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Major Rountree, rounder?
Platteville's founder, as briefly noted in Harpers Magazine
Major John Rountree001
Maj. John Rountree - photo by Photo courtesy UWPlatteville Southwest Wisconsin Room

Major John Rountree is known as one of Platteville’s founders.

He served as Platteville’s postmaster and Grant County’s probate judge, helped write Wisconsin’s Constitution, was elected to the state Assembly and Senate, and was appointed major general of the Militia of the Second District of Wisconsin. He helped found the first newspaper in Platteville and Grant County.

On at least one occasion, though, Rountree may not have been a model of public comportment. That alleged occasion ended up in a national magazine.

New Yorker Robert Harvey, who attended grade school and high school in Platteville, is a fan of Harper’s Magazine, the oldest general-interest monthly magazine in the U.S.

In its early days, Harper’s had a section called the “Editor’s Drawer,” which Harvey described as “devoted to jokes and anecdotes, many submitted by readers. Some are entirely fanciful, but others seem to be at least based on incidents in real life.”

Harvey — the son of former Platteville Journal columnist Virginia Harvey — mailed The Journal the October 1865 Editor’s Drawer, which included:

Out in the pleasant little village of Platteville I chanced to be spending a few weeks with a friend, Major R——, one of the oldest settlers, and something of a politician; but unfortunately the Major “crooks his elbow” a little too often. On one of his sprees he chanced to be found by some ladies lying in a ditch, drunk. “Why, Major,” said one, “is that you? What are you doing down there?” The Major jumped up as quickly as possible, and with the air of a Judge said, “Oh, nothing, ladies; only pondering on the affairs of the nation!”

“Now, it seems that ‘Major R–, one of the oldest settlers and something of a politician,’ must be a reference to Major John Rountree, well known to anyone in Platteville,” wrote Harvey. “I cannot, of course, vouch for the veracity of the story, but it still makes me smile a little.”

UW–Platteville archivist Jim Hibbard was unable to find any other reference “to Rountree ‘crooks the elbow’ a little too often.’ Unfortunately, this is something that rarely makes the historic record. It is possible, but probably not provable.”

A little detective work makes it unlikely that the item refers to anyone other than Rountree. Hibbard said there is no other “Major” with a last name starting in R in Platteville’s early history.

There is one other Platteville in the U.S., in Colorado. That Platteville, however, was founded in 1871, six years after Major R—— made his Harper’s appearance. Platteville, Colo., is on the Platte River, similar to this Platteville, but it is less than one-fourth the size of this Platteville, and has no high school.

“My questions concerning this would be how on earth did this get printed in Harper’s Monthly?” said Hibbard. “Rountree was well-known in southwest Wisconsin, but hardly well-known nationally. Who were the women who passed this tidbit of info on to the editor?  Whoever they were, they certainly had an axe to grind against Rountree.”

Anyone who can share insight as to this Harper’s bizarre moment, or for that matter Major Rountree’s drinking habits, can contact either Hibbard or The Journal.