Ex-slave who died in Stillwater in 1913 finally gets a headstone

13September 2020

In 1913, a former slave named James Carter died in Stillwater, where he had settled after the Civil War.

Hundreds of people attended his funeral at Simonet Funeral Home. Downtown stores were closed. He was given a military salute. A who’s who of Stillwater served as his pallbearers.

Now, thanks to an intern at the Washington County Historical Society, Carter finally has a headstone to mark the spot in Fairview Cemetery where he is buried.

The headstone, put in place on Tuesday, would not have happened except for a research project Alix Cogan began last summer. Cogan, 22, is a history major at the University of St. Thomas.

“It’s really important, especially in this current political environment, for us to study not only Black history, but the history of all freed people to make sure their stories get told,” said Cogan, who lives in Stillwater.

Former slave James Carter (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

A painting of Carter, who served as the caretaker of the Company K Armory, hangs on the wall of the Warden’s House Museum in Stillwater.

“I noticed the portrait in the parlor, and I thought it was interesting,” she said. “They said they had some information about him, but didn’t have a comprehensive collection. I immediately knew that I wanted to do something on him, so they could have a complete history and be able to talk to visitors more about him.”

Cogan searched archives and newspaper accounts and learned that Carter was born in 1834 in Virginia. During the Civil War, he apparently wandered into a Union Army camp and later returned west with one of the Iron Brigade regiments from Wisconsin.

He ended up living with Oscar Comfort’s family. “Jim had been on the books as the personal servant of the bandmaster, who was single and had no use for a servant in civil life,” according to a letter Cogan found in the historical society’s achives. “So Oscar (Comfort) took him to his father’s farm, where he became part of the farm help.”

Cogan wrote about Carter in a piece for the Washington County Historical Society’s newsletter. “The Comfort family moved from Mineral Point, Wis., to Stillwater in about 1877,” she wrote. “Jim came along but soon moved out and on his own. The letter says that ‘Just where (Jim) did work, I don’t know, but I can give you an idea. Stillwater at that time boasted of 30 saloons. Each saloon had at least two cuspidors, some up to 8 or 10. Each had to be cleaned daily. The pay was good, the job easy, if not agreeable, and Jim was not fastidious. As to which saloon or saloons he worked for I can’t say. Suffice that there were always saloons which needed a porter who didn’t drink, and who showed up when he was needed.’ ”

Former slave James Carter settled in Stillwater after the Civil War. A new headstone marking his burial site in Fairview Cemetery was put in place on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

When Stillwater’s military unit, Company K, was organized in 1883, the old Presbyterian Church on Myrtle Street was purchased for the armory. “Jim was the logical choice for janitor,” the letter states. “He made many friends on that job.”

Carter was described as “short in stature and not heavily built. Previous to the time I first saw him he had damaged an ankle. This was never completely repaired, so he walked with a limp,” according to the letter. “Oldtimers told me that he used to march with the company in all parades before the accident.”

When he died, on Dec. 26, 1913, Carter was “so beloved by the community, he had one of the largest funerals in Stillwater up to that point,” said Brent Peterson, the society’s executive director.

The obituary news story, published in the Jan. 3, 1914, edition of the Stillwater Messenger, noted Carter’s efforts to live right and do the best he could prompted “a burial last Sunday that many men of more prominence will never receive.”

The receiving room at the Simonet Funeral Home “was filled, every chair being occupied and many standing,” according to the article. “A number of beautiful flowers were sent by old friends.”

A firing squad from Company K acted as escort and fired three volleys over the grave; a bugler played “Taps.”

Former slave James Carter (Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

After Cogan’s research was published, members of the society pushed to have a headstone placed at Carter’s grave site in the northwest section of Fairview Cemetery.

Fairview officials donated the headstone, and Twin City Monuments in St. Paul donated the engraving work, said Tracy Bachmeier, cemetery superintendent.

The stone was engraved on Monday, and Bachmeier and other employees at Fairview installed it on Tuesday. “It was just a gesture that we thought we had to do,” he said.

While digging the hole for the headstone, Bachmeier found pieces of what might have been a stone marking Carter’s grave. “I knew the site was there, but I didn’t know the stone was there until I started probing around,” he said.

However, there was not a stone marking the grave of Carter’s wife, Anna, whose name and dates also are on the new headstone, he said.

“It’s important to have a marker,” Bachmeier said. “When you walk through here, you see the history of many, many people. Fairview was founded in 1867. Everybody is important.”

The epitaph on the Carter headstone is a line from James Carter’s obituary: “Never had an evil thought nor did and evil deed” — yes, it has a major typographical error, “and” instead of “an.”

“That’s the way it appeared in the Stillwater Gazette,” Peterson explained. “I don’t deviate from quotes like that.”

Cogan said she is thrilled Carter is getting recognized — 107 years after his death.

“I am so appreciative to the people who were moved by my article to do something to recognize Carter and give him the headstone,” she said. “Now, he can continue to be loved by the people of Stillwater.”

The new headstone for James and Anna Carter. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

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