Few other figures of Kendall County’s pioneer era were as important to the history of Kendall County as Peter Specie—and yet so little known.
Specie partnered with Steven Sweet in 1830 to settle in the Kendall County grove that soon bore his name. By that time, he was already well known in northern Illinois, and he would soon become an invaluable resource for the county’s earliest settlers.
Born Pierre Marie Pichet Dupre Lamsette on Dec. 11, 1789 at Saint-Charles-Sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, it would be many years before he assumed his familiar local name.
The business of that region was the fur trade, and young Pierre got involved early on. At age 18, he was recorded working (probably for the American Fur Company) with Joseph Bailey along the St. Joseph River in Michigan, on what was one of the region’s major fur trade routes. The St. Joseph portage to the Kankakee River had been part of the voyageurs’ highway since the 1680s.
In 1820, Specie was reported living along the Mazon River, where he not only engaged in the fur trade, but also dealt in coal, which he had discovered on the land he occupied. It may have been about this time he Anglicized his first name and assumed his new last name. Reportedly, the name “Specie” was given him by his customers because he only accepted hard currency—no credit permitted. And the nickname stuck. When his siblings eventually immigrated to Illinois, they assumed his already well-known name.
By 1825, Specie had moved to Chicago, where he worked a small farm about where Bridgeport is now located and also engaged in the fur trade, which was sometimes more exciting that he may have wished. In September 1829, Specie brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice of the Peace Alexander Doyle in Chicago (which was administered by Peoria County at the time) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians. Specie said he was on his way to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Fredrick Countryman and a half-barrel to Vetal Vermet, both of whom also engaged in the fur trade, when he was set upon near the DuPage River by Pottawatomie Chief Half Day and two warriors. The Indians slashed Specie and got away with some of the whiskey during the incident. Continuing on his way, he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who stole more liquor. Specie estimated his loss at about ten gallons of whiskey.
For the next few years, his name appears in various Indian treaties as he pressed claims for goods he claimed were either stolen or destroyed during the Black Hawk War of 1832. After the war, he and Sweet moved back to their Specie Grove claim, but soon split up, Sweet moving to Yorkville before heading farther west to McLean County where he reportedly married.
At Specie Grove, Specie’s claim was centrally located with respect to what would one day become Kendall County. Specie had purchased a primitive sod-breaking plow in Chicago about 1825, and as the 1830s wore on, new settlers hired him to prepare their land for cultivation or rented his plow. He also hired some of those early settlers for various jobs, providing some of the area’s earliest employment.
The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, recounts Specie’s impact on early settler John Shurtliff: “He hired Peter Specie to break seven acres for him, paying him by driving his breaking team one month. Specie had six or seven yoke of oxen, and did breaking and teaming for the settlers.”
Those early breaking plows were uncertain machines, just good enough to do the job. They were generally set to cut four to six inches below the surface and lay over a strip of prairie sod about 16 inches wide. In so doing, the plowshare cut right through the toughest part of the prairie’s root system. Given the relatively high silica content of prairie grass roots and the design of the plowshare itself—generally a wrought iron chisel and share attached to a wooden moldboard—it was hard going and thus the need for so many yokes of oxen to pull the things. When John Deere invented his steel plowshare, he really did revolutionize prairie farming since steel plow blades polish—scour—themselves during use, allowing them to slide and cut through the prairie soil.
When the Minkler family arrived in the area, Specie traded the labor of Peter Minkler and his son, Smith Minkler, on the breaking plow and doing other work for a place to stay while they searched for a permanent claim. Specie also provided Smith Minkler’s first apple seedlings, the basis for Minkler’s famed fruit growing business. According to Hicks, Minkler “…got his first apple trees of Specie, cradling wheat for a dollar a day, and giving the dollar for four trees. Specie had raised them from the seed, and he thus became the pioneer nurseryman of Kendall County.”
From those seedlings, Minkler developed his famed Minkler Apple. Based partly on that success, Minkler was one of the founders of the Illinois State Horticultural Society (which is still active today), so Specie can honestly be said to have hand in that, too.
By 1835, Specie’s younger brother, Basil, and his wife and children had arrived in the area and had settled well south of Specie Grove in what is today Felix Township, Grundy County. Apparently Specie decided to sell out and move closer to his brother.
Hicks writes that in the summer of 1835: “John L. Clark and John K. LeBarron, after a horseback tour down the river, bought out the renowned Specie, at Specie grove, claim, personal property and all, for $2,000. There were some 15 horses, six yoke of oxen, and 50 hogs, all running at large on the prairie. He said to Clark and LeBarron: ‘This is your boundary through the grove, and southward you will always be open to the Illinois River.’ The old man’s ‘pasture,’ to which he could so calmly give a verbal warranty deed, was 18 miles long, and now supports four or five thousand people.”
Specie lived the rest of his life near his brother, until he died in his cabin on Feb. 22, 1846, well short of his 60th birthday.
In most area histories, Specie gets scant notice and less praise for his contributions to Kendall County’s settlement. But to his credit, Hicks, trying to be an honest reporter of historical facts, gives Specie his due, if somewhat grudgingly: “He was half Indian in his habits, and would as soon eat muskrat as pig, but the early settlers were indebted to him for many acts of kindness, which, sometimes, it must be confessed, were poorly requited.”
Specie is buried in the old Dresden Cemetery south of Morris near his brother, sister, and several nieces and nephews, one of the truly unsung heroes of Fox Valley history.
3 responses to “Pierre Lamsette, Peter Specie, and the dawn of Kendall County history”
— Somewhere on your blog, it says you are trying to avoid the French. Couldn’t resist Pierre Pichet/Specie, could you?
— Portages like the one at St. Joseph were in use long before 1680. Record keeping, however, did start at about that time. There are places all over North America with “Portage” in their name. I live 300 feet from “Portage Trail”, a couple of miles from “Portage Path” and my county is next door to “Portage County” here in Ohio.
A native of a farm near Tuscola, IL, I came to your blog when I was researching what a “breaking plow” was. I’d heard my Dad, a U of I agronomist, speak of them when they were used to break up the grass roots of the prairie, but had never seen a picture. Recently, my hometown newspaper, The Tuscola Journal, ran an article by Mike Carroll, Esq., about the draining and breaking up of the prairie for farming. He mentioned huge breaking plows 10 ft. tall pulled by large teams of oxen, and I looked on the internet and found you. Your writing is so historical and very good. VERY interesting reading and educational. Thank you. Illinois my beloved state is vast with history and cultures. It is good to know that someone like you is keeping the home fires burning by writing about it. The Land of Lincoln is a national treasure in every respect, especially in agriculture. Illinois is to the USA what the Ukraine is to Europe, a breadbasket. Keep up the good work. I’ll check back from time to time and read more Illinois history!
Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer Hansen
Chester County, PA
Thank you for your kind comments. Sometimes I think maybe we ought to change Illinois’ motto to “Illinois—Not as Bad as Everybody Says It Is.”