Dr. Thomas Steel
The Difficulties of Achieving the
I cannot help wishing sometimes that you and Lilly were out here
with your means of living all properly secured.
—Thomas Steel to James Steel, March 18, 1854
In 1853, Thomas Steel, a forty-four-year-old Scottish medical doctor and farmer, had been living in rural Waukesha County, Wisconsin, for a decade.1 The first year on the prairie had been hard, filled with privation, loneliness, and disappointment. He had left England as a member of a community of two hundred Utopian socialists who had banded together out of a number of smaller associations, and had decided to call the cooperative commune they wished to establish “Equality.” They quickly fell to arguing among themselves, and began to disband within months of their arrival.2 Steel left the commune in December 1843, just as winter arrived. He spent the cold months in the cramped cabin of a family of settlers. He tried to make a living practicing medicine, but soon realized that in an economy without cash, he was destined to be paid for his services—and his interrupted meals, sleepless nights, and wanderings around the thinly settled countryside in the middle of the night to the cabins of sick and injured farmers—in eggs, bread, chickens, and unfilled promises.3
But with substantial assistance from his affluent father, James, a senior civil servant in London, he had bought a partially improved farm, soon got some land under cultivation, and enjoyed a bountiful first harvest in 1845. He had improved the house he bought with his land into a comfortable residence.4 Early that same year, he had taken a wife, Catherine Freeman, the daughter of British emigrants, and by 1853 they