From the 1885 History of Steuben County, Indiana

pages 796-800



Jacob H. Van Auken, -- The strength of the live oak remains unknown till tested by storm and time; the tide, unmeasured till it beats against the rocks; the stars unseen till night brings them out; our guiltless Cromwells and inglorious Miltons may sleep in oblivion because they fail to


"Grasp the skirts of happy chance

And breast the blows of circumstance."


Thus may begin the written eulogy of the humblest as well as the greatest of men.  But he who bravely battles with his environments to attain a competence or distinction among men, though the exertion of his utmost powers may fail, his best efforts crowned with failure and defeat perch upon his banner; yet if he dies with the consciousness of having done his best, he has attained "the truest success to which man can aspire."

  Among the stingy hills of his native region, at a time when the ordinary comforts of life cost far more effort than now, Jacob H. Van Auken grew to manhood.  His father, an ex-soldier of the war of 1812, had traded his farm in Pike County, Penn., where our subject was born, Aug. 13, 1810, for a tract of coal land near Pittsburg which he refused to occupy.  At five years of age Jacob, the youngest of a large family of children, was thus homeless and face to face with poverty.  During the succeeding winters he attended the country schools of Sussex County, N. J., his feet clad in rags, later to be exchanged for leather shoes purchased with quails which he had entrapped.  The lad's perception and memory were bright and, accordingly, at sixteen he graduated from the college of the common people with the degree of master of the three R's, reading, 'righting and 'rithmetic.  Shortly thereafter we find him the leading schoolmaster of Peter's Valley, and studying also logarithms and surveying under a private tutor.  Among his pupils was Nancy Strawway, nearly five years his junior, to whom in March, 1831, he was married, a relationship which lasted nearly fifty years, to her death July 19, 1878.  Four years later, Oct. 6, 1882, he also died from the gradual bursting of the heart.  And now both have


"Passed within this silent tent

Whose curtain never outward swings."


  Among the mementoes of their early life, preserved by the family, is the copybook, the admiration of all, containing his work with the copies set by the master; also the Gunter's rule, Jacob-staff and compasss bought by him in New York with the first avails of his teaching, and bearing with him an interesting companionship through life.  Soon after their marriage they embarked for the then "far West," intending to settle in St. Joseph County, Mich., but owing to the Black Hawk war they were deterred from going there and stopped at Deerfield, Portage Co., Ohio, the slow and tiresome journey by way of the Erie Canal and lake occupying nineteen days.  To them were here born three children.  Several years were divided between the little farm and teaching the village school, among the patrons being Jesse Grant, the tanner, father of a son destined in the march of events to become illustrious.  Thence they moved to Orange (afterward Chagrin Falls) Cuyahoga County, and to them were there born twelve children.  In the autumn of 1860 they, with their family, came to Pleasant Lake, Steuben County, and purchased the homestead now known, by the arrangement of nineteen stately evergreens in nine straight rows which they planted, as Magic Grove Farm.  And here was born one son -- he and four of the daughters dying in childhood,


"As fades the flower beneath the frost,

Nipped in its early bloom."


  Rearing so large a family in increasing comfort, and always offering them the advantages of books and schools, three times in life beginning empty handed, yet always refusing any place of honor from his fellows - these circumstances render appropriate a word to the young whose interest may prompt them to follow these lines.  He possessed a will and energy that would not permit him to sit down in despair, together with courage and pluck to the verge of impulse - qualities which we admire even in an enemy.  Moreover he was a skilled artisan in one trade, broom-making, and thus while wrestling to maintain his family during their helpless years, the winter clouds, forboding privation and want, were ofttimes rifted with the sunshine of profitable industry.

  In 1840 he served his Government by surveying in the northern part of Michigan, a calling (bequeathed to several of his sons) which occupied a portion of his time and secured to him a large acquaintance during a residence of nearly thirty years in Ohio.  On one occasion his assistant was an uncouth but active boy whose manners and intelligence excited his interest.  He was the son of a poor widow living in the same neighborhood.  He counseled the youth to attend the select school of his friend, Dr. Harlowe.  Late in life he again visited his young friend, now a full man, and exchanged with him the old salutations of "Jake" and "Jim."  The latter urged him warmly to attend in his company an important event.  Jim, whose surname was Garfield, was about to assume "in Republican simplicity the mastership of the helm of State."

  In politics he was a firm believer and fearless advocate of the priciples which underlie our form of government, as taught by Thomas Jefferson.  And as his pathway led through the darkest valley of our national experience - the war between the States - and as in those times, fraught with peril, his position was misunderstood and misrepresented by men who assumed, without truth, to possess loftier patriotism for our popular institutions than he, some ray of light may properly be shed upon this meager picture of his life.  As in history, the war among the States of Greece blighted the flower of hope for Democratic freedom and inaugurated a rule of tyranny; and the internecine strife between the plebians and patricians of that ancient republic which had stood against the world led to the overthrow of Rome and the establishment of an empire on her ruins; so he believed that our social compact, a union of States based upon reciprocity and brotherly love, could not survive the shock and strain of a mightly civil war.  In this instance he was happily mistaken.  For a patiotic people, North and South, learned from that struggle to cherish the arts of peace above the arts of war.  And while advocating in the midst of unforeseen dangers, not peace on any other than honorable terms, he yet counseled his two sons to be true soldiers during the war and at its close promptly advocated full acquiescence in its logical results as well as a generous policy toward the veteran soldiers.

  His religious views, with which he lived and died, like his political opinions, may be illuminated by reference to Jefferson, in harmony with that wave of liberal thought that once wrought a moral revolution in France, "reached Germany and swept over the Netherlands," carrying with it many of the best minds in the infant republic destined to become, under the benign influence of untrammeled thought, like a tale of romance, the giant of the West.  He was not an agnostic, refusing to canvass what he conceived to be the unknowable because his faith in the power of argument to decide the warfare of opinion was supreme.  While rejecting with scorn all slavery of thought or fear and spurning with contempt what he believed to be the hand-forged shackles of human creed, yet embracing not the "sprinkle with perfume and cover with flowers that I may thus enter upon eternal sleep" of Mirabeau, but in common with the most of the race he entertained a belief that the "darkness" which fell from his dying lips was pierced by some star of hope.  He was reared a Presbyterian, to which church he belonged until he became convinced that the propositions on which the Christian religion is founded, to wit:  The immaculate conception, the wandering of a star, the trinity, the vicarious atonement, the doctine of endless punishment, the prophecies and miracles, are all contrary to the laws of nature, and consequently could not be true.  He believed that the Koran, the Veda Shasta, the Bible and all other books are the productions of man.  He believed in one God and that the God of Nature, and that the only revelation from him could come through her laws, and that he who studied and learned the most of these received the greater amount of revelation.  He closed his eyes in death in the arms of the son who bears his name with others of his children near him, the faculties of his mind unimpaired, believing, and satisfied with his belief, that if man uses his reason which the God of Nature has given him and acts honestly and conscientiously upon the conclusions thus arrived at, that certainly no harm can come to him in the future.  On Sunday morning following his death not less than a thousand persons attended the burial services in the grove at Pleasant Lake.  An obituary was read by the oldest son, C. E. Van Auken, after which J. H. Burnham, of Saginaw City, Mich., delivered a scholarly address, subject:  Our Relation to Nature.  Music by Freygang's Orchestra.  Seven sons and two daughters were present, six sons acting as pall-bearers, the other, with the daughters, sons' wives, grandchildren, and other relatives and friends following the remains to their final resting place in the city of the dead by the side of the mother whose steadfast character had tempered his prosperity and upheld him in adversity through life.

  He was an ardent student, a keen debator, and advocated his views with warmth and vehemence.  Denied in youth the equipment in science obtainable in our day of multiplied facilities, his love of study, and especially of mathematics in which he developed uncommon talent, never forsook him.  A salient point in his intellectual make-up not to be overlooked was his power of criticism.  His perception of the errors of style or logic in a discourse seemed intuitive.  An intelligent friend, A. V. Ball, with whom he was associated in business during some of the happiest and most prosperous years of his life, has said that in all his intercourse with men he never knew another so able to defend himself with his tongue.  His power of language and invective seemed as spontaneous as the well of feeling from which they sprung - his mental sword had two edges, reason on one side and sarcasm on the other.

  They who with filial affection pen this sketch, well knowing that the highest ornament of human discourse is its fidelity to truth, and while anxious to hold aloft his virtues as worthy of imitation, would yet acknowledge his faults or foibles whatever they may have been, and cover them over with the mantle of charity.  His generous impulses were such as to make him ever the willing friend of those in need, and sometimes, also, the victim of designing men.

  And now, speaking for the young, to him and all the mighty band of pioneers who, with no other than the magic wand of toil, have changed the vast and frowning forest into fruitful fields and happy homes, we bid you hail and farewell.


"Who are the nobles of the earth,

The true aristocrats,

Who need not bow their heads to lords,

Nor doff to kings their hats?


"They are the men of toil

Who cleave the forst down,

And plant amid the wilderness

The hamlet and the town."



Submitted by Kim Davoli