The First Residents

 

Despite all the financial dealings and property exchanges, the land itself remained essentially unchanged throughout these years. Until the mid-1840s, Paul Grignon's White Heron was the only building for miles around. Everything was forest then, thick with oaks and maples and elms, looking much as it had for thousands of years. Small ravines cries-crossed the area, some with tiny, trickling streams, others overgrown with brush. The river was still clean and fresh, and the power of the rapids -- the grand chute -- still unharnessed. It was a new land, open and empty, But it wasn't to remain that way for long. The Wisconsin Territory was organized by Congress in 1836, and settlers soon began pouring in.

The first farmer to settle in what is now the city of Appleton was Bela Murch. Originally from Essex County, New York, Murch had traveled throughout the Midwest for many years, working as a teacher and carpenter. He spent some time in Cleveland, Ohio, where he met and married Sarah Boynton. Two days after their marriage in June, 1846, Bela and Sarah set off for the Wisconsin Territory with dreams of starting their own farm. Less than a month later, they had selected a plot of land near what is now Prospect Avenue on the Western edge of Appleton. The couple registered their claim at the land office in Green Bay and then passed the summer in Wrightstown as they prepared for their move in the fall.

On November 6, 1846, hauling a small load of boards, some bedding, and one week's worth of provisions, Bela Murch set out for his new home. Three days later, Sarah followed with a wagonload of household supplies. The trip was a difficult one, for the trail was narrow and rough. At one point, the wagon got stuck in a ravine and Sarah had to walk ahead to get her husband's help. That night, Bela and Sarah slept in a lean-to, open on one side. They maintained a fire all night, both for warmth and protection from the wolves that still roamed the area. That weekend, with the help of a neighbor from Winnebago County, they constructed a small shanty. "At sundown," Sarah recalled many years later, "the roof was on, the floor down, a pig pen built, and a stove up, so we got tea by it." It was "Saturday night and we were in our own house, on our own land, and though we had neither chair, table, nor bedstead, we were comfortable and happy."

The rest of their possessions arrived from Wrightstown two days later, and by eight o'clock that Monday evening, Bela and Sarah Murch opened their home as a boarding house for travelers. In the first few weeks, they always had between one and five boarders, as well as additional customers who stopped for a meal or a night's lodging. The most frequent request of the travelers was for directions to the road, directions they could not provide because there was none. The closest thing was an old Indian trail that ran along the river.