Search billions of records on

History of the Colton Family
in the United States

Joseph Lynn Colton
A Man + An Idea = Two Towns

Joseph Lynn Colton

Born March 24, 1840
Died December 22, 1896

  Ancestors of Joseph Lynn COLTON
  Surname List
  Index of Names

The trails from Jefferson County, New York to Ransom County, North Dakota to Polk County, Florida include a lot of total miles and numerous stops along the way but this is the route accomplished by Joseph Lynn Colton during the fifty-seven plus years of his life-span, including a war that unknowingly would influence much of his future life.

It all began when Lathrop and Rachel (Calkins) Colton brought Joseph Lynn Colton (#1509) into the world as their eighth child born into the seventh generation of descendants from the Quartermaster George Colton. The records for Antwerp, Jefferson County, NY give the birth date as 24 March, 1839; this from a town that even today remains a small farming community near the Fort Drum Military reservation in northern New York state.

Joseph grew up in Antwerp, NY but like so many others of this period, his life was sidetracked by the Civil War. He enlisted in Sept., 1861 in Co. D, 60th Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry and served as a Private with that unit for three years, two months, during which time he sustained wounds requiring hospitalization and recuperation before he was discharged in Oct., 1864.

It was during the time of his recovery that he met the woman who would later become his wife and partner for the rest of his life. Her name was Diana Robinson, daughter of Joshua Robinson of Lisbon Center, St. Lawrence County, NY. Diana was born 01 May 1842 and lived to be more than 61 years of age. At the time they met she was serving as a Field Nurse for the Union forces. They were married the 25 February 1863 in, of all places, Baltimore, MD. We are still trying to learn why they married in Baltimore when both of them were from upper New York State. So far we have no answer but our best guess is that it had something to do with the war, location and timing. Wars can do that - they still do!

Joseph returned to his hometown of Antwerp, now as a married man. Their first child, a daughter, Ida Jane Colton, was born 09 Jan 1864 in Russell, St. Lawrence Co., NY followed about 19 months later by a son, Leslie DeForest Colton, born 03 Oct 1865 also in Russell, NY.

In June of 1869 they moved to Keeseville, Essex Co., NY where Joseph dabbled in farming and engaged in the insurance business, remaining there until June 1873. During this time a third child was born on 22 Aug 1870, a daughter, Sarah Levisa in Keeseville, NY.


In June 1873 their next move was a giant step as they migrated west to Brainerd, Crow Wing Co., MN with all three of their children in tow. After a few months in this location they moved a little further northwest to Frazee, Becker Co., MN where they would make their home for the next five years. They also lived in Ottertail, Ottertail Co. MN (these three counties adjoin each other in the west central part of MN) at some time along the way. While living there, Joseph was elected Town Clerk and Justice of the Peace in early 1878.

Ever a restless man looking for something to better himself and family, Joseph Colton next headed for Fargo, ND in search of greater opportunities. In May 1878 he took with him his oldest daughter Ida, who was now 14 years of age, some provisions and utensils, including a walking plow, all loaded into a covered wagon, pulled by a team of oxen and hit the trail. In those years there weren’t many trails to “hit” and oxen were not the fastest means of transportation. At this point in history the Indians were no longer a problem and the wild west had tamed somewhat but the Dakota’s still contained some very rugged country for just a man and his young daughter to travel but they pressed onward toward Fargo.

Joseph Colton was a highly intelligent man and must have been personable as well. After arriving in Fargo, ND he became acquainted with a Major A. W. Edwards, editor and publisher of the “Fargo Republican” who suggested to Joseph there might be a good possibility to establish a town somewhere along the proposed route of the Fargo Southwestern branch of the Northern Pacific Railroad which then was being contemplated.

This appealed to Joseph Colton very much, in fact it was exactly the sort of thing he had in mind and was looking for!

He reasoned rightly that the ideal place for a town to be built was where a railroad was most likely to cross a river and he needed only to look at a map to see that the railroad would have to cross the Sheyenne River somewhere in the vicinity of where the city of Lisbon, ND is now located, although the railroad had only made a preliminary survey and had not selected the exact crossing point.

Colton lost no time in getting started! He hitched his oxen to the covered wagon and, with daughter Ida Jane, headed southwest down the trail toward Bonnersville City, ND (this city no longer exists). His purpose was to try and find the right place on the Sheyenne River and claim the land. In 1878 there were very few trails leading away from Fargo to the southwest but they did find the one that led to Bonnersville, a tiny community on the Peter Bonner farm along the Sheyenne River, about three and a half miles east of the present day Anselm Bridge. It had a post office and mail was carried back and forth between Bonnersville and Fargo.

Joseph and Ida arrived in Bonnersville about sundown, probably on the second day out of Fargo. It was a good 55 miles from Fargo by section line and as we know, oxen do not travel very fast.

At Bonnersville Joseph Colton found an old friend and former neighbor from back in Minnesota, a man named Edward Post. Post told Colton of a beautiful broad valley on the Sheyenne River some 18 miles to the southwest, a good place to start a town. But, Post also told Colton there was a young man at Bonnersville that very night, who planned to go over to that spot the first thing the next morning and stake out his claim.

The story goes that Colton immediately hitched up the oxen again and found his way thru darkness to what is now Lisbon that same night. When the young man arrived from Bonnersville about midmorning the next day he found Joseph Colton plowing with his oxen and the walking plow on what today is theBissell Golf Course, thus giving him a slight edge in claiming the land! It is said that the young man, realizing that he had lost, went on up the river and into “historical oblivion.”

The next move was to return to Frazee, MN with his daughter, proceed to wind up all his business affairs and by September he returned to his claim, this time with his entire family as well as his sister, Elizabeth, her husband, George Murray and their three children.

Upon arriving at their new claim they proceeded to dig a cave just north of the river and covered it over with tree branches and sod. All ten people lived in this cave for about the next month!

George Murray took claim to the land just south of what is now the town of Lisbon’s present city limits. The Colton’s then built a log house which is believed to have stood near what is now North Oak Street, a little south of the river. The lumber for the roof, shingles, doors, windows and finishing lumber had to be shipped from Frazee, MN to Fargo, ND, and from there Joseph had to haul it to Lisbon with his wagon and oxen. A man by the name of E. A. Webb, who later established the Webb Publishing Co. of St. Paul, MN, sketched the Colton log house in the spring of 1880 and a painting of that sketch now hangs in the Ransom County Courthouse in Lisbon, ND.

Sketch of Colton House

Colton did not file a claim on the land until 18 May 1880, having only “squatted” on the land, but once he did file a claim he immediately began plating the town of Lisbon, taking for its name a part of his wife’s hometown of Lisbon Center, NY. The Coltons did not take a quarter of land to homestead; they took 120 acres in the southeast quarter and another 40 acres in the northeast quarter.

The Colton’s were not the first to obtain land in what is now Lisbon, ND. On 15 Sep 1876, Chester Davis had purchased forty acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad, which lies to the west side of Lisbon. Davis purchased another one hundred and twenty acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad on 26 June 1877, which lies just south of the forty acres he had purchased in 1876. He then had what is called a “long quarter.” There is no record that Davis ever lived on any of his land.

The second owner of land at Lisbon was Henry Cramer who purchased the southwest quarter from the U.S. government on 12 Apr 1880, a little over a month before Colton got around to filing on his homestead.

It is not known why Colton did not file claim to his homestead sooner; perhaps he was waiting until he was certain the railroad would cross the Sheyenne River near his land before using up his one and only chance to homestead land from the U.S. government. Once the word was spread that Colton intended to start a town, others began acquiring land around the Colton homestead. This brought on John R. Marsh and Joseph C. Holt in 1880 and then the Griggs, Fosters and William K. Smith (Lisbon’s first attorney) in 1881.

Map of Lisbon ca 1881
Small map of Lisbon ca 1881
Click to Enlarge

In August 1881 Joshua Robinson, Colton’s father-in-law, purchased 160 acres of land adjoining his. Colton was the only person to homestead land; all the others acquired their land by purchase. After filing his homestead, Colton began purchasing land from the original owners, buying property from Davis, Marsh, and Holt. On 25 Sep 1880 Joseph Colton filed his plat of Lisbon, after working on it since June. By the time the plat was filed the new community had already begun to take shape. John Kinan built the Pioneer store and A. H. Moore and Peter Benson had built a grocery and dry goods store. Early that year Lisbon had gotten its first mail service when J. E. Murray began making three trips to Bonnersville each week. Joseph

Colton was appointed Lisbon’s first Postmaster, although his wife Diana did most of the work and the Post Office was in the Colton home.

Star route mail service started in May 1880 and Henry Cramer got the job of making trips to Tower City, 33 miles to the north of Lisbon. His line of stakes marking the trail became the route for a lot of the freight and immigration traffic that was to come before the railroad would reach Lisbon in late 1882. In late 1880, James S. Cole opened the first hardware store, the third store to be built in Lisbon, ND.

Meanwhile, Colton had been active on several projects. He wanted Ransom County to organize and to have Lisbon named the County seat and he wanted the Northern Pacific Railroad to build its Fargo Southwestern branch through Lisbon. However, both Fort Ransom and Bonnersville were seeking to gain the County seat also and the two proposed sites for crossing the Sheyeene River were miles from Lisbon.

It began to look more and more like the railroad would not cross the river at Lisbon. A Joseph Brunton, who had worked as a fireman on the Northern Pacific Railroad, quit his job and filed on a homestead about six miles northwest of the Colton’s in 1879. Brunton believed that the railroad would cross the Sheyenne at that point and it probably would have had it not been for the strenuous efforts of Joseph Colton. One need only look at a map of southeastern ND to see that the railroad had to bend eastwards about 6 miles off its course and back again in order to go thru Lisbon.

Colton had already put a lot into the town of Lisbon and he must have been more than a little worried, so he went to see his old friend, Major Edwards in Fargo. The Major took him to see a Major Charles W. Buttz, an attorney who was an old friend of Territorial Governor Nehemiah G. Ordway. Colton formed an association with Buttz that was to prove as controversial as it was productive. They made an agreement on 05 Feb 1881 which was quite simple. Buttz was to use his influence to get the Northern Pacific Railroad to build its branch thru Lisbon. Furthermore, he was to get Governor Ordway to formally constitute Ransom County and to designate Lisbon as the County seat. In return, Colton was to deed 60 acres of his best lots in Lisbon to Buttz and a contract was made to that effect.

Buttz got results within 60 days. On 07 Mar 1881, Governor Ordway appointed three County Commissioners, recommended by Joseph Colton. They were Frank Probert, Gilbert Hanson and the Rev. George Henry Colton. The new Board met for the first time on 04 Apr 1881 and chose Probert as their chairman. The next day they designated Lisbon as the County seat. Joseph Colton was designated as Register of Deeds. As legal council for the Board of Commissioners, they chose Colton’s associate in the land business, Joseph L. Rogers.

Joseph Lynn Colton Family

Click to Enlarge

It should also be noted that there were other Coltons who found their way to settle in Lisbon, ND. Rev. George Henry and Kate (Baker) Colton (#2473), a cousin of Joseph Lynn Colton, also migrated from Russell, NY and they had a set of twins, Kate and Ruth Colton, 05 May 1895 but he lost his wife who died in their birth. Another cousin, Adelbert Sylvester and Asenath (Town) Colton (#2460), also formerly of Russell, NY, had at least four of their six children born in Lisbon: Grace Lepearl Colton, 30 Nov 1883; Ernest Milton Colton, 18 Feb 1886; Stanley Sansom Colton, 27 Feb 1892; and Alice Vanorva Colton, 28 Dec 1894. Finally, yet another cousin, Melvin Alander and Eurilla (Stockwell) Colton (#2459), also came from Russell, NY and three of their four children were born in Lisbon, ND: Earl Dudley Colton, 06 May 1888; Roland Fenimore Colton, 10 Feb 1891; and William G. Colton, 06 Dec 1893. This increased the population of Lisbon by at least 18 additional Coltons!

The Fargo Republican of Fargo was made the official newspaper of Ransom County until such time as a paper could be established in the County. On 14 Apr 1881 the Board met again and appointed the “Lisbon Star” their official newspaper although Herbert S. Harcourt, the editor and publisher, had just arrived in Lisbon and it wouldn’t be until 02 June 1881 before the first issue rolled off the press. At this same County Board meeting, the fee for the sale of intoxicating liquor to be sold was fixed at $50 but by the time the first licence was issued to Cyrus B. Nichols on 17 May 1881 the fee had been raised to $200.

On 16 Apr 1881 the Board instructed Joseph Colton to use whatever means necessary to obtain the County books, which were for some reason being held by Richland County which had administrative jurisdiction over Ransom County for several years. At this same meeting, the board authorized construction of the first bridge over the Sheyenne river at the north end of Lisbon’s main street.

Colton was appointed the postmaster and construction of a new Post Office building in Lisbon was started. By May 1881, the Lisbon school district was organized with Joseph Colton named as chairman of the school board. The school board’s first action was to rent a room and hire a teacher for three months. A two percent tax levy was set to establish and maintain the school. John Holman was the first teacher.

It was probably at this point that Joseph Colton reached the zenith of his career as the “father of Lisbon, ND.” His influence began to wane as a result of a series of incidents that followed. He was a strong-willed man and showed a tendency to run things his own way. He was the first to come to Lisbon, founded the town, and perhaps it seemed natural to him that he had some innate rights and privileges. Others didn’t see it that way.

Colton’s legal and personal differences with early day Lisbonites were reported by the newly founded Lisbon Star in a colorful, carefree way that flaunted a complete indifference to the libel laws. In the first few issues of the Lisbon Star, editor Harcourt had words of praise and respect for Joseph Colton, but in the 22 Sep 1881 issue, Harcourt began attacking Colton, criticizing both his personality and his personal life as well as his public affairs, with subsequent issues of the newspaper continuing in the same manner.

It was difficult for Colton, unlettered as he was, to come out ahead against a man like Harcourt who was well educated and who had his newspaper as his public mouthpiece, which he used to good advantage in continued feuding with Colton and his friends, whom he referred to as “The Colton Ring.” In the 17 Nov 1881 issue of the Star, Harcourt took great undisguised pleasure in announcing that Colton had been removed as the Lisbon Postmaster.

Joseph Colton had other troubles. James E. Wisner had planned to build a flour mill in Lisbon and Colton had assured him the Sheyenne River had enough drop to make the mill of the size Wisner wanted to build was feasible so Wisner went ahead with his plans. Later, after having spent several thousands of dollars on the project, Wisner determined that indeed the river did not have enough drop and started a suit against Colton for $5,000 in damages, claiming Colton had misrepresented to him.

Early in December 1881, Buttz got an injunction against Colton to prevent him from selling any lots in Lisbon until another matter was cleared up. Buttz had fulfilled his part of the contract with Colton to influence Governor Ordway to formally constitute Ransom County and had gotten Lisbon designated as the County seat. Most importantly Buttz had made an agreement with the Fargo and Southwestern Railroad Co. to build the railroad thru the town of Lisbon. In consideration Buttz was to give the railroad company 40 acres of the 60 acres he was to receive from Colton as part of the contract.

By the summer of 1881 the railroad had built to a point a few miles southwest of Sheldon, ND and the route through Lisbon southwest toward the James River was being surveyed. It is not known why Colton turned against Buttz, but the fact remains that Buttz became fearful that Colton was going to repudiate the contract they had originally made. On 12 Dec 1881, Buttz started a “lis pendens” action against Colton in the Cass County District Court, the object of which was to determine Buttz’ interest in the Lisbon lots and to compel Colton to execute a deed to Buttz for as many lots as the court found him entitled to.

Buttz carried on court battles with Colton over those lots for more than 11 years, long after Colton had left Lisbon. He even took his case as far as the North Dakota Supreme Court but he never won the case. It seems he lost his case on a technicality; the contract with Colton had never been notarized!

On 31 Dec 1881 Colton made an agreement with the Fargo and Southwestern Railroad Company to give the company the 60 acres of Lisbon lots, the very same lots he had offered Buttz if the railroad built thru Lisbon. The railroad readily accepted his offer!

If ever a town was the product of any one man, Lisbon qualified for the honor. Although he was defeated for the only elected city office he ever sought, that of Mayor, and although he lived in Lisbon only a few months after it officially became a town, Colton was on all counts the “father of Lisbon.” He should have had the gratitude of all the people of Lisbon, but his popularity diminished and in the first County election on 07 Nov 1882, none of Colton’s associates were returned to office. The town of Lisbon obtained its city charter 19 Mar 1883, and in the first city elections on 07 May 1883 Colton ran for Mayor and lost to G. B. Green. Colton had accomplished what he set out to do; he had established a town, but the control of the town had slipped out of his hands and aside from that, he had been in Lisbon for over five years - it was time to move on again.

Not long after, perhaps weary of the conflicts, of the court battles, the badgering by the newspaper and a loss of influence, Joseph Colton left Lisbon and moved to the northwestern part of the state of ND. With his family and son-in-law James Johnson, they settled at the junction of the Des Lacs and Souris rivers in what is now Ward Co., ND. They arrived in the Spring of 1883 and as they passed among the hills they noticed coal cropping out of the hillside. They stopped their team and dug some of the coal and took it with them. They camped that night by the Des Lacs river and the coal that had been dug was used on their campfire. The coal was still hot the next morning.

James Johnson Family

The Johnsons: Carrie, Rollie, Effie, Harvey, Grace, George
Jim, Lyle, and Ida (Colton) (photo not dated - George was born in 1896)

There they established the town of Burlington, ND. Colton had guessed that the Great Northern Railroad would cross the river at that point, but instead it crossed a few miles down river at what is now the town of Minot, ND.

Joseph Colton started the first coal mine right where the coal was cropping out. This was in the fall of 1884. As there were only about five settlers near there it didn’t amount to much but by 1886 more settlers arrived and the demand for coal was growing. As more people came into the area Colton had a man staying at the mine full-time. He would dig coal and leave it in the mine until customers came, then with a wheelbarrow running on planks he would bring it out. One ton was about the limit for any customer as wood was still plentiful and free.

Colton went on to establish the first general store, hotel and post office in what was then known as Stevens County later to become Ward Co., ND. He was Ward County’s delegate to North Dakota’s constitutional convention in Bismarck, ND in 1889, serving as chairman of the committees on Revenue and of Railroads. Later he would serve as a member of the ND legislature. He also took up coal mining, in which he continued to dabble until 1894, his being the first mine ever in northwestern ND.

His last known visit to Lisbon was reported in the 19 Aug 1894 issue of the Lisbon Free Press.

Followed by some family members Joseph Colton made his last move and “hit the trail” to central Florida in 1894, purchasing a 280-acre fruit farm in Bartow, Polk Co., FL and with his son, Leslie Deforest Colton (#2485) they engaged in truck farming and raising oranges. This is where his journeys came to the end of the trail for Joseph Colton and where he died 22 Dec 1896. His widow, Diana, continued to live in Burlington, Ward Co., ND, where she died 06 Aug 1903 at 61 years of age. Whether they had separated or if she was waiting for Joseph to have her join him in Florida is not known. It is possible she might have been living with relatives after becoming a widow.

So ends another story of how our ancestors created a future for us to enjoy!

Table of Contents | Surnames | Name List

Copyright ©Ed Colton 2004-2005