Monthly Archives: March 2016

Bison really did roam the Prairie State–lots of them…

Saw the news item the other day regarding reintroducing the American Bison to open lands on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Apparently, bison from the reservation were transported to Canada about a century ago to recreate a herd north of the boarder, and now the folks up in the Great White North are returning the favor to the Blackfeet people. Naturally, the ‘sagebrush rebellion’ folks are against it, but a few of the giant animals are already roaming their former range.

Thoughts of bison naturally turn to the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rockies, since that’s where the giant herds lived that so impressed early travelers and settlers. But we had bison right here on the tallgrass prairies and in the woods east of the Mississippi just as they did west of the river. Granted, the eastern herds weren’t as vast as the western herds, but at one time, there were a lot of bison around these parts.

1687 bison detail from Hennepin's Mississippi map

A detail from Hennepin’s 1687 map of the Mississippi River recognizes the importance of bison to the lives of Native People. (Library of Congress)

In fact, on one of the earliest maps depicting northern Illinois, our Fox River (as distinct from the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay) is labeled “R. Pestekouy.”

Pestekouy was reportedly the word for bison in the tongue of the resident Native Americans who spoke the Algonquian family of languages. So the name of the river suggests American Bison were probably fairly common along its banks.

Although the upper Illinois River Valley and its tributaries comprise a tiny fraction of the huge map (measuring 6 x 4.5 feet, it was drawn by the official cartographer of New France, Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin), it is perhaps the earliest and most accurate of the maps produced during the 17th Century era of exploration of the lower Great Lakes.

The history of bison in Illinois has been of interest to historians and archaeologists for generations—and in dispute for almost the entire time. The attempt to chronicle that history and fit it into the history and prehistory of the state has been a puzzle that has become much more clear in recent years.

The last wild bison in Illinois was reportedly killed about 1808, so by the time the earliest settlers arrived in northern Illinois, the huge grazing animals had been gone for two decades or so.

1855 Bison hunters

This 1855 engraving gives an idea of how the hunters of the Illinois Confederacy may well have hunted bison during the winter here in Illinois.

With the question of when bison disappeared from Illinois documented, the state’s early historians began wondering how long the animals had been in the state before they were eradicated. In the late 19th Century, the new science of archaeology began to be applied to the most obvious (and sometimes spectacular) of Native American remains in Illinois—the thousands of mounds that dotted the state. Given the importance of bison to the tribes then still living on the Great Plains west of the Mississippi, the state’s early historians figured that certainly the Indians who occupied Illinois up to the era of colonization would also have been intensive consumers of the animals. So imagine their surprise when a vanishingly small number of bison remains were discovered through the years during excavations of mounds and, later, village and other habitation sites.

Those findings seemed to clash with accounts left by early French explorers who visited Illinois during the late 1600s, and who reported that bison were a major food source for local Indians who, they reported, conducted large, organized bison hunts twice yearly.

So the question loomed: How could bison be such a major factor in the culture of Indians during the Historic Period when physical evidence for them in Native People’s habitation sites seemed so rare?

After surveying the archaeological evidence collected during the previous several decades, John W. Griffin and Donald Wray concluded in a 1945 article in the Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science, “Bison in Illinois Archaeology,” that bison did not arrive in Illinois until around 1600. They surmised that extreme drought conditions west of the Mississippi might have driven bison to seek better grazing east of the river. While that explanation seemed to fit the facts as they were then known, both historians and archaeologists remained uncomfortable with it.

American Bison Range

The range of the American Bison is mapped above, with the plains bison in darker brown and the larger woods bison in lighter brown. The lightest color denotes the range extent of Ice Age bison.

It was good they were uncomfortable because, as it turns out, the very archaeological evidence—or lack thereof—they relied on to make their determination ended up misleading Griffin and Wray.

Since 1945, work has continued to understand Illinois’ prehistory, including numerous excavations of habitation sites, as well as archeological and paleontological work at a number of non-village and non-habitation sites. As that all moved forward, more and more evidence began to accumulate that herds of bison had been present in Illinois for thousands of years before 1600.

Newer, more accurate scientific dating techniques for animal remains and the accumulation of ever more knowledge concerning Illinois during prehistoric times began leading researchers towards the idea that not only did bison roam Illinois well before historic times, but that they were also likely important sources of food for thousands of years.

Then in 2005, solid physical evidence for that was uncovered at the Lonza-Caterpillar Site along the Illinois River near Peoria. Archaeological excavations at the site had begun in 1996 and had uncovered several bison skeletons, along with those of elk, deer, and other animals apparently intermixed with evidence of human habitation, including cooking pits. Testing suggested Native Americans had occupied the site, off and on, for some 4,000 years.

As excavation continued at the site during the summer of 2005, researchers from the Illinois State Museum uncovered a bison skeleton with an embedded stone projectile point, clearly indicating hunters had harvested it. A bone in a second set of bison remains had a bit of chert, apparently from a broken projectile point, embedded in it as well. Both sets of bones were scientifically dated and suggest humans were for sure hunting bison in Illinois between 450 and 250 B.C.

Coupled with an increasing number of finds of bison remains, including remains of at least two individual animals discovered during silica sand mining operations near Ottawa that were dated to nearly 6,000 years ago, it seems that bison probably inhabited Illinois more or less continuously from the end of the last extension of glaciers into the state until they were exterminated in the first decade of the 19th Century.

American bison.jpg

Prairie bison once roamed virtually all of Illinois. The last wild bison was killed in 1808. They have now been reintroduced by both commercial breeders and in such places as on the grounds of Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia.

And that prompted historians, paleontologists, and archaeologists to undertake a complete reexamination of those widely accepted conclusions reached back in 1945 by Griffin and Wray.

Finds right here in Kendall County helped nudge those conclusions along after the numbers were plugged into scientific studies.

Among those finds was, in the first decade of the 20th Century, a trove of bison bones here in Seward Township on John Bamford‘s farm. Then in the late 1980s, another bison bone was discovered at the Jensen Site in what was found to be an ancient cooking pit on Dr. Lewis Weishew’s former property in Oswego.

And Kendall County wasn’t unique in that respect. Bison bones kept popping up in places they shouldn’t have—if Griffin and Wray’s hypothesis was correct—all over Illinois. By the late 1990s, R. Bruce McMillan, then the director of the Illinois State Museum, was curious enough to begin looking at the subject anew. He figured one good way to get an idea of bison in Illinois would be to survey the state’s museums—large and small—to see just how many bison remains had been discovered and where they were found.

As part of his study, McMillan and Dr. Bonnie Styles of the Illinois State Museum staff visited the Little White School Museum in Oswego in June 2000 to see the bison remains on exhibit there, including a portion of a rear leg bone discovered at the Jensen Site; a more complete bison leg bone found in the Fox River just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek; and a bison tooth found in the creek itself. All three were submitted to Dr. Michael Finnegan of Kansas State University for positive identification as bison remains. Dr. Finnegan dated the Jensen Site bone to between 1200 and 1400 A.D., hundreds of years before Griffin and Wray suggested they’d arrived east of the Mississippi.

So if bison were here in Illinois, and quite common at that, what accounts for the rarity of bison bones in early Indian habitation sites? According to McMillan, the lack of bison evidence is not evidence of a lack of bison.

Something scientists, with a bit of humor, have dubbed the “schlepp effect” kicks in with bison, animals too large to easily haul to a village site in one piece after killing. Instead, he suggested, bison were butchered at kill sites and the meat, not the whole carcass, was hauled (“schlepped”) to village sites. And in fact, French accounts during the early historic period in Illinois attest to that. Bison bones left exposed on the Illinois prairie quickly deteriorate unless quickly covered like those at the Lonza-Caterpillar Site, thus was their very existence cloaked.

It appears bison reached their largest population in Illinois during the early historic period due to a variety of factors including the decimation of Native American tribes by imported European diseases and inter-tribal warfare. The introduction of firearms and the demand for bison hides then led to the animals’ eradication east of the Mississippi. In 1704, for instance, a single French tannery established near the mouth of the Ohio River reported shipping more than 12,000 bison hides down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

This story is a great illustration of what science is really all about. It is not well understood by many of us laypeople that scientists are always ready to rethink their conclusions—if and when something better comes along to explain whatever phenomena they’re studying. The key is, it really has to be better, scientifically, and provable in order to overturn a currently accepted theory.

If you’re interested in how 50 years of conventional scientific wisdom concerning bison in Illinois was turned on its head, get a copy of Records of Early Bison in Illinois by R. Bruce McMillan—it’s still available used on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

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Tiger Ed, Harry, and the bear…

I got to thinking after my last post on the kind of sort of subsistence farming my parents and just about all our neighbors engaged in back in the early 1950s that one my relatives was a lot deeper into the subsistence thing than we ever were.

Uncle Charlie was one of those ‘uncles’ of my childhood who was an actual uncle, by marriage, unlike several other ‘uncles’ who were not at all related.

My grandmother’s sister married Uncle Charlie, and he was a kind soul though often coming up short on the ambition scale. He and Aunt Edith had six sons, of which five lived to adulthood. Aunt Edith died a few days after giving birth to their last child—their sixth son—who my grandmother promised Edith on her deathbed to raise as her own, which she did.

Of the other brothers, Clarence died when he was a year old, the rest living on to become adults. Among them was Ed, called Tiger Ed by friends and enemies alike. Tiger Ed was a reckless youngster whose emotional development seemed to plateau around age 14 or so.

A Tiger Ed story to elucidate: During the Depression (the great one, not this last pale echo) dairy farmers were organizing to get higher prices for their milk from the big dairy companies that were mercilessly squeezing them, and the result was the Pure Milk Association, a union in everything but name. Pure Milk activists conducted all sorts of protests, some violent, to persuade and if necessary force dairy farmers into joining.

An item from the Jan. 10, 1934 Kendall County Record illustrates some of their tactics:

As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch. Colby said he thought he could get by with his load because it consisted of cream and not milk. He did not recognize the men, and they took his writing materials so he was unable to get license numbers. After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.

Wading in cream three inches deep over the pavement, Colby loaded up the empty cans and returned to Yorkville. It is thought that the insurance carried on the truck will cover the loss.

Concrete milk house

The dairy farm milk house is where milking equipment, including the metal milk cans, are cleaned and stored until used during twice-daily milking. That’s also where the cooler was located to keep milk chilled until it was picked up and hauled to market.

Pure Milk activists were reportedly not beyond burning down stubborn farmers’ dairy barns if they refused to join. The fire that destroyed my great-uncle’s diary barn, with most of his herd inside, was chalked up to the Pure Milk Association, for instance.

So with that backdrop, the folks out in our farm neighborhood were tipped off one day that plans were afoot to burn a dairy barn. So a bunch of them decided to camp out in the milk house adjacent to the barn on the night it was all supposed to go burn. The dairy barn was a beautiful one; my best friend in first grade lived on the farm and I spent quite a bit of time in it as a youngster. Its milk house was state-of-the-art for the 1930s—it was poured concrete, walls, floor and ceiling, all whitewashed inside and out, making it simple  to keep clean (notice I didn’t say easy; keeping a milk house clean is not easy) and the milk pure.

That evening, the farmers gathered in the milk house to await developments and among them was a young Tiger Ed, who brought his revolver although most of the other men were armed with shotguns. Ed, being in his late teens at the time, was exuberant and eager for action, boasting what he planned to do. At which point he pulled the revolver from his waistband and began twirling it around his trigger finger like he’d seen cowboys do in the Saturday movie serials. At which point someone yelled at him to just put the damned gun away before he shot somebody, whereupon Ed angrily shoved it back into his waistband, causing the revolver to fire.

One of the people present said that when the pistol went off, the bullet ricocheted around the concrete interior of the milk house packed with terrified farmers for what seemed to be hours before it came to rest—in Tiger Ed’s rear end. The incident deflated the posse’s ardor and they all went home–except for Ed, who went to the doctor–but forever after, especially when he was working as a bartender, Tiger Ed would show you his wound if you asked nicely.

But I’m trying to get at subsistence farming here and for that we need to consider Tiger Ed’s older brother Harry. When Harry was a youngster, my father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and after some thought Harry said he figured he wanted to be a tramp.

And to be truthful, he did have a somewhat checkered career. In the early 1950s he somehow got hired as a motorcycle police officer. Back in the day, relatives on both sides of my mother’s family started a social group called the Can’t Be Beat Club that would have summer picnics and holiday parties. And at one of those picnics on a hot summer day at Aurora’s Phillips Park, Harry stopped by, in uniform, with his motorcycle and proceeded to ride it back and forth while doing tricks on it—standing on the seat, riding backwards, doing a handstand—it was thrilling for us little kids and, I assume, appalling for the adults.

Ma & Pa Kettle's farm

While Harry and Juinita’s northwoods farm didn’t look exactly like Ma and Pa Kettle’s farm, the atmosphere was fairly similar.

Eventually Harry became a true genius at welding and that’s how he made his living the rest of his life. And for a good part of that late life, he moved his family up into the wilds of northern Wisconsin where they lived on a hardscrabble farm in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest. Harry would farm and raise kids until the family was out of money, at which time he’d leave the northwoods to do welding jobs until he’d accumulated enough cash and then head back home before the cycle repeated.

Harry’s wife was a formidable redhead named Juanita. Harry and Juanita were, for the early 1960s, an unconventional couple. Along with their natural children, they (because they were the kindest folks you’d ever meet) also raised a tribe of foster children. I was a teenager when my folks took me to visit them at their farm in the woods, which strongly reminded me of the set for a Ma and Pa Kettle movie. The doors and windows were all open and chickens were wandering in and out of the house, along with numerous children, dogs, and cats. Having been raised in an extremely structured environment, it was truly a revelation to me, an initial point of reference as I lived through the years of hippies and communes.

Juanita gave us the complete tour of her house, including the cellar, which was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves groaning under hundreds of glass jars of every sort of fruit and vegetable that grew on their property. As she proudly waved her arms describing the results of the family’s labor to subsist on their own land, she also pointed to the meat they’d canned, pork, beef, chicken, “And there,” she pointed, “is the bear.”

Bear? my mother wondered with an odd catch in her voice. Yes, bear.

Farmall

Not sure what model Farmall Harry and Juanita owned up in the northwoods, but it looked a lot like this one. It made a great bear retriever.

Turned out that a few weeks before, Juanita had sent the kids out to pick raspberries. They hadn’t been gone lone before they all came pelting back scared witless, screaming that a bear was in the berry patch. I believe I mentioned that Juanita was a formidable woman, and when something threatened her brood of natural and foster kids, she turned into a real tiger. Loading Harry’s shotgun, she hopped on their old Farmall tractor, and set off to the berry patch shouting at the kids to stay inside and that’s she’d “take care of that damned bear.”

Which she did. Killed it dead with three rounds from Harry’s Remington 12 gauge pump shotgun. Then she wrapped a log chain around the bear’s back legs and dragged behind the tractor it back to the house, where she skinned it and butchered it, and then she and the kids canned it for Sunday dinners during the winter.

Most of the rest of my family were pretty conventional farm folks, with a thick leavening of city folks mixed in, and none of them made living quite the adventure some of Uncle Charlie’s family did. But when it comes time for a good story, it’s hard to beat their adventures that have the added cachet of actually being the truth. At least pretty much, anyway.

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Common sense seems to be a vanishing commodity

In February, new legislation in the State of Kentucky legalized what is called ‘herd sharing,’ meaning folks can buy into a herd of dairy cows, which will allow them to share the milk and other products the herd produces without such pesky requirements as requiring the raw milk to be pasteurized.

To celebrate the passage of the new law, a Kentucky legislator brought a jug of raw milk and passed it around to his lawmaking colleagues. Whereupon they all got sick. The politicians insist that it was mere coincidence they happened to become violently ill immediately after drinking raw, unpasteurized milk, and it may well have been. But probably not. At least nobody died that I know of, which may or may not be a good thing for the people of Kentucky.

The episode got me to thinking about my own childhood. I was either extremely lucky or disadvantaged, depending on your outlook on life, to have been born at a time when television had not yet become ubiquitous, indoor plumbing had only just become the norm, and diversified farming was morphing into the modern grain or livestock operations common today. It really was the end of an era, and the dawn of a new one.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher. The barn where my dad milked Daisy is in the background, the disused outhouse is hidden beside the garage at left, and my mother’s chicken house is barely visible through the trees at right.

When my mother brought me home from Copley Memorial Hospital in 1946, it was to a house with a new indoor bathroom that my preteen sisters greatly enjoyed. Granted the bathroom was in the basement, but that was a small trade-off given no more winter or rainy day trips across to the outhouse and the benefit of an indoor bathtub complete with a water heater. We listened to the radio, not TV, and my sisters’ music collections were filled with 78 rpm records that shattered if dropped—or if their little brother stepped on them.

By that time, subsistence farming was long gone in the United States, although vestiges of it remained. My mother did not work outside the house and my father did not work off the farm, but that aspect of farming life was beginning to change even then. Instead of working off the farm, my mother managed the garden and fruit orchard and raised chickens. It all sounds sort of like some modern suburban areas, but her garden was huge, and the orchard was sizable. Each year, she canned dozens and dozens of quarts of vegetables and fruit. And when my grandparents bought chest-type deepfreezes for their children one Christmas, all those veggies and fruits were frozen for use throughout the rest of the year.

Not only did her chickens produce eggs for family use, but the chickens themselves were a year round source of fresh meat. The eggs over and above those used by our family were carefully washed, candled, and packed in egg crates to be taken to town on Saturday and traded for the groceries we didn’t produced ourselves on the farm.

Guernsey cow

Maybe if you’ve seen one Guernsey you’ve seen ’em all, but this lady really does look a lot like the Daisy I remember.

Which brings me to that raw milk I mentioned above. We had a cow named Daisy, a gentle Guernsey. My dad favored Guernseys for his family’s cow because they produce milk with a very high butterfat content. That meant Daisy produced more cream per gallon of milk than the Holsteins most dairy farmers favored, but less actual milk than those black and white Holsteins.

My dad milked Daisy morning and night out in one of the former horse stalls in the barn. He was an expert hand-milker, sitting on his three-legged stool, quickly filling the polished steel milk pail with quick, sure pulls on Daisy’s teats. The barn cats were always drawn by the sound of the milk hitting the bucket, and as they gathered around, Dad would send a squirt of milk first to one and then to another, which they learned to catch in mid-air. Just writing that last sentence brings back the sounds and the smells of that time and place…the warmth of the barn even on a cold winter’s day, the excitement of the cats and kittens, and the glint of humor in my dad’s eye as he accurately shot those milky treats around the semi-circle of hungry cats.

Cream separator.jpg

Our cream separator sat in a corner of the basement. It had to be thoroughly cleaned after each use, a job my sisters did, but not all together willingly.

After Daisy was turned back out into the pasture, Dad took the milk in the house and down the basement, where he put a new filter in the separator, and poured in the milk. Our separator was blue in color and sort of resembled a miniature municipal water tower on four legs. The milk went in the top, and the ingenious tool used gravity and centrifugal force to separate most of the cream from the milk.

My folks used Daisy’s rich cream for their coffee, and mom used it for cooking. After enough of it was saved up in the refrigerator, we took it to my grandmother, who used her electric churn to turn it into rich butter. After being turned out of the churn, she would work it with a flat paddle in a large, shallow wooden bowl to force the buttermilk out, and then to work in the salt she sprinkled on. My dad loved buttermilk. It’s a taste I never acquired.

We drank the milk that came out of the separator and used it on our cereal, and mom used it for cooking. I wasn’t so fond of cream in those days, and even though it had been run through the separator, after a fresh batch of milk sat in the refrigerator over night, a thin skim of cream would form on the top—which my parents happily skimmed off with a teaspoon to color their morning coffee.

Daisy always produced more milk than the five of us could consume, so when enough extra was saved up, Mom and Dad took it over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who then turned it into cottage cheese by some magical process which I never really saw. All I knew was that milk went to Aunt Bess’s and wonderful cottage cheese came back packed in metal containers.

Some farmers during that era had begun pasteurizing their family’s milk, but my dad said that as long as you know where the milk came from, and if you made sure that cow was healthy, there would be no problems with drinking raw milk.

Which brings me back to those Kentucky politicians and their new law. My dad was a wise man, and his insistence that only raw milk from a known healthy cow was safe, it seems to me, is at risk with this ‘herd sharing’ scheme. Who, exactly, will be responsible for assuring every cow in that herd is approved to give healthy enough milk that it doesn’t need to be pasteurized? And what are the shared liability issues? If I were a parent with children, I certainly wouldn’t want to take a chance that milk might be safe when the simple process of pasteurization would assure its safety.

Assuring the safety of milk for human consumption was one of the great scientific achievements of the 19th Century, something that saved countless lives and avoided tragedy on what would be, for us modern Americans, an almost unbelievable scale. But now, well-meaning, but essentially clueless people who are alive today thanks to food safety and health regulations, from vaccinations to milk pasteurization, are eagerly discarding them for their own children in some sort of back to nature scheme. I guess I’m not very worried that parents with crackpot ideas may poison themselves or give themselves preventable diseases, but it does concern me that they may be sentencing their children to disease and death.

 

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Females on the frontier were a stout-hearted lot

While women certainly haven’t had an easy time of it during the past several millennia, it’s also true that here in the good old United States they’ve had many more chances to make a go of it on their own than in virtually any other nation on earth.

For some reason, we tend to view the role of women during the nation’s frontier era as similar to that of the poor women who have suffered under the Taliban or other religious fundamentalists. But contra that conventional view of how women were oppressed here during the nation’s early years, the U.S., especially during frontier times, was a place where single women could, if not always thrive, at least make their own way.

And in fact, women were key ingredients in the settlement of the frontier as it moved west from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

From the 16th through the 19th Century frontier era, women were a requirement for successful settlement, and were most needed by the farmers of that time. It was not due to whim that when Abraham Lincoln’s birth mother died from disease (the dreaded ‘milk sick’) his father immediately sought another wife. On the Kentucky frontier of that era, it really did take a couple to make a household function. Husbands were expected to do the farming and other heavy manual labor, while wives were expected to take care of household tasks, and they were many, ranging from raising the kids to the backbreaking job of doing the wash to preserving and preparing food—jobs that, truth to tell, weren’t a whole lot easier than their husband’s.

It’s sometimes claimed that women couldn’t own property during the frontier era, but that’s simply not true. Here in Kendall County, for instance, 22 women obtained patents on 30 parcels of government land between 1836 and 1849. Granted, some of those women were buying the land for their husbands, but others were not. For instance, Emeline Towle purchased 80 acres in Fox Township in 1848, and it was for her own use. Her husband, Decolia Towle, had died in December 1847, and Emeline apparently decided to get out of Oswego where Decolia had been a successful businessman and innkeeper. Just a year later, Emeline married Roland McCloud, and probably moved back to be near her family in Kane County.

It’s likely 60 year-old Hannah Sweet purchased her 39 acres of Seward Township land in June of 1849 as an investment.

Caton, Laura Sherrill

Laura Sherrill Caton, wife of Judge John D. Caton, was a landowner in her own right during Kendall County’s early history.

Other women likely purchased land either in conjunction with or on behalf of their husbands. Laura A. Caton, for instance, bought land in conjunction with her husband, polymath Judge John Dean Caton. The Catons put together one of the largest tracts of land in Kendall County, memorialized today in the name of Caton Farm Road.

Women were able to take over for their husbands as the frontier era ended, and were willing as well as able to become successful farmers and business owners in their own right. The 1850 Census of Kendall County, the county’s first, recorded a number of widows who were carrying on for their late husbands as heads of households. For instance, 38 year-old Maria Arnold took over for her husband, Levi, when he died in 1844. Arnold was one of the founders, with Lewis B. Judson, of Oswego, who ran the first store and post office in the village. After his death, Maria became a successful farmer. By 1850, her Oswego Township land and holdings were worth $6,000, a considerable sum for the era.

Meanwhile, Emeline Gaylord, 48, was overseeing a farming operation worth $2,400 in Lisbon Township while raising four children.

Inman, Emma Haines (1872-1937)

Emma Haines Inman was elected to the Oswego School Board and served as the board’s president before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in national and state elections

Over in Bristol Township, Ruth Kennedy was making the most of the 168 acres she purchased from the federal government in 1843. By 1850, the 60 year-old Kennedy and her three sons were running a farming operation worth $6,000, with Mrs. Kennedy heading up the business. Today, Kennedy Road is a reminder of the contributions she and her family made to Kendall County’s early history.

Not that it was easy being a woman, of course. Women had extremely limited job opportunities outside the home, and women weren’t allowed to vote in most elections until the second decade of the 20th Century. Oddly enough, however, even before women won the constitutional right to vote, they could hold elective office and vote in certain local elections. That’s why my shirt-tail relative, Emma Haines Inman, was able win election to the Oswego School District Board and even serve as the board’s president before passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote throughout the U.S.

But that was later. We’re mostly talking frontier life here, and it wasn’t easy. Disease and disaster were always just around the corner in those trying days.

Hobson, Clarissa Stewart

Clarissa Stewart Hobson barely survived the “Winter of the Deep Snow” in the family log cabin near present-day Newark

During the horrible Winter of the Deep Snow in 1830-31, Bailey Hobson’s wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson, and their children nearly died when he was forced to travel to Indiana to find food for them. When he was delayed in returning home by that winter’s horrible weather, Mrs. Hobson was reduced to keeping their cabin warm by chopping firewood out of the ice after freezing rain and subsequent blizzards froze the landscape—and the family woodpile—solid.

The Hobsons’ tribulations weren’t unique. A walk through any pioneer cemetery in the county will tell tragic tales of disease and death that sometimes struck down entire families. From smallpox to diphtheria to typhoid to recurrent malaria, women and their families were always at risk.

It is to their credit, then, that so many pioneer women survived and prospered despite the dangers and hardships that most of them took in such graceful stride.

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