Gilbert Knapp

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 Gilbert Knapp

The Legacy Military Museum and Veterans Center has a permanent connection to the very beginnings of Racine.  The center is housed in the current Veterans Center at 820 Main St.  This building was the last residence of Captain Gilbert Knapp, the founder of Racine.

 Knapp was born on Dec. 3, 1798, in the village of Chatham, County of Barnstable, Cape Cod, Mass.  He was one of three children born to Sarah and John Knapp, both of English descent.  

His father was a captain in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783); his mother was the daughter of a merchant. 

Knapp grew up in Chatham, where he went to private school and studied English, mathematics and navigation.  The open waters soon proved to be his truest passion, and he left home at the age of 15 to sail with his uncle to Canada and Spain.  When the nine-month voyage ended, Knapp joined the crew of the Leo, a private vessel equipped with 17 guns and 150 men.

During the War of 1812, the ship was chartered by the American government to prey upon enemy ships and carry dispatches past the English blockade and into France.


Knapp sailed with the Leo three times, battling British ships on every voyage.  Of course, these voyages were not without their conversations.  During Knapp’s time on the Leo, he befriended several Naval Officers who spoke wondrously of the Great Lakes region.  They urged Knapp to explore the area and suggested he join the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, now the Coast Guard, according to “The Comprehensive Biography of Gilbert Knapp, The Founder of Racine,” by Francis J. Reich

 When Knapp returned home, he followed their advice.  He joined the service in 1818 and immediately began visiting every harbor and tributary along the Great Lakes.



“As the story goes, Knapp had sighted the mouth of our river and came ashore during one of his trips up and down the lake,” said local historian John Van

 Thiel.  Back then the river was known as the Chippecotton River, named for the Indian word for “root.”  The land was perfect for a new settlement; there

 were no high coastal cliffs or bluffs, and the river promised easy access and transportation.

Knapp returned here in the summer of 1828.  “Convinced that the site would support a settlement and maintain a harbor, Knapp left and once again

 resolved to return,” writes Reich.  “This time to claim the land as his and start a city.”

Knapp couldn’t start unpacking yet.  The land he was after officially belonged to the Potawatomi Indians; no white settlers were allowed to stake claims.  He had no choice but to bury in the back of his mind excited thoughts of his soon-to-be-city, and keep on working.

Knapp continued with the Revenue Cutter Service at his home in Erie, Pa., until 1828.  That’s when he abruptly ended his career by voicing his feelings against then-presidential candidate Andrew Jackson.  Knapp told a crowd of people in Erie, “I consider General Jackson a cut-throat and a murderer, and his wife a strumpet, and if he should be elected, I never will hold an appointment under him.”

Knapp’s prediction was right.  Jackson won the presidency and Knapp got the axe.  He lost his position as captain in the service on April 4, 1829, and began what would be a lifelong love-hate relationship with politics and the U.S. Revenue Cutters.

In September 1833, the federal government signed the Chicago Treaty with the Indians of southeastern Wisconsin, allowing white settlers to occupy the new territory.  Knapp heard the news and remembered his land by the root-filled river.  He sold all of his interests in New York and traveled to Chicago in early 1834.  He teamed up with two business partners, who each put up $1,200, and the financial seeds of our city were sown. Within a few years, Port Gilbert - as it was then called - was home to 300 people.

Knapp went on to make a name for himself in local politics and community work.  He served on the first territorial legislator in Wisconsin and was appointed as the first Probate Judge of Milwaukee County.  He married his third wife, Almira Meach, in October 1837.  (Knapp’s first two wives, Maria Annan and her sister, Hannah, both died.)

 In 1861, Knapp was called back into the Service to join the Union effort of the Civil War.  He was immediately place in charge of the cutter Dobbin.  The Dobbin, home ported in Philadelphia, took station with the newly formed North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which was attempting to close the major Southern seaports to shipping.  Patrols were maintained off the Chesapeake, Virginia and Carolina capes, but at that time there was little success.  Most Southern ports continued to engage in commerce to support the Confederacy until they were occupied by Federal armies.


As Knapp joined the Union effort in the Civil War, his son Robert (from his first marriage) was also called back into the service.  Robert returned to the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant in 1861.  By early 1862, he was serving under the Flag Admiral and Commodore Andrew H. Foote, one of the most aggressive Naval commanders on the Union side during the early years of the Civil War.  It was Foote’s relentless assaults against the Confederate forts on the Western rivers that brought down Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland in February 1862.  Later Naval campaigns culminated in the battles at Shiloh and Pittsburg Landing in April 1862, which ultimately led to the Union conquest of the entire Mississippi, a defeat from which the Confederacy could not recover.

Gilbert Knapp spent the last 15 years of his life living at his daughter Mary’s house, now headquarters of the current Veterans Center at 820 Main Street.  He died in that house on July 31, 1887.  On the day of his funeral, the U.S. Revenue Service cutter Andy Johnson, docked in Racine’s harbor, fired a 21-gun salute to honor Knapp’s service to his country

 Knapp was buried in Mound Cemetery.  His grave site was unmarked until 1944, when the VFW donated a marker 57 years after his death

  Facts about Racine Gilbert Knapp Past Displays Racine Medal of Honor Recipients

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