|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.|
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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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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.)