Edward Wells

Edward Wells

A life of peculiar power and significance in enriching the business and civic development of Quincy from pioneer times was that of the late Edward Wells, manufacturer, business man and banker. Some of the steadying qualities of his enterprise and character are felt even today in the city. There is no need of apology for telling briefly the story of this Quincy citizen, since it is in truth a vital part of Quincy’s history.

It is from Thomas Wells that the Quincy branch of the family is descended. Thomas was born in Essex County, England, in 1605, and in 1635, at the age of thirty, set sail from Ipswich, England, and landing in Massachusetts joined the little colony at Agawam, which the colonists soon named Ipswich. Thomas Wells took his freeman’s oath May 17, 1637, and soon built his substantial frame dwelling which was still standing as late as 1850. Besides his growing interests as a property holder he was a stalwart member of the noted Ipswich Church and was also magistrate and physician. Many of the early records referred to him as distinguished in different capacities. He died October 26, 1666.

Samuel Williams Wells, father of Edward Wells of Quincy, was born at Newbury June 12, 1774. During his life he was chiefly distinguished for his rare scholarship and ability as a teacher. He died June 30, 1851, at the age of seventy-seven.

Edward Wells was born at Newbury March 23, 1813, and was named for his maternal grandfather, Edward Swasey Wells. He acquired a strong distaste for double Christian names, and in Quincy was always known simply as Edward Wells. The following story of his life is largely made up of quotations from his published biography.

In childhood Edward Wells gave evidence of the push, energy and courage which led him in early manhood to leave the beaten way of men and go out across the mountains to make a name, place and home for himself on the confines of civilization. At the age of fourteen he sought and obtained employment with a rope maker in his native town, who perceiving in him the promise of unusual business ability endeavored to retain his services, when at the end of the year he gave notice of his intent to withdraw, by offers of immediate promotion and eventually a share in the business. But the lad wanted a larger field for the exercise of his powers than a rope walk in an old town that had ceased to grow.

Influenced by these considerations, young Edward Wells packed his modest box, said good-bye to his employer and home friends, and on the top of the stage coach that plied semi-weekly between his native town and Boston made his first trip to that famous city. On India Wharf he found a cooper by the name of Lang, who, attracted doubtless by the lad’s business-like manner, agreed to take him as apprentice till the time of his majority. Then followed seven busy years, in the course of which the lad not only acquired a knowledge of his craft and satisfied the master whom he was bound to serve, but by working overtime as the opportunity offered earned $100, which, bit by bit, as it was gathered, he sacredly set aside to give him a start in business when the days of his service should be over.

In the last days of his service the young apprentice belonged to the city fire department and the Mechanic’s Library Association, and whether sitting in solemn conclave with the members of the latter organization or taking his turn at the old hand engine in the smoke of a city fire, was equally willing, energetic and helpful.

After the terms of his indenture were fulfilled he worked at his trade, boarding somewhere on Fort Hill, waiting the opportunity to invest the savings of his years of apprenticeship. In April, 1834, he writes to a sister, “I shall remain here but six months longer unless there is some great change in the prospects that are before me.” No change for the better seems to have taken place, for in October of the same year we find him, equipped with a new stock of clothing and tools, purchased with part of his savings, the remainder of the $100 in his pocket, and the blessings of his father and home friends in his heart, cutting himself adrift from the moorings of familiar scenes and launching out into the unknown West.

In October, 1833, Capt. Nathaniel Pease, a man of great energy and enterprise, who had been trading in Cleveland, Ohio, and other points on the lakes, made his way to the little town of Quincy in Adams County, Illinois, bought 300 hogs, had them slaughtered and packed and carried them off to sell in other places. Succeeding in this venture and deciding that Quincy was well located and destined to grow, he determined to return with his family and settle there permanently. His home was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the spring when his plans for emigration were nearly perfected young Edward Wells met him, heard his story, and concluded to join his party which was to start in the fall.

Thus it is we find him on a mild October day saying good-bye to friends, and boarding the train for Providence and the West. At that time, as the railway system was in its infancy, connections were uncertain and accommodations limited. * * * They journeyed from Boston to Providence by rail, from Providence to Amboy by boat, and then by rail from Amboy to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to Baltimore, and from Baltimore over the mountains to the Ohio River. Down this stream they voyaged by steamer, frequently delayed by low water, and helped over the sandbars, where they grounded, by men who worked day after day in the water for the low wage of 3 shillings. They passed at times through a noiseless woodland solitude and boundless prairies level and lonely as the sea. The boat was run by no schedule. It stopped anywhere to let passengers off, at a creek, a cabin or a young busy town. It tied up wherever it was convenient to wait for wood to be cut and loaded or repairs to be made. Waiting for repairs seems in fact to have absorbed a great deal of the time of those early steamboat trips. Finally they reached the Mississippi and boarded an upward-bound steamer for the last stage of their journey.

Quincy at that time contained only about 500 inhabitants. There were some half dozen very respectable frame houses, a good many log cabins, a log courthouse and jail, several smaller frame houses, two small brick dwellings and a frame tavern. An infant town indeed, but its location on the Mississippi in a region unsurpassed for fertility and productiveness, with an unlimited supply of building stone in its bluffs and timber on the islands and margin of the river, gave promise not only of rapid but continuos growth. Into this town incorporated but four months previously entered young Edward Wells, wearied with a thirty-four days’ journey, slightly homesick, destitute of money except for a single silver dollar, but well furnished with Yankee ingenuity, pluck, energy and determination to succeed. Like his Puritan ancestor he stepped into a new world, consecrated to the task of helping to redeem it from a wilderness and make it blossom with all the beauty of civilization.

Failing to find work at his trade he took hold of any honorable employment that presented itself. I have heard him say that having a thorough knowledge of but one trade he had worked at all. He learned by observation what he did not discover by a fine mechanical sense that was him in no common measure. That first winter was uncommonly mild, a contrast to the cold and storm of the New England Coast, until the 28th of January, when a cold wave passed over Illinois and Kentucky that pulled the mercury down to 32º below zero, killed or injured nearly all the fruit trees, and brought death to large numbers of horses, cattle and hogs.

In the spring of 1835 Edward Wells formed a partnership in the cooper business with James D. Morgan, a friend who had followed him from Boston. * * * Mr. Morgan having a wife and child took up his adobe in a log cabin, but the younger member of the firm lived in the shop, his modest housekeeping arrangements hidden by a curtain from the business end of the establishment. To coopering he applied himself with characteristic energy for a few years. His work brought him into relations with the pork packers, and seeing in their business a wider opportunity for the accumulation of wealth he discontinued his partnership with Mr. Morgan and began to pack and ship pork. In 1839 he was one of four pork packers who packed 5,000 hogs, in 1840 one of four who packed 4,000, in 1842, one of four who packed 7,000, in 1843 one of four who packed 20,000, and in 1846 one of four who packed 10,000. Afterwards he engaged in business on a more extensive scale and laid the foundations of a fortune to which he added by judicious operations in real estate in Chicago.

Though possessed in a remarkable degree of the business instincts which detect success or failure at the outset, his judgment was not always infallible in those early years of his business career. Twice, through the failures of other men, he lost everything he had accumulated, and twice the undaunted courage he began to build anew. It was perhaps while waiting an opportunity to start a place in his chosen career that he went into the solitude of the Des Moines River to trade with the Indians, made trips to New Orleans to dispose of produce, and even served as mate on a Mississippi steamboat. He was never at a loss for employment of some kind. In a letter written in 1839 to his father he refers to the growth of the city: “Quincy is still improving. If we keep on a few years longer we shall have a place larger than Newburyport. There has been a great deal of emigration to this country this year. We now have six different religious denominations, Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Unitarian and Catholic. So you see there are plenty of chances to go to church if a person is so disposed.” About this time Edward Wells untied with a few others in founding the Unitarian Church, of which Rev. George Moore was the first settled minister. Edward Wells continued for more than fifty years not only a regular attendant but a stay and support, giving with bounteous hand in response to all calls for help. Nor did he waiver when in the last years of his life the financial burden of the church rested largely on his shoulders. With his advent into the town Edward Wells joined the volunteer fire department, which he served as chief for one term. Old “No. 1,” which was purchased some time between 1837 and 1840 for the sum of $1,125, felt his hand in those early famous fires on Hampshire Street and “under the hill” as well as in less noted blazes.

>From the time of his majority he gave himself with diligence to the study of the political situation, allying himself in turn with the whig and republican parties. In the log cabin campaign of 1840 he was a delegate to the county conventions that endorsed the nomination of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Though successful in multiplying into a fortune the silver dollar which constituted his capital when he disembarked at Quincy in 1834, his energies were not all given to personal gain. He was a leading spirit in all projects for the advancement of the city of his adoption, which he saw develop from a town of 500 inhabitants into a large and flourishing center of trade. For many years he was greatly interested in procuring railroad connections, and became personally acquainted with the prominent railroad men of the country. He succeeded in getting the Pennsylvania Central to agree to come to Quincy; but before the purpose could crystallize into action success became failure through the secret sale of the Quincy and Warsaw Road, with which the connection was to be made. Still he did not lose heart nor did he become discouraged when negotiations for connections with the Baltimore & Ohio roads came to naught; but spurred by failure and broadened by contact with men of wider experience, took up the work again with a zeal that compelled success. He was the originator and principal factor in the passing of the bill through Congress for the building of the railroad bridge across the Mississippi River at Quincy in 1864, spending weeks in Washington while engaged in this work. In the drafting of this bill he insisted on a clause which was original with him, that all roads should have right of way over the approaches to bridges and thus prevented for all time excessive tollage or monopoly. He was at one time president of the Quincy & Warsaw Railroad Company, and was on terms of intimacy and influence with J. L. Joy of the Wabash Railway for many years. Though all his life intensely interested in the political affairs of city, state and nation, the subject of this sketch resolutely refused political office. One tern as alderman from the Third Ward is his meager record. His counsel was sought by men who held office as well as men who walked the quiet paths of private life. He was well acquainted with Lincoln, Douglas, O. H. Browning, W. A. Richardson, Richard Yates, John A. Logan, General Sherman and many others of world wide reputation. He has large influence in both state and national capitals, which was used effectively but quietly, and without making himself so prominent as to antagonize others. He sought no reward, remaining silent while others appropriated credit that belonged to him. From the formation of the party he was an uncompromising republican, as he had been for years a subscriber to the principles on which it was founded. In war time he was intensely loyal, sending two substitutes to the field and spending money freely in the cause. Director of the First National Bank of Quincy for a long period, his wise counsels, founded on his accurate knowledge of the finances of that institution, made it a paying bank as long as he was in office. He was a stockholder in the Quincy Gas Works, the Newcomb Hotel Company, Quincy Savings Bank, Library Association, director of the Vandiver Corn Planter Company, which he helped to organize, and officially connected with many other business, improvement and charity organizations of the city.

Edward Wells did not fail to keep up close associations with his old New England home. He journeyed back to Newburyport in 1840, and again in 1848 and his third and fourth visits were made in the summers of 1856 and 1858. >From 1858 Edward Wells journeyed eastward every summer with the exception of two until his death in 1892, his party increasing to sixteen and eighteen as children were given to his married sons and daughters. The heated term was passed at some resort on the Massachusetts or New Hampshire Coast, and the month of September in Boston, where his youngest sister had removed with her family in 1859; while some portion of the holiday was invariably spent in the birthtown of his mother, which was always regarded by her wandering son with affectionate interest. These annual returns to the sea were the only occasion of recreation in the life of a very busy man; for though he retired from active business when he was but little over fifty years old, his transactions in real estate and his interest in corporations and institutions called for ever increasing mental activity.

On May 16, 1892, Edward Wells suddenly passed away. On the day preceding, a Sunday, he attended church apparently in his usual health and spirits. The Quincy Whig said editorially at the time: “Mr. Wells was a man of fine presence, kindly manners, and so active and interested in the details of the world’s life that although he had nearly touched four score years he never impressed one as an old man. He was active in his church, the Unitarian, of which in this city he was a pioneer member, active in politics, attending even the primary meetings of his party, the republican, as regularly as when it came into existence, keenly alive to everything that affected the credit, the good name or the prosperity of the city in which he had lived so long, and maintaining his social interests to a degree that made him a congenial companion to young and old alike. He was a man of unblemished integrity, a prudent and sagacious advisor, a firm and faithful friend, and his life contact with men in these relations will make him widely missed, but nowhere will he be so sorely missed as in the home which was, after all, the chief object of his affection and devotion.”

March 19, 1835, at Quincy, Edward Wells married Mary Babson Evans. Her father, Capt. Robert Evans, was born near Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1784, had migrated from Boston to Adams County in 1835, and died at the home of Edward Wells in Quincy in 1866. As a youth he ran away from home to become a sailor and was a vessel master and captain of a privateer during the War of 1812 and had many strenuous adventures, ending with his capture and imprisonment at Dartmoor Prison in England to the close of the war. April 11, 1813, before making his final cruise, Captain Evans married Betsey Babson Haven, a widow. She was born at Gloucester, Massachusetts, and died at Quincy in 1855. The Babsons were among first settlers of Gloucester. Captain and Betsey Evans had four children, George, Mary B., James L. and Harriett. Mary was born at Gloucester March 3, 1819. After the War of 1812 Captain Evans was engaged in the West India trade for some years, and in 1835 joined the tide of emigration that brought him to the banks of the Mississippi. He first bought a farm near Bloomfield, twelve miles from Quincy, but was soon discouraged by the loneliness of the place and the homesickness of his family and removed to Quincy. Learning of the presence of a Massachusetts family in the locality, Edward Wells rode out to call at their country home. It was then he first saw young Mary Evans. She was barely sixteen, slender, fair, with waving masses of soft dark hair, a dimpled smile and a reticent manner. Captain Evans bought a house on the corner of Eighth and Hampshire streets in Quincy, and there Edward Wells and Mary Evans were married. After boarding for a time Mr. and Mrs. Wells had their first independent home in a small house near the corner of Sixth Street and Broadway. Several years later they moved to a substantial brick house at 408 Jersey Street and about 1860 moved to 421 Jersey Street, the home where he died.

His wife, Mary, survived him less than two years, passing away March 27, 1894. Her death also came suddenly, from heart disease. Of her the family biographer has written:

“Mary Wells was distinctively a home woman. To her immediate family and a narrow circle of relatives and friends she gave herself with devotion. She was interested in what was going on in the world and in her home nook informed herself of affairs and gave utterance to very decided opinions concerning them. Her charities, which were large, were dispensed without ostentation, as were those of her husband; and that she saw the woes and needs of humanity even more clearly than he did was evidenced by the fact that she frequently told him where to bestow his bounty. Too proud to disclose the need of sympathy, she hid personal loss and sorrow as well as personal gain and joy under a quiet exterior, giving the careless observer the impression that she lacked in sensibility. Only those who knew her best ever measured the depths of her feelings. She was shy of thanks, but took delight in seeing her gifts used and appreciated. She helped to build the structure of her husband’s prosperity by self denial and faithful administration of home affairs. One of the organizers of the Unitarian Church in Quincy, she was for nearly sixty years quietly active in maintaining its interests and extending its influence. Her creed, like that of her church, was to be sincere and do good.”

The children of Edward and Mary Wells were: Eliza Ann, born July 2, 1838, died April 29, 1839; Mary Eliza, born March 22, 1840, died September 20, 1854; Edward, born December 21, 1841, died, November 3, 1849; Harriet, born February 28, 1844, died April 14, 1846; George, born August 22, 1846, whose life record is told in other paragraphs; Frank, born March 28, 1849, for thirty years a prominent business man of Chicago; Ella, born November 10, 1852, married James Russell Smith, a leading figure in business and politics at Quincy for many years; and Kate, born June 22, 1857, who married William Russell Lockwood.

File contributed by:
Barbara Freeman October 1999

“Quincy and Adams County History and Representative Men” Volume II, Pages 735-740. Chicago and New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1919.