Category Archives: Civil War

Nathan Hughes: “A quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits”

Back in April, 2012, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield caused quite a splash when they announced the acquisition of a photograph of a black Civil War veteran from Illinois. It was of such great interest because identified photographs of any of Illinois’ black Civil War veterans are so vanishingly rare.

In fact, the formal portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes of NaAuSay Township here in Kendall County acquired by the Lincoln Library is the only identified example we know of.

For local residents it was, of course, of great interest to know that such a historic photograph is an image of a Kendall County resident. For those of us who volunteer at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, though, it was of even more interesting since the museum has had an identical original print of the portrait in its collections for several years.

This 1893 portrait of Nathan and Jane (Lucas) Hughes is the only identified photo of a member is the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment known. Original prints of the photo are in the collections of the Little White School Museum, Oswego; and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. (Little White School Museum collection)

And a fine portrait it is, too, taken by Sigmund Benesohn in his Yorkville studio. Neither the Lincoln Library’s nor the Little White School’s prints are dated, but we figured it was probably taken in 1893 to observe the Hughes’ 10th anniversary. Nathan and Jane Lucas Hughes were married in Kendall County on Oct. 17, 1883.

Benensohn bought Charles Sabin’s Yorkville photo studio in April 1893. As Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall reported on May 17: “Our new Yorkville photographer, Mr. Benensohn, is doing very fine work. He is an expert in his line, having learned the best points of artistic photography in Europe.”

And thanks to the marvels of newspaper advertising, we know exactly when that exceedingly rare photo of Nathan Hughes and his wife was taken. On July 19, 1893, Marshall plugged Benesohn’s new business again, fortunately adding a critical detail: “Artist Benensohn is making some extra fine pictures of Fox river scenery with his new view camera—an instrument that cost nearly $150. His river and street views are wonderfully fine and make us more proud than ever of our picturesque village. Take a look at his show-case in front of the Hobbs block. His portraits of Comrade and Mrs. Nathan Hughes are true to the life, and shows how excellent is Benensohn’s work in every line of photography.”

The resulting portrait does indeed show Nathan Hughes sitting comfortably with Jane standing at his left, arm resting on his shoulder. Nathan is wearing a formal frock coat with a boutonniere and, most interestingly, a Grand Army of the Republic membership pin on his left lapel, thus Marshall’s “Comrade” formulation.

The GAR was the Civil War veterans’ organization, the American Legion and the VFW of its day rolled into one. Membership pins were bronze, symbolically cast from melted-down barrels of rebel cannons. In Kendall County, GAR posts were established at Plano and Yorkville. Hughes—as well as Marshall—was a member of the Yorkville post, where he sometimes served as an officer, a tribute to his war service. In fact, Hughes was the only Black GAR member in Kendall County.

He deserved the organization’s tribute because he really had to work to serve. The first time he fought for his own freedom was as a young man who had a wife and three children, all living as slaves in Scott County, Kentucky. Hughes managed to escape from his owner, though he had to leave his family behind as he made his way north. He eventually ended up in northern Illinois.

Unfortunately, no one interviewed Hughes during his lifetime, so we don’t know what his feelings were when the South attacked the U.S. Army’s Fort Sumpter starting the Civil War, but it’s likely he was eager to do his part. At that time, blacks were not allowed to serve in the military, other than as support personnel such as teamsters and cooks. But the times were gradually changing and with the positive examples of such all-black military units as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the idea that black Americans could be good soldiers began to be accepted.

It was an idea partly driven by practical need as the war dragged on and the pool of eligible recruits dwindled. So it was almost inevitable when, on May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops.

Illinois Gov. Richard Yates began recruiting a Black regiment—eventually designated the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment—late in 1863, but the early efforts were slow, due to 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 out with volunteers from all over the state. It was formally mustered into U.S. service at Quincy on April 24, 1864. Eventually, some 1,400 Prairie State Black soldiers would serve against the South in the 29th and other units.

Hughes was among those enlisting in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, where he was assigned to the regiment’s Company B. At the time, Hughes was no youngster. His military records state he was 33 years old; family tradition, however, says he was born in 1824, which would have made him 40 at the time of his enlistment. It’s possible he shaved seven years off his age in order to assure the army would take him.

The Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, VA during the seige of Richmond near the end of the Civil War capped an attempt to breach rebel entrenchments. Thousands of U.S. casualties resulted, including Nathan Hughes.

After some brief training, the 29th traveled east by rail, where they marched down 14th Avenue in Washington, D.C. on their way to the front in Virginia. As it happened, the regiment marched right past President Abraham Lincoln who was also riding down 14th Street that day.

The 29th had an eventful war, participating in Grant’s (unsuccessful) attempt to trap Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before it reached the fortifications around Richmond, then in the disastrous Battle of the Crater in the Richmond fortifications at Petersburg, Va., as well as battles at Boydton Plank Road and Hatcher’s Run. As Victor Hicken observed in Illinois and the Civil War: “This was hard soldiering.”

Hughes was badly wounded during the Battle of the Crater, shot in the left leg near his hip. He must have been a tough guy, because unlike so many of his wounded comrades, he recovered from both his wound and being treated in one of the military hospitals of the era. He was released from the hospital just in time to march and fight (and be wounded again, this time in the hand) with the 29th all the way to Appomattox Courthouse where he was on hand for Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.

But there were areas of the country yet to liberate even after Lee’s surrender. On May 9, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then sail along the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.

By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston, Texas with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Granger intended to make a point with the soldiers he brought. Units that reportedly went ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 were all comprised of Black soldiers and included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.

It’s interesting to contemplate what the residents of Galveston must have thought seeing those 2,000 smartly uniformed and well-armed Black soldiers disembark and march through their city, especially since it’s more than likely the only Black Americans most of them had ever seen had been slaves.

On June 19th—a day that would be celebrated by Black Americans for ever after as Juneteenth—Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. Granger’s order read:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

And the thing is, there were a LOT of slaves in Texas in 1865. As Union armies had moved through the Confederate states east of the Mississippi, worried slaveowners had sent more and more of their enslaved people west to Texas. In 1861, there were 275,000 slaves in Texas. By 1865, there were 400,000.

So Nathan Hughes was not only on hand for the rebel army’s surrender at Appomattox, but was also on hand to witness the first Juneteenth that celebrates the final legal liberation of slaves in the United States.

After his regiment was mustered out of U.S. service, Hughes went to Kentucky and brought his three children north to Kendall County. His wife decided to stay in Kentucky, apparently unwilling to travel north to live in unfamiliar country in Illinois.

Hughes and his children settled on a small farm along Minkler Road south of Oswego. He outlived his first two wives, Mary Lightfoot and Analinda Odell before marrying Jane Lucas, became a respected member of the Minkler Road farming community, and lived to see his grandchildren become the first Black students to graduate from high school in Kendall County. As the Kendall County Record put it in Hughes’ 1910 obituary: “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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The post office was at center of major 19th century social issue disputes

We often seem to think our own times are the most turbulent, and when it comes to social issues it’s fair to say that now is certainly more than a little unsettled.

But U.S. history is studded with eras when controversy over social issues has driven the nation’s political dialog. The 19th century was particularly unsettled, and in its first half, none other than the U.S. Post Office found itself embroiled in two of the hottest of hot button issues of the day: abolitionism and a growing religious evangelical movement.

The postal service didn’t seek out these issues, of course. Instead, the issues were thrust upon the service by social and political forces far outside its control. In the end, uneasy compromises were struck that left many far from satisfied.

These days, there are a lot of issues plaguing the postal service, many inflicted on it by Congress and even more of them by the current postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. While DeJoy is seeming to weaken the postal service in what appears to be an effort to boost privatization of mail deliveries, at least we don’t have to worry about postal officials opening and censoring our mail. At least as far as we know.

Not so back in the 1830s, when pro-slavery postal officials as well as private citizens were engaged in efforts to stop abolitionist tracts from being mailed to residents of southern states.

On July 29, 1835 a pro-slavery mob broke into the Charleston, SC post office, stole anti-slavery tracts from the mail and burned them the next night.

For instance, on the night of July 29, 1835, a small group of men broke into the Charleston, S.C. post office and stole a huge pile of anti-slavery tracts, a mass mailing sent by the American Anti-Slavery Society to persuade Southerners to renounce slavery. The next night, the tracts were burned.

It was the opening move in an increasingly bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to make sure the idea of slavery would not see any opposing viewpoints in the South and so threaten the region’s dependence on slave labor. Actually, the mailing was probably the first use of junk mail, made possible by the combination of new, more efficient papermaking techniques and the perfection of the steam-powered printing press along with the era’s remarkably efficient postal service, efficiencies ironically created by Southerners.

It was already illegal in slave-owning states to circulate abolitionist literature, no matter what that pesky First Amendment to the Constitution said. The gang that stole those anti-slavery tracts in Charleston were convinced they were upholding state’s rights.

The Anti-Slavery Society had targeted its mass mailing carefully to the 200,000 most distinguished movers and shakers in the South, figuring—incorrectly as it turned out—that mail to important men would at least be delivered. What actually happened was that pro-slavery forces were energized even more than before.

Mail schedule: This notice listing the mail schedule for Oswego and other Fox Valley area communities was published in the Illinois Free Trader, an Ottawa newspaper, in 1840—a full 21 years before the start of the Civil War. (Courtesy of the Little White School Museum)

And it didn’t take long after that for Southern postmasters to simply start interdicting the mail on their own, with no gang of thieves necessary to encourage the process, and with the full cooperation and assistance of the Post Office Department itself. Abolitionist tracts, newspapers, and magazines were simply turned over to local officials for destruction, with First Amendment rights considered inferior to the right of whites to own black slaves and not be criticized for it.

The issue’s importance to the South did not wane as years passed either. In 1849, George H. Legg, the postmaster in Spartanburg, S.C., was jailed by local officials for his refusal to turn over a letter for inspection by local pro-slavery groups.

The resulting abridgment of First Amendment rights that prohibited mailing anti-slavery literature to the South was only lifted following the Civil War after the issue of slavery itself was settled by force of arms.

The case of the Sabbatarians was also a national issue on which the post office found itself on the wrong side thanks to its insistence on delivering the mail as quickly and efficiently as possible to everyone everywhere in the nation.

In order to make sure the mails reached post offices as quickly as possible in those days of mail carried in horsedrawn stagecoaches, the system operated seven days a week. The arrival of the stagecoach carrying the mail was a major social and economic event, especially for those living in the small towns like the ones that were springing up here in northern Illinois on what was then the western frontier.

A Stanley M. Arthurs (1877-1950) painting of an 1830s stagecoach arriving in a village, with the driver blowing his tin horn to announce the arrival. Illustration from Scribner’s Magazine, November 1908.

When the coaches neared a settlement with a post office, the drivers blew their long tin or sheet iron horns to herald the mail’s arrival. The sound of the horn was the signal for anyone who could to get to the post office to see if any letters for them had arrived, and to listen to others read aloud the latest political and social news from the newspapers and magazines the coaches carried.

Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, wife of famed Civil War General John A. Logan, recalled the thrill of hearing the stage driver’s horn when she was a young girl living in southern Illinois in the 1840s. Her father had enlisted to fight in the war with Mexico and the family was starved for news.

“I can to this day in imagination hear the sound of the long horn the stage-driver used to blow as he entered our town at the midnight hour twice a week,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I was then but twelve years of age, and yet at the first sound of the horn, in moonlight or darkness, I would rush out and never stop running till I reached the post-office.”

1830s sheet iron stage driver’s horn in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. 65-3/8” long.

On most days, this rush to the post office—which in the 1830s and 1840s was often located in a community’s general store or local inn—was eagerly looked forward to by all residents. However, when the coach arrived on a Sunday, ministers saw the male halves of their congregations evaporate at the sound of the coach driver’s horn as they hurried down to the post office to hear the latest news.

The discontent caused for the more religious members of communities by the disruptions created by the Sunday arrival of the mails resulted in the Sabbatarian movement, which aimed at halting Sunday mail delivery.

In April 1810, Congress had decreed that postmasters were required to deliver every item they’d received in the mail on every day of the week, including Sunday—the Sabbath—and to open their offices every day the mail arrived. Including Sunday.

The opposition to the new law grew swiftly and the loosely organized opposition’s members became known as Sabbatarians.

Not only did the Sabbatarians want the mandate to open post offices every day of the week eliminated, but they also opposed the mails even moving on Sundays. And that threatened to have an economic impact on not only the businesses that relied on frequent, fast mail deliveries, but also the private contractors who carried the mails via stagecoaches and wagons.

The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office—no matter what day of the week it was—to hear the latest state, regional, and national news it carried.

The Sabbatarian campaign grew for the next 20 years, with petition after petition (many at the instigation of the Presbyterian General Assembly) being dispatched to the post office department demanding cessation of Sunday delivery.

But by the late 1820s, the anti-Sabbatarian movement, one of whose leaders was a Wall Street merchant with the marvelous name of Preserved Fish, had begun to grow as well. Fish and his allies organized their own petition drives, even helped by some religious groups, such as the Alabama Baptist Association, that treated Saturday as the Sabbath.

Also joining the fray was travel book author Anne Royall, whose books hinted darkly at a conspiracy by Sabbatarian Presbyterian postmasters to destroy the separation of church and state.

Finally in 1841 the Sabbatarians were able to get the post office to curtail Sunday service on some routes. The invention of the telegraph also helped the Sabbatarian cause as merchants soon found electronic communication of vital economic news faster, though more expensive, than the mails.

Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until 1912—a little over a century after the Sabbatarians’ campaign started—that the post office finally agreed to halt mail delivery and order the closure of all post offices on Sunday.

Today, the postal service is still struggling to survive, although it no longer has to worry about the combined assaults of pro-slavery forces and the Sabbatarians. Which, I suppose, might be mistaken for progress by some. The main threat to the postal service today is its own top management and Congressional privatizers, who all seem determined to sabotage efficient mail delivery in an apparent effort to entice private companies to take over delivering the mail.

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A Kendall County witness to history: Nathan Hughes and the first Juneteenth

It’s not often that a Kendall County resident is present during a momentous historical event, but that was the case when the first Juneteenth took place at Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. When he issued his General Order Number 3, Union Major General Gordon Granger formally—and forcefully—notified the State of Texas that slavery was irrevocably eliminated.

And last week, President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth the United States’ newest national holiday as a symbolic celebration of the end of slavery throughout the nation.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger

From the time of its settlement as a part of Mexico that welcomed U.S. colonists, Texas had enthusiastically embraced slavery. Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1829 was, in fact, one cause of Texas’ 1836 war of independence. The Mexican government had encouraged Stephen A. Austin to recruit settlers for Texas. He mostly recruited in the southern U.S., encouraging slave owners to emigrate by allowing them to purchase an extra 50 acres of land for every slave they brought with them. Both before and after it was admitted to the Union in 1845, East Texas and the state’s Gulf Coast became major cotton growing regions relying extensively on slavery.

So when the Southern states seceded, Texas went right along with them, citing Northern efforts to end slavery as the main reason they were leaving the Union. In their Declaration of Causes approved by the Texas legislature on Feb. 2, 1861, the state’s leaders contended:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”

Legally, slavery had been abolished by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862 immediately after the bloody Union victory at Antietam. Lincoln’s executive order did not free all the nation’s slaves. Instead, it was aimed at the South as an economic weapon and therefore freed the slaves only in areas of the Confederate states not under the control of the Union Army. And that meant Texas. But the state’s slave owners, like those in the rest of the Confederacy, paid no attention to Lincoln’s proclamation.

But by the spring of 1865, the Confederacy was imploding. Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, and the rest of the South’s organized forces quickly followed suit.

On May 9, Gen. Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then move to the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.

Gen. Joseph A. Mower

By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Units that reportedly came ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.

The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment had been recruited in Illinois and was mustered in in April 1864. It had served well, including at the brutal Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.

Serving in Company B of the 29th was Nathan Hughes, who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war, fled north into Illinois and briefly lived in Kendall County before he enlisted to fight for his own freedom. By the time the 29th came ashore at Galveston, Hughes had been wounded twice—once at the Battle of the Crater—and was a seasoned veteran.

It’s interesting to contemplate what the residents of Galveston must have thought seeing 2,000 smartly uniformed and well-armed Black soldiers disembark and march through their town. Especially since it’s more than likely the only Black Americans most of them had ever seen had been slaves.

On April 19th, Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. According to Granger’s order:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

And the thing is, there were a LOT of slaves in Texas in 1865. As Union armies had moved through the Confederate states east of the Mississippi, worried slaveowners had sent more and more of their enslaved people west to Texas. In 1861, there were 275,000 slaves in Texas. By 1865, there were 400,000.

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes, photographed in July 1893 on the occasion of their 10th wedding anniversary. Hughes, a witness to the first Juneteenth in 1865, is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic medal. He was the only Black member of the Kendall County G.A.R. (Little White School Museum collection)

In addition, Texans tended to believe that while perhaps slaves had been freed elsewhere, certainly their enslaved people wouldn’t be freed. As William Lee Richter wrote in The Army In Texas during Reconstruction, 1865-1870. “Planters vainly hoped that they would be compensated for the loss of their slaves or that the Supreme Court or the election of 1866 would overturn the Republicans’ majority in Congress. In addition, there was a cotton crop to bring in that fall. For these reasons, the planters forced their ex-bondsmen to stay on the plantation as slaves in fact, if not in name. To achieve this end, the farmers liberally employed whipping and murder.”

Southerners began resisting extending basic rights, including the right to vote and to peacefully assemble, as soon as the war ended. The U.S. Army and the newly formed Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands worked hard to combat the racist violence with which the South responded to its defeat at the end of the Civil War, but those efforts proved ineffective. The violence grew to such an extent that during the Presidential election campaign of 1868, John R. Marshall, publisher of the Kendall County Record in Yorkville—himself a veteran of the Civil War who served in the Sturges Rifles—was far from alone when he wondered whether the war had ended two years too soon:

“Did not the war end too soon? Is the cursed spirit of rebellion crushed? Are we to be threatened with the bayonet at every Presidential election? If the Democrats are defeated in November they threaten the bayonet. If they are successful, they will overthrow the acts of Congress passed during and since the war. Slavery or serfdom will be re-established and the country will be placed back to where it was in the days of Pierce and Buchanan. Then the five years’ war will have been a failure and this progressive people will have once more to contend with the devils of treason and slavery.”

That, however, was in the future, a bleak future at that, in which it would take nearly a century from the time Gen. Granger issued General Order Number 3 until acts enshrining civil and voting rights in U.S. law. From the time Granger impressed upon Texans that slavery was over once and for all, Black Americans began quietly observing June 19 as their own private day of independence from being enslaved and finally gaining their freedom.

After showing the U.S. Flag in Galveston, the 29th marched to the Rio Grande River where it was part of the Army of Observation tasked with reminding Maximilian and his French supporters that the United States was not pleased with their intervention in Mexico. The 29th was mustered out of U.S. service on Nov. 6, and its troops left for their homes.

Nathan Hughes came back to Kendall County and settled on a small farm on Minkler Road, went down to Kentucky and found his children, and brought them back to Illinois. His wife, however, decided to stay in familiar Kentucky and not move north. He eventually remarried. His grandchildren became the first black high school graduates in Kendall County, and THEIR grandchildren and great-grandchildren became teachers and professors, and lawyers and other professionals.

The family, now scattered across the nation, continues to pay forward the momentous results of that first Juneteenth Nathan Hughes had been part of in 1865.

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It’s past time to recognize African Americans’ long history in Kendall County

The patriarchs of the extended Hemm, Burkhart, and Shoger families that settled in Oswego Township pose for a family picture in the early years of the 20th Century. German represented a large percentage of immigrants to Kendall County in the mid-19th Century. (Little White School Museum collection)

In observation of Black History Month, I thought it would be interesting and informative to dredge up some posts from the History on the Fox archives about the topic that I’ve published during the past several years. There is currently an active move afoot, apparently led by the governor of Florida, for government to censor American history by eliminating all the bits that make some people uncomfortable from school curricula. But it’s not history’s job to make people feel good; it’s history’s job to preserve the truth so that we can benefit from it—all of it, even (especially!) the uncomfortable parts…

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In the history of Kendall County written in 1914, one of the writers spoke with pride about the breadth of the county’s ethnic heritage.From the perspective and mindset of someone writing in 1914, the county’s ethnic make-up probably did seem pretty broad. He mentioned, in particular, those of English, Scottish, German, and Welsh descent, plus some Irish and Scandinavians as well as those who could trace their families back to the French Canadians frontiersmen who once lived here and other areas throughout northern Illinois.

To modern sensibilities, though, that doesn’t sound like much of an ethnic mix at all.

Ku Klux Klan in its modern, second incarnation wasn’t strong yet—it would be another year before it would be officially reconstituted by William J. Simmons in 1915 atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain and begin sowing hatred of anyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon protestant. In addition, the Red Scares of the years after World War I had yet to get their start, fueled to a fair extent by the Klan’s racial and religious bigotry.

Bigotry towards ethnic groups, in fact, was common and growing, especially as the county’s white European, Canadian, and other settlers began enjoying their second, and sometimes third, generations in the U.S.

Two other ethnic groups—African Americans and Hispanics—weren’t even mentioned in that 1914 county history. During that era, there weren’t many of either group in Kendall County—but there were some—and those who were here kept a low profile, as did others across the nation.

But despite their lack of recognition, Kendall County did have an African American population in 1914, and, in fact, had had one since the early 1830s.

The first Blacks who emigrated to Kendall County had no say in whether they wanted come or not. In the summer of 1833, a group of three families emigrated to Kendall County from Camden, S.C. and settled on the north side of Hollenback’s Grove in today’s Big Grove Township. When they left North Carolina, the families of R.W. Carns, J.S. Murray, and E. Dyal decided to take two ‘former’ slaves with them. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, notes that the Carns family brought a Black woman named Dinah, and the Murray family brought a woman named Silvie with them from South Carolina.

Noted Hicks, “They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

Whether, as Hicks reports, they were former slaves is debatable, even doubtful. It’s also extremely unlikely they had any choice about whether to become pioneers on the Illinois frontier.

Kendall County’s first courthouse, where the county’s first and only slave auction was held, was this frame building. This photo was probably taken in 1894 shortly before it was torn down to make way for a private residence. The 1864 courthouse cupola is visible to the left rear. (Little White School Museum collection)

Blacks were rare enough to create interest—and sometimes consternation among some—in the years leading up to the Civil War. By that time, Illinois had passed some of the strictest anti-Black laws—called the Black Codes—of any state in the union. In 1844, another former Carolinian, M.O. Throckmorton and his father-in-law, William Boyd, seized an African American who was riding on a sleigh-load of dressed pork being hauled to Chicago by a resident of Bureau County named McLaughlin. Insisting the fellow was an escaped slave, Throckmorton and Boyd hauled the Black man to Yorkville where he was turned over to Sheriff James. S. Cornell. Cornell, without much choice in the matter due to existing state and federal law, reluctantly put the unfortunate Black man up for sale at auction at the courthouse in Yorkville. But no bids were forthcoming, probably because most of the crowd were grim-faced members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society. Eventually, one of the society members made the winning bid of $1, and the former prisoner was sent on his way to Chicago, and presumably on to Canada and freedom.

From the 1830s to the 1860s, a tiny number of Blacks made Kendall County their home. But in the years after the Civil War, a substantial influx of African American farmers arrived from the former Southern slave states and settled in the county, mostly in an area a few miles south of Oswego.

One of the Black men who arrived in the county after the war was Anthony “Tony” Burnett, who had been liberated by the 4th Illinois Cavalry during the war. Burnett joined the regiment’s Company C as a cook and later returned to Oswego with Lt. Robert Jolly where he enjoyed a close relationship with the family. Burnett is buried in the Jolly family plot at the Oswego Township Cemetery with a U.S. Government-issued tombstone that reads, “Cook, 4th Illinois Cavalry, Co. C.”

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes posed for this formal portrait by Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benensohn on the occasion of their wedding (anniversary in July 1893 (Little White School Museum collection)

Nathan Hughes, a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, which had been recruited in Illinois, and Robert Ridley Smith, who served in the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry, both moved to the Oswego area after the war. Hughes worked a small farm south of Oswego on Minkler Road. He also joined the Yorkville Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the only Black county resident to do so, and where he served in various offices.

A number of other Black farming families also settled in the Minkler Road area where they worked small acreages. Their children were educated in the same one-room country school their White neighbors attended, without comment, suggesting the Jim Crow bigotry that was raging in the South had yet to reach this far north. Not that it wasn’t on the way.

By the 1920s, there were formal Klan organizations in Kendall County and the surrounding area. On June 7, 1922, the Kendall County Record reported: “The Ku Klux Klan initiated 2,000 candidates near Plainfield Saturday night. It is said some 25,000 members from Chicago and adjoining cities were present. The KKK is making a big stir in politics.”

Students at the one-room Grove School south of Oswego in December 1894. The Black children in the front row are all members of the Lucas family that farmed in the Minkler-Grove Road area. (Little White School Museum collection)

In February 1923, the Record noted that a 75-member Klan organization had been established in Sandwich, and then on June 4, 1924 reported from Yorkville that “Members of the Ku Klux Klan from Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet staged a big picnic and demonstration at the big woods east of town Friday. It was a perfect day for the outing and several thousand visitors took advantage of the day to visit Yorkville, the beauty spot of the Fox, and take part in the events of the organization.”

But that was all in the future. In the late years of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th, Black families were considered part of the community. Robert Ridley Smith raised his family in Oswego, and they became well-known and respected members of the town. Smith was for many years the janitor at Oswego’s large school building, and, a combat veteran of the Civil War, he didn’t seem at all shy of occasionally reminding area residents that Black Americans had a history worth acknowledging.

Robert Ridley Smith was the long-time janitor at Oswego’s community school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His children all graduated from the school, the first Black high school graduates in Kendall County.

For instance, in the Record’s April 17, 1907 edition, the paper’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Bob Smith, the colored janitor of the schoolhouse, had some grave humor out of the school Monday. He raised the flag on the schoolhouse at half mast; all wanted to know what it meant, but he told them they must guess it. Finally the principal came along and he too wanted to know what Bob meant by it, and then Bob replied that the day was the anniversary of the death of Lincoln and that it was appropriate for a negro to show his mournfulness.”

Smith’s son, Ferdinand, was a racial pioneer. The June 17, 1903 Record reported: “Ferdinand Smith holds the distinction of being the first black person to be graduated from High School in Kendall County. He was one of the graduates of the [Oswego High School] Class of fifteen who graduated on June 1, 1903.” Smith’s graduation address was titled “Power to Meet Our Wants.”

The next year, the Record reported Ferdinand’s sister Mary’s graduation, and in 1906 noted their sister Frances was among the graduates: “To Miss [Frances] Smith fell the task [of representing the community’s African Americans] on this occasion and she did the duty assigned her in a dignified and ladylike manner, showing no symptoms of embarrassment whatever. Her paper was on ‘Afro-American Progress.’”

Robert Smith, sone of Robert Ridley Smith, played varsity baseball for Oswego High School in the first quarter of the 20th Century. His older brothers and sisters were the first Black students to graduate from high school in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Smith family was athletically inclined as well. A photo of the 1907 Oswego High School baseball team shows yet another Smith sibling, Robert, standing proudly with the rest of the team, fielder’s glove in hand.

The picture is startling for the casual refusal of Oswego’s public high school to participate in a shameful era of U.S. sports history. At the time Robert was happily playing high school ball in Oswego against other area schools, his fellow African-Americans were banned from playing in the Major Leagues.

Today, Kendall County is more ethnically diverse than at any time in its history, with people from all over the world living, working, shopping, and sending their kids to school here. But it is worthwhile to understand, especially during Black History Month, that it is the extent, not the diversity itself, that is new.

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Watching Fox Valley history unreel a week at a time in the local press…

Back in the early 1980s, in preparation for writing a community history to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Oswego Township’s settlement, Ford Lippold started stopping by the Oswego Public Library to transcribe interesting tidbits from microfilm of the Kendall County Record’s weekly “Oswego” column.

Ford was an interesting guy. He championed youth activities in the Oswego area and was instrumental in establishing the Oswegoland Park District, becoming the district’s first executive director. He and contemporary Dick Young advocated for and spearheaded establishing the Kendall County Forest Preserve District. And in 1949, he established Oswego’s weekly newspaper, the Oswego Ledger which he owned, edited, and published until 1965.

But back to the Record, which was established in May 1864 in anticipation of the county seat moving from Oswego to Yorkville. Voters had approved removing the county seat from Oswego in an 1859 referendum. With the disruption caused by the Civil War, it wasn’t until June 1864 that the new Italianate-style courthouse, with its towering cupola, was ready for occupancy. On June 2, the Record reported that county officials had begun to move from Oswego to Yorkville and on June 16 a headline informed readers “The Records Have Come!”

The flag from the front page of Volume 1, Number 1 of the Kendall County Record

It took Record editor and publisher John R. Marshall a couple years to get his vision of a county weekly newspaper fully implemented. Marshall’s plan was to have regular correspondents in each community send a weekly “letter” reporting their area’s news. Gradually, each village in the county, along with some rural neighborhoods—Specie Grove, Tamarack and Wheatland, NaAuSay—joined the Record’s staff of stringers.

Here in Oswego, Lorenzo Rank, a tailor by trade and postmaster by occupation, joined the Record staff as a regular stringer in November 1868. So by 1980 when Ford began his transcription project, a lot of local history was available. Taking his portable typewriter—no word processors then—down to the library, he eventually came up with about 30 pages of historical news that struck his interest.

We used those transcriptions when Ford, Paul Shoger, and I, plus a corps of other volunteers, wrote the community’s sesquicentennial history, 150 Years Along the Fox: The History of Oswego Township, Illinois.

And by that time, I’d been hornswoggled into becoming the editor of Oswego’s Ledger-Sentinel. In June 1980, Jeff and Kathy Farren, owners of the Kendall County Record, and Dave Dreier, owner of the Fox Valley Sentinel, had decided to merge the two papers into the Ledger-Sentinel, with Dave selling his interest to the Farrens. We quickly hired John Etheredge, a new graduate of Northern Illinois University’s journalism school, as the paper’s full-time reporter (John’s still working and writing for the paper, now as managing editor).

He and I both thought continuing the Record’s regular column looking back to previous years would be popular with readers, and so we started the Ledger-Sentinel’s “Yesteryear” monthly column, using Ford’s 30-pages of transcriptions as a basis. But Ford’s transcriptions were pretty thin on the ground for some months, so I began adding to them, taking my trusty little TRS-80 laptop down to the library once a month and gradually fleshing out what Ford had started.

When we got our first Macs at the newspaper office, I started transcribing all those typewritten pages into a Microsoft Word file, which had grown considerably by the time I retired from the newspaper in 2008. By that time, I was not only using those transcriptions for the “Yesteryear” column, but found they were invaluable research aids in writing my weekly “Reflections” column as well as for researchers down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

After retiring and basking in the realization I didn’t have to cover evening meetings any more—by that point, I’d been covering local government for more than 30 years—I started looking for something to occupy my time. And that’s when I decided a more complete transcription of all those years of “Oswego” columns would be of quite a bit of use to historians, genealogists, and others researching Oswego history. And I also figured I could expand the transcriptions to cover the years when Ford Lippold’s Oswego Ledger started covering the local news.

By that time, the Little White School Museum, where I was serving as the volunteer director, had acquired the Record on microfilm through 1980 as well as microfilm of other area papers that had Kendall County and Oswego news in them from the 1840s and 1850s. So I started out with the early years and started working my way forward in history, transcribing news about the Oswegoland area, but also about news that affected the entire region and sometimes the nation. I also began transcribing Oswego Ledger news as well as news from the Fox Valley Sentinel until the papers’ merger.

The original file soon became too large to be manageable, so I broke it up into roughly 20-year increments, 1849-1869, 1870-1889, 1890-1909, 1930-1949, 1950-1969, and 1970-1989. When the Oswegoland Park District got the museum its own web site, we started posting the transcriptions, as individual PDF files from 1849 to 1969, so that researchers could download and then search them for names and dates. I figured I could work on the years from 1970 to 1989 later.

By November 2010, I’d expanded Ford’s original 30 typewritten pages into 2,300 pages of transcriptions, and from there I just kept going. By June 2014, I had pretty much finished filling out those years through1969—or so I thought. By that time, the files had grown to a total of 4,725 pages and contained a treasure trove of Oswego and Kendall County history.

Oswego’s Little White School Museum

But as we used the files for research at the museum and as I used them for research for my “Reflections” column (which I continue to write up to the present), I kept finding holes in the transcriptions. Sometimes I’d managed to miss an entire week; once I found I’d missed an entire month. Other times I’d find I’d missed an important event or obituary because it hadn’t been printed in the usual places in the papers.

So those transcriptions have been an on-going project as I find and try to correct deficiencies.

Which brings me to late last year when I found, while doing some research on post-Civil War Kendall County, that the transcriptions for the years 1865 through 1868 were missing tons of content. Granted, Rank hadn’t begun his “Oswego” column until mid-1868, but there was still a lot of Oswego and Oswego-related news in the Record before he began writing.

So I started filling in the missing information whenever I got a chance. And along the way, I found some fascinating stuff, some of it even relevant to present-day politics. And it involved one of the three major historical inflection points that have affected Oswegoland’s history.

The area in late 1865 and 1866 was just beginning to recover from the effects of the Civil War. News of the whereabouts of Illinois regiments, especially those with soldiers from Kendall County filled the pages. Many of those regiments were sent down to the border with Mexico due to the on-going civil war and revolution in that country. The conflict had been caused by the French government’s installation of Austrian Archduke Fernando Maximiliano José María de Habsburgo-Lorena as the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in 1864. The U.S. hadn’t been in a position to do much during the Civil War, but after the South’s rebellion had been put down, the government turned its attention to the border.

So Union Army units were sent there to remind the French the U.S. didn’t not appreciate their presence. Some with local residents were actually mustered out down there, such as the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, comprised mostly of Black Illinois soldiers. Others were sent there then sent back north, some to be mustered out in Springfield, and others in other places.  The Record carried numerous stories about county towns holding welcome back picnics and dances for the returning soldiers.

The Record carried the story of the pursuit and capture of Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt.

In addition, the paper reported on other news of modern interest including the hunt for the Lincoln assassination conspirators and their trials, as well as the efforts to capture major Confederate political figures. In light of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, numerous stories criticized President Andrew Johnson’s friendliness towards former Confederate officers and officials, especially their immediate reentry into the South’s political life.

“The great desire of the rebellious states at the present is to be reconstructed on a basis that will give them representation in Congress equal to their entire population,” Marshall wrote on Jan. 11, 1866. “Before the war they were satisfied by having a three-fifth representation in their slaves, but now they wish every man to count one, be he black or white, but white [men] propose to do the voting for both colors.”

And on Feb. 11, 1866, Marshall warned of Johnson, “The South has ruled nearly all the Presidents the country has had, until the days of Lincoln, the martyr to freedom, and since his death it bids fair to resume its sway. The people elected a Southern man as Vice President, who now fills the executive chair. He was elected as an exponent of freedom and equal rights–but he is fast changing, like a weathercock, from his northern supporters to the more congenial fellowship of reconstructed rebels. His boasted ‘hangings for treason,’ and his harsh dealings with rebels is fast vanishing…He is drifting in the Southern current.”

It’s also interesting realizing that during those years, great change was taking place in Kendall County that was only dimly realized at the time. The region—and the nation—was on the cusp of substantial economic and technological changes that were only sinking in a bit at a time.

In 1866, plans were afoot to make the Fox River navigable from its mouth at Ottawa, possibly all the way to Oswego.

For instance, the Fox River was recognized as an economic engine that had yet to be fully utilized, with stories in the paper concerning possible uses for both its waterpower and its transportation possibilities. And, in fact, local political pressure was applied to the area’s member of congress to get the U.S Army to do a survey of the river valley with an eye towards making the stream navigable. The initial plan called for dams and locks to create a commercial waterway from the river’s mouth at Ottawa upstream past the dam at Dayton to modern Millington—then called Milford—with later plans to extend its navigability all the way upstream to Yorkville or Oswego. Not only was the river as a freight canal envisioned, but also its use to power a vast array of manufacturing machinery.

“Make the Fox River navigable by this means and at every dam there will be a factory or factories of some kind and villages and towns will spring up in profusion,” the Record predicted. “Farmers will have a market for their grain, which will compete with New York direct, and the days of railroad monopoly in this section will be past.”

But at the same time, there was also growing agitation to build a railroad linking the developing coalfields around modern Streator with the towns up and down the Fox Valley. The line was envisioned by most of its backers as direct competition with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, which ruthlessly used its monopoly west of Chicago to set high freight rates on coal and other necessary supplies as well as the grain and livestock county residents needed to ship to the Chicago market. Individuals and local governments up and down the Fox Valley enthusiastically subscribed to buy bonds to finance the new railroad.

Bond issued to finance construction of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road in 1869.

The result was the Ottawa, Oswego, & Fox River Valley Rail Road that opened to most Fox Valley towns in 1870. And almost immediately, the CB&Q wrested control of the railroad away from its independent owners, thanks to less than competent legal safeguards and what appeared to be bribes being applied in the right places. The legal fight whether the bondholders were liable for the costs of the railroad’s construction went on for decades afterwards.

The railroad was, of course, one more indication that the Fox River’s vaunted capacity to nurture water-powered industries was soon to be completely eclipsed by the development of steam engines in virtually every size suitable for powering any sort of business wherever the owner wanted to locate it. Granted, once a dam was built, waterpower was basically free, but it really wasn’t. Dams require constant maintenance and the region’s annual spring floods—called freshets in that day and age—could completely wash them away. The mills and factories that relied on waterpower also required constant maintenance of the waterpower machinery. And during times of low water or extreme cold, they often had to shut down altogether.

Working my way through all those issues of the Kendall County Record from late 1865 through 1866 and 1867, it was interesting for me, who knew what was going to happen next, to watch those long-ago business owners and farmers and local governmental officials try to make decisions based on what they knew at the time on issues that would have effects on our communities right up to the present day.

If you’re interested in downloading these interesting Oswego history files, just visit the Little White School Museum web site. Here’s a direct link to the transcription page: https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org/learn/historic-oswego/oswego-news-columns/

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Filed under Black history, Business, Civil War, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation

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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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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Two wars’ major effects on Kendall County history…

I hadn’t really thought about the structure of Kendall County’s history–and that of Oswego, too–until we started working on developing the new core exhibit down at the Little White School Museum.

Back in 2017, the Oswegoland Heritage Association Board decided we needed to do a complete makeover of the permanent exhibit in the museum room. So we hired museum consultant Lance Tawzer to come in and help us figure out what to do. The first thing we learned is that our museum room was not a museum room, it was our museum gallery, which was cool. We also learned our permanent exhibit was not a permanent exhibit, but rather our museum’s core exhibit. “Permanent,” Lance explained, makes the statement that it’s never going to change while “core” establishes the idea that what is on exhibit there is really the basis for your whole interpretation of local history.

2019 Museum Gallery

The Little White School Museum’s new core exhibit opened March 24, 2019.

And, we also learned that what museums do is exhibit artifacts, photos, and documents, they don’t display them. An exhibit includes interpretation of whatever is being shown to the public—its history, who owned it, and why it’s important to whatever the museum is trying to explain to visitors. Antique shops have displays, museums shouldn’t—but unfortunately, all too many do.

Anyway, when we got to discussing how we wanted to organize the story of Oswego‘s history for the new core exhibit, it suddenly occurred to me that two of the nation’s major wars—the Civil War and World War II—not only had major effects on the entire community (not to mention the whole nation), but that they really divided local history into three convenient eras. Those would be the area’s prehistory and the settlement era to 1861 and the start of the Civil War; the post-Civil War era up to 1941 and the start of World War II; and, finally, the post-World War II era that drastically changed Oswego from a small, sleepy farm town into one of the fastest growing communities in the nation.

Since we’re observing Veterans’ Day this week, I thought it might be a good time to revisit the major impacts those two wars had on Kendall County as a whole, with the Oswego area seeing so much change.

White pioneers settled Kendall County starting in the late 1820s. By the late 1830s, the nine townships that would one day become Kendall County were split between Kane County (Oswego, Bristol, Little Rock) and LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Seward, Lisbon). In 1840 there was sufficient support to create a new county out of those nine townships that petitions were entertained by the Illinois General Assembly to do just that. Kendall County was established by an act of the General Assembly in February 1841.

The new county, already growing quickly, experienced even faster growth. By 1860, its population had reached 13,074, up 69 percent from its 1850 population of 7,730. By 1860, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line had been running through the northern part of the county for just seven years, but it had already resulted in the creation of a fast-growing town, Plano, in Little Rock Township. Plano, in fact, was quickly becoming an industrial center as the Hollister brothers and others tinkered with machines like grain harvesters with a view towards manufacturing them, making use of the CB&Q’s rails to bring in raw materials and ship out finished goods.

Blake, John

John Blake enlisted as a substitute for wealthy Kendall County farmer Sheldon Wheeler, and was paid more than $400 to take Wheeler’s place. Blake was one of more than 1,200 Kendall County men who served in the Civil War. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in 1861, the Civil War broke out, and men and boys from all over Kendall County rushed to join the Union Army to fight against the South’s treason in defense of slavery. By the end of the war, 1,251 county residents, nearly 10 percent of the county’s total 1860 population, had served in the fight, first to preserve the Union against Southern treason and then to eliminate slavery. Of those who served, 247—20 percent—died. Of the one in five men and boys who marched off to war and who never came home, 70 were killed in action, seven died as Confederate prisoners of war, and the rest succumbed to disease and wounds.

The war may have ended in 1865, but it continued to have profound effects on those who served, the communities they came from, and the county as a whole. The overwhelmingly young group of men—some as young as 13—who marched bravely off to war were changed in ways they never expected and which those who were left at home had problems understanding. Some, who had been given great responsibilities leading large numbers of men as commissioned and non-commissioned officers found it difficult to return to menial jobs and to the back-breaking work that farming was in 1865. After spending up to four years of continuous travel sometimes punctuated by vicious combat, many found their horizons had shifted.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered an outlet for these restless souls as did new opportunities available in the Reconstruction South.

The result was a sharp decline in Kendall County’s population. By 1870, the county’s population had dropped to 12,399, and it continued to steadily decline thereafter as whole families packed up and headed west or south. Oswego Township’s population followed the same trend. It didn’t exceed its 1860 population until 1950.

The completion of the Fox River Branch of the CB&Q in 1870, linking the railroad’s mainline with Oswego, Yorkville, Millington, and Ottawa, offered not only a way for people to get to Kendall County towns, but also a way for families to leave, drawn by cheap land in the West and the restlessness of so many former soldiers. Throughout those years, the families leaving the county for what they saw were greener pastures elsewhere were chronicled in the local press.

1880 abt Depot

Oswego’s CB&Q Depot was built at Jackson and South Adams Street in 1870, along with three side tracks. (Little White School Museum collection)

On Nov. 9, 1871, the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported that “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a [rail] car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”

Most headed west, but some headed south. The Record reported from Oswego on June 26, 1873: “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”

As the years passed, larger groups were established to head west in company. On March 8, 1883, the Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported: “Clarence Shumway and Alfred Linegar left for Nebraska with their goods and stock–in carloads–last Wednesday. Mrs. Shumway and children followed some days afterwards. Today, Alfred Wormley will start for the same destination; August Schmidt for Dakota; and James Gannon to Iowa with the effects and others are getting ready for going west.”

The correspondent added, somewhat plaintively, “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”

By 1890, the county’s population had decreased to 12,106 and continued to drop until it hit its low point of 10,074 in 1920. Not until 1930 did the number finally begin inching up.

It was just in time for the major impact that World War II had on Kendall County. By 1940, the county’s population had risen to 11,105. Farming—the county’s main industry—was beginning to recover from its long depression that began as World War I ended. Meanwhile, county retail and other businesses were slowly digging their way out of the Great Depression that began in 1929.

1944 Young, Dwight Los Alamos, NM

Among those Oswegoans serving during World War II was Dwight Young, who became a nuclear physicist working on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atom bomb. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the outbreak of war on Dec. 7, 1941, Kendall’s young men (and this time young women) again flocked to the colors, enlisting and being drafted to serve in the military. Meanwhile, thousands of Kendall women joined the homefront workforce to labor in munitions and other manufacturing plants, take over the businesses their husbands had been running until they were drafted, and volunteer in local Red Cross and other support roles. A good example of the effect the war had on family-owned businesses is the story of Everett and Evelyn McKeown. The McKeowns bought Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home in 1938. When war broke out, Everett was drafted to serve as an Army medic. Evelyn, meanwhile, determined to continue running the funeral home on her own, but there was a problem—she had no mortician’s license. Luckily, Leonard Larson, who owned the Yorkville funeral home, stepped in and agreed to act as the business’s licenced mortician. Everett was wounded during the invasion of Normandy, evacuated to England, recovered, and was sent back to what was considered an area unlikely to see combat, only to end up smack dab in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He was mustered out, went back to Oswego, and took over running the funeral home business. And he and his wife adopted a daughter, which fit right in with what so many other male and female vets were doing as they all started new families.

The war was easily the greatest government program in the nation’s history, removing millions of men and women in prime working ages from the private workforce, resulting in increased wages for those remaining, providing new markets for farm products, and generally ending the financial pain of the Depression.

At the end of the war, all those young people came home to a country that was drastically changing as new, expanding businesses tried to keep pace with the demand for goods and services. Millions of young men and women married after the war, finding jobs in the factories springing up to supply goods for the pent-up demand created by the Depression and then four years of war and rationing. All those new families needed places to live, cars to drive, furniture and appliances for their new homes, and then schools for their children to attend.

1959 BH sign 2

The first family moved into their home at Boulder Hill in 1956. By 1958, there were 100 homes on “The Hill.” The subdivision’s population eventually reached more than 9,000. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County, located at the periphery of the Chicago Metro region began to grow as the war decade of the 1940s turned into the decade of growth in the 1950s. U.S. highways Route 30, Route 34, and Route 52 provided interstate and inter-region routes into the county as did state highways Routes 25, 71, 47, and 126. Decent transportation, land available for development, and nearby jobs began drawing thousands of residents to new housing developments epitomized by Don L. Dise’s sprawling Boulder Hill Subdivision in northern Oswego Township. Between 1950 and 1970, the county’s population doubled. It took it another 30 years to double again, reaching 54,550 by 2000, but just 10 years to more than double again to 114,736 in 2010.

Along the way, Oswego ceased being that sleepy little farm town and became a full-fledged suburb, growing from a little over 1,200 people in 1950 to 3,000 in 1980 before literally exploding to more than 35,000 today.

The negative impact of the Civil War on Kendall County is long past, but World War II’s effects continue. Aspects of that growth are seen as both negative and positive, sometimes both at the same time, by longtime and new residents alike. But while the effects of the two wars can be debated, it seems pretty clear they both had profound consequences that, in so many ways, are still being felt today.

And as we ponder those consequences this Veterans’ Day week, you’re invited to the annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, honoring those who’ve served, from the Civil War to the present day. Admission’s free; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit will be available until Dec. 2, so you’ve got plenty of time to stop by.

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Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

On June 1, 1898, the Kendall County Record published an anonymous letter to the editor from an Oswego resident noting how the commemoration of Decoration Day—today’s Memorial Day—had changed over the years.

The commemoration started out with the girls of the community going to the cemetery to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers. Gradually, it morphed into almost a celebration of the military, something that became really evident during 1898, when this letter to the editor appeared in the Record.

As we finish commemorating another Memorial Day, I thought it might be interesting and instructive to reprint that anonymous letter to give a slightly different take on this annual holiday:

************************************************************************************

AN OSWEGO VIEW

Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

1898 abt Decoration Day Parade

Former Civil War soldier George White leads Oswego’s Decoration Day parade through the downtown business district about 1898. (Little White School Museum collection)

For several years following the rebellion, the decoration of the soldiers’ graves was not thought of, and, if I mistake not, the practice was first begun in the South. Here in Oswego it was commenced by a few ladies–and such seemed to be the case more or less all over the country–who, on a nice day, would quietly go to the cemetery and place flowers on the graves of the soldiers of the late war. The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.

But a regular day was appointed for it; the affair was taken out of the hands of the women by the soldiers, especially by the organized G.A.R. To secure a band was the first move towards decoration; the procession in military order was made the great imposing feature; the oration the more bombastic the better; in short, the spirit of pity was changed to that of glory, and the affair made to stimulate militarism. Under this spirit and practice, it was no wonder that the sporting class improved the day for races, base ball games, etc.

The question now is: Which disposition for a people is the best, the civil or military? A temperance lecture here one evening, of course portrayed the liquor business as the great danger with which the country is threatened; it fully endorsed the war with Spain; closing with a peroration of the most popular sentiments in regard to it such as the holy cause of securing liberty to the oppressed.

To illustrate a point, the opinions of two great men as to the destiny of the United States were quoted: one by President McKinley to the effect “that the institutions handed down by the father are safe in the hands of the people;” the other by the historian Macaulay, in substance “that the government within itself will furnish its destruction by the leading up to a military dictator.”

1957 OHS Band at Bartlett cr

Legendary Oswego music educator Reeve R. Thompson marches down Main Street on the way to the Oswego Township Cemetery with the OHS Band on Memorial Day 1957. (Little White School Museum collection)

Considering the military spirit and hero worship to which we are running, the Macaulay opinion is the more in line. The expression “We want to lick Spain like h–l” may not sound very patriotic, but there is such a thing that the greater the victory the worse for the victory. By fighting for liberty for others, you may thereby lose your own. The more fighting, the greater the prestige of the army. Militarism and nobility are going hand in hand. The rule now that when other things being equal, preference shall be given to the soldiers for federal offices can be easily enlarged. The islands to be conquered are to be governed by the army, of course, and Hawaii to be annexed by a small fraction of the inhabitants who, though not called nobility, constitute one all the same.

What makes millionaires and the sons of great men so readily enlist in the war but the fame to be realized from it?

 

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Historians’ major finds help preserve our local, state, and national heritage

Every once in a great while—if they’re very lucky—a person with historical inclinations makes a great find, something that will really advance knowledge of the area of history in which they’re interested.

The folks at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian did that a few years ago when they acquired, at auction, an album of rare historical photos put together by Emily Howland, a Quaker abolitionist and schoolteacher who lived in upstate New York. Howland, it turned out, was a neighbor and friend of the legendary anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Before her death in 1929, Howland filled a photograph album given as a gift to her by a friend with images of people she met.

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the photos at auction in 2017. Highlights of the photos in the collection, which appear to date back to the 1860s, include pictures of Charles Dickens, former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to Congress.

1868 abt Harriet Tubman

The Smithsonian’s new cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman, taken about 1868.

Among the 48 photos in Howland’s album was a well-known image of her friend Tubman, but there was also a portrait of Tubman no one except Howland had ever seen before.

It shows the famed activist casually sitting in a chair exuding the certainty of her vision of freedom for her African-American brethren. She appears to be about 40 years of age, and unlike so many of the photos of her taken later in life, this image makes Tubman look attractive. In fact, it would be nice if the U.S. Mint chose this image of Tubman for the $20 bill when they get ready to redesign it.

Actually, I’d rather they removed Andrew Jackson from the $10 bill and replaced the old racist reprobate with Tubman, rather than displacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $20. But that’s an argument for another day.

To celebrate the new exhibit of Tubman’s photo this past winter, the media did a bunch of stories, and interviewed a number of folks involved in acquiring it for the Smithsonian. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recalled he was paging through the album while evaluating it prior to the sale when he had one of those historical Eureka moments.

“Suddenly, there was a picture of Harriet Tubman as a young woman, and as soon as I saw it I was stunned,” he recalled.

I know the feeling.

After the grassroots effort to save Oswego’s historic Little White School was made back in 1976, the slow process of restoration using mostly volunteer labor on Saturday mornings started. But as soon as people realized we were trying to start a community museum, they began bringing family memorabilia, photos, textiles, and all manner of other stuff. With the donation of some used shelving, the items were stored down the basement in a jumble. It wasn’t until 1992 that we were in a position to start actually cataloging all that stuff. Thanks to museum professional Keith Coryell being between jobs, he and ace researcher Stephenie Todd helped design the procedures we still use to catalog and store items. We did a macro sort first to pile like things together, and then began cataloging individual items using a database I designed by stealing ideas from other museums.

And, of course, stuff didn’t quit arriving in 1992, but just kept on coming, which both overjoyed us and depressed us because we weren’t even keeping up with cataloging newly arriving material, much less cutting into that giant conglomeration of items classed, as museums do, “Found in collections.” In fact, we wouldn’t largely finish cataloging all that “Found in collections” for some 20 years.

So back in 1998 as we worked on the backlog, I finally decided to tackle a large 1890s-vintage pedestal mounted photograph album that had been donated back in 1987 by the Collins family (of Collins Road fame). It was designed like a large Rolodex that was covered in dark red velvet, and mounted on a cast iron pedestal. Knobs on either side rotated the metal frames that held the photos, which flipped by so you could easily view the portraits. As standard practice, we removed photos from albums so they could be safely stored in acid-free pockets. The accession numbers we assigned to each photo in an album tied it back to the album itself, as well as to other photos that accompanied it.

So my task that day was to remove the photos from the mechanism, describe and number them, and file them in photo pages, which then went into our own three-ring photo binder. They were pretty typical 19th Century portraits of farm families from the Minkler Road area where the old Collins and related Gates farms were located.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes’ portrait was taken to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1893 at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio. (Little White School Museum collection)

But then I came across a portrait of a black couple, the man seated with his wife standing next to him. At that time, I had no idea that a vibrant community of black farmers once lived in the Minkler-Reservation Road area. It was a bit of lore that had been completely erased from local history—none of the county’s histories had a thing to say about it. So finding a formal portrait taken at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio was a big surprise. I turned the photo over, hoping against hope they would be identified, and they were: “Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes” was written in pencil on the back.

That was my Eureka moment, when I realized I had something special in my hands.

Back during the nation’s Bicentennial I’d worked on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s Publications Committee. Our goal, which we met, was to publish an updated county history. Rick Brinkman, a friend I worked with at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery volunteered to write the chapter on the Civil War, and during his research he was contacted by Mrs. Doris Davis of Aurora who said she had an interesting story about her great-grandfather, Nathan Hughes, who served in the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Rick learned that after the war, Hughes came to Kendall County, where he farmed along Minkler Road. But Mrs. Davis didn’t have a photograph of her great-grandfather, which we would have published along with Nathan Hughes’ story that made it into our book.

So fast-forward 22 years, and there I was holding a photo of what we then thought was one of Kendall County’s only black Civil War veterans. Later, we found several black Civil War veterans are buried in Kendall County, but that portrait of Nathan Hughes and his wife, which I later found was taken at Benensohn’s Yorkville studio in 1893 on the occasion of the couple’s 10th anniversary, is still the only photograph we know of that pictures one of those brave veterans.

We were pretty proud of our find at the museum, and made sure the photo was part of our upgraded Civil War exhibit back in 2003. Then in 2012, we found out just how special that portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield acquired another original print of the photo, which they said was the only known photograph of a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The folks in Springfield didn’t know much about Hughes, so we filled them in on his life and times here in Kendall County, and they helped us by providing copies of the records of the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ version of today’s American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. From those records, we learned that Hughes was not only the only black member of the Yorkville GAR, but that he also held leadership positions in the organization. That he was a member of the generally all-white GAR was unusual, but it was extremely unusual for an African American veteran to hold any sort of office in the organization.

It may have helped his bonafides that he was not only a veteran, but that he saw combat and was twice wounded in action. But, in general, Kendall County was not as difficult a place for African-Americans to live as were other parts of the North, most definitely including Illinois. From the beginning, African-Americans were accepted in local schools and were considered parts of the communities in which they lived—Hughes’ grandchildren became the first African-American high school graduates in Kendall County. I’m not sure why that attitude prevailed, but it’s a fact that it did, at least until the 1920s when racist and religiously bigoted Ku Klux Klan mania swept the nation.

So it’s easy to appreciate Lonnie Bunch’s pleasant surprise when he saw that cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman for the first time. Myself, I keep hoping for another find like Nathan Hughes’ portrait, but I figure, deep down, one such in a lifetime is about all we’re allowed. And like the Tubman find, the Hughes photo is plenty for me.

 

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