The Fox River’s still recovering from “Gaslight Era” pollution…

I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”

It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.

The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.

Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.

A typical manufactured gas plant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.

Clip from the Aurora Beacon-News showing the old gasometer on Hurd’s Island in the Fox River near downtown Aurora. (Courtesy the Aurora Then and Now Facebook page)

But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.

The Aurora Gaslight Company’s relatively modest manufactured gas plant at River Street and North Avenue in 1888. (Courtesy Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps)

Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.

Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.

John Edwards’ acetylene gas generator from a 1901 advertisement in the Kendall County Record.

In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.

All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.

Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.

On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”

Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”

Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.

By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.

In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.

Aurora’s manufactured gas plant 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped on the riverbank and eventually into the river, as can be seen from the piles of refuse in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.

By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

By 1907, Western United, the successor to the Aurora Gaslight Company, had considerably expanded it’s plant and facilities on River Street at North Avenue in Aurora. (Sanborn Fire Insurance Company)

In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”

It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.

The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.

The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.

The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”

By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.

In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.

Nicor, which supplies natural gas to millions of customers in northern Illinois, is a direct descendant of the old Western United Gas and Electric Company.

They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.

These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Maintaining an eclectic palate makes life more interesting

Anyone who’s ever read this blog knows that I enjoy food. And one of the initially alarming things about this stupid pandemic we’re suffering through were rumors and reports about the disruptions in the chain of food deliveries from growers to grocery stores. Fortunately, those dark days seem to have gradually passed by, though it’s not out of the question that they might return.

When we lived out on the farm, the food chain was pretty short. That was in the early 1950s, so we had indoor running water and a flush toilet along with electricity and a party line telephone. But in many ways, we were still living as farmers had from the end of World War I through the Great Depression and World War II.

Our Wheatland Township farm, about 1950.

My dad’s job was to farm. He grew the crops, raised the livestock—pigs and feeder cattle—milked the cow (when we had one), repaired machinery and our car and truck, and cut my hair. My mom was responsible for the house, keeping it clean and tidy, cooking the meals, raising chickens (which, with the eggs they produced, were traded for groceries in town), and maintaining the garden and our small orchard.

Every Saturday, my mom, my two older sisters, and I would head to town, where we’d drop my sisters off at their piano lessons, while mom and I would drive down the street to the grocery store. There, mom would deliver one or two crates of eggs and sometimes freshly dressed chickens ready to be sold. They liked my mom’s eggs because they were always clean and fresh with no cracked shells. She’d get a receipt for them and then we’d shop for groceries, mostly staples, the bill for which was reduced by the amount she’d earned in credit for from the eggs and chickens.

Michaels Brother Grocery Store in Montgomery where my mother traded eggs for staples. Although this photo was taken around 1900, it looked much the same 50 years later. (From The History of Montgomery, Illinois in Words and Pictures)

Some of those groceries were for the school lunches for my sisters and me, like peanut butter, bologna, and liver sausage, and, depending on the season, fruit.

We were lucky growing up in the 1940s and 1950s because by then there was sufficient money for food. My mother recalled when she went to her rural neighborhood one-room school that some of the kids were so poor their school lunch sandwiches were bread and lard.

By the early 1950s when I started school, our lunches consisted of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, some kind of fruit, and dessert—my family was big on dessert. I don’t recall eating salty things like potato chips, but I suppose we might have.

My grandmother happily holding up a hog’s head as she and her father-in-law make up a batch of head cheese on Hinman Street in Aurora about 1910.

Living on a farm during that era meant you got a lot of food choices that my town cousins and friends didn’t. Early on I developed a taste for sandwiches made with the pickled heart and pickled tongue my grandmother made after my family did their annual beef butchering. And then there was head cheese, a product whose creation I won’t go into detail about here, although I will note there’s a surprising amount of edible meat on a hog’s head. My grandmother had a frequent hankering for headcheese, as did her son-in-law, my father, although by the time I came along we ate the store-boughten stuff (as grandma put it), the days of using everything but the squeal on the butchered hog having passed on into history. Anyway, I still love the stuff.

Bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seemed to predominate at lunch time during those early school years, but I always favored an eclectic mix that didn’t much interest my classmates when sandwich trades were in the wind.

Liver sausage—also called liverwurst and Braunschweiger (technically, Braunschweiger is the smoked variety of liver sausage) by some of my German friends and relatives—was one of my favorites. My buddy Glenn’s dad used to frequently remark, “Of all the things I like the best, I like liver wurst.” But I really liked liver sausage from the time I was a little kid, along with pickled tongue and head cheese, any one of which gave most of my lunch mates a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.

While I hated liver as a child—and still do as an adult, for that matter—I’ve always liked liver sausage. Don’t ask me why, except that the two, as far as my taste buds are concerned, are not even in the same food universe. Early on, my father attempted to get me to like liver as much as he did—which was a LOT. But there was something about the taste and consistency of the stuff I couldn’t stand. It was difficult for my parents to cajole me into eating liver since my mother couldn’t stand it, either, which made the whole “encourage by example” thing moot. Luckily for my father, he found a kindred spirit after I married my wife, and the two of them enjoyed liver and onions to their hearts’ content.

Still hard to beat Oscar Meyer’s recipe for liver sausage.

I got a real taste for the Oscar Mayer brand of liver sausage around fifth grade, and carried it in my lunch for several years. Liver sausage, dill pickle slices, and mustard was my standard lunch, and when Fritos were introduced, they provided a perfect compliment.

Out on the farm, my mother made jelly and jam from the fruit she grew in our farm’s small orchard, and pickles—sweet and dill—from the cucumbers she grew in the garden. We had a small grape arbor, and so did my grandparents, both of which seemed to produce lots of grapes for jelly as well. So peanut butter and jelly were my go-to sandwiches, along with bologna and cheese, for the two and a half years I went to one-room school when we lived on the farm, along with an occasional pickled tongue, liver sausage, or pickled heart sandwich treat.

But pickled heart or pickled tongue or head cheese sandwiches just aren’t very marketable in the sandwich trading market that often goes on during school lunchtimes. Even in my one-room country school, it was vanishingly rare to find anyone who’d risk a trade. Which was fine with me because it was hard to beat any of those sandwich fillings anyway.

My one-room school where we ate lunch at our desks and occasionally traded sandwiches–though few wanted to trade with me.

My grandparents retired from farming a year or so after my parents did, and moved into town. There, my grandmother still made the occasional batch of pickled tongue or pickled heart that made great sandwiches, though not ones anyone at school would have a thing to do with.

After my grandmother died, my sister Elaine continued the tradition and would make me an occasional batch of pickled tongue. I wrote a column several years ago about the joys of a good pickled tongue sandwich, lamenting my wife would have nothing to do with even the concept of pickled tongue. My editor and good friend, strongly agreed, stating she would definitely not have a thing to do with a recipe that began: “First peel the tongue.”

I did, however, manage to convince my son that unpopular foods might actually taste good. And that came in handy when we were traveling through West Virginia one time. We’d stopped at a local diner for breakfast, and he noticed something on the menu called “country sausage,” which was plainly differentiated from usual pork sausage. He asked the waitress what was in it, but she seemed a bit unsure what the difference might be. Turned out, it was a good pork sausage with a bit of a kick to it, and it was excellent.

Then there was our trip to Scotland. I was working on a book with my buddy Paul and it was also my 30th wedding anniversary, so I talked my wife into taking a celebratory trip to Scotland to do research for the book and generally have fun. It didn’t take much talking, either.

Scrooge McDuck was not a fan of Haggis. It turned out to taste pretty good.

That was back in the CompuServe days and I was able to make connections with people in Scotland who could help me out, and who became reasonably close on-line friends. We even stayed with one couple and their sons for a few days and enjoyed the kinds of Scottish food and pub visits you are denied with packaged tours. Our host told us he was preparing a true Scottish treat: Haggis, neeps, and tatties. That turned out to be haggis, served with yellow Swedish turnips and mashed potatoes.

I admit to having had a dim view of haggis since my days reading Scrooge McDuck comics—he claimed haggis nearly did him in. And, of course, haggis has been a banned Scottish import to the U.S. since 1971 just because it’s got sheep lungs in it. I mean, come on! We export Twinkies, which I suspect are far more deadly than the occasional sheep lung.

Haggis itself consists of sheep’s pluck minced and mixed with spices, oatmeal (wouldn’t be Scottish without it!), and suet, and then it’s all traditionally packed into a sheep’s stomach (artificial casings are favored these days) and then boiled, as are the Swedish turnips and potatoes, both of which are served on the side, mashed with butter and salt.

A hearty meal of haggis (center), neeps (right), and tatties looking much as it did when my friend Ian served it for my wife and I near St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Haggis is Scotland’s national dish.

So our friend Ian made the Haggis—the Scottish national dish, by the way—although his wife Sue would have nothing to do with it. He was fairly impressed when both my wife and I not only ate it, but really enjoyed it. I did, however, put my foot down at blood sausage as well as everything else the British insist on calling “sausage.” I don’t know what that stuff is, but it’s NOT sausage.

So my message today is that an outright refusal to try regional or national foods just because they’re a little off-putting (okay, haggis may be more than a little off-putting) is being short-sighted. Trying some adventurous food choices makes traveling—if this damned coronavirus ever allows us to get back to doing such a thing—a lot more interesting, and can even add a bit of a historical dimension as well. From colonial Williamsburg’s rabbit stew to Acadia National Park’s popovers to West Virginia’s country sausage to Lordsburg, New Mexico’s green salsa, there are tasty chances to be taken. Some of them might even make for a good school lunch.

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, Farming, Food, Montgomery, Nostalgia, People in History, travel

The time France tried to make a profit on Illinois bison

Given the current situation here and across the world as we attempt to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest (sometimes caused by civil authorities themselves), and almost unbelievable government dysfunction and dishonesty, it’s always valuable to have a mental bolthole handy for a therapeutic retreat.

For me, that’s colonial Illinois history, where there’s always something new to learn, especially stories about colonial efforts that didn’t turn out like their promoters expected.

The fur trade era, when fortunes were made and lost as colonial European powers traded with North America’s Native People for the pelts and hides of fur-bearing animals in exchange for various goods, is one of my historical favorites. The trade is so interesting because it was such an important driver of the European settlement that resulted in centuries of death and cultural destruction of so many of the confinement’s Native People. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the fur trade North America certainly would not have developed like it did.

It may seem odd to us today that animal furs and skins would be such valuable commodities that the trade in them would lead to political and military conflict on a worldwide scale. But that was indeed the case as the great European powers fought over who would control the extraction of natural riches from what they called the New World.

The currency of the North American fur trade was the prime winter beaver pelt.

The North American fur trade was built around beaver pelts. Fashion during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first quarter or so of the 19th century decreed men, in particular, wear hats in a myriad of styles manufactured from felt. It turned out the beaver’s under-fur, because of its unique physical structure, produced the finest felt in the world.

While millions of beaver pelts were harvested in North America and sent to European factories annually, those weren’t the only animal products of interest to Europeans. Mink, otter, fisher, and other fine furs were highly sought after, as were deer hides, bearskins, and the hides of American Bison.

Bison hides, when properly tanned, proved to be durable and extremely tough. Bison hide shields used by Native People had been known to be proof against even musket balls. Europeans turned the hides into heavy blankets and coats, and the hide with the fur removed was used to make boots and other heavy-duty footwear.

While bison hides were definitely salable items, they weren’t favored by the regular trade, due to their size and weight. A single bison hide weighs between 20 and 30 pounds, and measures around 7×5 feet. The fur trade, especially during the 18th Century, relied on transporting furs and trade goods by birch bark canoe, even the larges of which would have been hard-pressed to carry many oversized bison hides.

American Bison once roamed most of North America. These animals currently live at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington, Illinois, where a bison herd is being recreated.

Even so, there was a market for bison hides, and it just so happened that in the early 18th Century the bison population east of the Mississippi River was at its height. There had always been bison east of the great river, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that their numbers began to rapidly increase. That was due to a number of factors that included the success of Native People in modifying the environment by using grass fires to create and maintain open savannahs in the generally dense eastern forests and to enlarge and maintain the large prairies that began in western Indiana stretching all the way to the Mississippi. That provided additional bison habitat and by creating numerous edges around wooded areas created ideal deer habitat. At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi is estimated at between two and four million animals.

Another, far less positive, factor was the deadly epidemics of Old World diseases loosed on Native People by Europeans that depopulated large areas east of the Mississippi, drastically lowering hunting pressure on large game animals. So, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the eastern bison herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, significantly smaller than the ones on the shortgrass prairie west of the Mississippi, but still substantial.

And that’s where Charles Juchereau de St. Denys saw an opportunity. The fur trade in today’s Midwest was controlled from either Quebec or Louisiana, depending on which side of the dividing line the area was located. Juchereau’s plan was to build a trading fort and a bison hide tannery on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a scheme he was able to interest King Louis XIV in personally. But since that fell within Quebec’s area of influence, Juchereau had to work hard to reassure officials there that he had no designs on trading for beaver pelts. Eventually, after a lot of hard bargaining, he was able to allay enough of their suspicion to get their grudging approval. Juchereau pointed out that his post near the confluence of the two great rivers would stand as a bulwark against the growing incursions of British traders then filtering into the area, while also offering protection to the Native People Juchereau hoped to relocated near his fort. Those considerations got the strong support of the officials at New Orleans who were getting concerned about growing British influence in the area.

The expedition Juchereau put together included 24 men in eight canoes. It was prohibited from selling brandy to the Native People and from trading in beaver pelts. Any other pelts and skins were fair game, however.

Juchereau’s expedition probably traveled from Canada to southern Illinois using big Montreal Canoes like these. Made of birch bard, they were the mainstay cargo vessels of the North American fur trade for some 200 years.

Juchereau’s expedition left Montreal on May 18, 1702 and headed up the well-worn St. Lawrence-Ottawa River trade route into Lake Huron, arriving at the post of Michilimackinac on July 10. During the summer months, Midwestern rivers were at low levels, so the expedition waited until late summer to head south when, they hoped, river levels would be higher.

The expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River of Wisconsin. The Fox River of Wisconsin was under the control of the Fox Tribe. Not yet in open warfare with the French, the Fox nonetheless charged Juchereau’s expedition a stiff toll of trade goods to pass on their way upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River at today’s Portage, Wisconsin.

From there, the route was down the Wisconsin to its mouth on the Mississippi, and then downstream to the French settlement at Kaskaskia, where they picked up the “almoner” Juchereau’s concession required. For this duty, the Bishop of Quebec assigned the unfortunate Jesuit Father Jean Mermet.

In early 1700 Mermet had been assigned to assist Father François Pinet with the Miami mission at what is now Chicago. For whatever reason, Pinet decided to leave, putting Mermet in charge although he could not speak the languages of the local tribes. He spent the winter of 1701-02 isolated there. In the spring, Mermet made his way east to the Jesuit mission at the St. Joseph River in modern southwestern Michigan, where at least he had someone else to talk to. But this annoyed, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the commander at Fort Detroit who suspected the Jesuits were trying to increase the size of the St. Joseph Mission at the expense of Detroit. So Mermet was sent on his way once more, this time down to Kaskaskia, where Juchereau’s expedition found him when they arrived from Michilimackinac.

It also turned out there were some doubts among the Jesuits about Juchereau’s plans, mainly they were suspicious—undoubtedly justified—the efforts to make a profit out of buffalo hides would have a higher priority than saving souls. Further, they noted, Mermet really didn’t have any actual missionary skills—as an almoner his job had been to distribute goods and money to the poor. But Juchereau’s patrons were powerful enough to overcome the Jesuits’ worries and off Mermet went with the expedition. At least the poor guy had somebody to talk to on the way.

The expedition reached the site of Juchereau’s concession sometime in November 1702. The location is believed to have been on the Illinois side of the Ohio River somewhere around Mound City.

Juchereau’s bison tannery and trading fort was located somewhere along the Ohio River in the Mound City area near the southern tip of Illinois.

Juchereau immediately began construction of his trade fort and tannery while Mermet began his new job as missionary to the local tribes—although inexperienced, he was given credit for working with “zeal and fortitude” and generally made a good impression on the Native People he could reach.

By the early 18th Century, the French had learned that a successful trading establishment required a large nearby population of Native Americans, something Juchereau’s concession, located in a sort of no-man’s land between tribal areas. But once it became known that Juchereau was paying top dollar for bison hides, Native People—mostly Mascoutins—began to congregate. But then disaster struck in the form of a virulent epidemic, probably malaria. The disease was a European import for which the Native People had no immunity, and it killed roughly half the Mascoutins despite Father Mermet’s frantic medical efforts.

Not incidentally, Juchereau also died from the disease, throwing the entire tannery operation into temporary chaos. But the rest of the French voyageurs quickly assumed control and the collection of hides continued until some 12,000 had been accumulated.

Which is when the big flaw in Juchereau’s scheme became clear: How to get 180 tons of tanned bison hides from the wilds of North America to market—any market. Louisiana’s new governor, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, responded to pleas for help by dispatching six workmen to help the tannery crew build boats to ship the hides south. In late 1704, all 12,000 hides were loaded aboard the boats and floated down the Mississippi to Fort de la Boulaye—New Orleans wouldn’t be founded for another 14 years. But there was virtually no ship traffic from the relatively new fort to France, or anywhere else at the time. The result, as one of Juchereau’s companions ruefully explained, was that “These goods we brought down in very great numbers…and for want of ships in two years’ time the moths got into them, the waters rose, and for lack of people to guard them the Indians took them and the whole lot was lost.”

With no birch trees available to build canoes in southern Illinois Juchereau’s men had to build boats to haul the tanned bison hides the operation had accumulated down to the Missssippi’s mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. They were probably bateaus, flat-bottomed, shallow draft boats favored in areas without sufficient birth trees.

Thus was the ignominious end of Juchereau’s bison hide venture.

The scheme is of interest to historians because of its colonial Illinois commercial nature and because of the evidence it offers of large numbers of bison east of the Mississippi during that era. The eastern herd, unlike the gigantic herds on the western shortgrass prairies, was divided into relatively small groups of hundreds or perhaps a few thousand each ranging into western Virginia, the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But there were enough bison in the east to produce 12,000 tanned hides in about two years by a single trading and tanning operation, a substantial number by anyone’s reckoning.

It’s not clear if Juchereau’s venture had a negative effect on bison population east of the Mississippi, but it does seem that from the early 18th Century on, bison numbers began a steady decline. The last recorded wild bison in Illinois was reported killed in 1808.

When the topic of the American Bison comes up, Illinois isn’t generally the first part of their range that springs to mind. But time was, the Prairie State was home territory for thousands of them.

For more information on bison in Illinois, see Records of Early Bison in Illinois, R. Bruce McMillan, editor; Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XXXI, Springfield, 2006. For more on Juchereau’s tannery venture see “A Historical Reexamination of Juchereau’s Illinois Tannery,” by John Fortier and Donald Chaput, pps. 385-406, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1969).

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Native Americans, People in History

Will County’s namesake made money from salt…and slavery

It’s not an exaggeration to observe that most people are ignorant of the history of their state, county, or the town in which they live. Part of that is due to how mobile our society is these days. A vanishingly tiny number of us live our entire lives in the same town or even in the same state. As a result, the history of the places in which people find themselves living really has little meaning for them because likely as not, they expect to be moving on again fairly soon.

The recent pandemic and the massive changes in the nation’s economy it’s caused—I’ve seen it dubbed the Great Pause, which I think fits it nicely—has also paused much of the nation’s former mobility. But I’d be surprised if it didn’t resume after COVID is beaten.

Not only do people’s transient lives militate against learning about local history, but so does the modern educational system. State-mandated standardized tests, with their national norms, cannot test local historical knowledge and so unless classroom teachers think it’s important enough to take time away from teaching to the tests, local history is ignored.

But having lived in the same area virtually all my life, and having lived on the same street for 66 years, I’ve seen local issues come and go that would have been considerably smoothed out had people had any knowledge of their community’s history. Because there are reasons why things are as they are. Sometimes they aren’t necessarily good reasons, but roads were not just arbitrarily sited, school districts weren’t created at the whim of some far-away bureaucrat, and municipal boundaries are like they are because of decisions made a long time ago by people who thought they were doing the best they could for their communities.

Will County, Illinois

One of the things some may wonder about is how local places got their names. For the most part, these were not names mandated by those far-away bureaucrats, but were picked by the residents who lived there. County names, however, were indeed given by the Illinois General Assembly, whether local residents liked them or not. My own county of Kendall, for instance, was named in opposition to the one—Orange County—local residents favored in order to honor one of former President Andrew Jackson’s political operatives.

On the other hand, Will County’s name didn’t seem to raise much, if any, opposition when it was given.

Dr. Conrad Will was one of the many Pennsylvania Germans—called the Pennsylvania Dutch by their British neighbors—who came to Illinois in its earliest days and then became active in both local commerce and government.

But Will was also known for something a lot less savory than were typical Pennsylvania Dutchmen. He was not only a business owner, but also one of the few legal Illinois slave owners.

Will was born near Philadelphia, Pa. on June 3, 1779. After he studied medicine for a while, he moved west, probably traveling to Illinois via the well-traveled Virginia-Tennessee migration route. He reportedly arrived at Kaskaskia in 1814. The next year he moved to land along the Big Muddy River in what is now Jackson County, located near the southern tip of Illinois. In 1816 or thereabouts, he obtained a government lease on one of three profitable salines the U.S. Government deeded to the Illinois Territory.

This sketch portrait is the only image of Conrad Will I’ve been able to find.

Salines, or salt springs, were valuable natural resources on the frontier, and the profits from their leases provided a good chunk of early Illinois’ revenue. The water from the springs was evaporated, using a relatively elaborate process for the era, and the salt that remained was then sold.

On the frontier, salt was used for everything from seasoning food to preserving meat and hides. In inland areas away from the coast, salt springs like those that bubbled to the surface in Saline County or in the Illinois Territory’s Randolph County were prime sources for the indispensable material.

In order to make sure speculators didn’t buy up the leases and hold them to drive up prices, the federal leases required the holders to produce a set amount of salt each year or pay a penalty.

In the spring of 1816, the year Jackson County was formed by breaking off a portion of Randolph County, Will traveled back to Pittsburgh to buy a batch of giant cast iron evaporating kettles. Each of the big kettles could hold about 60 gallons and they weighed about 400 lbs. each. The kettles were floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi on a flatboat, and then transported up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Big Muddy River, and from there up to Will’s saline operation.

To increase productivity, Will deepened the saline spring and installed a horse-powered pump to raise the salt water into a large basin. From there, the salt-laden water it ran via wooden pipes to the kettles, which were lined up side-by-side resting on a long brick firebox. The first kettle was filled with salt water, a fire lit under it, and the evaporation process began. In turn, the increasingly salty water was ladled into each kettle down the row where it was further evaporated until only a salt paste remained. The paste was then dug out of the last kettle and allowed to air dry. After it dried, the raw salt was crushed, shoveled into sacks, and shipped down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, St. Louis, and beyond.

Jackson County, Illinois

As you might imagine, the labor to manufacture the salt was hard, hot, grueling work, something with which the federal government assisted by allowing slaves to be imported into Illinois for the purpose of its manufacture. Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River, special territorial laws and constitutional provisions permitted exceptions at the salines.

Illinois’ first constitution, approved by Congress in 1818, continued to allow slaves to be leased for use in the state’s salt works, and it also allowed a form of indentured servitude that was virtually indistinguishable from slavery.

So with slaves and government lease in hand, Will continued his operation. Generally, one bushel of salt could be extracted for every 2.5 to 5.5 gallons of water from the saline. But sufficient salt water to evaporate wasn’t the problem; fuel to keep the evaporation process going was. At first, wood fires were used (a large plot of surrounding woods was part of the saline lease). As the nearby supply of wood was exhausted, the evaporation operation was moved farther and farther away from the saline spring. Ever-lengthening spans of wooden pipe, made by splitting logs in half, length-wise, hollowing out the interior, and then strapping them back together, were used to keep the salt water flowing into the evaporation kettles.

As Jacob Myers wrote of the saline operation in Gallatin County in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society: “The problem of securing fuel was a great one, because of the distance it had to be hauled. As the timber was cleared away the furnaces were moved back farther and farther from the wells and the brine was piped by means of hollow logs or pipes made by boring four-inch holes through the log lengthwise. These were joined end to end, but the joints were not always tight and there was much loss from leakage. It has been estimated that over one hundred miles of such piping was laid from 1800 to 1873.”

Section of original log pipe uncovered at the salines by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

With the scarcity of wood, salt manufacturers turned to the use of coal to keep the brine boiling, and as luck would have it coal was close to the surface in the area of the saline springs and could be reached by drift and slope mines.

The salt business was a hard one, and Will apparently decided politics might be a better way to make money. He was one of Illinois’ first state senators when the state was established in 1818 and in 1820 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in office on June 11, 1835.

With their colleague’s death still fresh in their minds, when a brand new county was formed by partitioning Cook, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties in January 1836, the General Assembly voted to name it after Conrad Will.

Will was just one of a group of salt manufacturers who imported slaves into Illinois, and who later imported even more slaves while calling them “indentured servants.” This form of slavery was not completely banned in Illinois until 15 years before the Civil War began.

Today, we remember Conrad Will as a politician and namesake for Will County. But like many historical characters, it turns out he’s carrying a lot more baggage under the surface than he appears to be.

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Pre-Civil War Illinois was an unfriendly place for people of color…

The treatment of Black Americans is once again big news as much of the nation has apparently decided they’re dissatisfied with how law enforcement treats people of color.

The senseless death of George Floyd at the hands of a veteran Minneapolis police officer, recorded on video by a young bystander has led to weeks of demonstrations, some initial violence, and quite a bit of introspection. The latest twist in the on-going story is the announced aim by the Minneapolis City Council to disband and completely reconfigure the city’s law enforcement agency in an effort to rid police ranks of those who can’t be trusted to wield authority.

That seems like a drastic situation, but it’s far from unprecedented. Camden, NJ successfully did the same thing a few years ago, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in crime. And Kalamazoo, Michigan essentially did the same by disbanding their police and fire departments and then reconstituting them as a single public safety department, reportedly with good results.

I wonder if those who won the Civil War—which more accurately ought to be called the War Against Treason in Defense of Slavery—thought we’d still be fighting the battle to assure equal treatment under the law for people of color more than a century and a half after Robert Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant in 1865 to end the war.

The struggle to end slavery had been on-going for many years before the Civil War began. After the nation’s founding following the Revolutionary War, northern states gradually outlawed or otherwise discouraged slavery. Anti-slavery societies were established to fight the institution all over the North. Abolitionists fought against a continual campaign by Southern states to protect and expand slavery into new territories as the nation expanded to the west. Part of that fight was to encourage slaves to escape their masters and head north, assisted by members of the Underground Railway—a network of anti-slavery advocates who hid, supported, and helped enslaved persons flee.

1826 Slave sale Kaskaskia

A Kaskaskia, Illinois newspaper carried these two advertisements in December 1826, clearly illustrating that slavery definitely existed in the state.

We’ve been led to believe that during the pre-Civil War era, if escaped slaves could just get north of the Ohio River or east of the Mississippi and into states like Ohio or Illinois, they were pretty much home free. But that’s far from the truth.

Granted, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were “free” states, but that didn’t mean that Blacks were welcomed—or even tolerated. In fact, racism and anti-slave sentiment were strong partners during that era, especially here in Illinois where a pro-slavery state constitution was nearly approved in the 1820s.

Actually, from the Black Codes of the early 19th Century to the largely unwritten “Sundown Laws” of the 20th Century, the history of race relations in Illinois has always been fraught with conflicting views and actions.

In accord with the terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the new states formed from the old Northwest Territory—the region north and west of the Ohio River—were to be admitted to the Union as free, and not slave, states.

Illinois was formally admitted as a state of the Union in December 1818, the bicentennial of which we celebrated a couple years ago. But while slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance, that didn’t result in the new state being slave-free.

First of all, Illinois’ French inhabitants, a colonial remnant from the era before 1765 when the British prevailed in the French and Indian War, were allowed to keep their slaves, which created a significant legal loophole right off the bat. Further, state law permitted indentured servitude, meaning slave owners could bring their chattel property into Illinois as long as the owners engaged in the legal fiction of classifying their slaves as indentured servants.

In 1818 when it became clear Congress was going to establish the State of Illinois, elections were held and the first General Assembly began meeting on October 4, the session lasting until March 31, 1819. During that first General Assembly, one of the major pieces of legislation passed was the state’s first Black Code, a remarkably restrictive piece of legislation. In fact, Illinois’ restrictions on people of color were some of the toughest in the nation, North or South. Under the new law, black residents of Illinois were prohibited from voting, testifying in court, or even bringing suit against whites. They were further prohibited from gathering in groups of three or more without risk of being jailed or flogged. Finally, they were prohibited from serving in the militia and so were denied their Second Amendment right to own or bear arms.

It was made mandatory for blacks living in Illinois to obtain and carry a Certificate of Freedom with them at all times. Otherwise, they were assumed to be escaped slaves by default and were liable for arrest.

The new Illinois constitution also allowed unlimited indentured servitude—which was slavery in all but name—at the salt mines in southern Illinois, one of the new state government’s main sources of revenue.

At that time, most of the state’s residents had arrived by emigrating from the South, and most of the early state officials were southerners who were former—and sometimes current—slave owners. As a result, almost immediately after statehood, pro-slavery forces began militating for a new state constitutional convention at which they planned to write and pass a pro-slavery constitution. In 1822, the statewide referendum to do just that failed by a fairly substantial margin, but in response and as a sop to the state’s large pro-slavery faction, a series of even more restrictive Black Codes were adopted.

1854 John & Mary Jones certs of freedom

John and Mary Jones’ certificates of freedom issued by Madison County in southern Illinois in 1854. Black Americans were required to present their certificate of freedom issued by their county of residence or face being sold at auction.

For instance, an 1829 addition to the Black Codes required all free Black Illinois residents to register at their county seat. They were also required to register a certificate of freedom from the state in which they had previously lived. Further, each free Black, no matter their age, was required to post a $1,000 bond to cover any future costs should they become indigent or break the law. In today’s dollars, that was requiring a $25,000 cash bond, something that very few Black families could afford for even one person, let alone every single family member. In practice, most blacks who emigrated to Illinois during that period usually found a friendly white resident who would post the bond for them—something that created nearly insurmountable debt.

1859 Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad routes through Livingston, LaSalle, and Kendall counties in the years before the Civil War, as illustrated in the 1914 history of Kendall County.

As a result of these restrictive laws, most of the Black slaves from south of the Ohio River who fled their owners lived in Illinois illegally, subject to arrest and flogging if caught. The frequent arrival of escapees created an atmosphere of fear in Black communities, especially in southern Illinois where slave catchers from Kentucky and Tennessee had no compunctions about kidnapping even legally free blacks and selling them south of the river. Selling someone down the river wasn’t just a saying back then; it was a real threat. Kidnapping and selling people of color was, in fact, a financially lucrative practice with which state officials either ignored or tacitly supported.

Illinois’ official antipathy towards Black residents resulted in a large and active group of Underground Railroad supporters, who worked to hustle escaped slaves north to Canada where the government was far more welcoming.

It was under these restrictive, racist laws that Kendall County had its first, and last, slave auction. On Christmas Eve, 1844, Mr. McLaughlin, a prominent resident of Bureau County, was on his way to Chicago with three bobsled loads of dressed pork. McLaughlin was driving one of the bobs, his hired man was driving the second, and an African-American was driving the third.

As they traveled northeast on the old Chicago to Ottawa Trail, they passed the farm of John Boyd. Boyd and his son-in-law, Matthew Throckmorton, were working outside and saw the procession pass on the snowy road. The pair, natives of Kentucky and strongly pro-slavery, immediately suspected the black man driving one of the bobsleds was an escaped slave. So they mounted their horses and pursued McLaughlin’s party, catching up to it just as it crossed Hollenback Creek.

Boyd and Throckmorton forced the party to stop, and Throckmorton, in the words of George M. Hollenback, “rushed up to the negro driver, and with a great show of authority said. ‘Come down off that, suh, I want you.’” Hollenback went on to explain, “Throckmorton was a native of Kentucky, and had been a slave driver in his native state, and used to considerable extent, the southern dialect in ordinary conversation.”

Boyd ordered Throckmorton to tie both the black driver and McLaughlin up, but McLaughlin replied that he was a free man and would not stand to be detained, indicating that both he and his hired man would fight for their rights. George Hollenback, who had arrived at the scene by that time with several family members, including his son, George M. Hollenback, vouched for McLaughlin, who he knew, and ordered Boyd and Throckmorton to leave him alone. In the face of this defense, the two former Kentuckians decided to leave well enough alone, and told McLaughlin to go on his way, which he did, probably glad not to have had to use violence to free himself.

The Black man, however, was not so lucky. He could not produce his certificate of freedom (in fact, it’s likely he really was a traveler on the Underground Railroad, heading to Chicago and points north), so Boyd and Throckmorton headed to Newark to find the justice of the peace there, George B. Hollenback (nephew of McLaughlin’s defender, George Hollenback—that area was rife with Hollenbacks at the time). The two former Kentuckians demanded that Justice of the Peace Hollenback take charge of their prisoner, but he refused, claiming ignorance of the relevant law, and instead told the two men to take the man to Kendall County Sheriff James S. Cornell at Yorkville.

Boyd and Throckmorton took their prisoner to the county seat at Yorkville, where Sheriff James Cornell confined him with the intent to sell him to the highest bidder to defray the costs of boarding him.

At the time, abolitionists were considered by many to be far left extremists. While many Illinoisans disliked slavery, most opposition was based more on economic issues arising from the large pool of slave labor in the Southern states. On the other hand, many of the county’s settlers prior to 1844 had come from Northern states, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and, especially, New York. Their views of the evils of slavery put them at odds with settlers, like Boyd and Throckmorton, who had emigrated from Southern states.

1841 KC Courthouse

The 1844 Kendall County Courthouse in Yorkville, photographed shortly before it was demolished. The ‘new’ courthouse, built in 1864, can be seen in the left background.

The ensuing auction of the unlucky Black man took place on the steps of the original county courthouse, which stood a couple blocks from the present Historic Courthouse in Yorkville. A large crowd gathered, and from various accounts it appeared as if the members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society were well represented. Pro-slavery residents, if they attended at all, were apparently intimidated by the large number of anti-slavery members of the crowd. In the end, the only bidder was Dr. Townsend Seeley, a prominent member of the Anti-Slavery Society (and an undercover member of the Kendall County Underground Railway), who won with a bid of $3. Under terms of the state’s Black Codes, Seeley could put the newly purchased Black man to work to work off the cost of his purchase. Since Illinois was such a hostile place for Black Americans, Seeley came up with an innovative way for the man to work off his debt and escape at the same time.

As Kendall County’s first historian, the Rev. Edmund W. Hicks, put it, since Seeley “could put him at any work, he decided to set him traveling toward liberty. The dark man was willing, and biding good-bye to his new acquaintances at the capital of Kendall county, he set out on a successful trip to Canada.”

As if the existing Black Codes weren’t bad enough, the 1853 Black Exclusion Act, sponsored by John A. Logan, later a Civil War general and creator of Memorial Day, was even more draconian and unfair.

So escaping to Illinois created a precarious existence for runaway slaves, but one many enslaved people were willing to chance to gain their freedom. And things didn’t significantly change until the later years of the Civil War.

1864 Repeal Black Codes

Prominent African-American John Jones (see his freedom certificate above) made this plea to repeal Illinois’ Black Codes in 1864. The General Assembly agreed to repeal in 1865 to encourage Black enlistment in the Union Army.

As the war dragged on, more troops were needed, and eventually the entreaties of prominent northern Blacks and anti-slavery whites persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to authorize enlistment of several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. Illinois Governor Richard Yates enthusiastically jumped at the chance to enlist a Black regiment from Illinois, but recruitment was slow as Black Illinoisans pointed out the onerous and unfair restrictions on their freedoms represented by the state’s Black Codes.

In partial response, and bowing to the reality that Black Illinoisans were indeed being armed by the hundreds to fight against southern sedition, the General Assembly repealed the Black Codes early in 1865. But even then, Black residents were not granted the right to vote or most of the other civil rights white residents took for granted. Those were finally won thanks to the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, as well as, two decades later, the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885.

Even so, Yates was able to use promises of future civil rights, as well as monetary bounties to facilitate recruiting for Illinois’ Black infantry regiment, which was mustered into United States service as the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. The regiment fought through the later stages of the Civil War, acquitting itself well. It was severely mauled during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, suffering many killed and wounded. Among the wounded was Pvt. Nathan Hughes, who would recover only to get wounded one more time before moving to Kendall County after the war to farm along Minkler Road. Hughes and his 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment comrade Thomas Jefferson, are buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, along with Robert Ridley Smith, a veteran of the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry and Tony Burnett who served as a cook with the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.

Given the roadblocks thrown up in front of them, it is remarkable that so many Black Illinois residents tenaciously fought for the right to honorably serve their nation and their state during the country’s time of such great need.

 

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Oswego has had its very own fossil since the 19th Century

One of my favorite authors is the late James Michener. For years while he was alive, his fans looked forward to reading one of his thick, arm-breaking novels, especially during the summer.

From Hawaii to Texas to Alaska, Michener has entertained and enlightened. It seemed to me, at least, that Michener must have spent years researching each of his books—and he did. One of the wonderful things about all of them is the minute detail into which Michener goes in explaining the background of the story he’s telling.

In Centennial, for instance, Michener starts out by telling the story of the life of a lady brontosaurus who was galumphing around Colorado 60 million years or so ago.

Here in Kendall County, not a whole lot was happening 60 million years ago, at least we don’t think so. At that time, this part of the landscape was high, dry land of a kind that unfortunately didn’t lend itself to the preservation of fossils. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say we don’t think a whole lot was happening back then.

The real action had happened some millions of years before, starting in the Precambrian era when the Earth’s crust got its foundation. Here in Kendall County, the evidence of Precambrian times—a thick layer of granite—lies about 4,000 feet below the surface, forming what geologists like to call the Precambrian Basement. It’s sobering to think that at one time, about a billion years ago, that granite was the surface of the land, although not one we’d recognize. During that era, the area was bare, dense rock, possibly cut by a few streams with no life at all, because the oxygen we breathe today had yet to be liberated from the planet’s crust.

2 Tentaculities oswegoensis fossil

A nice bunch of tentaculites Oswegoensis (the elongated cone-shaped fossils) along with a nice crinoid plate is part of the exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

From the lifelessness of the Precambrian, the area lurched into a riot of life during the Paleozoic Era starting about 570 million years ago. It was during this era that much of the dolomite and limestone that undergirds Kendall County was laid down. During the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic, from about 505 to 438 million years ago, Kendall County was part of the floor of a shallow sea. Because of this, large deposits of sandstone—particularly the valuable white St. Peter sandstone that can be found along the south Fox River—that can be found up and down the Fox Valley were left behind, as were layers of Ordovician limestone and dolomite. The numerous invertebrate creatures that thrived in the warm seas overlaying Kendall County left their mark in fossils in limestone outcrops all over the area. They can be most easily seen in my hometown of Oswego along Waubonsie Creek near North Adams Street where brachiopods and other bi-valves, along with other fossilized creatures, are commonly visible.

And, in fact, one of those creatures is even named for Oswego. As the story goes, in 1852 Dr. Mordecai Davis, an Oswego doctor, was surveying the area along the creek while engaging in his hobby of geology, when he discovered a fossil of a worm-like animal embedded in the blue-gray shale the creek had gradually eroded away. Since the creature was unknown to him, he conferred with Professor Wilbur at Aurora College, but the good professor couldn’t put a name to the fossil, either. So the sample collected by Davis was then reportedly sent to Washington, D.C. for study and eventually ended up at the Philadelphia Museum, where it was classified and named Tentaculites oswegoensis, after the place it was first found.

Chicago’s Field Museum maintains specimens of the ancient creature, but its identity is just as shrouded in mystery as it was when Dr. Davis discovered it almost 150 years ago. According to paleontologists at the museum, it is believed to be a marine worm of some kind, but that’s all that is known about it. The Little White School Museum in Oswego has some Tentaculites oswegoensis specimens of it on exhibit.

Two other eras of the Paleozoic, the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian, are extensively represented in Illinois, though not necessarily here in Kendall County. Much of the limestone that is crushed for use on county roads and for other uses originated during the Mississippian era. And the Pennsylvanian era is responsible for the thick seams of coal that underlay much of Illinois just to the south of Kendall County.

Annularia fossil

A nice Annularia (a fern-like plant) fossil from the Pennsylvanian Era collected in the Mazon Creek area of Grundy County.

During the Pennsylvanian era, Kendall County was located on the equator, and the life forms that lived then support these findings by geologists. The beds of Pennsylvanian fossils found in Grundy and LaSalle counties are rich in tropical sea life and plants that grew along the shore. Geologists tell us that during the Pennsylvanian, the area was alternately flooded and dry, resulting in the absolute riot of plant and animal life (including Tully Monsters!) found in the era’s fossil beds. My buddy Paul and I spent a lot of time in the 1960s and 1970s hunting fossils down in the Mazon Creek area. We eventually donated our collection of 500 or so of them to the University of Wisconsin, keeping a few of the nicer specimens, including a Tully Monster each, for ourselves.

Then came the Mesozoic Era, from 245 to 66 million years ago, and that lack of dinosaurs that would probably have driven poor James Michener to distraction. In Illinois, rocks from that era are almost entirely missing, probably ground away by the glaciers that arrived during the Cenozoic Era—which is still underway, by the way. The Cenozoic Era has been a pretty exciting time, too, with the advent of mammals, the advance of ice sheets from the North Pole, and the arrival of the first humans along the Fox River. Up to 20 glaciations of Illinois took place during the era, during which some 85 percent of the surface area of the state was covered in glacial ice.

Interestingly enough, geologists no longer believe the glaciers were slow to advance and retreat. Instead, it is now believed that glaciers advanced quickly and retreated just as quickly. During the last cycle of advances and retreats, Kendall County’s familiar rolling landscape was created.

But back to our story of Oswego’s own fossil. Back in February as they were excavating the footings for the new multi-story commercial building on the block bounded by Washington, Adams, Jackson, and Harrison streets (the old Alexander Lumber Company site) excavators uncovered the layer of blue-green Maquoketa shale that extends to Waubonsie Creek. In amongst the shale—named for the Jackson County, Iowa town where it was first identified—a local fossil hunter found some nice specimens of Tentaculites oswegoensis. It was treated as quite a discovery by some of the local press and even the Chicago Trib and the Sun-Times picked up on it as the collector presented a specimen to the Oswego Village Board. The board was appropriately gratified and village officials said they were busy learning more about the fossil named after the village and were discussing plans on how it could be properly displayed.

tentaculites exhibit

Oswego’s Little White School Museum features the story of Tentaculites oswegoensis as part of its core exhibit.

Of course, the real surprise would have been if no examples of good old Tentaculites oswegoensis had been found in that layer of Maquoketa shale. Most kids who grew up in Oswego knew there was a great fossil-hunting spot along the banks of Waubonsie Creek and they’ve been using their fingers to dig everything from Tentaculites to crinoid plates to bivalve fossils out of some of those soft Maquoketa deposits.

And, as noted above, there have been nice examples of the fossil on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum since the early 1990s. A fine example unearthed by naturalist, environmentalist, and author Dick Young some 25 years ago is part of the museum’s core exhibit. So, Oswego village people, if you’re looking for more information on the town’s very own fossil, just contact the museum and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you out.

Mother Nature created a land that was kind to the humans who settled it during a period of tens of thousands of years, as well as to those who continue to arrive in growing numbers in this modern age. That creation wasn’t done quickly, of course, and still provides some surprises to those who are paying attention. But then again, things of great worth are seldom achieved overnight.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff

Nathan Hughes: An escaped slave who fought for freedom during the Civil War

Another Memorial Day has rolled around, this time with the nation in actual peril, thanks to a new highly contagious disease, for the first time in a many years.

1898 abt Decoration Day Parade

Procession marching through downtown Oswego on Decoration Day, around 1910. Parade Marshal George White leads the parade, which usually consisted of a marching band, civic and fraternal organizations, and citizens. When the procession reached the Oswego Township Cemetery, a short memorial service was held for the community’s Civil War dead, after which Oswego school children decorated the graves of deceased veterans with flowers.

Originally established to honor the graves of Civil War soldiers and so named Decoration Day, today’s Memorial Day honors all the nation’s military personnel who have died.

As wars go, the Civil War has never been my favorite area of historical study. Better named the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery, the war pitted the largely rural Southern states against the North and its mix of rural and industrialized urban areas. Both sides were unlucky in the military commanders they chose to lead the fight against the other side. It took a few years before the North’s crop of military leaders was finally distilled down to no-nonsense men like Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, Grant invaluable because of his grasp of strategy and Sherman for his tactical brilliance. Meanwhile, the South chose Robert Lee as their military leader, a man whose grasp of the kind of strategy required to defeat a stronger foe was disastrously flawed. The result was more than 600,000 killed in action, dead of wounds, and perished from disease.

Here in Kendall County, more than 10 percent of the total population went off to fight and the war’s lasting effect was to see the county’s population steadily decline for the next century until it finally surpassed its 1860 total in 1960.

But while the South was soundly beaten militarily during the war, it immediately began fighting to win the peace, which it did. Reinstituting the terrorism that had kept the South’s slave population in line, the Jim Crow era was, if anything, even more violent than slavery itself. And the South’s efforts to redefine the cause of the war was just as successful. By the time I was in high school a century after the war was fought, we were taught that the underlying cause of the war was state’s rights. Slavery, we were told, was a dying institution at the time and would have ended had the war never been fought.

Neither of those were true. The war was mainly fought over the South’s continuing, and increasingly unsuccessful, efforts to expand slavery into the new territories being brought into the Union. All of the existing resolutions of secession passed by Southern state legislators mention the North’s attitude towards slavery as a major cause, if not the major cause, of the states’ secession. Union. And as for being on the way out, slavery was financially lucrative in the extreme. In fact, the value of all the South’s slaves was more than the value of all of the North’s industrial, railroad, and banking facilities.

As for the Civil War itself, a little over a century and a half ago this month, the conflict was in full swing with the ultimate result still very much in doubt.

While the Union was still convinced it could defeat the rebellious secessionists if just given a little more time, reality was staring to intrude. It would take more years of blood and treasure to finally stamp out the rebellion begun by the South’s pro-slavery forces.

It would also take a lot more soldiers—by 1864, the Union was scraping the bottom of the personnel barrel. But there was an as-yet untapped resource: thousands of black men who were already living in the North and areas in the South controlled by the U.S. Government. Some were Northern-born and wanted to fight; others had escaped from slavery and were eager to do their part to ensure freedom for everyone in the nation.

Many blacks were already serving in support roles as teamsters and other noncombatant jobs. Others were serving in combat with state units, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the subject of the film, “Glory.” But on May 22, 1863, with the number of potential soldiers drying up across the North, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops. Regulations called for all officers to be white, although non-commissioned officers—corporals and sergeants—were to be promoted from the ranks.

However, some light-skinned blacks passed for white in order to serve as officers, like William N. Reed, a New York abolitionist. Reed graduated from the German military school at Kiel and had served in the German army. Arriving back in the U.S. he managed to obtain a commission as colonel of the 1st. North Carolina Colored Infantry Regiment, later reorganized as the 35th U.S. Colored Infantry. Reed is recognized as the highest-ranking African American in the Civil War

US Colored troops recruitmentIllinois Gov. Richard Yates began raising a regiment of colored troops late in 1863, but the early efforts were slow, due to a combination of factors including lower pay for black soldiers and the brutal treatment black prisoners of war received at the hands of the rebels. But gradually the regiment’s companies were filled with volunteers from all over the state until it was ready to be formally accepted for service at Quincy on April 24, 1864.

Although U.S.C.T. (U.S. Colored Troops) regiments were not always fortunate in their commanders, the 29th was, with Lt. Col. John Bross of Chicago, a skilled, knowledgeable veteran, in command. The regiment was assigned to the Fourth Division, IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the first black division to serve with the Union in the Virginia theater.

Among those who enlisted in the 29th, was an escaped slave named Nathan Hughes. According to his military records, Hughes was born in Bourbon County, Ky. and was, according to his family’s tradition, of mixed black and Seminole ancestry. Like many slaves, he was apparently unsure of his birth date. His military records stated he was 33 when he enlisted in 1864, making his birth year 1831. However, his family had a birth date of 1824 inscribed on his tombstone.

Whatever his age, Hughes managed to escape slavery, but in doing so was forced to leave his family behind. Reaching Illinois, he apparently settled near Yorkville and worked as a laborer until he volunteered for service in the 29th, enlisting in Company B under Capt. Hector Aiken.

While the 29th was fortunate in its commanding officers, it was not so lucky in those assigned to command the Fourth Division, nor the IX Corps to which it was assigned. Gen. Edward Ferrero the division commander, was a former dance instructor of middling ability, and the corps commander, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was better but no military genius. After reaching the Virginia front where Union forces besieged the rebel capital of Richmond, the 29th was assigned to protect the Union Army’s supply lines, participating in a number of skirmishes. On May 9, 1864, the 29th was instrumental in throwing back a determined rebel assault on some vital Union supply convoys.

After Gen. Ulysses Grant took command of the Union armies, he orchestrated a campaign designed to destroy the main rebel force, the Army of Northern Virginia, using a series of flanking movements gradually forcing the rebel army back on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. Richmond was not only valuable as the rebel capital, but also because of its industrial facilities and its position as a rail hub—the Civil War was the first railroad war and the lines were vital to supply the huge armies involved.

But the siege of Richmond was not something Grant wanted. He had pursued rebel Gen. Robert Lee in a series of hard marches and battles through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor unsuccessfully trying to corner him before Lee was run to ground in the extensive defensive works around Richmond.

Grant knew the heavily fortified Richmond suburb of Petersburg was the key to the rebel position, but could see no way to break into it. While Lee was a good tactician and a middling strategist, he was a fine military engineer.

Battle of the Crater

This detail from a Tom Lovell painting shows the ferocious combat that took place between rebel troops and United States soldiers during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.

So the two armies, the Union Army of the Potomac and the rebels’ Army of Northern Virginia settled down in a siege neither side wanted. Enter the coal miners serving in the Union Army’s 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, who proposed to dig a tunnel under the rebel works. The idea was to hollow out a large open cavern under the rebel fortifications, fill the cavern with gunpowder, and blow up the rebel works. The mine was completed, the charge blown up, and a huge break in the rebel lines was created. But the Union assault was a confused failure, thanks to incompetent commanders. The Battle of the Crater that took place as Union troops, including Ferrero’s U.S. Colored Troops, attempted to exploit the new break in the rebel lines was depicted from the Southern point of view in the 2003 film “Cold Harbor.” It was a Union disaster.

The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry was one of the regiments that were part of the assault force, and during the melee, Nathan Hughes was badly wounded, shot in his left knee. He must have been a tough guy because unlike so many Union soldiers, Hughes survived the serious wound, including being sent to a military hospital. He not only survived but was returned to duty months later, just in time to be wounded again, this time less seriously in the hand. Doing hard marching with the 29th, Hughes fought through the battles and skirmishes of Boydton Plank Road, Globe Tavern, Poplar Grove Church, and Hatcher’s Run before Grant was able to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to bay at Appomattox Courthouse, Lee’s surrender in April 1865 effectively ending the war. The 29th was then sent down to Texas to watch the border with Mexico thanks to French meddling with that country while the U.S. was distracted with its internal conflict. The regiment was mustered out of U.S. service in November 1865.

After being mustered out with the rest of the regiment in Texas, Hughes returned to Illinois where he decided to settle on a small plot in Kendall County near Oswego on today’s Minkler Road. Like many escaped slaves forced to leave their families behind during their desperate flight north, Hughes headed back to Kentucky after the war to try to retrieve his wife and children. His three children decided to go back north with their father. His wife, for whatever reason, decided to stay in Kentucky. It must have been a wrenching decision to watch her children leave, but it must also have been an almost impossible choice for those who had been considered property only a few months before to make another such momentous change in their lives. I suspect the PTSD suffered by former slaves, as well as many of the men who served during the war, was a real burden for thousands for many years after the war.

 

 

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

In 1893, Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benesohn took this portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin. Confederate Army canons were melted down to make the pins. (Little White School Museum

Nathan Hughes came back to the Oswego area with his children, eventually remarried and lived for the rest of his life on his small farm on Minkler Road southwest of Oswego. He was a respected member of the farming community there, and was the only Black member in Kendall County of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, where he served as an officer of the GAR’s Yorkville post.

His children married into the nearby Black farming community, most members of which eventually moved into Aurora where jobs in the city’s many factories were more attractive than the labor-intensive, low income farming of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His descendants prospered, two of his grandchildren becoming the first Black male and first Black female to graduate from high school in Kendall County (both from Oswego High School). And their descendants prospered, too, becoming elementary and high school teachers, and college professors—and at least one Federal judge.

Hughes died in March 1910, and was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, where he lays today with four of his black Civil War comrades. Wrote Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall—himself a Civil War veteran—upon Hughes’s death: “It is a pleasure to bear testimony to his worth as a man and a patriot; he was loyal to his country and in all his associations was a quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits… A good citizen, he has left a vacant place in the ranks of the ‘boys in blue.’”

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Filed under Civil War, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

Maramech Hill area a historical gem—just not the one many believe it to be

Maramech Hill, located between Big Rock and Little Rock creeks just upstream from where the combined streams enter the Fox River, has been a celebrated local historical site for more than a century. Once touted as the site of a climactic battle between colonial French forces and their allies and the Fox Tribe, the area around the hill has become one of Kendall County’s premiere cultural and natural destinations.

Maramech Hill Area

The Maramech Hill area of Kendall County. Click here to enlarge.

Part of the area’s story begins during Illinois’ colonial era.

Warfare between Europeans and Native Americans began almost as soon as Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

In South and Central America, and a portion of southern North America, the Spanish waged a series of very successful wars of extinction against the native populations.

For most of North America, however, the situation was quite different. A series of powerful, adaptable, Indian tribes made the conquest of North America anything but a sure thing. Eventually, however, European numbers and technology won out over the Indians. But it was a tough, generations-long struggle.

For instance, the area that now includes the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia was known as “the dark and bloody ground” long before colonial American frontier settlers began filtering into it.

Maramech Hill site with timber

The Maramech Hill area (between the two creeks), during the settlement era, was surrounded by tall timber as the original survey map from 1838 shows. Click to enlarge.

Claimed as a prime hunting and trapping ground by the native tribes of the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and Huron people, the region was the location of nearly continuous intertribal warfare. It was warfare made worse when European colonial powers began playing the tribes off against each other in a quest to dominate the trade in furs. By the mid-1760s, the Europeans’ wars against each other had largely been settled in favor of England. English peace efforts included issuing a proclamation declaring a no-go zone for settlers west of a line that roughly ran along the peaks of the Appalachian chain. That effort failed spectacularly as American colonials flooded across the mountains to settle the region, touching off even more warfare with and between the tribes. A “dark and bloody ground,” indeed.

But it’s not so well known that nearly a century before those events took place, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan could have been accurately described as a dark and bloody ground as well, primarily because of a decades-long war between the French colonial government and the Fox Tribe.

The Foxes call themselves Meskwaki, or people of the red earth. The French, after encountering the tribe, referred to them as the Outagami or the Renards—French for fox. The tribe was first recorded living along the St. Lawrence River in modern Ontario. But warfare resulting from side effects of the fur trade—primarily conflict with the Huron Tribe—pushed the Foxes west, first to lower Michigan and then, eventually, to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. So the Foxes arrived in our region with built-in animosity towards the French as well as a favorable feeling towards the Iroquois, deadly enemies of both the Hurons and the French.

Through that series of wars and forced relocation, the Foxes became a pugnacious people. Part of the great Algonquian-speaking majority of Native tribes in northern North America, they were members of a linguistic subgroup with the Sauks and Kickapoos.

After being driven out of eastern Michigan by the Ojibwas, the Foxes were involved in fairly constant warfare with that tribe. The Foxes also engaged in sharp battles with the Sioux in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The Illinois, Potawatomis, the Miamis, and several other tribes in the upper Midwest were also often at odds with the Foxes.

Franquelin map color

Franquelin’s map of LaSalle’s colony in 1684 shows what early 20th Century advocate John F. Steward believed was Maramech Hill near Plano.

The warfare was bad for the business of the fur trade (especially their efforts to trade with the Sioux) and the French tried to stop it by weighing in on the side of the Foxes’ numerous enemies. This led the Foxes to cultivate ties with the powerful and ruthless Iroquois Confederacy, who were friends of the British and implacable enemies of the French and their Algonquian-speaking Native allies.

The Foxes’ actions to become the middlemen for the fur trade west of southern Lake Michigan—and to deny French firearms to the Sioux—resulted in denying the use of the strategic and economically valuable portage between the upper Fox River of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River to French trading interests. Instead, French traders had to use the longer and far more difficult Chicago Portage. And if that wasn’t bad enough, cozying up to British interests eventually persuaded the French that the Foxes had to be destroyed.

In 1710, a large group of Foxes—not the entire tribe—agreed to move adjacent to the French fort at Detroit, ostensibly to live under the protection of the French military. However, given the Foxes’ long animosity toward the French and their Indian allies, the Foxes were soon—and predictably—embroiled with disputes against French interests. In 1712, the disputes led to a Fox siege of the French fort, with the Foxes heavily and skillfully fortified inside their own camp. Eventually, Indian allies of the French arrived to lift the siege and to besiege the Foxes. The stalemate lasted nearly a month until the group of Foxes, out of food and water, attempted to escape during a thunderstorm. They were unsuccessful, and virtually the entire band was destroyed.

The rest of the Fox Tribe, not surprisingly, was infuriated. They retaliated by killing French traders and several members of the tribes allied with France. At the same time, the Foxes mounted a diplomatic offensive, and concluded a treaty with their old enemies, the Sioux, to eliminate the threat of an attack on them from the west.

Kee-Shes-Wa Fox Warrior

Kee-Shes-Wa, a Meskwaki chief, painted by Charles Bird King in the early 1800s.

In response to the Foxes’ military actions, in 1715, the French attempted to launch a punitive expedition but those efforts were badly planned, and failed. The Foxes used the respite to build a strong, well-planned fortification on the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay. The fort’s walls were made of oak logs reinforced with earth dug out of trenches inside the fort.

When the French and their allies finally attacked in 1716, they used artillery and formal European siege tactics to attack the Foxes’ fort. However, the Foxes held out against the French and their allies, and forced a humiliating retreat.

The Indians of southern Wisconsin, the Fox included, often hunted buffalo on the Illinois prairie without the permission of the latter. In 1722, members of the Illinois Confederacy captured the nephew a Fox chief and burned him alive. The murder was in retaliation for the Foxes’ continually hunting in the Illinois Country without the permission of the Confederacy. In their own retaliation, a Fox force swiftly moved down into the Illinois County, and attacked a group of the Illinois Confederacy they found, forcing them to take refuge at LaSalle’s old fort atop Starved Rock. The Illinois managed to send a message south to Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois and a force of French and their Native American allies was dispatched to rescue the besieged Illinois. By the time the relief force arrived, the Foxes had wisely retreated, leaving about 120 Illinois dead.

Not content with hindering the French trade in furs, the Fox continually attacked down into the Illinois Country, raiding French and Native American villages alike. Deciding to take the offensive against the Foxes once again in 1727, the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Beauharnois, planned a campaign to destroy the Foxes’ military power. The governor appointed Constant Le Marchand de Lignery to command the campaign. Under the plan, de Lignery gathered a force of French troops and Native American allies in the summer of 1728. The Canadian force was to link up with another group from Illinois commanded by Pierre Charles Desliettes, commander at Fort des Chartres. the Commandant of the Illinois District. The rendezvous of the two forces was to have been at Chicago. But Desliettes’ force of 20 French soldiers and 500 Illini warriors happened upon a hunting camp of Foxes, along with some Kickapoos and Mascoutens, which they immediately attacked. The French force killed 20 and captured 15, after which Desliettes’ Illinois decided they’d had enough warfare and headed back home..

The balance of de Lignery’s large force, numbering some 1,650 French and Indians, continued into the Foxes’ country, but moved too slowly. The Fox learned of the coming assault and escaped before they could be attacked. The attackers only managed to burn some Fox and Winnebago villages and crops before they retired back to Canada.

Governor Beauharnois, however, had become determined to permanently solve his “Fox problem.” Part of the plan involved using interpreter Jean-Baptiste Reaume to stir up animosity against the Foxes among other tribes. With that set in motion, he also ordered French officials in the Illinois Country to be alert for any opportunities to destroy the Fox Tribe.

1731 Carte du Fort ou des Renards

Carte du Fort ou des Renards,” a map drawn in 1731 from accounts provided by French officers involved in the 1730 battle against the Fox Tribe proved Maramech Hill near Plano could not be the battle site. Click here for a larger copy. of the map.

At the same time, the bulk of the Fox Tribe had decided they’d had enough, and determined to leave their homeland and head back east to live under the protection of their one-time allies, the Iroquois. To that end they packed up and headed southeast with the intention of looping round the end of Lake Michigan down to Starved Rock and then east to cross the Wabash. The first part of their trip was uneventful, but when they reached Starved Rock, they attacked a group of Illinois Indians, capturing the son of one of that group’s chiefs, whom they burned at the stake. That infuriated the Illinois, who complained to the commandant at Fort de Chartres. For good measure, the Foxes had also attacked and angered groups of the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Mascouten tribes, which, it turned out played right into the hands of the French since Reaume had been goading all of them to attack the Fox for the past couple years.

From Starved Rock, the Foxes, with about 350 warriors and around 1,000 women, children, and old men, headed southeast, intending to cross the Wabash River. But having again angered the Illinois with their attacks, a force of about 200 Illinois warriors forced the Foxes to stop and build a fort to protect themselves. In the meantime, the French were calling on their Indian allies to join them to fight the Foxes.

The French forces eventually involved included Lieutenant Nicolas-Antoine Coulon de Villiers, Commandant at the River St. Joseph in modern southern Michigan; Lieutenant Robert Groston de St. Ange from Fort de Chartres; and Reaume. The allied French and Indian forces numbered about 1,400, and arrived to besiege the Foxes about Aug. 20, 1730.

This time, the Foxes’ luck against the French and their allies ran out. Low on food and water, the Foxes decided to make a desperate run for it during a violent thunderstorm the night of Sept. 8. Caught on the prairie outside their fortification, the Foxes were attacked and nearly exterminated. The battle did solve the Fox problem for the French, but it also served to sow dissent among their own allies. After all, if the French could exterminate one tribe, they could probably exterminate others.

Steward, John FIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, John Steward of Plano decided this climactic battle took place Maramech Hill near Plano here in Kendall County. Armed with this conviction and a good deal of money, he set out to find information to prove his contention. In 1903, Steward published a book he felt proved his point, Lost Maramech and Earliest Chicago, and even had a huge rock moved to the hill and inscribed with his version of what be believed transpired there.

Steward’s contentions, however, were controversial from the beginning, with most historians pointing out the plain language of the French colonial documents Steward located in France proved Maramech Hill could not have been the battle’s location. His thesis suffered a serious blow in 1935 when Stanley Faye published “The Foxes Fort—1730” in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, an article that demolished most of Steward’s contentions. Some 50 years later, three contemporary maps of the battle and site that had been unavailable to Steward were discovered and described the Journal in 1980 (“The 1730 Fox Fort: A Recently Discovered Map Throws New Light on Its Siege and Location”) and 1987 (“The 1730 Siege of the Foxes: Two Maps by Canadian Participants Provide Additional Information on the Fort and Its Location”).

1900 Lettering the Maramech Hill marker

The carved granite boulder John F. Steward (right in photo) placed on Maramech Hill near Plano  to mark what he believed was the location of the climactic battle between the French and their Native American allies and the Fox Tribe in 1730.

That new evidence, combined with both old and newly discovered accounts of the battle have persuaded historians that Maramech Hill was not the site of the battle. Rather, it is probable it happened near Arrowsmith, Ill., located well to the south-southeast of Starved Rock, east of Bloomington in McLean County. Archaeological work at the Arrowsmith site has made it all but certain that was the location of the 1730 battle.

1903 Maramech Hill B

Maramech Hill in 1903

So, okay, the French-Fox battle of 1730 didn’t happen at Maramech Hill. What did go on there? Obviously, given the artifacts recovered by Steward, the site had been inhabited by Native Americans. As it turns out, many of the artifacts Steward recovered proved Maramech Hill had been the home of Native Americans for a long, long time—just not the ones he thought lived there.

The potsherds he recovered from the site, for instance, appear to be from the Mississippian cultural tradition, as do other stone tools such as hoes for working cornfields. The Mississippian culture was based on growing corn and on trade all over North America. Their capital was at modern Cahokia where upwards of 40,000 may have lived in the area surrounding Monk’s Mound, the largest manmade earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. The river and creek bottomlands around Maramech Hill seem to have been tailor-made for the intensive agriculture practiced by the Mississippians.

But the artifacts Steward says he collected also point to habitation after the era of the French-Fox War as well, including trade silver that was created by British fur trade companies after the end of the French and Indian War in the late 1760s. Maramech Hill may have been the location of a Potawatomi village in the early 1800s led by Main Poche, a noted warrior who opposed the U.S. during the War of 1812.

Today, Maramech Hill and its immediate area are one of Kendall County’s most historically significant areas. Although Steward’s insistence that the climactic battle of 1730 between the French and the Fox Tribe happened there has been proven wrong over the last century and a quarter, the research into that era and the conflict between the Foxes and the French have proved to be extremely informative. For instance, warfare between the Fox Tribe and the French did not follow the familiar Hollywood script. Instead, the Foxes were able to develop the practical engineering expertise to blunt or thwart every French attack, including those involving artillery. In the end, it was lack of supplies that forced the Foxes to leave their fortified camp, leaving them vulnerable to an attack by a superior force. And while the battle didn’t happen here in Kendall County, it was part of the region’s history that made this its own “dark and bloody ground.’

Van de Rohe Farnsworth House drawing

The house legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed and built for Dr. Edith Farnsworth draws visitors from all over the world to the Maramech Hill area.

Further, the area in which Maramech Hill is situated had its own fascinating history during the pioneer era and afterwards. Just down the road a bit from Maramech Hill, where the road—part of the old Fox River Trail stagecoach road from Ottawa to Geneva—crosses Rob Roy Creek was the tiny hamlet of Penfield, where a post office was established in December 1839. When Marcus Steward—John Steward’s father—established his new town along the right-of-way of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Penfield Post Office was moved to the new town on the railroad tracks, opening as Plano in May, 1854.

In addition, the neighborhood also features Kendall County’s only international attraction, the Farnsworth House, designed and built between 1945 and 1951 by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth on the banks of the Fox River just a short distance from Maramech Hill. The architectural treasure annually draws thousands of visitors from around the world to see van der Rohe’s architectural gem.

2016 Maramech Forest PreserveFinally, thanks to the area’s topography, today the Maramech Hill area is also one of Kendall County’s natural jewels featuring rare and endangered plants, a startling variety of wildlife, and unique geographical features.

Prehistory and the region’s elaborate civilizations created by Native People, Illinois’ turbulent early frontier era, the era of settlement, its rare and endangered plants and animals, the nearby Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, and world-class architecture combine to make Maramech Hill and its surrounding region one of Kendall County’s most important and interesting areas.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

A bit of French colonial history close to home right here in northern Illinois…

After writing, a few weeks ago, about the Kankakee Torrent that formed the modern Illinois River Valley, I got to thinking about Starved Rock again. The Rock and most of the area now comprising Starved Rock State Park was purchased by the State of Illinois back in 1911, the state’s second state park (Fort Massac State Park at Illinois’ southern tip was the state’s first). And the park’s history is part and parcel of the colonial history of northern Illinois, something that’s fascinated me for a long time.

Starved Rock

A vintage postcard view of Starved Rock published not long after it was opened as a state park.

For the more than a century since its acquisition, Starved Rock near Ottawa and Utica has been a favorite weekend leisure destination for residents of northern Illinois. The bluff, comprised of St. Peter sandstone, soars 125-feet above the surface of the Illinois River. Created by the Kankakee Torrent, the bluff is the main attraction at the park, but it is joined by the classic old Starved Rock Lodge (and its excellent restaurant) and the miles of hiking trails that wind through spectacular canyons that have, over thousands of years, been eroded out of the surrounding sandstone by rushing water after rains and the annual snow melt.

Although the Starved Rock area has been one of northern Illinois’ premier tourist attractions for more than a century, I’d guess less than one in 10 Illinois residents have any idea that the rock itself and the rugged terrain surrounding it was once the site of the largest congregation of Indian tribes ever gathered, or that the top of the rock was the site of the first permanent French settlement in what is today Illinois.

Indians Starved Rock

Linguist Father Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet visited the Grand Village of Kaskaskia just across the river from Starved Rock in 1673. The Rock is prominent in the background in this illustration.

In 1673, when geographer and cartographer Louis Jolliet and linguist and missionary Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois River on their way back to Canada during their epic investigation into the course of the Mississippi River, they became the first Europeans to see Starved Rock. At least they were the first ones to do so legally. It’s not unlikely that renegade courier du boise—the French frontiersmen who lived among Native Americans—knew of the site’s existence well before the two French explorers arrived.

Jolliet and Marquette found a large village of the Illinois Confederacy, named Kaskaskia (not to be confused with the later French village near St. Louis), across the river from the shear  sandstone bluff.

1683 Ft St. Louis on Starved Rock

LaSalle and Tonti built Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock in the winter of 1682 to anchor LaSalle’s fur trade concession obtained from the French crown. The French abandoned the fort about 1701.

A few years later, when Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, obtained a trade monopoly for the Illinois Country, he immediately saw the possibilities Starved Rock offered. The French called the sheer sandstone bluff simply The Rock, and it became the linchpin for the first French settlement in northern Illinois. LaSalle and his right hand man, Henri de Tonti, built a strong fort atop the rock, effectively controlling passage up and down the Illinois River. LaSalle named the installation Fort St. Louis, in honor of his patron, the king of France.

The Rock’s steep sides provided excellent protection for the fort, and since the base of the bluff is washed by the Illinois River, water was no problem in case of siege.

Eventually, LaSalle persuaded thousands of local Indians to locate around The Rock by offering them the protection of French arms. It was a timely intervention because the Iroquois Confederacy, based in upstate New York, was engaged in an unprecedented series of wars of conquest aimed at solidifying their control over the Great Lakes fur trade. Historians have come to call this series of multi-year conflicts the Beaver Wars.

Just a few years before LaSalle arrived, Iroquois raiding parties had driven the related tribes of the Illinois Confederacy west of the Mississippi. By the time LaSalle established his post atop The Rock, tribes had begun to trickle back into Illinois from areas to which they had been driven by the Iroquois’ ferocious assault. Not only did the Iroquois attack and kill thousands, but they also dug up Native American cemeteries and defiled the dead. It was total war, and it’s possible that LaSalle and Tonti’s timely arrival in Illinois saved some tribes from the total annihilation suffered by other tribes such as the Neutrals which lived north of the Great Lakes.

Franquelin map color

Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle provided the information for cartographer Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin to draw this map of the area on the upper Illinois River in 1684, including the number of Native Americans drawn to the area due to promises of protection by the French.

By about 1701, however, conditions around The Rock had changed. LaSalle was dead, killed by his own men during an abortive attempt to colonize the Mississippi delta—bad navigation led him to Galveston Bay in modern Texas instead-—and the huge concentration of tribes around The Rock had depleted the area’s farmland, firewood, and game.

As a result, Tonti, who was now in charge of LaSalle’s Illinois colony, decided to move the entire operation south to Peoria Lake, called Pimitoui by the local tribes. Eventually, the French retired all the way south and west to the Mississippi River, helped along by the continued hostility of the Iroquois and their local allies such as the Fox Tribe. Along the banks of the Mississippi, the French established permanent villages at Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher, and Kaskaskia. Their descendants, greatly reduced in numbers and power, were still there, farming and shipping grain to New Orleans, when Col. George Rogers Clark and his Virginia militia arrived during the Revolutionary War.

Meanwhile, The Rock was inhabited intermittently, both by Native People and by French traders. At some point, the fort burned, possibly due to arson by Indians glad to see the Europeans leave.

At the end of the French and Indian War of the 1750s and 1760s, the British began moving into Illinois as they took over the former French possessions, This angered many long-time Indian allies of the French, most notably Pontiac, an Ottawa organizational and military genius. Pontiac’s War, whose purpose was to restore French control over the Illinois Country, nearly threw the British out of the area north and west of the Ohio River (later called the Northwest Territory). But eventually superior British military force won out.

After the war, Pontiac was murdered at Peoria, reportedly by a member of the Illinois Confederacy. This enraged Pontiac’s supporters who still venerated his leadership. They reportedly besieged the killer and his tribal relatives atop the rock, where, the story goes, they were either starved or killed or committed suicide by jumping into the Illinois River. Thus The Rock became known as Starved Rock.

Starved Rock modern shot

After nearly 350 years, Starved Rock is still an impressive sight on the Illinois River.

Today, little of Starved Rock’s rich and remarkably long history is immediately visible, although the park’s visitors’ center does a pretty good job of trying to explain the area’s importance to the colonial history of the state, the region, and the nation.

Assuming the travel and social gathering restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 are eased, you could drive up to Quebec or Montreal and visit French colonial sites, or head east to the Atlantic Coast to delve into the British colonial era or go down to Florida, Louisiana, or Texas and learn about the nation’s Spanish colonial history. Or you could save a lot of your hard-earned money and just drive down Ill. Route 71 to Starved Rock for a taste of French colonial history, Illinois-style.

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Filed under Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

A bit of local highway history changes with the Harvey Rd. intersection closure

A bit of area history came to an end on April 27 when the Illinois Department of Transportation announced the closure of the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and Harvey Road in northeast Oswego Township.

Harvey Road mapSince the construction of Oswego East High School just off Harvey Road, the angled intersection had become the site of accidents and near-misses so it made sense to close it and redirect traffic to the signalized intersection at Treasure Drive just a short distance east of Harvey Road. Instead of joining Route 30, Harvey Road will now end in a cul-de-sac.

How did that intersection come to be the way it is today? Well, the road used to go straight past Lincoln Memorial Park and down modern Harvey Road. That’s back when the road from Aurora was called the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first marked coast-to-coast road. A few years later, when the highway was paved and became U.S. Route 30, its route diverged making the modern curve to follow the right-of-way of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban trolley line. The right-of-way for that change of course for the 2.5 miles in Kendall County, starting at Harvey Road, was purchased by the Kendall County Board using a donation from the good roads folks in Aurora and then given to Illinois to speed paving the highway.

So what’s the story behind the Lincoln Highway itself?

In 1913 Carl Fisher was a man with a vision. The Indianapolis daredevil auto racer, showman, and entrepreneur figured that what the United States needed to spur business and hasten the development of the automobile was a transcontinental highway linking the Atlantic shore with the Pacific coast.

Fisher worked hard to drum up private support for what he called a “Coast to Coast Rock Highway,” so named because it was not to be just a marked route, but was to be one with a good gravel surface that would theoretically allow travel in all weather.

Fisher’s campaign was far from a slam-dunk, however. Henry Ford for instance, a guy you’d think would have jumped at the idea as a way to sell more of his Model T’s, disdained the whole notion, holding out for government funding for major roads, not private financing. Ford, of course, had a point. But at the time Fisher was militating for his coast-to-coast highway, government funding for such a project was simply not in the political cards. But Fisher persisted, and the pledges of support started rolling in, especially after he renamed the proposed interstate road after one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln.

In June 1913, Fisher incorporated the Lincoln Highway Association at Detroit, Mich., with Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Company, as its president and Fisher serving as vice-president.

At the time of incorporation, in fact, Joy was westbound with a caravan of Packards and their owners, blazing what he considered the most direct route west to California.

By October, the association settled on the Lincoln’s main course, making use of existing roads along most of the route’s 3,389 miles. They announced the route to the public on Oct. 26, 1913 at a meeting of the governors of the 13 states through which the new highway would run. As planned, the Lincoln started at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street at New York City’s Times Square, then headed west into New Jersey and then through to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, where the terminus was established in San Francisco just outside today’s Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park just off Geary Boulevard at 34th Street.

The Lincoln Highway was formally dedicated on Oct. 31, 1913.

1924 Lincoln Highway

This 1924 map traces the original route of the Lincoln Highway–now U.S. Route 30–through Illinois from Indiana to Iowa.

As it was envisioned and designed, the highway bypassed major cities in favor of traveling through medium-sized towns and villages. Here in Illinois, it bypassed Chicago, looping south around the city through Joliet, Plainfield, on through a portion of Wheatland Township in Will County and Oswego Township in Kendall County, before reaching Aurora. The original route passed Phillips Park on modern Hill Avenue, where, in 1923, the Lincoln Highway Pavilion was built by the Aurora Automobile Club. I remember having family gatherings in the pavilion when I was a child. Completely restored a few years ago, the pavilion still exists, easily seen off Hill Avenue, the old Lincoln route near Phillips Park’s Hill Avenue entrance.

Lincoln Highway badge

The Lincoln Highway Association marked the route of the Lincoln Highway with red, white, and blue badges.

In Wheatland and Oswego townships, the road followed a winding course on existing country roads. Most of the original route has been marked by the Illinois chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association, so if you’re of a mind, you can travel that road today by following the signs east from Aurora.

But as more and more traffic surged onto the new highway, officials started looking to both simplify it’s course and to pave it. With so many twists and turns between Plainfield and Aurora, that section of the Lincoln was an obvious choice for revision. So in 1923, with the promise by Illinois officials to pave the route as soon as possible, the Kendall County Board voted to acquire 2.5 miles of right-of-way paralleling the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora Transportation Company’s interurban line.

As the Feb. 14, 1923 Kendall County Record explained: “The new right-of-way in Kendall county for the Lincoln highway is necessitated by a relocating of the route to shorten the distance between Plainfield and Aurora.”

1924 Lincoln Highway shelter

The Lincoln Highway Shelter on the highway at Philips Park in Aurora was built for camping auto travelers in 1923 by the Aurora Automobile Club. Completely restored a few years ago, it’s a living reminder of the highway’s glory days.

Spurred on by the promise of quick action in Springfield, Kendall County officials were moving quickly. The policy at that time was that local government was responsible for obtaining highway rights-of-way, and then the state would cover the costs of engineering and construction. That spring, Gov. Len Small promised that if the right-of-way was procured at once, he’d add the Plainfield-Aurora section of the Lincoln to the 1923 highway program, along with the even more eagerly sought paving of Route 18, The Cannonball Trail Route (now U.S. Route 34).

Kendall County taxpayers, however, were not totally on the hook for the cost of the land. The Good Roads Committee of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce raised $1,000 in donations from city residents to defray Kendall County’s costs. “The money [for the right-of-way purchase] was all donated in Aurora,” the Record noted on March 14.

It was about this same time that the old system of giving highways names—such as the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway (another of Fisher’s creations), and The Cannonball Trail—was being phased out in favor of a system of numbered routes that were government-funded. In general, east-west routes were given even numbers, while north-south routes got odd numbers. The system wouldn’t go nationwide until 1926, but by then it had already begun in Illinois. The Lincoln, for instance, was first designated Route 22 by Illinois. The Cannonball Trail, linking Chicago with Princeton via Naperville, Aurora, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich, was initially numbered Route 18.

It’s remarkable how quickly things moved during that era, especially compared to the glacial pace at which modern highway projects advance. On May 9, 1923 the Record reported: “The Chicago Heights Coal Company of Chicago Heights was the lowest bidder for paving sections 15 and 16, Route 22, Lincoln Highway, commencing at Plainfield and running west to Aurora, a distance of 5.19 miles, when the bids were opened at Springfield April 13. Its bid was $222,000.”

1936 34-30 overpass

The last unpaved local section of U.S. Route 30 was finished in 1936 when the cloverleaf intersection with U.S. Route 34 was built with federal WPA funds. (Little White School Museum collection)

In early June, the Plainfield Enterprise reported state officials were promising that all 159.4 miles of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois would be paved during 1923. And, apparently, it was. The only remaining gravel stretch of the highway in Kendall County was at its intersection with Route 18—today’s Route 34. With delays and then the advent of the Great Depression, completion lagged. It required federal Works Progress Administration funds to complete the Route 30-34 cloverleaf intersection and overpass, which wasn’t finished until 1936.

In November 1926, the states officially approved the federal government’s new numbering system, part of which designated the Lincoln as U.S. Route 30 along its entire length and Route 18 as U.S. Route 34.

Despite the advent of the interstate highway system, the Lincoln Highway still carries hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, and buses along its transcontinental length daily more than a century after Carl Fisher spearheaded its development, another living reminder of our area’s transportation and economic history. And with the closure of the Route 30–Harvey Road intersection, a bit of that history has added one more bit to the story of the Lincoln Highway.

 

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