In 1854, Sturgeon Bay was still in its infancy—in fact, it hadn’t yet acquired an official name. The new community counted among its residents Native Americans, early business opportunists and rough characters from various parts of the world hoping to eke out an existence on its unspoiled land. Wild, old-growth forests populated much of its shoreline, which attracted early entrepreneurs of the lumber industry, such as Robert Graham, who helped shape Sturgeon Bay’s early history.

Robert’s older brother Oliver Perry Graham, who in 1849 staked the first official claim in Sturgeon Bay, settled in with his family when there were just a handful of other residents—mostly bachelors—in the area. By the time his brother Robert and Robert’s wife Josephine arrived in Sturgeon Bay in 1854, there were a few more families, but the majority of the community’s 200 residents were single men working in the community’s two lumber mills.

While Oliver Perry and his family eventually moved further north to Egg Harbor, Robert and Josephine and their eight children sunk down deep roots in Sturgeon Bay and forever became part of the fabric of the community.

Josephine Graham, née Mouton, was born in Cuba in 1828 to parents who were originally from South Carolina. By the 1840s, Josephine’s family had returned to the United States, and she eventually settled on Rock Island, Door County’s northern-most island. At that time, Rock Island was a thriving community, teeming with fishermen, including the Graham brothers, who were Ohio natives of Scottish descent.

While it is not clear what brought Josephine to this remote island in Lake Michigan, we do know that Josephine and Robert were married there in 1846, and soon after started a family. By the time they moved to the peninsula almost a decade later, Josephine had already given birth to the first five of their eight children: Hugh, Eli, William, Robert and Josephine.

Shortly after relocating his family to the shores of what is now Sturgeon Bay, Robert established himself as one of the leaders of the community. He recorded the first plat of Sturgeon Bay in 1855—which was briefly called the Village of Graham in his honor—and joined the burgeoning timber industry by building his own lumber mill—Sturgeon Bay’s third, known as the Lower Mill—on the shorefront which was located just north of the present day Graham Park.

Unfortunately, the lumber industry was hit hard by the financial panic of 1857 and all the lumber mills—including the Graham mill—went out of business around that time. Unlike many others associated with the mills, the Grahams did not pick up and leave when the lumbering business failed. Instead, Robert focused on his other endeavors of storekeeper, postmaster and fisherman. During the ensuing years he wore a variety of hats within the community—justice of the peace, town clerk, school district clerk, real estate agent, shipbuilder and captain of his family’s fishing and shipping business.

While living in Sturgeon Bay, Robert and Josephine added three more children to their brood: Joseph, Lucy and Charles. By all accounts, the family was close and worked many of the businesses together. Sons Robert and Eli were early mail carriers when they were as young as 11 and 12 years old, riding mules 50 miles through the woods to pick up and deliver the mail to Green Bay. Sons Hugh, Eli and Joseph all worked in the family fishing business.

Like many pioneers, their family was not untouched by tragedy. By the time of Josephine’s death from tuberculosis in 1883 at the age of 55, she had already outlived four of her eight children. Youngest son Charlie drowned in the bay in 1870 at the age of 9, as the result of a boating accident, and oldest son Hugh died in 1878 at the age of 30 from complications following surgery. Two of her children succumbed to the same disease as Josephine—son Joseph died in 1880 at the age of 22 and daughter Lucy in 1883 (just a month before her mother) at the age of 24, both from tuberculosis.

Another daughter, Josephine, would also die from tuberculosis in 1889 at the age of 36, just seven months after giving birth to her third child. Both daughters, Lucy and Josephine, had taken turns nursing their sick mother, so they likely contracted the disease from her.

Most likely it was Robert himself who unwittingly brought home the illness that would eventually take such a heavy toll on his family. When he died in 1873 at the age of 49, his obituary in the Door County Advocate described how Robert contracted the disease in 1860 when the lure of Pike’s Peak Gold Rush drew him to Colorado where, “he was attacked with a fever, from the effects of which he never fully recovered, which undoubtedly hastened his death.”

There is little doubt that Robert and Josephine left their mark on the community that they helped create. Although Josephine’s obituary is sparse—as is typical for women during this era—Robert’s is full of detail, describing him as “an energetic business man—never idle; of good business habits, strict integrity,” and “universally respected by his friends and neighbors.” Robert Graham’s strong pioneer spirit, many business endeavors and community leadership helped found the city of Sturgeon Bay.

And his wife Josephine—equally strong in pioneer spirit—was beside him every step of the way.

Sources: Door County Advocate archives; History of Door County, Wisconsin: The County

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