Screenshots of History: How Calumet County Historical Society Preserves Local History

Living in the United States, we learn about the Civil War starting at a very young age. But while learning about battles and wartime politics, it’s easy to forget that the events you’re learning about actually happened in the country you lived in. The Civil War is one of many historical events that are recorded at the Calumet County Historical Society. Stephen Nicholas, a Native American resident who fought during the Civil War, received a unique medal during the course of his service. Specific life stories make learning about the Civil War more impactful than chronological battle timelines read from history textbooks.

Stephen Nicholas’ Prisoner of War Medal

Who is Stephen Nicholas
One story recorded by the Calumet County Historical Society is that of Stephen Nicholas, one of the very first residents of Chilton—a town located in Calumet County. Nicholas was a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe—which was formed during the late eighteenth century when tribal groups of Stockbridge and Munsee combined during their forced westward migration. On September 1, 1861, he enlisted in the Army, joining the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. Like many other Native Americans in the Civil War, Nicholas worked as a scout.

External view of Calumet County Historical Society source

Stephen Nicholas' Prisoner of War Medal
During the Civil War, there were many different sentiments surrounding the participation of Native Americans. These mixed sentiments were only amplified by the fact that Native Americans served in the same regiments as white soldiers—opposed to the stark segregation of white and black soldiers across regiments. Despite public opinion, Stephen Nicholas was accepted and praised by fellow soldiers. On August 3, 1862, Stephen Nicholas and many soldiers from the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry were captured by Confederate Soldiers during a raid to free southern slaves. While imprisoned, Nicholas’ fellow soldiers made him a prisoner of war medal to honor him and his skill as a scout. The medal is brass, with a five-point star in the center surrounded by a circle. In the center of the star, a human eye is etched into the medal to symbolize Nicholas’ skills as a scout. This medal was featured in newspapers that recounted the bravery Nicholas demonstrated on this raid and on other military operations. After the war, Nicholas returned to Chilton, Wisconsin, and as a veteran, was a prominent community member. He died on November 19, 1901, and was laid to rest in Chilton, Wisconsin.

Stephen Nicholas wearing military ribbons. source

Preservation of Legacies
The story of Stephen Nicholas highlights many aspects of the Civil War that aren’t taught inside a classroom or in a textbook. This story, and many like it, are recorded in the Calumet County Historical Society archives which takes special care to record the local history of Calumet County. The story of Stephen Nicholas comes from current efforts by the Historical Society to record and showcase the stories of Civil War veterans who lived in Calumet County. However, for individuals who aren’t interested in the Civil War, Calumet County Historical Society has recorded information and histories about other local events from the establishment of Calumet County to today.

Stephen Nicholas’ Prisoner of War medal, awarded to him by his fellow soldiers during their imprisonment. source

Panoramic picture of the cases and exhibits in the Calumet County Historical Museum, which is closely related to the historical society. source

1840 11 August: Stephen Nicholas was born in Rhode Island.
1845 January 1845: Catherine and Moses Stanton—Stephen Nicholas’ adoptive parents—founded Chilton, WI

Stephen Nicholas moved to Chilton, Wisconsin
1861 12 April: The Civil War Began

01 September: Stephen Nicholas enlisted in the Army joining the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry.
1862 3 August: 1st Wisconsin Cavalry entered a raid that led to an encounter with Confederate Texas Rangers.
1901 19 November: Stephen Nicholas died in Calumet County, Wisconsin. He was buried in Calumet County where his gravestone remains to present day.
1951 The Calumet County Historical Society was founded by Dr. Royal Klofanda.
1967 The Calumet County Historical Museum was established.

Population: 7,895 (in Calumet County) but 335 (in Chilton, WI)

Common occupations: Farmers, farm laborer, laborer, servant, clergymen, baker, blacksmith, carpenter, shoemaker, and tailor.
Population: 48,971 (Calumet County) and 3,933 (Chilton City) and 1,143 (Chilton town)
Average life span: 81.4 years

Why did I choose this object?
I’m Savannah Houdeshell. I am currently a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying Anthropology with certificates in African Studies and History. I chose this object because of its proximity to military history which has always been really interesting to me, especially looking at military history in local contexts. Through my research, I learned a lot about Native American service in the Civil War and how it was viewed by white Americans.

Savannah Houdeshell

History 401 [Spring 2023]

Leslie A. Bellais