FIND LOST GRAVE – This group of St. Johns, Ionia and Bengal people, gathered on Sunday, May 3, 1931 on the Fred Mohnke farm in Bengal Township. George Swagart, then 86, in the center, is pointing to the spot where Riley Dexter, 2-year-old son of Judge Samuel Dexter, founder of Ionia, was buried in May of 1833. From left to right: Robert Padgett, Patrick Gallagher, Tyler Hill, Lyle Padgett, Verne Padgett, John Gallagher, Editor Fred D. Kiester (Iona County News), George Swagart, E.G. Hulse, Fred Mohnke, Mrs. L. P. Brock, Robert Irrer, Mrs. Kiester and Herman Mohnke.

First White Child Buried in Clinton

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reprinted below is an account of the burial on Bengal township 123 years ago of Riley Dexter, the two-year-old son of Judge Samuel Dexter, who established the famed Dexter trail from DeWitt to Ionia and was leader of the colony that were first settlers in Ionia.  The story was published in The Republican-News of May 7, 1931.  Riley Township was named for Dexter child.

George Swagart, bowed under the weight of 86 years, but with a memory clearly recording the scenes of his boyhood of 70 years ago, pointed out with his cane, to a group of Ionia, St. John and Bengal residents, Sunday morning the last resting place of Riley Dexter, a grave made 98 years ago.

This incident took place on the farm of Fred Mohnke in South Bengal.  It was at this in 1833 that a band of colonists who settled Ionia stopped, half-starved, nearly exhausted and discouraged, and buried little Riley Dexter, one of the children of Judge Dexter. 

B. O. Williams of Shiawassee and the young Indian, Mackatepenace (Blackbird), son of the Saginaw chief, who were guiding the party across the uncharted area, stood in the background while the grief-stricken Dexter lifted his face to heaven in the gathering gloom and prayed to God to care for the soul of his little son.

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Two Years hence, in 1933 the city of Ionia plans a Centennial.  Mrs. L. P. Brock of that city, a local historian, headed the Ionia party, consisting of Editor and Mrs. Fred Kiester, who came to St. Johns Sunday morning for the express purpose of locating the gave of the Dexter child.

Mr. Swagart is the only living person who remembers its location.  When a boy he worked on this farm which was a part of the section of land owned by Judge Courtland Hill, one of the first settlers in Bengal.  “They used to keep a fence around the spot,” said Mr. Swagart.  “I remember it well – right here by the bank of the creek and just off the road which those pioneers cut through the woods.”

The Story of the trip of Judge Dexter and his colony is one of the most interesting of this section.  Mr. Williams, who guided them to the Indian village on the Looking Glass and who enlisted the services of the Indian, Mackatepenace, left the following account of the trip and burial of the Dexter child:

“Having in vain tried to get Beauben to pilot them, Messrs. Dexter, Yeomans and Wisnor came to us for help.  I left our planting, taking my blankets and a small tent, and in six days landed them at Ionia, looking out the route and directing where the road was to be.  (The road was cut through heavy timber.)

“This was the first real colonizing party we had ever seen, myself never having been further west than DeWitt (the Indian village).  I there inducted Mackatepenace (Blackbird) son of Kishkako, the chief of all the Saginaws, to pilot us past Muskrat creek, and from there I proceeded with the party.  At that point a child of Mr. and Mrs. Dexter, a son of two years, died of scarlet fever.”

WE BURIED the child by torch and candlelight in a box improvised by the party.  The road we opened was next year followed by other immigrants and was substantially the Grand River road through Shiawassee and Clinton counties, and was traveled for many years after.”

Harriet, a daughter of Joel Guild, head of one of the families in the Dexter party, was 20 years of age at the time of this pilgrimage,  In a history of Grand Rapids where she later lived, this lady left an even more graphic account of the sickness, death and burial of the child:

“It was raining when we reached the Looking Glass river and that night the boy was so sick that we sat up all night holding umbrellas over him………..

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THE NEXT DAY we soon entered a heavy timbered land (Riley Township).  That night the boy grew worse and his mother and I sat up nearly all night with him.”

“Our provisions were nearly gone and we could not stop, but about noon Mrs. Dexter called a halt, noticing a change in the child…….a few minutes the little sufferer was dead.  We could not tarry but we went sadly on and camped early.  My mother furnished a small trunk used for carrying food and dishes, which served for a coffin.  By Muskrat creek as the sun was going down, the little one was buried.

A LARGE ELM by the grave was marked.  Logs were put over the mound and fastened there to protect it from wolves that were plenty in that vicinity.  The only service over the grave was a prayer by Mr. Dexter.  The other seemed broken-hearted and all were grieved but we could not tarry there.”

“We had reached the point where we had to use meal father bought at Pontiac for the horses.  We let the horses pick their living as best they could from grass and twigs along the way.  (These colonists had with them some 20 cows.)  We made log heap fires, filled a large brass kettle with water, placed it on the fire, stirred in the meal and made hasty pudding.  This, with the milk for the cows, was our only food.”

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STARTING    just a few rods southeast of the point where Mr. Swagart located the grave is the beginning of an angling road, which continues several miles in a northwesterly direction.  It is now a highway but was the original Dexter road cut through the timber by Judge Dexter and his party of colonists.  The road passes about two miles south of the village of Fowler and is now a good gravel road.

Another account of the scene at the burial of the Dexter child by one of the party reads, “Never shall I forget that scene!  The whole family, if not all others, were in tears.  The gray-haired sire (he was 46 years of age) after visiting the heads of other families to lead the exercises of the mournful occasion, with tears streaming down his cheeks, read a burial service amid the sobs that nearly drowned his voice in that deep, dark and gloomy forest – the gloomiest spot of the whole route.  The grave was made and can still be seen on the farm of Judge Hill on the bank of Muskrat creek.”  (Judge Courtland Hill was the grandfather of Tyler Hill and was at one time probate judge of Clinton County.)

An interesting sidelight of the Dexter colony lies in the fact that the child, Riley Dexter, was a first cousin of Mrs. William Jennings Bryan, Mrs. Bryan being the daughter of Judge Dexter’s brother.  The grandmother of both, Judge Dexter’s mother, was a member of the colony which crossed Clinton on their way to Ionia in May 1833.