The visionary life of John Dean Caton

It was late in 1833, and Dr. John Taylor Temple was looking for somebody to drive his brand new stagecoach on its first trip down the new mail route from Chicago to Ottawa.

 Temple had a brand new Concord Coach shipped east west from Buffalo by Great Lakes steamer, and it was ready to go for its first run down the High Prairie Trail from Chicago on Lake Michigan to Ottawa on the Illinois River.

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

John Dean Caton, an ambitious young man who had only recently been admitted to the Illinois bar—and thus becoming the first lawyer in Chicago—volunteered to take the reins. Born to a Quaker family in Monroe County, N.Y. on March 19, 1812, Caton’s early life was difficult. At the age of 3 he lost his father, after which his mother then moved the family to her brother’s farm near Utica, N.Y. There he worked hard and apparently studied just as hard at school. When he was 16, money was somehow found to send him to the Utica Academy (academies were the era’s high schools), where he excelled, his teachers telling him a year later he was qualified to teach in the area’s one-room schools. Caton taught for a year and continued his studies (something that proved a life-long habit), this time concentrating on the law. The next year, he was accepted to read law at a Utica firm, and after two years decided he was ready to set out on his own, and looking towards the western frontier—Illinois.

In June 1833, Caton and his brother, William, arrived in Chicago, then a boisterous, muddy, disease-ridden hamlet growing by leaps and bounds along the banks of the Chicago River at the foot of Lake Michigan. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Caton made the long trek south to Pekin, where Judge Stephen T. Logan examined him and licensed the young man to practice law in Illinois.

Caton wasted no time, renting a one-room office in Dr. Temple’s two-story frame building on Lake Street. He prosecuted Chicago’s first robbery case in July. On Dec. 4, 1833 he was elected Chicago village attorney.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

That same year, Temple, who apparently used his political connections to snag the all-important contract to deliver mail between Ottawa and Chicago, established John T. Temple & Company, the city’s first stagecoach company. To carry the company’s mail and passengers, ordered a new state-of-the-art stagecoach from the Abbott-Downing Company in Concord, N.H., and by Jan. 1, 1834 Temple’s line was ready to roll.

Climbing up onto the driver’s seat, Caton, who learned to drive teams on his uncle’s farm, urged the horses on across the frozen Nine Mile Swamp and along the Barry Point Trail to Barney Laughton’s tavern at the DesPlaines River ford—and into history.

If his career had stalled at that point, he would still have been remembered by history. But Caton was only beginning a public life that would span decades of Illinois history. As Chicago boomed during the frenetic 1830s, Caton prospered. In 1835, he traveled back east to New Hartford, N.Y. where he married Laura A. Sherrill. The couple then headed back west to growing Chicago where they quickly had three children. In addition, Caton served a term as a Chicago’s alderman.

By 1838, Caton was exhausted, his heath had begun to suffer, and the devastating Panic of 1837 (we call them depressions these days) had seriously damaged his finances. Deciding on a change of scene and occupation, he and his wife purchased a few hundred acres of land in what would, in a few years, become Kendall County, adjacent to thousands of acres owned by her brother, Henry Sherrill, and by his brother and cousins. Caton farmed for a few years, and acquired more land, before reentering the law and deciding to join the state’s judiciary.

In 1842, Caton was appointed judge for the circuit that included Kendall County, and in that capacity presided over the county’s first murder trial in 1844 and at the first session of the circuit court after the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845. Along with his work on the regular circuit, Caton also served on the Illinois Supreme Court starting in 1842. In 1848, he left the circuit and concentrated on his Supreme Court duties, including a number of terms as chief justice.

Then in 1849, he found something even more interesting than the law. Friends in Ottawa, where he had moved, asked him to help Henry O’ Riley of Rochester N.Y., who had contracted with those holding Samuel F.W. Morse‘s patents to extend telegraph lines from St. Louis into Illinois. So Caton helped establish the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company, becoming one of its first directors.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton's Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton’s Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

Fascinated with the new technology but knowing little about it, Caton spent much of the next three years studying it and becoming a skilled telegrapher. And thanks to his legal acumen, the company weathered some rough financial patches. Applying his ingenuity to the new communications technology, he helped overcome a number of technical problems. For instance, he insisted the company use cedar poles that, while initially more expensive, were far more durable, sharply cutting maintenance costs.

His Caton Telegraph Instrument Shop in Ottawa, under the management of Robert Henning, became a technological leader in both telegraph instrument design and manufacture and in teaching telegraphy. In 1867, Caton sold all of his telegraphy interests to Western Union. His innovative instrument shop eventually became an ancestor of Western Electric, later Lucent Technologies.

Caton's 1881 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

Caton’s 1877 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

A wealthy man by the late 1860s, Caton pivoted once again, plunging into the study of natural history while traveling the world, publishing several authoritative papers and books. Between 1868 and 1877, Caton frequently corresponded with Charles Darwin on observations on sexual behavior and characteristics of elk, deer, bison, and the habits of wild and domestic turkeys. Caton sent Darwin copies of papers he wrote on North American wildlife and Darwin reciprocated with his own work and comments. When Darwin’s sons visited the United States in 1871, he sent a letter of introduction with them to Caton. Caton sent Darwin a copy of his book The Antelope and Deer of America (1877), which Darwin warmly received.

In his busy retirement, Caton published books and papers on Hawaii, Norway, and on Illinois history before his death in Chicago on July 30, 1895. He never really forgot his local roots, either, and today Caton Farm Road in Kendall County and Caton Street in Ottawa are reminders of the life of this fascinating, visionary attorney, farmer, judge, businessman, historian, author, and scientist.

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4 Comments

Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

4 responses to “The visionary life of John Dean Caton

  1. Richard Offhaus

    Fascinating reading. May I offer a brief correction? I believe the stagecoach would have been shipped west from Buffalo to get to Illinois.

  2. Bert Gray

    do you mean the Concord Coach was shipped WEST from New York?

    ________________________________

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