the map to that portion of the Territory which began about the southern point of Lake Michigan and extended there from in a northwesterly direction. He pointed to the mouth of the Milwaukee river; and said he, “Boys, there’s where we want to go; that country offers a splendid inducement for settlers. There,” said he, “must be water-powers and timber.” At this time I was but seven years of age; still I remember the deep interest I took in the conversation and the impression that it made upon my mind.

And ‘Go’ it appears the Keyes Family went. Best described on the Lake Mills – Aztalan Historical Society, Inc. website “Captain Joseph Keyes was born at Putney, Vermont, Nov. 20, 1795, and followed his father’s trade, that of a mill-wright. He first came to Wisconsin on a prospecting tour, in June, 1836, he was impressed with the site now called Lake Mills. During the autumn of 1836, he spent some time at Menomonee, north of Green Bay; at this place he dressed the lumber for a house, which he took to Milwaukee on a vessel, in December, and erected a dwelling there which was standing in 1874. In the fall of 1837, he became the founder of Lake Mills, where he built and operated a saw-mill. He subsequently erected a gristmill at Lake Mills and other mills at Cambridge, Dane county. The first school-house in Lake Mills was erected in 1841 by Captain Keyes, who himself employed and paid Miss Rosa Catlin to teach in it. A son of the captain, Simon S. Keyes, was elected the first school clerk, Oct. 7, 1843, upon the organization of the Lake Mills school district. Abel Keyes, the father of Joseph, died in 1843, his being, it is reported, the first white death in the village. Abel was born at Putney, Vt., Sept. 11, 1773, and was largely instrumental in the early advancement of Northfield and neighboring villages. In 1850, Joseph Keyes removed to Menasha, and erected one of the first saw-mills there. He afterwards resided in Madison, until about 1859, when he returned to Menasha, where he was appointed register of the United States land office. The closing years of his life were spent in retirement. He died in Menasha, Sept. 17, 1874, aged 79 years, having been among the most honored and useful of the pioneers of Wisconsin.” from

What is with this town name of Aztalan!? When I first saw Philander Vail’s note from 1848 to his brother-in-law Elijah Ross I thought it was another case of swirly script writing making the town difficult to read. However my eyes did not deceive me but the Mayan sounding Aztalan was truly written.

Map of the Wisconsin Territory, 1836–1848,

Map of the Wisconsin Territory, 1836–1848,

Sure enough on numerous websites for the State Park and the local town, county and state historical societies it explains that the early pioneers found the mound ruins of the Native American village and settlers exclaimed them to be fantastical Aztec and Mayan ruins. In the honor of what they thought they found they consequently named their new community Aztalan. Although this was not true, it did get picked up by the newspaper press and a fresh angle on the Wisconsin Territories was pitched in the New England village papers. On the Aztalan Historical Society website it is explained that “Aztalan, a name derived from a ancient Aztec tradition, was a Native American village hosting a blending of Mississippian & local culture. It later became a bustling pioneer center, and is now a wonderful memory of the past.” I can only surmise that Philander heard from other pioneering Vermont families of the wonders of this northern Aztalan and that he decided to join them.

Medical Bill (Detail) for Philander Vail, ill in Middletown Springs, VT, 1849

Medical Bill (Detail) for Philander Vail, ill in Middletown Springs, VT, 1848

In Philander’s note of March 1848 he thanks Elijah Ross for the follow up on some business affairs, he asks that his brother John Vail collect a debt owed to Philander and he states that his “health at present” is good.  Unfortunately for Philander good health does not remain the case. By the summer of 1848 Philander is back in Vermont, convalescing with relatives and the recipient of daily doctor visits and medicine for an unspecified condition. He lost his long battle and died at age 28 on February 1, 1849. He was buried in Middletown Springs alongside his father, with a generously sized headstone. Elijah Ross served as executor the estate and noted the carpenter bill for the casket at $9 and the gravedigger at $3. Just one week later Philander’s brother John A. Vail also died and was laid to rest in the space next to Philander. The grieving family left included their sister Alta who was in ill health and married to Elijah Ross, a married sister Sophia Vail Steele, their stepmother Polly Vail and their younger half sister Elmira Vail, the future “Grandma Ross” to Edith Vail Ross, whom this blog is featuring.

Headstone for Philander Vail, Middletown Springs, Vermont

Headstone for Philander Vail, died February 1, 1849, Middletown Springs, Vermont

Headstone for John Allen Vail, Middletown Springs, Vermont

Headstone for John Allen Vail, died February 8, 1849, Middletown Springs, Vermont

More Info:
Azatlan the Place Time Forgot, by Roland Liebenow, M.D. “The historical accounts about the village of Aztalan are plenteous and have been recorded in number of various ways over the years, extending back to the days of early settlers and their explorations in 1836. So it was somewhat of a surprise to have several people suggest that an article about the history of Aztalan be written…”

About Guenevere Crum

Guenevere Crum is an artist and a great granddaughter of Edith and Paul Eisler. She has been actively sleuthing her Eisler - Vail Ross heritage since 1999.
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2 Responses to Vermont to Aztalan, Wisconsin – The Northwest Territory Travels of Philander Vail, 1848

  1. chmjr2 says:

    We are a nation of movers. Very few people end up where they were born. I guess we all got that itch.

    • Yes we are! It was thin years settling in the 1840’s in Wisconsin. Trying to harvest a crop and eat that crop as you go is just about impossible. There were some incredible stories written in some memoirs, but no direct recollections from Philander.

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