May 3, 2021

Pages 5038-5040
Whole Number 183

June 3, 1860

In the Quarterly of March 1997, Whole No. 177, appeared an article entitled "Additional Descendants of Walter and Susan M. (Prewett) Sparks, Through Their Sons: Walter K. Sparks (1815-1872), Richard W. Sparks (ca.1816-1883), and William Sparks (ca.1818-ca.1890)." In that article (page 4763), we noted that one of the thirteen children of Walter K. Sparks and his wife, Mary Jane McCoskey, was Christopher C. Sparks, born August 3, 1838, died June 3, 1860. While his birth and death dates, like those of his parents and siblings, had appeared in The Pound and Kester Families compiled by John E. Hunt and published in 1904, we had no knowledge of the cause of young Sparks's death. We now know that his full name had been Christopher Columbus Sparks and that he was a casualty of a tornado that swept through Linn County, Iowa, not far from the town of Mt. Vernon, on the evening of June 3, 1860.

Christopher Columbus Sparks had been born in Vigo County, Indiana, where his parents had been married on October 26, 1837. His father, Walter K. Sparks , had been born on December 19, 1815, probably in Henry County, Kentucky, and was a son of Walter and Susan (Prewett) Sparks. (See the Quarterly of September and December 1994, Whole Nos. 167 and 168, and March 1983, Whole No. 121, for further information on this branch of the Sparks family.) Mary Jane McCoskey had been born in Vigo County, Indiana, on June 15, 1821; she was a daughter of Thomas and Ruth (Kester) McCoskey (sometimes spelled McCaskey).

Apparently Walter K. Sparks was in the process of moving his family from Vigo County, Indiana, to Linn County, Iowa, in 1860; in neither county was he and his family listed on the 1860 census. The enumerators, called "Assistant Marshals," for the 1860 census of the United States, were instructed to record families as they had existed on June 1, 1860. It is possible that this Sparks family arrived in Linn County, Iowa, just after June 1, 1860, but we know that the son named Christopher Columbus Sparks was there, and that he was killed when the tornado struck on June 3, 1860. It appears that he was called by his middle name, Columbus.

The Mt. Vernon News, a weekly newspaper, issued an "extra edition" following the storm, and this account was reprinted in the Davenport [Iowa] Weekly Democrat and News of June 7, 1860. This latter paper is preserved at the Library of Congress, and the following account has been copied from that:

About six o'clock Sunday evening the tornado was seen approaching some six miles distance. It had the appearance of a large black shaft or column shaped like an upright hour-glass extending from a tremendous threatening cloud, which for some time had been hanging over the west, to the ground. Hundreds watched it as it swept on its course seemingly bearing directly toward Mt. Vernon. It was attended with a heavy roar as of a hundred trains of cars. Branches of trees could be seen in the air, while its changing form, and the flakes of clouds from its sides, showed its swirl- ing motion.

When about two miles from Mt. Vernon, and while people were seeking safety in cellars, or, as in some cases, running wildly about the streets, it veered on its course and swept by in full sight-sublime but fearful.

Hardly had it passed, ere a half-dressed man, bleeding from the wounds upon his head, reeling upon his horse, rode furiously into town calling for help. Talking incoherently, he reported persons killed and others injured at a little village, or hamlet, U miles west, known as St. Marys.

In a few minutes, hundreds were on their way there, including Drs. Carhart, Belden, Gordon, and Carson. The wild scene of desolation they found beggars description.

On every side the dead and dying were scattered with ghastly wounds upon every part of their persons. The wounded were quickly removed to comfortable quarters and physicians and nurses set at Work dressing their wounds. Houses and barns felled in the way of the storm demon were all mashed to atoms, and every living thing killed or badly injured. The track of the storm was not over 20 rods in width. As an instance of the fury of the wind, We will state that a shovel blade was found entirely bedded in a tree. Men assert that, as the storm passed, they saw human bodies whirling in the air. West of the Cedar [River], five persons Were reported killed. At Mechanic sville, ten bodies were brought in from the county north. It is also reported that several persons were killed at Cedar Rapids....

Among those listed as killed in the storm at the close of the above article was "Columbus Sparks."

The 1860 census taker for the area of Linn County, for which Mt. Vernon served as post office, was Samuel W. Durham. In his recording of families after the tornado, he noted on the census a number of persons who had been killed or injured. On June 9, 1860, he visited the rural family of Minor Burge, in which he reported that a member named Stephen Sparks, age 21, had been killed. Following is the enumeration made by Durham of the Minor Burge household (Franklin Township):

Name Sex Age Occupation Place of Birth
Burge, Minor M 49 Farmer Pennsylvania
" Elizabeth F 57 Keeping house "
" Zach Taylor M 13   Iowa
" Elizabeth F 84   Pennsylvania
Craig, Frances F 30   Virginia
Craig, George W. M 9   Iowa
" Elizabeth J. F 5   "
" Frances E. F 2   "
Sparks, Stephen M 21 "Killed in tornado, 6-3-1860" Unknown
Reed, Henry M 20   Pennsylvania
Hurlbut, Milton M ?   Ohio

The above household on pp. 35=36 of this census record; entry dated June 9, 1860; Minor Burge's real estate valued at $7500; his personal estate at $2650; Frances Craig's real estate valued at $4500; her personal estate at $300. Stephen Sparks had owned real estate valued at $360. Zach Taylor Burge, age 13, Was noted on the census as "Idiotic."

It would seem that this Stephen Sparks had been living in the household of Minor Burge, perhaps as a farm laborer. It is possible that the census taker recorded his name as "Stephen" when he should have written "Columbus Sparks," as reported in the newspaper's death toll. The name of Columbus Sparks does not appear elsewhere on the 1860 census of Linn County. Walter K. Sparks, father of Christopher Columbus Sparks, did not have a son named Stephen.

In the article in the Quarterly of March 1997 pertaining to Walter K. Sparks (p.4763), we noted the date of his death, as well as that of his wife, in Linn County, Iowa, but not their place of burial. Grave markers for them, as well as for one of their sons, have been found, and the inscriptions copied, in the Springville Cemetery in Linn County. Copied in 1962, this record is preserved in the DAR Library in Washington, D.C., as follows:

Walter Sparks [Died] May 6, 1871, age 55 years.

Mary Sparks, wife of Walter, died January 1884.

Hurlbut, Milton, son of W. and M. M.; died August 7, 1869, age 22 years, 5 mos., 15 days.