Monthly Archives: September 2013

Abram R. Dodge: Another of history’s mysteries

On or about May 14, 1846, Abram R. Dodge and 32 Kendall County men, several from Oswego, climbed on board wagons whose use, along with the teams to pull them were donated by local residents, and left to fight in the newly declared war with Mexico.


A mounted U.S. Dragoon and an infantry lieutenant pause while marching off to fight in the Mexican War of 1846. Company E, 2nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, would have worn uniforms similar to the lieutenant’s. Image courtesy of On Point: The On-Line Journal of Army History.”

Called “Captain Dodge’s Company,” the men were transported to Alton on the Mississippi River, and there they were taken into federal service. Dodge’s company was filled out to its standard compliment of about 50 men and was then officially designated Company E and assigned to the 2nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Abram Dodge was an interesting fellow, once prominent and well-known but his fame was fleeting, so fleeting that for decades it was forgotten that he was the “Captain Dodge” who led a company of local residents off to war. Instead, the grave of his younger brother, Alexander, was decorated with a U.S. Flag on Memorial Day.

We know a little about Dodge, and we’ve found out more during the past few weeks, prompted by his mention in a letter recently acquired by Oswego’s Little White School Museum, written by Henry J. Moore back to a cousin in New York State.

Thanks to a copy of another letter in the museum’s collections, donated by Dodge family historian Karen Hale, along with a few mentions in histories of Kendall County written in 1877 and 1914, we’ve been slowly piecing together Dodge’s life in the Kendall County area.

He arrived in the Fox Valley about 1835, first apparently living in Aurora. When his father, Ashael Dodge, and the rest of his family arrived in 1837, he moved in with his father in the area of today’s hamlet of Little Rock in Kendall County. At that time, Little Rock Township was still part of Kane County; Kendall County wouldn’t be formed until 1841. Shortly after, Dodge moved south of the Kane-LaSalle County line, ran for office, and was elected on the Democratic Party ticket to serve in the Illinois General Assembly.

Henry Moore, in the May 14, 1846 letter recently acquired by the museum, noted that not only was Dodge a lawyer, but he was also a Democrat and “a stanch loco,” meaning he was a member of the liberal faction of the Democratic Party called the Locofocos. The Locofocos, in general, opposed state banks, paper money, tariffs, monopolies, and any financial policy they deemed anti-democratic. They officially called themselves the “Equal Rights Party,” but later adopted the derisive nickname they were given when party regulars turned off the gaslights during a Tammany Hall nominating meeting and the radicals lit candles with the then-new self-striking matches, known as locofocos, and nominated their own list of candidates.

As befitted a radical, Dodge was apparently a hotheaded fellow, and was involved in a near duel during his term of office in the General Assembly, according to an account by Elihu Washburne. For good measure, he also opposed the formation of Kendall County while a member of the General Assembly. When area residents proposed taking three townships from Kane County—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—and six townships from LaSalle County—Big Grove, Kendall, NaAuSay, Fox, Lisbon, and Seward—to form the new nine-township Kendall County, Dodge helped the forces militating against the new county’s formation. But it was in vain, and Kendall County was established in February 1841.

Whether he favored its formation or not, Dodge apparently came back to Kendall County after his single term in Springfield.

By 1846, he was a fairly well-known attorney apparently living in Oswego, and when President James K. Polk appealed for 50,000 volunteers to serve for one year to fight the Mexicans, Dodge, along with another local attorney, Alonzo B. Smith, spoke at a rally held at Oswego’s first one-room school, located on Madison Street, urging local men to enlist in the fight. Dodge was elected captain of the locally-raised company, and left with them on their trip to Alton. But while his company went off to war, fighting under Gen. Zachary Taylor at the Battle of Palo Alto, Dodge apparently did not. An 1874 report by the Illinois Adjutant General’s office affirmed that Dodge indeed had been commissioned a captain in the 2nd Illinois in June 1846 at Alton, but a later, more complete report issued by the adjutant general’s office omitted any mention of him. Further official records indicated that sometime in July 1846, Dodge’s Company E of the 2nd Illinois Volunteers was given a new captain. What happened to his service, we do not know, but it was apparently exceedingly brief.

Dodge then drops out of the historical record until we find him in 1850, living in what is today Lisle Township (then called DuPage Township) of DuPage County. According to the U.S. Census that year, Dodge, then 40 years of age, was living with his wife, Susannah, and his younger brother, Deloss, whose occupation was listed as “Student.” After that, Dodge drops out of sight altogether. By at least one report, he died in DuPage County in 1850, but the historical jury’s still out on that conclusion. He certainly is not included in any further Censuses.

For the time being at least, Abram Dodge is just one more of those local personages who drift in and out of history, this time a life given a little more illumination thanks to the serendipitous acquisition of Henry J. Moore’s only-known letter by the Little White School Museum.


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How Henry J. Moore left his mark on Oswego history…

We keep an eye on eBay down at the museum in case anything interesting pops up, and from time to time, something does. A case in point is a letter that Henry J. Moore sat down to write on May 14, 1846 to his cousin back in Monroe County, N.Y. He mailed it from Oswego where his family had settled, and thereby rescued himself from historical oblivion.

We could read a bit of Moore’s letter on-line, but it’s difficult using eBay’s “mouse over” magnification “feature,” sort of like trying to look at a giant billboard through the wrong end of a telescope. But from what we could tell, the letter contained some really interesting information about breaking the prairie sod with yokes of oxen and citizens volunteering and marching off to fight in the Mexican War. It was enough for us to allocate the bulk of our annual budget for purchasing artifacts and archival items to the auction, and, I am happy to say, we were successful. Not only that, but the seller gave us a $35 discount when he found out the letter was going into the collections of the Little White School Museum here in Oswego.

The front of Henry J. Moore's letter, sent from Oswego back to Monroe County, N.Y. in 1846. No stamps or envelopes in those days.

The front of Henry J. Moore’s letter, sent from Oswego back to Monroe County, N.Y. in 1846. No stamps or envelopes in those days.

The letter, when it arrived at the museum, was found to be in fragile condition. What collectors call a folded stampless cover, the letter had been written by young Henry G. Moore, folded into its own envelope, and then secured with a large drop of hot red wax and impressed with a seal. He took it to the Oswego Post Office and paid 10-cents to mail it back to New York. In those days, there were no stamps, so Postmaster W.O. Parke simply wrote “10” on the envelope and then canceled it by writing “Oswego, Ills.” and “June 18” in the lower left corner of the front.

The back of the Moore letter, showing how the carefully folded single sheet forms its own envelope, sealed with red wax.

The back of the Moore letter, showing how the carefully folded single sheet forms its own envelope, sealed with red wax.

After arriving in New York, Moore’s cousin, James M. Cusick, stopped down at his local post office and retrieved his letter—there was no such thing as home or rural mail delivery in those days—and somehow it was saved for posterity, ending up in a large collection of stampless covers that were put up on eBay for sale.

Over the years, the letter had been folded and unfolded many times, causing it to separate along many of the folds. So the first thing we did with it was to encapsulate it in Mylar—which is NOT to be confused with laminating. Laminating uses heat, glue, and un-archival plastic sheets to encase paper and it destroys the historical integrity of documents. Encapsulating involves securing documents in a Mylar sandwich sealed along the edges with archival quality double-faced tape. The corners are left un-taped and open to allow the documents to breath, (hopefully) preventing mold and mildew from forming. And since the document itself is not glued or otherwise fastened, encapsulating is simple to undo with a sharp scissors.

After starting to unfold the letter after it arrived at the museum, it was clear it had separated at the many folds over the years. So it was important that it be encapsulated in Mylar to protect it.

After starting to unfold the letter after it arrived at the museum, it was clear it had separated at the many folds over the years. So it was important that it be encapsulated in Mylar to protect it.

Once the letter was encapsulated, we scanned it and then transcribed it. We then could make some conclusions about both the writer and the times in which he was writing. For instance, young Henry’s family was farming outside Oswego, and he reports that they had, by the time he wrote back home to his cousin on May 14, 1846, that they had broken 145 acres for planting. Plowing was proceeding at about two acres per day using a breaking plow and six oxen, he said.

He also missed his cousin, James, and urged him to make a visit to what was then the western frontier. Further, Henry urged anyone coming west to “bring a girl for the girls is [s]carse this time [of] year.”

The other big news that spring was that war with Mexico had broken out and that President James K. Polk had issued a call for 50,000 troops. Moore told his cousin that “out of our county of Kendall there was 32 listed and have gon last Mondy, Lawyer Dogg [Dodge] for the Capt.”

Translating from Moore’s somewhat eccentric spelling and usage, he was saying that Abram R. Dodge, an Oswego lawyer, was leading a company of 32 Kendall County men off to war. The community had heard the word about the war via newspapers brought in via stagecoach, and a mass meeting was held at the schoolhouse, then located on Madison Street just south of the modern Church of the Good Shepherd in Oswego. Oswego was then the county seat of Kendall County, but a courthouse had yet to be completed. Speaking in favor of forming a local unit to fight the war, according to the account left by the Rev. Edmund Warne Hicks in his 1877 history of Kendall County, was Dodge, and another prominent lawyer, Alonzo B. Smith.

Dodge apparently decided to lead the group himself, and they set off by wagons driven by local volunteers, taking the troops to Alton, where they were sworn into federal service.

Young Henry, however, decided not to go, although he assured Cusick that “I expect that our flags will wave triumfent over all mexico soon,” adding, “I might have had a comishon to went along.”

While the community gave the troops a good send-off Moore reported that the families of those marching off were greatly saddened: “it was trying times that morning; the tears of children the sobs of affectionate wife tryde there Patriotism.”

So with a successful bid on eBay, we found out that in 1846 it was common to be able to plow about two acres of virgin prairie a day using three yokes of oxen, that 32 Kendall County men marched off to fight in the Mexican War in 1846, and that those who came west greatly missed their friends and family members left behind. Unfortunately, we know very little about the balance of young Henry’s life. Age 26 when the 1850 U.S. Census was taken in Oswego, he drops off the historical landscape, leaving only a letter for us by which to remember him.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Military History, Oswego, People in History

Same old scam; brand new tech…

Matt Taibbi had another fascinating article in Rolling Stone this past month, this time concerning how the giant media conglomerate Thomson Reuters seems to have been helping some giant hedge funds and other powerful financial companies cheat by selling them economic survey data earlier than their regular customers.

According to a July 8 story in the Los Angeles Times, Tomson Reuters and the University of Michigan jointly conduct the Survey of Consumers, the results of which are publicly released twice a month at 10 a.m. However, they’ve also been selling access to the survey results to subscribers that allows them to access the data five minutes early. Further, however, and this is where it gets dicey for Tomson Reuters, they’ve been further selling access to a select band of 16 heavy financial hitters that arrives two seconds earlier than it does to their other paying customers.

Now, five minutes advanced notice doesn’t sound like much, and two seconds sounds like even less. However, in this day and age of computerized stock and bond trading, getting any jump at all on the competition concerning consumer confidence could mean billions in profits.

As CNN put it:

“In the milliseconds before the survey is released to other paying clients at 9:55 a.m. ET, trading volumes can soar up to 20 times their normal levels. By 9:54:59 a.m. ET, long after computers have acted on the number, volumes have already returned to normal.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was not amused, taking the sensible, though seemingly far from universal, position that:

“The securities markets should be a level playing field for all investors and the early release of market-moving survey data undermines fair play in the markets,”

Schneiderman threatened to sue; Tomson Reuters backed off and said they’d start releasing the data to all their subscribers at the same time; but now it appears the story was even worse than originally thought.

It’s a very big deal. Time will tell, however, whether any actual legal action will take place, especially given the general immunity from investigation and prosecution the financial sector enjoys these days.

The interesting historical aspect of this story, to me at least, is that something very similar was taking place back in the early 1800s, leading the U.S. Post Office to institute Express Mail delivery in an effort to level the economic playing field. And please note, this was decades before that publicity stunt called the Pony Express was a gleam in William Russell’s eye.

The U.S. Post Office's Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

The U.S. Post Office’s Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s than the Pony Express ever did. And interestingly enough for those of us in Illinois, one of the branches of the Express Mail connected Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill. on the National Road.

Express Mail differed from regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who hurried to make the best time possible. Unlike regular mail contractors, Express Mail contractors could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Express Mail service had been sporadically and temporarily established many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders, for instance, carried messages during the colonial period. After the Revolution, most expresses were part of the nation’s military communications network.

But the need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service finally became apparent in the spring of 1825. New York cotton merchants, learning that prices on the London market had skyrocketed, bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the price news. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news, making a hefty profit by buying low from uninformed sellers and selling high on the international market.

Postmaster General John McLean, vowing such a thing would never happen again, prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” and also established an Express Mail to follow the Great Mail route from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year.

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson was forced to fire his Postmaster General, William T. Barry, ostensibly for corruption, but also for mismanagement. During his four years as the first cabinet-level head of the post office department, Barry had driven the financially healthy agency into bankruptcy.

In May 1835, enter Amos Kendall—our county’s namesake—who instituted a wide range of reforms. Kendall’s reforms, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal surpluses. Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service.

Regular mail was carried along the Great Mail route by the express at three times the normal postage. Newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news as quickly as possible.

President Jackson signed the bill creating the Express Mail in July 1836, and service began that autumn. Within a few weeks, another express was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala.

Then in 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed upon Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis, following the old National Road through the Illinois state capital at Vandalia.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, and each day thereafter, express riders quickly pushed their horses from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours. And that made a huge difference in the lives and economic circumstances of those living on what was then the western frontier.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. By then, thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major road improvements, the regular mail was nearly as fast as the express. As a Louisville, Ky. newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York…makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

It never ceases to amaze me the way we keep seeing aspects of history repeating themselves. With the recent story in Rolling Stone, we see that the predilections on the part of dishonest financial manipulators to cheat remains unabated, even in this modern computer age when two seconds advanced notice are apparently as valuable as a few days used to be 188 years ago.

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