Barnett Museum Visitors - The First Visitor
The ‘First’ Visitor: The Reverend Dr. John Blatchford D.D. (1799-1855)
For the first post on the Niagara Falls Museum Register transcription project, it’s appropriate to talk about the first signatory in the earliest book we have. That man, signing on June 13, 1838, was “Jno. Blatchford” of Chicago, Illinois.
The Reverend Dr. John Blatchford, D.D. was born May 24, 1799, in Newfield (now Bridgeport), Connecticut to Rev. Samuel and Alicia Blatchford. Following an early interest in the Ministry, Blatchford received his Doctorate of Divinity at the Princeton Theological Seminary and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Troy in 1823 at the age of 24. He held several positions at churches in New England, including the church in his hometown over which his father had presided in his youth. In 1836, however, Rev. Blatchford’s wife, Frances (nee Wickes), took ill and he decided to move the family out to Chicago for the fresh air and open spaces.
You’d be forgiven for not associating those qualities with Chicago. Today, with a population of more than 2.7 Million, Chicago is the largest city in the Midwest. In 1836, however, the burgeoning city was a small, swampy frontier town of fewer than 3000 inhabitants. Still a year away from electing its first mayor, Chicago wasn’t serviced by rail or telegraph and had no sewer system.
The Blatchfords’ journey west was not an uneventful one. On the leg of their journey from Detroit to Chicago, they travelled across lakes Huron and Michigan on a brig called ‘Erie’. As the ship reached its destination in September of 1836, they encountered a violent storm and were shipwrecked just before they could dock in Chicago. Luckily, all members of the family survived.
It was quite a bold move for Rev. Blatchford and his family to leave the established, 150 year old church in his hometown for a wood frame, pioneer church on the edge of the wilderness. That church was the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago where he was the first pastor, serving from 1837 until 1839. During his two year appointment there, he helped establish the Presbyterian community in the whole area. There is an account from February of 1838 of the Reverend and a church elder travelling by sleigh 35 miles, and crossing a river, to help organize a church in Mechanic’s Grove.
From 1841-1844, he worked at Marion College, Missouri, first as a professor and then as President. Even after poor health led him to early retirement, he continued to tutor theological students in his own home. He passed away on 8 April, 1855 at the age of 56.
An unnamed minister who met Rev. Dr. Blatchford at a Presbyterian camp meeting in 1843 wrote of him, “[He] made a deep impression upon my then youthful mind. He was about forty-five years of age, yet seemed like a young man of twenty-five. He was in good health, of beaming countenance, filled with joy-giving life. Every one [sic] around him seemed to catch the inspiration that animated him. He was the manliest Minister I had ever met. No wonder the people listened to the words of truth and grace that poured from his lips! His preaching was in the demonstration of the spirit and of power."
To discover more about the people who visited the first museum in Canada, check out our guest registry page