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A few years ago, I received a letter from Robert Morgan of Florida, who was working with others to locate burial sites for graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
According to Morgan, a soldier named William L.E. Morrison, although born in Missouri, was appointed to West Point from Illinois. He attained the rank of brevet second lieutenant in the infantry, and graduated with the class of 1828. Morrison resigned from the Army in 1830.
The letter also stated that Lt. Morrison was a civil engineer at Vandalia from 1830 until he died here in 1835 at the age of 25. Morgan wrote that he particularly wanted to know where Morrison was buried and whether his grave was marked.
Until receiving Morgan’s letter, I knew absolutely nothing about William L.E. Morrison. I began to research, and immediately found that, indeed, he had lived in Vandalia, and he married Anne Eliza Berry on March 17, 1835.
She was the daughter of Col. Elijah Conway Berry and his wife, Mildred Stapp, who moved from Kentucky to Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory, in 1816. Elijah Berry was co-editor, with Robert Blackwell, of the Illinois Intelligencer newspaper at Kaskaskia before taking the post as Illinois’ first Auditor of Public Accounts. When the capital moved to Vandalia, the Berry family moved with it.
Using the information that William died here, I next turned to estate records, hoping that he might have owned enough property to warrant having his estate probated. He did.
His wife, Anne, was administrator, with her brother, James E. Berry, on her bond for $3,000, dated Nov. 12, 1835. The exact date of William’s death was not given. A private sale was held of his effects, and included a set of mathematics instruments, and books on mathematics, mineralogy, engineering and chemistry.
Several people were paid from the estate, including Isaac Dement, an early innkeeper, for meals and boarding of the deceased’s horse from April 5 to April 22, 1835, including drinks at the bar. Jonathan Ward was paid for digging the grave and for planks, and Moses Phillips was paid $20 for one pine coffin.
These last two bills provided the proof that William was buried in a Vandalia cemetery.
Both Jonathan Ward, who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Vandalia, and Moses Phillips were Vandalia residents.
The only cemetery that was in use in 1835 was the Old State Burial Ground at Third and Edwards streets. The Berry family has a large family plot in the old cemetery, marked by a tall stone bearing the names of Col. Elijah Conway Berry, his wife, Mildred Stapp, and son, James Berry, recognized as one of Illinois’ earliest portrait painters.
The National Archives provided documentation that proved the military aspect of William’s life, through a page from the “Historical Register & Dictionary of the U.S. Army, 1789-1903,” by Francis B. Heitman. While it confirmed William’s military status, it increased my confusion by stating that he died on Oct. 29, 1834. This didn’t square with the probate records.
I had one more source that I could check that might answer the main question of William’s death date – the family Bible of Elijah and Mildred Berry, Anne’s parents, and a treasured artifact of the Vandalia Historical Society.
Not only did I learn from the handwritten pages of the old Bible that William died on Sept. 10, 1835, at 4 p.m., but also the date of his birth, May 28, 1810, the son of Robert and Eliza Morrison.
With all the research now complete, and the main questions answered, I had enough information to make an application for a veteran’s marker for William through Veteran Affairs Memorial Program Services.
Recently Dave Wodtka, Vandalia’s cemetery sexton, telephoned to tell me that the marker had arrived and to ask where it was to be placed.
After visiting the Old State Burial Ground and marking a site within the Berry family plot for the flat bronze marker, I contacted Dave to tell him that a place for the veteran’s stone had been marked.
What had begun as a simple request for information had turned into a four-year saga. It was a great feeling to see the marker and know that another veteran had received the recognition he deserved.