Category Archives: Environment

The Fox River’s still recovering from “Gaslight Era” pollution…

I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”

It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.

The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.

Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.

A typical manufactured gas plant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.

Clip from the Aurora Beacon-News showing the old gasometer on Hurd’s Island in the Fox River near downtown Aurora. (Courtesy the Aurora Then and Now Facebook page)

But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.

The Aurora Gaslight Company’s relatively modest manufactured gas plant at River Street and North Avenue in 1888. (Courtesy Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps)

Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.

Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.

John Edwards’ acetylene gas generator from a 1901 advertisement in the Kendall County Record.

In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.

All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.

Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.

On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”

Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”

Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.

By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.

In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.

Aurora’s manufactured gas plant 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped on the riverbank and eventually into the river, as can be seen from the piles of refuse in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.

By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

By 1907, Western United, the successor to the Aurora Gaslight Company, had considerably expanded it’s plant and facilities on River Street at North Avenue in Aurora. (Sanborn Fire Insurance Company)

In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”

It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.

The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.

The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.

The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”

By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.

In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.

Nicor, which supplies natural gas to millions of customers in northern Illinois, is a direct descendant of the old Western United Gas and Electric Company.

They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.

These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Maintaining an eclectic palate makes life more interesting

Anyone who’s ever read this blog knows that I enjoy food. And one of the initially alarming things about this stupid pandemic we’re suffering through were rumors and reports about the disruptions in the chain of food deliveries from growers to grocery stores. Fortunately, those dark days seem to have gradually passed by, though it’s not out of the question that they might return.

When we lived out on the farm, the food chain was pretty short. That was in the early 1950s, so we had indoor running water and a flush toilet along with electricity and a party line telephone. But in many ways, we were still living as farmers had from the end of World War I through the Great Depression and World War II.

Our Wheatland Township farm, about 1950.

My dad’s job was to farm. He grew the crops, raised the livestock—pigs and feeder cattle—milked the cow (when we had one), repaired machinery and our car and truck, and cut my hair. My mom was responsible for the house, keeping it clean and tidy, cooking the meals, raising chickens (which, with the eggs they produced, were traded for groceries in town), and maintaining the garden and our small orchard.

Every Saturday, my mom, my two older sisters, and I would head to town, where we’d drop my sisters off at their piano lessons, while mom and I would drive down the street to the grocery store. There, mom would deliver one or two crates of eggs and sometimes freshly dressed chickens ready to be sold. They liked my mom’s eggs because they were always clean and fresh with no cracked shells. She’d get a receipt for them and then we’d shop for groceries, mostly staples, the bill for which was reduced by the amount she’d earned in credit for from the eggs and chickens.

Michaels Brother Grocery Store in Montgomery where my mother traded eggs for staples. Although this photo was taken around 1900, it looked much the same 50 years later. (From The History of Montgomery, Illinois in Words and Pictures)

Some of those groceries were for the school lunches for my sisters and me, like peanut butter, bologna, and liver sausage, and, depending on the season, fruit.

We were lucky growing up in the 1940s and 1950s because by then there was sufficient money for food. My mother recalled when she went to her rural neighborhood one-room school that some of the kids were so poor their school lunch sandwiches were bread and lard.

By the early 1950s when I started school, our lunches consisted of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, some kind of fruit, and dessert—my family was big on dessert. I don’t recall eating salty things like potato chips, but I suppose we might have.

My grandmother happily holding up a hog’s head as she and her father-in-law make up a batch of head cheese on Hinman Street in Aurora about 1910.

Living on a farm during that era meant you got a lot of food choices that my town cousins and friends didn’t. Early on I developed a taste for sandwiches made with the pickled heart and pickled tongue my grandmother made after my family did their annual beef butchering. And then there was head cheese, a product whose creation I won’t go into detail about here, although I will note there’s a surprising amount of edible meat on a hog’s head. My grandmother had a frequent hankering for headcheese, as did her son-in-law, my father, although by the time I came along we ate the store-boughten stuff (as grandma put it), the days of using everything but the squeal on the butchered hog having passed on into history. Anyway, I still love the stuff.

Bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seemed to predominate at lunch time during those early school years, but I always favored an eclectic mix that didn’t much interest my classmates when sandwich trades were in the wind.

Liver sausage—also called liverwurst and Braunschweiger (technically, Braunschweiger is the smoked variety of liver sausage) by some of my German friends and relatives—was one of my favorites. My buddy Glenn’s dad used to frequently remark, “Of all the things I like the best, I like liver wurst.” But I really liked liver sausage from the time I was a little kid, along with pickled tongue and head cheese, any one of which gave most of my lunch mates a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.

While I hated liver as a child—and still do as an adult, for that matter—I’ve always liked liver sausage. Don’t ask me why, except that the two, as far as my taste buds are concerned, are not even in the same food universe. Early on, my father attempted to get me to like liver as much as he did—which was a LOT. But there was something about the taste and consistency of the stuff I couldn’t stand. It was difficult for my parents to cajole me into eating liver since my mother couldn’t stand it, either, which made the whole “encourage by example” thing moot. Luckily for my father, he found a kindred spirit after I married my wife, and the two of them enjoyed liver and onions to their hearts’ content.

Still hard to beat Oscar Meyer’s recipe for liver sausage.

I got a real taste for the Oscar Mayer brand of liver sausage around fifth grade, and carried it in my lunch for several years. Liver sausage, dill pickle slices, and mustard was my standard lunch, and when Fritos were introduced, they provided a perfect compliment.

Out on the farm, my mother made jelly and jam from the fruit she grew in our farm’s small orchard, and pickles—sweet and dill—from the cucumbers she grew in the garden. We had a small grape arbor, and so did my grandparents, both of which seemed to produce lots of grapes for jelly as well. So peanut butter and jelly were my go-to sandwiches, along with bologna and cheese, for the two and a half years I went to one-room school when we lived on the farm, along with an occasional pickled tongue, liver sausage, or pickled heart sandwich treat.

But pickled heart or pickled tongue or head cheese sandwiches just aren’t very marketable in the sandwich trading market that often goes on during school lunchtimes. Even in my one-room country school, it was vanishingly rare to find anyone who’d risk a trade. Which was fine with me because it was hard to beat any of those sandwich fillings anyway.

My one-room school where we ate lunch at our desks and occasionally traded sandwiches–though few wanted to trade with me.

My grandparents retired from farming a year or so after my parents did, and moved into town. There, my grandmother still made the occasional batch of pickled tongue or pickled heart that made great sandwiches, though not ones anyone at school would have a thing to do with.

After my grandmother died, my sister Elaine continued the tradition and would make me an occasional batch of pickled tongue. I wrote a column several years ago about the joys of a good pickled tongue sandwich, lamenting my wife would have nothing to do with even the concept of pickled tongue. My editor and good friend, strongly agreed, stating she would definitely not have a thing to do with a recipe that began: “First peel the tongue.”

I did, however, manage to convince my son that unpopular foods might actually taste good. And that came in handy when we were traveling through West Virginia one time. We’d stopped at a local diner for breakfast, and he noticed something on the menu called “country sausage,” which was plainly differentiated from usual pork sausage. He asked the waitress what was in it, but she seemed a bit unsure what the difference might be. Turned out, it was a good pork sausage with a bit of a kick to it, and it was excellent.

Then there was our trip to Scotland. I was working on a book with my buddy Paul and it was also my 30th wedding anniversary, so I talked my wife into taking a celebratory trip to Scotland to do research for the book and generally have fun. It didn’t take much talking, either.

Scrooge McDuck was not a fan of Haggis. It turned out to taste pretty good.

That was back in the CompuServe days and I was able to make connections with people in Scotland who could help me out, and who became reasonably close on-line friends. We even stayed with one couple and their sons for a few days and enjoyed the kinds of Scottish food and pub visits you are denied with packaged tours. Our host told us he was preparing a true Scottish treat: Haggis, neeps, and tatties. That turned out to be haggis, served with yellow Swedish turnips and mashed potatoes.

I admit to having had a dim view of haggis since my days reading Scrooge McDuck comics—he claimed haggis nearly did him in. And, of course, haggis has been a banned Scottish import to the U.S. since 1971 just because it’s got sheep lungs in it. I mean, come on! We export Twinkies, which I suspect are far more deadly than the occasional sheep lung.

Haggis itself consists of sheep’s pluck minced and mixed with spices, oatmeal (wouldn’t be Scottish without it!), and suet, and then it’s all traditionally packed into a sheep’s stomach (artificial casings are favored these days) and then boiled, as are the Swedish turnips and potatoes, both of which are served on the side, mashed with butter and salt.

A hearty meal of haggis (center), neeps (right), and tatties looking much as it did when my friend Ian served it for my wife and I near St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Haggis is Scotland’s national dish.

So our friend Ian made the Haggis—the Scottish national dish, by the way—although his wife Sue would have nothing to do with it. He was fairly impressed when both my wife and I not only ate it, but really enjoyed it. I did, however, put my foot down at blood sausage as well as everything else the British insist on calling “sausage.” I don’t know what that stuff is, but it’s NOT sausage.

So my message today is that an outright refusal to try regional or national foods just because they’re a little off-putting (okay, haggis may be more than a little off-putting) is being short-sighted. Trying some adventurous food choices makes traveling—if this damned coronavirus ever allows us to get back to doing such a thing—a lot more interesting, and can even add a bit of a historical dimension as well. From colonial Williamsburg’s rabbit stew to Acadia National Park’s popovers to West Virginia’s country sausage to Lordsburg, New Mexico’s green salsa, there are tasty chances to be taken. Some of them might even make for a good school lunch.

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, Farming, Food, Montgomery, Nostalgia, People in History, travel

The time France tried to make a profit on Illinois bison

Given the current situation here and across the world as we attempt to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest (sometimes caused by civil authorities themselves), and almost unbelievable government dysfunction and dishonesty, it’s always valuable to have a mental bolthole handy for a therapeutic retreat.

For me, that’s colonial Illinois history, where there’s always something new to learn, especially stories about colonial efforts that didn’t turn out like their promoters expected.

The fur trade era, when fortunes were made and lost as colonial European powers traded with North America’s Native People for the pelts and hides of fur-bearing animals in exchange for various goods, is one of my historical favorites. The trade is so interesting because it was such an important driver of the European settlement that resulted in centuries of death and cultural destruction of so many of the confinement’s Native People. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the fur trade North America certainly would not have developed like it did.

It may seem odd to us today that animal furs and skins would be such valuable commodities that the trade in them would lead to political and military conflict on a worldwide scale. But that was indeed the case as the great European powers fought over who would control the extraction of natural riches from what they called the New World.

The currency of the North American fur trade was the prime winter beaver pelt.

The North American fur trade was built around beaver pelts. Fashion during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first quarter or so of the 19th century decreed men, in particular, wear hats in a myriad of styles manufactured from felt. It turned out the beaver’s under-fur, because of its unique physical structure, produced the finest felt in the world.

While millions of beaver pelts were harvested in North America and sent to European factories annually, those weren’t the only animal products of interest to Europeans. Mink, otter, fisher, and other fine furs were highly sought after, as were deer hides, bearskins, and the hides of American Bison.

Bison hides, when properly tanned, proved to be durable and extremely tough. Bison hide shields used by Native People had been known to be proof against even musket balls. Europeans turned the hides into heavy blankets and coats, and the hide with the fur removed was used to make boots and other heavy-duty footwear.

While bison hides were definitely salable items, they weren’t favored by the regular trade, due to their size and weight. A single bison hide weighs between 20 and 30 pounds, and measures around 7×5 feet. The fur trade, especially during the 18th Century, relied on transporting furs and trade goods by birch bark canoe, even the larges of which would have been hard-pressed to carry many oversized bison hides.

American Bison once roamed most of North America. These animals currently live at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington, Illinois, where a bison herd is being recreated.

Even so, there was a market for bison hides, and it just so happened that in the early 18th Century the bison population east of the Mississippi River was at its height. There had always been bison east of the great river, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that their numbers began to rapidly increase. That was due to a number of factors that included the success of Native People in modifying the environment by using grass fires to create and maintain open savannahs in the generally dense eastern forests and to enlarge and maintain the large prairies that began in western Indiana stretching all the way to the Mississippi. That provided additional bison habitat and by creating numerous edges around wooded areas created ideal deer habitat. At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi is estimated at between two and four million animals.

Another, far less positive, factor was the deadly epidemics of Old World diseases loosed on Native People by Europeans that depopulated large areas east of the Mississippi, drastically lowering hunting pressure on large game animals. So, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the eastern bison herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, significantly smaller than the ones on the shortgrass prairie west of the Mississippi, but still substantial.

And that’s where Charles Juchereau de St. Denys saw an opportunity. The fur trade in today’s Midwest was controlled from either Quebec or Louisiana, depending on which side of the dividing line the area was located. Juchereau’s plan was to build a trading fort and a bison hide tannery on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a scheme he was able to interest King Louis XIV in personally. But since that fell within Quebec’s area of influence, Juchereau had to work hard to reassure officials there that he had no designs on trading for beaver pelts. Eventually, after a lot of hard bargaining, he was able to allay enough of their suspicion to get their grudging approval. Juchereau pointed out that his post near the confluence of the two great rivers would stand as a bulwark against the growing incursions of British traders then filtering into the area, while also offering protection to the Native People Juchereau hoped to relocated near his fort. Those considerations got the strong support of the officials at New Orleans who were getting concerned about growing British influence in the area.

The expedition Juchereau put together included 24 men in eight canoes. It was prohibited from selling brandy to the Native People and from trading in beaver pelts. Any other pelts and skins were fair game, however.

Juchereau’s expedition probably traveled from Canada to southern Illinois using big Montreal Canoes like these. Made of birch bard, they were the mainstay cargo vessels of the North American fur trade for some 200 years.

Juchereau’s expedition left Montreal on May 18, 1702 and headed up the well-worn St. Lawrence-Ottawa River trade route into Lake Huron, arriving at the post of Michilimackinac on July 10. During the summer months, Midwestern rivers were at low levels, so the expedition waited until late summer to head south when, they hoped, river levels would be higher.

The expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River of Wisconsin. The Fox River of Wisconsin was under the control of the Fox Tribe. Not yet in open warfare with the French, the Fox nonetheless charged Juchereau’s expedition a stiff toll of trade goods to pass on their way upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River at today’s Portage, Wisconsin.

From there, the route was down the Wisconsin to its mouth on the Mississippi, and then downstream to the French settlement at Kaskaskia, where they picked up the “almoner” Juchereau’s concession required. For this duty, the Bishop of Quebec assigned the unfortunate Jesuit Father Jean Mermet.

In early 1700 Mermet had been assigned to assist Father François Pinet with the Miami mission at what is now Chicago. For whatever reason, Pinet decided to leave, putting Mermet in charge although he could not speak the languages of the local tribes. He spent the winter of 1701-02 isolated there. In the spring, Mermet made his way east to the Jesuit mission at the St. Joseph River in modern southwestern Michigan, where at least he had someone else to talk to. But this annoyed, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the commander at Fort Detroit who suspected the Jesuits were trying to increase the size of the St. Joseph Mission at the expense of Detroit. So Mermet was sent on his way once more, this time down to Kaskaskia, where Juchereau’s expedition found him when they arrived from Michilimackinac.

It also turned out there were some doubts among the Jesuits about Juchereau’s plans, mainly they were suspicious—undoubtedly justified—the efforts to make a profit out of buffalo hides would have a higher priority than saving souls. Further, they noted, Mermet really didn’t have any actual missionary skills—as an almoner his job had been to distribute goods and money to the poor. But Juchereau’s patrons were powerful enough to overcome the Jesuits’ worries and off Mermet went with the expedition. At least the poor guy had somebody to talk to on the way.

The expedition reached the site of Juchereau’s concession sometime in November 1702. The location is believed to have been on the Illinois side of the Ohio River somewhere around Mound City.

Juchereau’s bison tannery and trading fort was located somewhere along the Ohio River in the Mound City area near the southern tip of Illinois.

Juchereau immediately began construction of his trade fort and tannery while Mermet began his new job as missionary to the local tribes—although inexperienced, he was given credit for working with “zeal and fortitude” and generally made a good impression on the Native People he could reach.

By the early 18th Century, the French had learned that a successful trading establishment required a large nearby population of Native Americans, something Juchereau’s concession, located in a sort of no-man’s land between tribal areas. But once it became known that Juchereau was paying top dollar for bison hides, Native People—mostly Mascoutins—began to congregate. But then disaster struck in the form of a virulent epidemic, probably malaria. The disease was a European import for which the Native People had no immunity, and it killed roughly half the Mascoutins despite Father Mermet’s frantic medical efforts.

Not incidentally, Juchereau also died from the disease, throwing the entire tannery operation into temporary chaos. But the rest of the French voyageurs quickly assumed control and the collection of hides continued until some 12,000 had been accumulated.

Which is when the big flaw in Juchereau’s scheme became clear: How to get 180 tons of tanned bison hides from the wilds of North America to market—any market. Louisiana’s new governor, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, responded to pleas for help by dispatching six workmen to help the tannery crew build boats to ship the hides south. In late 1704, all 12,000 hides were loaded aboard the boats and floated down the Mississippi to Fort de la Boulaye—New Orleans wouldn’t be founded for another 14 years. But there was virtually no ship traffic from the relatively new fort to France, or anywhere else at the time. The result, as one of Juchereau’s companions ruefully explained, was that “These goods we brought down in very great numbers…and for want of ships in two years’ time the moths got into them, the waters rose, and for lack of people to guard them the Indians took them and the whole lot was lost.”

With no birch trees available to build canoes in southern Illinois Juchereau’s men had to build boats to haul the tanned bison hides the operation had accumulated down to the Missssippi’s mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. They were probably bateaus, flat-bottomed, shallow draft boats favored in areas without sufficient birth trees.

Thus was the ignominious end of Juchereau’s bison hide venture.

The scheme is of interest to historians because of its colonial Illinois commercial nature and because of the evidence it offers of large numbers of bison east of the Mississippi during that era. The eastern herd, unlike the gigantic herds on the western shortgrass prairies, was divided into relatively small groups of hundreds or perhaps a few thousand each ranging into western Virginia, the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But there were enough bison in the east to produce 12,000 tanned hides in about two years by a single trading and tanning operation, a substantial number by anyone’s reckoning.

It’s not clear if Juchereau’s venture had a negative effect on bison population east of the Mississippi, but it does seem that from the early 18th Century on, bison numbers began a steady decline. The last recorded wild bison in Illinois was reported killed in 1808.

When the topic of the American Bison comes up, Illinois isn’t generally the first part of their range that springs to mind. But time was, the Prairie State was home territory for thousands of them.

For more information on bison in Illinois, see Records of Early Bison in Illinois, R. Bruce McMillan, editor; Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XXXI, Springfield, 2006. For more on Juchereau’s tannery venture see “A Historical Reexamination of Juchereau’s Illinois Tannery,” by John Fortier and Donald Chaput, pps. 385-406, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1969).

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Native Americans, People in History

Will County’s namesake made money from salt…and slavery

It’s not an exaggeration to observe that most people are ignorant of the history of their state, county, or the town in which they live. Part of that is due to how mobile our society is these days. A vanishingly tiny number of us live our entire lives in the same town or even in the same state. As a result, the history of the places in which people find themselves living really has little meaning for them because likely as not, they expect to be moving on again fairly soon.

The recent pandemic and the massive changes in the nation’s economy it’s caused—I’ve seen it dubbed the Great Pause, which I think fits it nicely—has also paused much of the nation’s former mobility. But I’d be surprised if it didn’t resume after COVID is beaten.

Not only do people’s transient lives militate against learning about local history, but so does the modern educational system. State-mandated standardized tests, with their national norms, cannot test local historical knowledge and so unless classroom teachers think it’s important enough to take time away from teaching to the tests, local history is ignored.

But having lived in the same area virtually all my life, and having lived on the same street for 66 years, I’ve seen local issues come and go that would have been considerably smoothed out had people had any knowledge of their community’s history. Because there are reasons why things are as they are. Sometimes they aren’t necessarily good reasons, but roads were not just arbitrarily sited, school districts weren’t created at the whim of some far-away bureaucrat, and municipal boundaries are like they are because of decisions made a long time ago by people who thought they were doing the best they could for their communities.

Will County, Illinois

One of the things some may wonder about is how local places got their names. For the most part, these were not names mandated by those far-away bureaucrats, but were picked by the residents who lived there. County names, however, were indeed given by the Illinois General Assembly, whether local residents liked them or not. My own county of Kendall, for instance, was named in opposition to the one—Orange County—local residents favored in order to honor one of former President Andrew Jackson’s political operatives.

On the other hand, Will County’s name didn’t seem to raise much, if any, opposition when it was given.

Dr. Conrad Will was one of the many Pennsylvania Germans—called the Pennsylvania Dutch by their British neighbors—who came to Illinois in its earliest days and then became active in both local commerce and government.

But Will was also known for something a lot less savory than were typical Pennsylvania Dutchmen. He was not only a business owner, but also one of the few legal Illinois slave owners.

Will was born near Philadelphia, Pa. on June 3, 1779. After he studied medicine for a while, he moved west, probably traveling to Illinois via the well-traveled Virginia-Tennessee migration route. He reportedly arrived at Kaskaskia in 1814. The next year he moved to land along the Big Muddy River in what is now Jackson County, located near the southern tip of Illinois. In 1816 or thereabouts, he obtained a government lease on one of three profitable salines the U.S. Government deeded to the Illinois Territory.

This sketch portrait is the only image of Conrad Will I’ve been able to find.

Salines, or salt springs, were valuable natural resources on the frontier, and the profits from their leases provided a good chunk of early Illinois’ revenue. The water from the springs was evaporated, using a relatively elaborate process for the era, and the salt that remained was then sold.

On the frontier, salt was used for everything from seasoning food to preserving meat and hides. In inland areas away from the coast, salt springs like those that bubbled to the surface in Saline County or in the Illinois Territory’s Randolph County were prime sources for the indispensable material.

In order to make sure speculators didn’t buy up the leases and hold them to drive up prices, the federal leases required the holders to produce a set amount of salt each year or pay a penalty.

In the spring of 1816, the year Jackson County was formed by breaking off a portion of Randolph County, Will traveled back to Pittsburgh to buy a batch of giant cast iron evaporating kettles. Each of the big kettles could hold about 60 gallons and they weighed about 400 lbs. each. The kettles were floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi on a flatboat, and then transported up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Big Muddy River, and from there up to Will’s saline operation.

To increase productivity, Will deepened the saline spring and installed a horse-powered pump to raise the salt water into a large basin. From there, the salt-laden water it ran via wooden pipes to the kettles, which were lined up side-by-side resting on a long brick firebox. The first kettle was filled with salt water, a fire lit under it, and the evaporation process began. In turn, the increasingly salty water was ladled into each kettle down the row where it was further evaporated until only a salt paste remained. The paste was then dug out of the last kettle and allowed to air dry. After it dried, the raw salt was crushed, shoveled into sacks, and shipped down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, St. Louis, and beyond.

Jackson County, Illinois

As you might imagine, the labor to manufacture the salt was hard, hot, grueling work, something with which the federal government assisted by allowing slaves to be imported into Illinois for the purpose of its manufacture. Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River, special territorial laws and constitutional provisions permitted exceptions at the salines.

Illinois’ first constitution, approved by Congress in 1818, continued to allow slaves to be leased for use in the state’s salt works, and it also allowed a form of indentured servitude that was virtually indistinguishable from slavery.

So with slaves and government lease in hand, Will continued his operation. Generally, one bushel of salt could be extracted for every 2.5 to 5.5 gallons of water from the saline. But sufficient salt water to evaporate wasn’t the problem; fuel to keep the evaporation process going was. At first, wood fires were used (a large plot of surrounding woods was part of the saline lease). As the nearby supply of wood was exhausted, the evaporation operation was moved farther and farther away from the saline spring. Ever-lengthening spans of wooden pipe, made by splitting logs in half, length-wise, hollowing out the interior, and then strapping them back together, were used to keep the salt water flowing into the evaporation kettles.

As Jacob Myers wrote of the saline operation in Gallatin County in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society: “The problem of securing fuel was a great one, because of the distance it had to be hauled. As the timber was cleared away the furnaces were moved back farther and farther from the wells and the brine was piped by means of hollow logs or pipes made by boring four-inch holes through the log lengthwise. These were joined end to end, but the joints were not always tight and there was much loss from leakage. It has been estimated that over one hundred miles of such piping was laid from 1800 to 1873.”

Section of original log pipe uncovered at the salines by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

With the scarcity of wood, salt manufacturers turned to the use of coal to keep the brine boiling, and as luck would have it coal was close to the surface in the area of the saline springs and could be reached by drift and slope mines.

The salt business was a hard one, and Will apparently decided politics might be a better way to make money. He was one of Illinois’ first state senators when the state was established in 1818 and in 1820 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in office on June 11, 1835.

With their colleague’s death still fresh in their minds, when a brand new county was formed by partitioning Cook, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties in January 1836, the General Assembly voted to name it after Conrad Will.

Will was just one of a group of salt manufacturers who imported slaves into Illinois, and who later imported even more slaves while calling them “indentured servants.” This form of slavery was not completely banned in Illinois until 15 years before the Civil War began.

Today, we remember Conrad Will as a politician and namesake for Will County. But like many historical characters, it turns out he’s carrying a lot more baggage under the surface than he appears to be.

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Oswego has had its very own fossil since the 19th Century

One of my favorite authors is the late James Michener. For years while he was alive, his fans looked forward to reading one of his thick, arm-breaking novels, especially during the summer.

From Hawaii to Texas to Alaska, Michener has entertained and enlightened. It seemed to me, at least, that Michener must have spent years researching each of his books—and he did. One of the wonderful things about all of them is the minute detail into which Michener goes in explaining the background of the story he’s telling.

In Centennial, for instance, Michener starts out by telling the story of the life of a lady brontosaurus who was galumphing around Colorado 60 million years or so ago.

Here in Kendall County, not a whole lot was happening 60 million years ago, at least we don’t think so. At that time, this part of the landscape was high, dry land of a kind that unfortunately didn’t lend itself to the preservation of fossils. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say we don’t think a whole lot was happening back then.

The real action had happened some millions of years before, starting in the Precambrian era when the Earth’s crust got its foundation. Here in Kendall County, the evidence of Precambrian times—a thick layer of granite—lies about 4,000 feet below the surface, forming what geologists like to call the Precambrian Basement. It’s sobering to think that at one time, about a billion years ago, that granite was the surface of the land, although not one we’d recognize. During that era, the area was bare, dense rock, possibly cut by a few streams with no life at all, because the oxygen we breathe today had yet to be liberated from the planet’s crust.

2 Tentaculities oswegoensis fossil

A nice bunch of tentaculites Oswegoensis (the elongated cone-shaped fossils) along with a nice crinoid plate is part of the exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

From the lifelessness of the Precambrian, the area lurched into a riot of life during the Paleozoic Era starting about 570 million years ago. It was during this era that much of the dolomite and limestone that undergirds Kendall County was laid down. During the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic, from about 505 to 438 million years ago, Kendall County was part of the floor of a shallow sea. Because of this, large deposits of sandstone—particularly the valuable white St. Peter sandstone that can be found along the south Fox River—that can be found up and down the Fox Valley were left behind, as were layers of Ordovician limestone and dolomite. The numerous invertebrate creatures that thrived in the warm seas overlaying Kendall County left their mark in fossils in limestone outcrops all over the area. They can be most easily seen in my hometown of Oswego along Waubonsie Creek near North Adams Street where brachiopods and other bi-valves, along with other fossilized creatures, are commonly visible.

And, in fact, one of those creatures is even named for Oswego. As the story goes, in 1852 Dr. Mordecai Davis, an Oswego doctor, was surveying the area along the creek while engaging in his hobby of geology, when he discovered a fossil of a worm-like animal embedded in the blue-gray shale the creek had gradually eroded away. Since the creature was unknown to him, he conferred with Professor Wilbur at Aurora College, but the good professor couldn’t put a name to the fossil, either. So the sample collected by Davis was then reportedly sent to Washington, D.C. for study and eventually ended up at the Philadelphia Museum, where it was classified and named Tentaculites oswegoensis, after the place it was first found.

Chicago’s Field Museum maintains specimens of the ancient creature, but its identity is just as shrouded in mystery as it was when Dr. Davis discovered it almost 150 years ago. According to paleontologists at the museum, it is believed to be a marine worm of some kind, but that’s all that is known about it. The Little White School Museum in Oswego has some Tentaculites oswegoensis specimens of it on exhibit.

Two other eras of the Paleozoic, the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian, are extensively represented in Illinois, though not necessarily here in Kendall County. Much of the limestone that is crushed for use on county roads and for other uses originated during the Mississippian era. And the Pennsylvanian era is responsible for the thick seams of coal that underlay much of Illinois just to the south of Kendall County.

Annularia fossil

A nice Annularia (a fern-like plant) fossil from the Pennsylvanian Era collected in the Mazon Creek area of Grundy County.

During the Pennsylvanian era, Kendall County was located on the equator, and the life forms that lived then support these findings by geologists. The beds of Pennsylvanian fossils found in Grundy and LaSalle counties are rich in tropical sea life and plants that grew along the shore. Geologists tell us that during the Pennsylvanian, the area was alternately flooded and dry, resulting in the absolute riot of plant and animal life (including Tully Monsters!) found in the era’s fossil beds. My buddy Paul and I spent a lot of time in the 1960s and 1970s hunting fossils down in the Mazon Creek area. We eventually donated our collection of 500 or so of them to the University of Wisconsin, keeping a few of the nicer specimens, including a Tully Monster each, for ourselves.

Then came the Mesozoic Era, from 245 to 66 million years ago, and that lack of dinosaurs that would probably have driven poor James Michener to distraction. In Illinois, rocks from that era are almost entirely missing, probably ground away by the glaciers that arrived during the Cenozoic Era—which is still underway, by the way. The Cenozoic Era has been a pretty exciting time, too, with the advent of mammals, the advance of ice sheets from the North Pole, and the arrival of the first humans along the Fox River. Up to 20 glaciations of Illinois took place during the era, during which some 85 percent of the surface area of the state was covered in glacial ice.

Interestingly enough, geologists no longer believe the glaciers were slow to advance and retreat. Instead, it is now believed that glaciers advanced quickly and retreated just as quickly. During the last cycle of advances and retreats, Kendall County’s familiar rolling landscape was created.

But back to our story of Oswego’s own fossil. Back in February as they were excavating the footings for the new multi-story commercial building on the block bounded by Washington, Adams, Jackson, and Harrison streets (the old Alexander Lumber Company site) excavators uncovered the layer of blue-green Maquoketa shale that extends to Waubonsie Creek. In amongst the shale—named for the Jackson County, Iowa town where it was first identified—a local fossil hunter found some nice specimens of Tentaculites oswegoensis. It was treated as quite a discovery by some of the local press and even the Chicago Trib and the Sun-Times picked up on it as the collector presented a specimen to the Oswego Village Board. The board was appropriately gratified and village officials said they were busy learning more about the fossil named after the village and were discussing plans on how it could be properly displayed.

tentaculites exhibit

Oswego’s Little White School Museum features the story of Tentaculites oswegoensis as part of its core exhibit.

Of course, the real surprise would have been if no examples of good old Tentaculites oswegoensis had been found in that layer of Maquoketa shale. Most kids who grew up in Oswego knew there was a great fossil-hunting spot along the banks of Waubonsie Creek and they’ve been using their fingers to dig everything from Tentaculites to crinoid plates to bivalve fossils out of some of those soft Maquoketa deposits.

And, as noted above, there have been nice examples of the fossil on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum since the early 1990s. A fine example unearthed by naturalist, environmentalist, and author Dick Young some 25 years ago is part of the museum’s core exhibit. So, Oswego village people, if you’re looking for more information on the town’s very own fossil, just contact the museum and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you out.

Mother Nature created a land that was kind to the humans who settled it during a period of tens of thousands of years, as well as to those who continue to arrive in growing numbers in this modern age. That creation wasn’t done quickly, of course, and still provides some surprises to those who are paying attention. But then again, things of great worth are seldom achieved overnight.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff

Maramech Hill area a historical gem—just not the one many believe it to be

Maramech Hill, located between Big Rock and Little Rock creeks just upstream from where the combined streams enter the Fox River, has been a celebrated local historical site for more than a century. Once touted as the site of a climactic battle between colonial French forces and their allies and the Fox Tribe, the area around the hill has become one of Kendall County’s premiere cultural and natural destinations.

Maramech Hill Area

The Maramech Hill area of Kendall County. Click here to enlarge.

Part of the area’s story begins during Illinois’ colonial era.

Warfare between Europeans and Native Americans began almost as soon as Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

In South and Central America, and a portion of southern North America, the Spanish waged a series of very successful wars of extinction against the native populations.

For most of North America, however, the situation was quite different. A series of powerful, adaptable, Indian tribes made the conquest of North America anything but a sure thing. Eventually, however, European numbers and technology won out over the Indians. But it was a tough, generations-long struggle.

For instance, the area that now includes the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia was known as “the dark and bloody ground” long before colonial American frontier settlers began filtering into it.

Maramech Hill site with timber

The Maramech Hill area (between the two creeks), during the settlement era, was surrounded by tall timber as the original survey map from 1838 shows. Click to enlarge.

Claimed as a prime hunting and trapping ground by the native tribes of the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and Huron people, the region was the location of nearly continuous intertribal warfare. It was warfare made worse when European colonial powers began playing the tribes off against each other in a quest to dominate the trade in furs. By the mid-1760s, the Europeans’ wars against each other had largely been settled in favor of England. English peace efforts included issuing a proclamation declaring a no-go zone for settlers west of a line that roughly ran along the peaks of the Appalachian chain. That effort failed spectacularly as American colonials flooded across the mountains to settle the region, touching off even more warfare with and between the tribes. A “dark and bloody ground,” indeed.

But it’s not so well known that nearly a century before those events took place, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan could have been accurately described as a dark and bloody ground as well, primarily because of a decades-long war between the French colonial government and the Fox Tribe.

The Foxes call themselves Meskwaki, or people of the red earth. The French, after encountering the tribe, referred to them as the Outagami or the Renards—French for fox. The tribe was first recorded living along the St. Lawrence River in modern Ontario. But warfare resulting from side effects of the fur trade—primarily conflict with the Huron Tribe—pushed the Foxes west, first to lower Michigan and then, eventually, to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. So the Foxes arrived in our region with built-in animosity towards the French as well as a favorable feeling towards the Iroquois, deadly enemies of both the Hurons and the French.

Through that series of wars and forced relocation, the Foxes became a pugnacious people. Part of the great Algonquian-speaking majority of Native tribes in northern North America, they were members of a linguistic subgroup with the Sauks and Kickapoos.

After being driven out of eastern Michigan by the Ojibwas, the Foxes were involved in fairly constant warfare with that tribe. The Foxes also engaged in sharp battles with the Sioux in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The Illinois, Potawatomis, the Miamis, and several other tribes in the upper Midwest were also often at odds with the Foxes.

Franquelin map color

Franquelin’s map of LaSalle’s colony in 1684 shows what early 20th Century advocate John F. Steward believed was Maramech Hill near Plano.

The warfare was bad for the business of the fur trade (especially their efforts to trade with the Sioux) and the French tried to stop it by weighing in on the side of the Foxes’ numerous enemies. This led the Foxes to cultivate ties with the powerful and ruthless Iroquois Confederacy, who were friends of the British and implacable enemies of the French and their Algonquian-speaking Native allies.

The Foxes’ actions to become the middlemen for the fur trade west of southern Lake Michigan—and to deny French firearms to the Sioux—resulted in denying the use of the strategic and economically valuable portage between the upper Fox River of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River to French trading interests. Instead, French traders had to use the longer and far more difficult Chicago Portage. And if that wasn’t bad enough, cozying up to British interests eventually persuaded the French that the Foxes had to be destroyed.

In 1710, a large group of Foxes—not the entire tribe—agreed to move adjacent to the French fort at Detroit, ostensibly to live under the protection of the French military. However, given the Foxes’ long animosity toward the French and their Indian allies, the Foxes were soon—and predictably—embroiled with disputes against French interests. In 1712, the disputes led to a Fox siege of the French fort, with the Foxes heavily and skillfully fortified inside their own camp. Eventually, Indian allies of the French arrived to lift the siege and to besiege the Foxes. The stalemate lasted nearly a month until the group of Foxes, out of food and water, attempted to escape during a thunderstorm. They were unsuccessful, and virtually the entire band was destroyed.

The rest of the Fox Tribe, not surprisingly, was infuriated. They retaliated by killing French traders and several members of the tribes allied with France. At the same time, the Foxes mounted a diplomatic offensive, and concluded a treaty with their old enemies, the Sioux, to eliminate the threat of an attack on them from the west.

Kee-Shes-Wa Fox Warrior

Kee-Shes-Wa, a Meskwaki chief, painted by Charles Bird King in the early 1800s.

In response to the Foxes’ military actions, in 1715, the French attempted to launch a punitive expedition but those efforts were badly planned, and failed. The Foxes used the respite to build a strong, well-planned fortification on the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay. The fort’s walls were made of oak logs reinforced with earth dug out of trenches inside the fort.

When the French and their allies finally attacked in 1716, they used artillery and formal European siege tactics to attack the Foxes’ fort. However, the Foxes held out against the French and their allies, and forced a humiliating retreat.

The Indians of southern Wisconsin, the Fox included, often hunted buffalo on the Illinois prairie without the permission of the latter. In 1722, members of the Illinois Confederacy captured the nephew a Fox chief and burned him alive. The murder was in retaliation for the Foxes’ continually hunting in the Illinois Country without the permission of the Confederacy. In their own retaliation, a Fox force swiftly moved down into the Illinois County, and attacked a group of the Illinois Confederacy they found, forcing them to take refuge at LaSalle’s old fort atop Starved Rock. The Illinois managed to send a message south to Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois and a force of French and their Native American allies was dispatched to rescue the besieged Illinois. By the time the relief force arrived, the Foxes had wisely retreated, leaving about 120 Illinois dead.

Not content with hindering the French trade in furs, the Fox continually attacked down into the Illinois Country, raiding French and Native American villages alike. Deciding to take the offensive against the Foxes once again in 1727, the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Beauharnois, planned a campaign to destroy the Foxes’ military power. The governor appointed Constant Le Marchand de Lignery to command the campaign. Under the plan, de Lignery gathered a force of French troops and Native American allies in the summer of 1728. The Canadian force was to link up with another group from Illinois commanded by Pierre Charles Desliettes, commander at Fort des Chartres. the Commandant of the Illinois District. The rendezvous of the two forces was to have been at Chicago. But Desliettes’ force of 20 French soldiers and 500 Illini warriors happened upon a hunting camp of Foxes, along with some Kickapoos and Mascoutens, which they immediately attacked. The French force killed 20 and captured 15, after which Desliettes’ Illinois decided they’d had enough warfare and headed back home..

The balance of de Lignery’s large force, numbering some 1,650 French and Indians, continued into the Foxes’ country, but moved too slowly. The Fox learned of the coming assault and escaped before they could be attacked. The attackers only managed to burn some Fox and Winnebago villages and crops before they retired back to Canada.

Governor Beauharnois, however, had become determined to permanently solve his “Fox problem.” Part of the plan involved using interpreter Jean-Baptiste Reaume to stir up animosity against the Foxes among other tribes. With that set in motion, he also ordered French officials in the Illinois Country to be alert for any opportunities to destroy the Fox Tribe.

1731 Carte du Fort ou des Renards

Carte du Fort ou des Renards,” a map drawn in 1731 from accounts provided by French officers involved in the 1730 battle against the Fox Tribe proved Maramech Hill near Plano could not be the battle site. Click here for a larger copy. of the map.

At the same time, the bulk of the Fox Tribe had decided they’d had enough, and determined to leave their homeland and head back east to live under the protection of their one-time allies, the Iroquois. To that end they packed up and headed southeast with the intention of looping round the end of Lake Michigan down to Starved Rock and then east to cross the Wabash. The first part of their trip was uneventful, but when they reached Starved Rock, they attacked a group of Illinois Indians, capturing the son of one of that group’s chiefs, whom they burned at the stake. That infuriated the Illinois, who complained to the commandant at Fort de Chartres. For good measure, the Foxes had also attacked and angered groups of the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Mascouten tribes, which, it turned out played right into the hands of the French since Reaume had been goading all of them to attack the Fox for the past couple years.

From Starved Rock, the Foxes, with about 350 warriors and around 1,000 women, children, and old men, headed southeast, intending to cross the Wabash River. But having again angered the Illinois with their attacks, a force of about 200 Illinois warriors forced the Foxes to stop and build a fort to protect themselves. In the meantime, the French were calling on their Indian allies to join them to fight the Foxes.

The French forces eventually involved included Lieutenant Nicolas-Antoine Coulon de Villiers, Commandant at the River St. Joseph in modern southern Michigan; Lieutenant Robert Groston de St. Ange from Fort de Chartres; and Reaume. The allied French and Indian forces numbered about 1,400, and arrived to besiege the Foxes about Aug. 20, 1730.

This time, the Foxes’ luck against the French and their allies ran out. Low on food and water, the Foxes decided to make a desperate run for it during a violent thunderstorm the night of Sept. 8. Caught on the prairie outside their fortification, the Foxes were attacked and nearly exterminated. The battle did solve the Fox problem for the French, but it also served to sow dissent among their own allies. After all, if the French could exterminate one tribe, they could probably exterminate others.

Steward, John FIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, John Steward of Plano decided this climactic battle took place Maramech Hill near Plano here in Kendall County. Armed with this conviction and a good deal of money, he set out to find information to prove his contention. In 1903, Steward published a book he felt proved his point, Lost Maramech and Earliest Chicago, and even had a huge rock moved to the hill and inscribed with his version of what be believed transpired there.

Steward’s contentions, however, were controversial from the beginning, with most historians pointing out the plain language of the French colonial documents Steward located in France proved Maramech Hill could not have been the battle’s location. His thesis suffered a serious blow in 1935 when Stanley Faye published “The Foxes Fort—1730” in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, an article that demolished most of Steward’s contentions. Some 50 years later, three contemporary maps of the battle and site that had been unavailable to Steward were discovered and described the Journal in 1980 (“The 1730 Fox Fort: A Recently Discovered Map Throws New Light on Its Siege and Location”) and 1987 (“The 1730 Siege of the Foxes: Two Maps by Canadian Participants Provide Additional Information on the Fort and Its Location”).

1900 Lettering the Maramech Hill marker

The carved granite boulder John F. Steward (right in photo) placed on Maramech Hill near Plano  to mark what he believed was the location of the climactic battle between the French and their Native American allies and the Fox Tribe in 1730.

That new evidence, combined with both old and newly discovered accounts of the battle have persuaded historians that Maramech Hill was not the site of the battle. Rather, it is probable it happened near Arrowsmith, Ill., located well to the south-southeast of Starved Rock, east of Bloomington in McLean County. Archaeological work at the Arrowsmith site has made it all but certain that was the location of the 1730 battle.

1903 Maramech Hill B

Maramech Hill in 1903

So, okay, the French-Fox battle of 1730 didn’t happen at Maramech Hill. What did go on there? Obviously, given the artifacts recovered by Steward, the site had been inhabited by Native Americans. As it turns out, many of the artifacts Steward recovered proved Maramech Hill had been the home of Native Americans for a long, long time—just not the ones he thought lived there.

The potsherds he recovered from the site, for instance, appear to be from the Mississippian cultural tradition, as do other stone tools such as hoes for working cornfields. The Mississippian culture was based on growing corn and on trade all over North America. Their capital was at modern Cahokia where upwards of 40,000 may have lived in the area surrounding Monk’s Mound, the largest manmade earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. The river and creek bottomlands around Maramech Hill seem to have been tailor-made for the intensive agriculture practiced by the Mississippians.

But the artifacts Steward says he collected also point to habitation after the era of the French-Fox War as well, including trade silver that was created by British fur trade companies after the end of the French and Indian War in the late 1760s. Maramech Hill may have been the location of a Potawatomi village in the early 1800s led by Main Poche, a noted warrior who opposed the U.S. during the War of 1812.

Today, Maramech Hill and its immediate area are one of Kendall County’s most historically significant areas. Although Steward’s insistence that the climactic battle of 1730 between the French and the Fox Tribe happened there has been proven wrong over the last century and a quarter, the research into that era and the conflict between the Foxes and the French have proved to be extremely informative. For instance, warfare between the Fox Tribe and the French did not follow the familiar Hollywood script. Instead, the Foxes were able to develop the practical engineering expertise to blunt or thwart every French attack, including those involving artillery. In the end, it was lack of supplies that forced the Foxes to leave their fortified camp, leaving them vulnerable to an attack by a superior force. And while the battle didn’t happen here in Kendall County, it was part of the region’s history that made this its own “dark and bloody ground.’

Van de Rohe Farnsworth House drawing

The house legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed and built for Dr. Edith Farnsworth draws visitors from all over the world to the Maramech Hill area.

Further, the area in which Maramech Hill is situated had its own fascinating history during the pioneer era and afterwards. Just down the road a bit from Maramech Hill, where the road—part of the old Fox River Trail stagecoach road from Ottawa to Geneva—crosses Rob Roy Creek was the tiny hamlet of Penfield, where a post office was established in December 1839. When Marcus Steward—John Steward’s father—established his new town along the right-of-way of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Penfield Post Office was moved to the new town on the railroad tracks, opening as Plano in May, 1854.

In addition, the neighborhood also features Kendall County’s only international attraction, the Farnsworth House, designed and built between 1945 and 1951 by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth on the banks of the Fox River just a short distance from Maramech Hill. The architectural treasure annually draws thousands of visitors from around the world to see van der Rohe’s architectural gem.

2016 Maramech Forest PreserveFinally, thanks to the area’s topography, today the Maramech Hill area is also one of Kendall County’s natural jewels featuring rare and endangered plants, a startling variety of wildlife, and unique geographical features.

Prehistory and the region’s elaborate civilizations created by Native People, Illinois’ turbulent early frontier era, the era of settlement, its rare and endangered plants and animals, the nearby Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, and world-class architecture combine to make Maramech Hill and its surrounding region one of Kendall County’s most important and interesting areas.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

How a prehistoric catastrophe created the Fox River Valley

In 1837, Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz announced his theory that an ice age had enveloped the Earth’s northern hemisphere, creating the landforms then in existence. His studies were done in his native area, Switzerland’s Jura Mountains, and, oddly enough, he was a friend, classmate, and associate of one of my distant cousins—the Matiles had lived in Switzerland’s Jura Mountain region since the 1300s.

After Agassiz, scientists began to better understand how, after the vast ice sheets melted, modern landforms were created. But until relatively recently, it was thought that geological features like our own Fox River Valley were created over eons as water and wind erosion did their work. Now, however, it’s looking more and more like many river and stream valleys were created in the blink of a geologic eye.

Midwestern waterways have always been mixed blessings, including those here in northern Illinois. While they were barriers to travel for both the Native People that lived here as well as for the pioneers who later displaced them, they were also sources of food and—for the pioneers—water power that ran the mills that were so vital to the region’s growth.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

In 1867, the first iron bridge was built across the Fox River at Oswego, replacing the old 1848 timber bridge. A King’s Patent tied-arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge, it was built by Oswego Township at a cost of $17,000. (Little White School Museum collection)

Virtually all the region’s early towns were established on some waterway or another. Sometimes those settlements grew where the region’s roads and trails crossed streams, because the pauses in traffic they caused offered an opportunity to serve—or exploit—travelers with inns, stores, blacksmith shops and the like. Many of those crossings also offered sites for the dams that provided water power to run saw mills that produced lumber for homes and other buildings, grist mills that ground flour from grain, carding and filling mills that processed raw wool, and for other useful and necessary activities.

In addition, streams provided relatively clean sources of drinking water (at least for the first settlers, until pollution made them questionable sources at best), as well as sources of food. Before the settlement era, the area’s Native American inhabitants had intensively utilized local streams for food production. It is rare but not unheard-of in Kendall County to find carefully crafted stone plummets ancient fishermen used to weight their nets, along with bone fishing hooks and fishing spearheads. Village sites are invariably on the bank of a creek or the Fox River itself—or on the shorelines of ancient lakes that dried up hundreds or thousands of years ago. In virtually all of those villages are found mussel shells, fish bones, scales, and other evidence that Native People relied on streams to produce important parts of their diets.

Like our pioneer ancestors, however, we tend to pretty much take the landscape, including the geological features of the Fox River Valley, including all its tributary creeks, for granted, as if the landscape has always looked this way. And, certainly for the past several thousand years it has, as it provided a relatively rich natural area where people ranging from paleo Indian hunters and gatherers to modern anglers, canoeists, and kayakers have found food and natural beauty.

Native People fishing with nets

Native Americans made extensive use of the Fox River and its tributaries. Fish and a variety of invertebrates were regularly harvested while the river’s floodplain provided rich land where various wild plants could be cultivated.

But like everything else, the current geography of the Fox Valley had a starting point. In our case the familiar lay of our land was created by titanic forces unleashed when the last glacial advance into northern Illinois began to retreat.

Sometime around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had begun to melt and retreat as the Earth warmed. During the previous tens of thousands of years, glacial advances had covered almost all of northern Illinois except a small iceless island in what eventually became the far northwest corner of our state. Called the Driftless Region, that fragment of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin is today a scenic area of rocky hills, valleys, and lakes.

Geologists don’t really know what triggered these various ice ages, but the global cooling that caused them resulted in heavy snowfalls far to the north that never completely melted during the summer months. That, in turn, caused the snow cover to build up, its own weight gradually compacting it into ice. As the ice became thicker and thicker—and we’re talking hundreds and thousands of feet here, nothing like a modern Illinois or Michigan winter snowdrift—its own weight began squeezing the lowest regions out like toothpaste from a tube, causing glacial advances.

end of the glaciersThe Wisconsin Glacier was the last of these advances, and as it slowly advanced, it bulldozed and abraded the landscape right down to the bedrock, then briefly retreating before moving forward again, leaving a variety of glacial landforms behind from kames (irregularly shaped sand, gravel and till hills or mounds that accumulates in a glacial depression) to eskers (long, winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel) to moraines (an accumulation of debris ranging in size from silt-sized glacial flour to large boulders created by glacial action).

During its last advance, the glacier had built a high moraine of gravel, rocks, and ground up organic materials along its leading southern edge. Glaciers act more like a conveyor belt than a bulldozer, with the pressure of the ice above forcing material from under the glacier out under the front, creating the moraine along its foot. And as the giant ice sheet melted and retreated, water filled the area between the foot of the glacier and the moraine. It must have been a spectacular sight as the ice cold water deepened year after year, creating a huge impoundment.

1972 August Fox River bluffs near Wedron

The rampaging Fox River Torrent carved the sandstone bluffs along the Lower Fox River that are enjoyed so much by canoeists.

And then one day, the natural dam gave way, and a catastrophic flood rushed southwestward washing and grinding everything before it. The unprecedented flood may have created a cataract nearly 100 feet high as it crashed along its course, carrying huge boulders and giant chunks of ice with it, gouging and washing its way through the till previous glaciers had laid atop the primordial bedrock.

The end result of this catastrophe was the Fox River Valley we see today, which was created, geologically speaking, in a relatively short period of time by that single astonishingly destructive event geologists have named the Fox River Torrent. From the wide valley in the river’s northern reaches to the narrow stream bound by towering white sandstone bluffs in its southern course, the Fox Valley had been created in virtually a blink of a geologic eye.

Starved Rock

This image, from a vintage postcard, shows Starved Rock at it’s summer best. The white sandstone rock, carved by the Kankakee Torrent, soars high above the Illinois River, which washes its base.

Just as the unimaginable force freed by the break in the moraine created the Fox Valley, just to the east, the similar, although much larger, Kankakee Torrent gouged out the modern Illinois River Valley. When the Kankakee Torrent rampaged westerly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet, the leading wave was some 180 feet high, carving the valley and the river’s main channel, leaving behind the spectacular sandstone bluffs at Starved Rock State Park.

It must have been quite a sight, had anyone been around to see it. WAS there anyone here at the time? Perhaps.

The January 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine included a fascinating article concerning the latest thinking about the arrival of the first people in North America, and it seems that it’s not impossible that some advance party of paleo hunters following the giant Ice Age mammals they relied on for food might have been on hand to witness either or both of the Fox River or Kankakee torrents. If they were around for those titanic geological events, they would have had ringside seats for some of the most catastrophic episodes of landscape formation in recent geologic history.

 

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Could we be looking at a repeat of 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic?

Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called the grippe.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”

Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.

In late December 1915, the Record reported from Yorkville that: “An epidemic of the grip has prevailed in this section for the past month and efforts are being made to stop the infection. Chicago is taking radical measures and every home should take precautions.”

“There is a report that a grip siege is passing over this continent and NaAuSay seems to be directly in its path as many are afflicted with the dread disease,” the Record’s NaAuSay correspondent added on Jan. 5, 1916.

1918 7-7 Camp Grant mess

A mess hall at Camp Grant was pictured on this postcard, illustrating the close quarters the soldiers undergoing training lived in. Hundreds of recruits were afflicted with the Spanish Flu there in 1918.

Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. Then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.

Little did area residents know that an extremely virulent and deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before.

The nationwide outbreak started in the summer of 1918 as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease. That meant the only news about the disease was coming from Spain and thus the name. And, in fact, the U.S. and other governments at war were mightily trying to keep the seriousness and extent of the disease as secret as they could. Unfortunately for them—and for the millions who would eventually die from it—it soon became impossible to deny what was happening.

Here in Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s “Oswego” news column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”

That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man. Previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly

Meanwhile, at the county seat of Yorkville, schools were being affected: “The epidemic of influenza struck the Yorkville high school last week and that branch of the school was closed on Thursday to reopen Monday,” the Record also reported on Oct. 2. “The teachers afflicted are Misses Hatch, Keith, and Klindworth. Superintendent Ackerman says if present conditions prevail, there is no cause for worry as to the rest of the school.”

But in reality, there was plenty of cause for worry.

The very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”

Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher’s tombstone in the Elmwood Cemetery in Yorkville. Fletcher and his wife both died of the Spanish Flu at the Navy’s submarine base in New London, Connecticut.

That was easier said than done because the disease struck so quickly and was so deadly. That it respected no boundaries of any kind was illustrated by another story in that week’s Record when the death of Record editor H.R. Marshall’s brother-in-law, Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher and his wife at the submarine base hospital at New London Conn. was revealed. The official cause of their death was listed as pneumonia, but that was often an official euphemism for the flu insisted on by government officials trying to minimize the epidemic’s seriousness. At the time of his death, Chief Fletcher was instructing recruits in gunnery at the New London submarine base. His body was returned to Yorkville for burial. The Marshalls had no idea their family members had even been ill until they were notified of their deaths.

The disease was also hitting recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away.

Funeral Home

Oswego’s Croushorn Funeral Home was operated by undertake George Croushorn. (Little White School Museum collection)

For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”

Sitting at his desk in the Record office in downtown Yorkville, Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”

The local deaths were joined by those from all over the nation. Out in Ottumwa, Iowa, local grocer Frank Musselman (my wife’s grandfather), just 34 years of age, died on Oct. 27, 1918, one of five young Ottumwa men to die that day. All five are buried near each other on a steep hillside in the Ottumwa Cemetery.

The flu epidemic gradually burned itself out—mostly—although there were still many more more deaths to suffer.

Looking back at that pandemic of more than a century ago, it’s hard not to compare it to what seems to be developing with the current coronavirus outbreak. Although officials are not yet labeling it a pandemic, it is clearly spreading at a terrific rate throughout the world. The U.S. government again seems to be concentrating on downplaying the outbreak’s seriousness, although this time they don’t have wartime security to blame. Instead, the disease’s spread and efforts to slow it—medical officials say it cannot be stopped, only slowed—seem to be soft-pedaled for purely political reasons.

One of the main reasons we study history is so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Unfortunately, we no longer seem to learn from mistakes. Instead, these days the fashion seems to simply deny any mistake happened in the first place and go on our merry way.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 ended up killing tens of millions of people around the world. We now have the means to stop that from happening again. The question will be whether anyone in positions of responsibility has any idea how to make use of those means. Here’s hoping competence wins out over political expedience.

 

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How prairie farming got its start: New program at Oswego museum Saturday

Oxen with plowMany of us believe the era when Illinois really was “The Prairie State” is impossibly remote and bucolic. But the farmers who came to northern Illinois in the late 1820s and early 1830s were practical, scientific, literate and above all, hard working.

At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, join Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Archaeologist and Tribal Liaison Joe Wheeler at Oswego’s Little White School Museum to discover the people who broke the sod and developed so many of the crops and farming techniques we take for granted as part of the modern northeast Illinois landscape, from siloes to “The Corn Belt.”

The museum is located at 72 Polk Street, Oswego, just a couple blocks from Oswego’s historic downtown business district.

The presentation will focus on the years from 1830 to 1880 when the tallgrass prairie sod disappeared under the hard work of the breaking plow as farmers from the long-settled Eastern states as well as immigrants from England and other countries transformed the landscape.

Pre-registration is recommended but walk-in registration at the door is welcomed. Admission is $5 for the program, recommended for visitors age 16 and older. The program is hosted by the Oswegoland Heritage Association in partnership with the Oswegoland Park District.

For more information, call 630—554-2999, visit the museum web site at https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org or email info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

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Washington , D.C. was just one crime scene on the beaver comeback trail

With the seemingly unrelenting grimness of the news lately, it was nice to run across a story from a couple decades ago that gave me, at least, a bit of comic relief.

While looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon a newspaper clipping (remember those?), and when I saw it, I remembered being amused when the story hit way back then—which is like two centuries in Internet age.

What happened was the U.S. Park Service had geared up and was hot on the trail of vandals who had severely damaged some of those prized cherry trees on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Come to find out, though, the “vandals” were furry critters with flat tails, great big teeth, and healthy appetites—beavers.

It’s not too surprising, I suppose, that park rangers in Washington, D.C., one of the most heavily urbanized areas in the nation, were at first surprised to find beavers munching happily away on the capital’s prized cherry trees.

We’re not nearly as heavily urbanized here in northeast Oswego Township as they are in Washington, D.C., but we’re not exactly out in the boonies, either—the population’s fairly dense around these parts. But beavers, like raccoons, coyotes, squirrels, deer, skunks, and a host of other wild animals don’t mind living amongst us humans.

Image result for fox river trail oswego illinois

The Fox River Trail at Violet Patch Park along the Fox River just north of Oswego.

In fact, many of those animals thrive thanks to humans. The population of whitetail deer, for instance, has exploded in recent years, and there are now far more of them bounding about the countryside here in the Fox Valley than 200 years ago. During my childhood back in the mists of history, there were none around here at all.

We’ve had our beaver problems, too, here in the Fox Valley, just like in D.C. Beavers like young trees best—like the ones park and forest preserve districts favor planting—and have been known to mow down dozens of succulent saplings in a single night. The Oswegoland Park District found that out to its dismay back 2002 when they landscaped the stretch of the Fox River Trail between Oswego and Montgomery. In a single night, beavers gnawed off dozens of brand new trees that still had their root balls bagged in burlap as they awaited planting. Those of us living along the Fox River’s banks know it’s best to armor plate fruit and most other young trees, or the local resident beaver will chop it down in no time.

It wasn’t all that many years ago that beaver were virtually non-existent here in the Fox Valley. The beaver population, along with muskrats, mink, and other fur-bearing animals had been wiped out nearly 200 years ago in the waning days of the fur trade. And given the area’s quick conversion to farm fields from the native prairies between the late 1830s and early 1850s, the habitat changed far too quickly for wild animals to adapt. And then, as if that wasn’t enough ecological stress, the Fox River was so polluted by industrial and human waste from the late 19th through the mid 20th centuries that most wild animals couldn’t live in it. Mercury, cyanide and other heavy metals poison beavers just as surely as people.

Image result for beaver

Fox River beavers don’t build traditional lodges, but instead burrow into the riverbank to create their homes.

By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County in the late 1820s, most of the prime fur-bearers had already been trapped or hunted to local extinction by the Native Americans who lived here during the fur trade era. The fur trade was, in large part, what drove the westward expansion of the European colonizing nations. French, Dutch, and British traders pushed ever farther west in a vigorous and ruthless quest for more and higher quality furs.

The beaver population in eastern Canada and in the area east of the Appalachians had been largely trapped out as early as the late 1600s, so the only option was to seek furs farther west. The French had penetrated all the way to Lake Superior by the early 1600s, although they were stopped from moving into the southern Great Lakes by the Iroquois Confederacy, which hated the French and their allies. Meanwhile, British traders, primarily Scots and Irish adventurers, penetrated the Appalachian chain of mountains and dealt with western tribes for furs.

This frantic economic exploitation of natural resources was not peaceful, of course, The Iroquois Confederacy attempted to corner the fur market in the late 1600s, raiding west in large numbers from their homeland in upper New York. The conflicts of the era historians call the Beaver Wars resulted in the extermination of some tribes and forced the displacement of many others.

In addition, the Dutch, French, and British all fought wars over the fur trade, each with their own set of Native American allies, until the British emerged victorious in 1765 following the Seven Years War. But their triumph was only fleeting; their North American colonies south of Canada successfully rebelled forming the United States.

Even so, the fur trade and its resulting competition continued.

Image result for Illinois bison

At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi River stood at between 2 and 4 million animals. Bison are gradually being reintroduced back into Illinois at various state and national wildlife areas. This photo was taken at the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove here in Illinois.

The trade had major effects on the Midwest. Most fur-bearing animals were driven to regional extinction, as were most of the larger game animals like the whitetail deer mentioned above, which were prized for their tanned hides. Other casualties were the Eastern Elk and the Eastern Bison. Both large animals breed slowly and the introduction of firearms into the area starting in the late 1600s had a major impact on their populations. It was about that time the Eastern Bison herds reached their largest populations, but then the subsistence hunting of Native People changed to market hunting for the fur trade. Thousands of the large animals were killed for their hides. According to R. Bruce McMillan writing in Records of Early Bison in Illinois (Illinois State Museum, 2006), a bison tannery established on the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Ohio River shipped between 12,000 and 15,000 bison hides down the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1702 alone. Heavy hunting pressure combined with a series of harsh winters put severe pressure on both the region’s bison and elk populations. The last Illinois bison was killed in 1808.

After the Revolution, two major companies, the North West Company and the XY Company, dominated the Great Lakes fur trade until 1808. That year, a German immigrant, John Jacob Astor, established the American Fur Company, and began a spirited competition with the established companies, including the Hudson Bay Company.

Surviving the upheaval of the War of 1812, Astor gradually consolidated his efforts in the upper Midwest, moving the administrative headquarters of that part of the operation to Mackinac Island in the strait between lakes Huron and Michigan. Each year, brigades of boats and canoes left Mackinac Island and headed into the interior to gather furs from the Native Americans and trappers of European descent who had harvested them during the winter months. The cold winters of the upper Midwest caused beaver and other fur bearing animals to grow thick, lustrous pelts. In fact, the prime winter beaver pelt was the de facto currency in the area before settlement.

Mackinac Boat

The fur trade first depended on large birch bark canoes, but switched to Mackinac boats in the 19th Century, especially in the areas south of the range of birch trees.

Fleets of the double-ended, sturdily built Mackinac boats favored for the trade were rowed and sailed down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago and up the Chicago River to the portage into the DesPlaines, provided there was enough water in it. The route was then down the DesPlaines to the confluence with the Kankakee. On this part of the route, it was not uncommon for the boats and the goods they carried to be hauled overland by wagon some 60 miles to the confluence with the Kankakee.

The Fox and DuPage rivers were seldom used to transport furs or trade goods because both were too shallow. Instead, goods were unloaded at depots along the Illinois River. Furs were transported to the depots by the Indian and white trappers, where they were exchanged for goods. In addition, traders working for the American Fur Company used packhorses to transport trade goods and furs along regular routes. Before he settled down in Kendall County, Vetal Vermet, an early resident, had been an American Fur Company trader who worked a regular route from Peoria to Detroit, passing through the area as he gathered Fox River-produced furs.

In 1834, Astor, correctly figuring the furs were about tapped out in the upper Midwest, sold the American Fur Company, instantly making him one of the richest men in the country. The company’s Midwestern operations were shut down soon after, although the firm itself lingered until 1864, with its operations moving steadily westward as the era of the French voyageurs gave way to that of the mountain men who harvested Rocky Mountain furs.

Today, many of the fur-bearers that made fortunes for some during the fur trade era are on their way back from local extinction, including the bison and, much to the dismay of cherry tree guards in Washington, D.C., those hungry beavers.

 

 

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