Monday, November 15, 2010

Looking for Historical Nuggets-Benjamin Mills Part I

Just finding the time to do research is one thing, but finding a certain elusive source can often be an exercise in futility...and frustration. I guess that's why it is so rewarding when I come across a nugget of a source I had been desperately seeking. Sometimes I just want to jump up in the archives/library and shout, "I FOUND IT!"...just for a cathartic release, and to let every one know.

I took a personal day off from work last week and made a trip to Louisville to do some searching for sources on my current project on Kentuckians' reactions to John Brown's raid. I spent Wednesday morning at the Filson Historical Society where I found some neat things that I will try to share in a later post. The staff at the Filson was very friendly and helpful. It's always pleasant to do research where you feel like your wanted. Unfortunately, I have been to some places where that is not the case. With my search at the Filson exhausted, and after gobbling down a couple of bananas for lunch, I made my way to the Louisville Public Library. I had been searching high and low for a newspaper article from the Louisville Courier-Journal from 1881, but hadn't been able to pin down that specific issue. I had previously checked the microfilm at the Kentucky Historical luck; the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives...they didn't have that year; the University of Kentucky..struck out again; and the Filson earlier that day...they had some 1881 issues, but not the one I was seeking. I figured my only two other options would be the public library or perhaps the Courier-Journal offices. But since the library was only a few blocks from the Filson, I gave it a shot first. BOOM! Sure enough they had it.

I had found this particular source in the footnotes of a biography of John Brown that I had read several months ago. According to the footnotes this specific article was in the Oswald Garrison Villard (an early Brown biographer) papers at Harvard. Obviously, I had little opportunity to get to Boston, so I was happy to find the article here in Kentucky. The article was a recollection of the Harper's Ferry raid as viewed by an eyewitness and a Brown hostage during the raid, who also happened to be a Kentuckian, Benjamin Mills. I had learned a little about Mills while doing research at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park back in June, but I really wanted to locate this eyewitness account...even though it was 22 years after the event.

I had also previously found a short article from the November 4, 1859 issue of the Kentucky Statesman that announced the return of Mills to Kentucky from Harpers Ferry. Here is that short article in full:
"We had the pleasure of taking by the hand, on yesterday, our friend Mr. B Mills, late Master of the Armory, at Harper's Ferry, and formerly a Gunsmith of high reputation, at Harrodsburg, Ky. Mr. M had resigned his office at Harper's Ferry, on the 10th of last month [actually October 8, 1859], his resignation to take effect on the first inst. [November], and remained there just long enough to fall into the hands of the insurgents, by whom he was taken prisoner, as our readers have seen by the published accounts. He brings with him specimens of the arms prepared and used by the insurgent; and his account of the details of the affair at the ferry is very interesting. He returns to Kentucky for the purpose of resuming his business at Harrodsburg."

Benjamin Mills was born in Rensselaer County, New York in 1810 and apparently learned to gunsmith from other gun makers when he moved to Canada, and where he married Jane O'Conner in 1835. In 1838 the couple moved to Mays Lick, Kentucky (Mason County). After a couple of years there they moved to Stanford (Lincoln County) where they lived for about four years before landing in Harrodsburg (Mercer County). Mills operated a gunsmith shop in Harrodsburg for about 14 years before being appointed Master Armorer at Harper's Ferry on October 19, 1858, by then Secretary of War John B. Floyd. A few month's later Alfred M. Barbour was named the arsenal superintendent, Mills's boss. Mills must have either been thin-skinned or honor-bound, or both, because when Barbour took a leave of absence in the fall of 1859 he left Chief Clerk Archibald M. Kitzmiller, not Mills in charge of the armory. Offended, Mills submitted his resignation on October 8, 1859 to take effect on November 1, 1859.

Mills was merely biding his time to return to Kentucky when John Brown and his raiders struck on the night of October 16. Little did he know when he resigned a week before that such tumult would hit the small Virginia town and that he would be caught up in it.

In the next post I will share some of the highlights of Mills's story as he told it to the Courier-Journal correspondent in 1881.

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