I thought it might be interesting to look at some of our region’s historical—and even prehistorical—mysteries because I think the origins of people, places, and things are always fun to uncover.
One of the most obvious questions for those of us living in the Fox River Valley is “Where did the Fox River come from?” For many, I suspect, it’s not an obvious question at all, though. Most of us accept the region’s landscape as a given, figuring it’s always been the way it is now. But that’s not true.
Up until around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had covered our area with a couple thousand feet of ice, but then it began to retreat northwards. A deep glacial meltwater lake filled behind the high moraine ridge the glacier’s last advance created until one day, all those thousands of years ago, the water broke through that natural dam.
The almost unimaginably ferocious flood rampaged south, quickly–at least in geological terms–scouring today’s Fox River Valley into the landscape.
The Fox River Torrent left a valley that ranged from wide and shallow at its northernmost end to narrower and deeper where it joined the Illinois River, which itself had been created by the Kankakee Torrent that had rampaged southwesterly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet. Over the years, the land formerly covered by those giant ice sheets gradually rebounded as the weight of the ice was removed, allowing both the Fox and the Illinois rivers to further erode their valleys.
It’s fascinating to contemplate what those torrents must have looked like, had any humans been around to see them.
Back to local historical mysteries, why wasn’t the Fox River used as a canoe route during the fur trade? A person would think the Fox would have been a perfect cutoff for the fur traders as they paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan from their posts at Green Bay. The source of the Fox is located a bit northwest of Milwaukee and is reachable by a relatively short portage from the Root River that empties into Lake Michigan near Racine.
But while the Fox looks pretty promising on maps, in reality, it’s always been a wide, relatively slow, and shallow stream, especially in its upper reaches. Not until it got south of modern Yorkville did the river deepen much at all, despite having a fairly substantial fall along that stretch. And especially in the summer and during dry autumns, the river was extremely shallow.
So, the Fox wasn’t used as a fur trade route because it just wasn’t the right kind of river for canoeing most of the year.
The era of settlement in what became the Fox River Valley started in the late 1820s. Where my hometown of Oswego is located here in mid-valley, settlement didn’t start until after the Black Hawk War of 1832.
The largest group of our county’s earliest settlers came overland from Ohio through Indiana. The second largest group arrived at Chicago on Lake Michigan, having sailed out here, mostly from the port of Buffalo at the terminus of the Erie Canal. The smallest group came up from the south having migrated west from Virginia and the Carolinas to Tennessee and Kentucky and then north.
Why did those settlers leave their homes back East? For most, especially those from New England and the Middle Atlantic States, it was the search for better, cheaper land. For the Southerners, it was following the frontier as it moved west. New England’s farmland, along with that in New York, famously featured thin, rocky soil. In Pennsylvania, most of the best land had already been taken up and improved by the 1840s and 1850s, meaning it was expensive.
Meanwhile, land on the Illinois frontier of the 1830s was rich with deep black soil. The Prairie Peninsula, a vas, triangular-shaped region of rolling tallgrass prairie extending from northwestern Indiana all the way west to eastern fractions of modern North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas drew farmers because no timber needed to be laboriously cleared to start farming. Granted, that thick prairie sod had to be broken with specialized plows, a relatively expensive proposition that often cost as much as the land itself. And that lack of timber also meant that traditional frontier settlement methods using log buildings and rail fences often either couldn’t be used or created the additional expense of purchasing woodlots.
And then there was the price of that land, sold through government land offices as soon as it had been officially surveyed. The government price was $1.25 per acre, which was even cheap back then. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just $45 an acre in 2023 dollars. But, the price had to be paid in hard cash, no paper money allowed. And that was often difficult in those early days.
So, okay, cheap, high-quality land was for sale as the frontier moved west from Indiana, but why did settlers decide to move here in particular?
Most early accounts note our county’s earliest settlers came west literally prospecting for land. The Rev. E.W. Hicks in his history of Kendall County written in 1877 described one of these prospecting trips by two of the county’s earliest settlers: “Among those who came out prospecting in the spring of 1831 were Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan from New York. They descended the Ohio to the Mississippi, and then up to St. Louis, where buying ponies, they followed the banks of the Illinois river to Ottawa, and up the Fox to Yorkville. Reining up their horses on the present Court House Hill, they gazed on the lovely stream below them, the wide, beautiful prairies beyond them, and the timber behind them. The green was dotted with flowers, the birds sang in the branches, and a group of deer stood gazing at the strangers from the edge of a hazel thicket some distance away. Here,” thought Mr. Adams, “is my home,” and dismounting he drove his stake in the soil and took possession. Following up the river about two miles farther, they came to a creek, where Mr. Morgan halted and made his own claim. This done, they passed up to Chicago, sold their ponies, and returned home by way of the lakes.”
Adams and Morgan couldn’t get back to the land they’d claimed for a couple years, opening the way for others to be considered the earliest settlers in what’s today northern Kendall County.
In the summer of 1832, members of the extended Pearce family, Oswego’s first settlers, walked west in Champaign County, Ohio looking for likely land to settle. Possibly drawn here by reports back from Elijah Pearce’s son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter, who was familiar with the Fox and DuPage River valleys, they decided it was worth moving west to settle.
The Pearce family had started their westward trek in their home state of Maryland. They first emigrated through what’s now West Virginia and then settled for a decade or so along the Mad River in Champaign County, Ohio. After returning from their prospecting trip, the Pearces sold their Ohio farms and brought their families west to our Fox River Valley in 1833 by covered wagons pulled by oxen. Daniel Pearce settled along Waubonsie Creek on what’s now Oswego’s Fox Bend Golf Course. His brother-in-law and sister, William and Rebecca Wilson built their cabin at what’s now the busy intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Ill. Route 25 in downtown Oswego, while brothers John and Walter Pearce and their families settled on the west side of the river. Brother Elijah settled near his son-in-law and wife at what is now Montgomery in Kane County, north of Oswego.
Many of those early settlers didn’t stay put, however, but moved on as the mood struck them. Elijah Pearce and William Wilson and their families, for instance, only stayed along the Fox River for a few years before moving to Big Rock Creek near Plano, where they built a sawmill. They sold the mill in 1838 and headed west to Missouri and Iowa.
And speaking of mills, why did the Fox River have more mills than any other Illinois river? According to the Fox River Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams. The river was dammed at the following places: Ottawa, Dayton, Sheridan, Millington (Milford), Millbrook, Millhurst, Yorkville, Oswego, Montgomery, Aurora, two sites between Aurora and North Aurora, North Aurora, South Batavia, Batavia, Geneva, a site between Geneva and St. Charles (perhaps), St. Charles, South Elgin, Elgin, Dundee, Carpentersville, Algonquin, a site three miles below McHenry, and McHenry.”
And that list doesn’t even include mills on the Fox River’s tributaries. Here in Kendall County, mills were built (as noted above) on Big Rock Creek and also on Little Rock Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Waubonsie Creek. So it appears we can thank the Fox River Torrent for creating a river valley so conducive to building dams to provide water power for mills.
The above are all interesting questions, but how about a real mystery? Like, for instance, who killed William Boyd.
On Thanksgiving night, 1859, Kendall County attorney, land dealer, businessman, and former newspaper publisher William P. Boyd was working late at his office in the village of Bristol, now the north side of Yorkville. As he worked away that evening, a person unknown stealthily aimed through Boyd’s office window and fired a shot, badly wounding him.
Boyd’s death capped an eventful life. He came to Kendall County from Kentucky with his parents in 1838. They settled near modern Newark in Fox Township. Boyd’s father, John, farmed, while William, who had already read law, helped but also engaged in business. In March 1840, he cemented relations with one of the county’s best-known families when he married Sarah Ann Hollenback.
Hollenback, writing in 1914, recalled of his brother-in-law: “Boyd was a born leader, a man of strong personality and great persuasive powers among his following. He was capable of swaying the riff raff crowd as best suited his purpose.”
A few years later, Boyd moved to Oswego, which had become the Kendall County seat in 1845. There he practiced law and engaged in land speculation, plus investing in other businesses. He and his wife also apparently ran a rooming house. In the 1850 U.S. Census for Oswego Township, the value of Boyd’s property was set at $10,000, a considerable fortune for the era.
In 1850 when the General Assembly passed legislation allowing counties to adopt the township supervisor form of government, as opposed to the commission form, Boyd was named one of three commissioners who divided Kendall County into its current nine political townships in accord with the recently passed state law.
Boyd bought the Kendall County Courier, the county seat paper, published in Oswego, from Abraham Sellers in 1855. He changed its political orientation from neutral to a paper supporting the Democratic Party under the editorship of Alexander P. Niblo, a former Newark resident. That move led the county’s Republicans to persuade the Courier’s former editor and publisher, Hector S. Humphrey, to establish a competing Republican paper, the Kendall County Free Press. The Courier supported Buchanan in the 1856 Presidential election. And while Buchanan won, public sentiment had already trended Republican in Kendall County, and Boyd was forced to close the Courier and sell its press and type to an Iowa paper.
By 1859, perhaps sensing voters were in favor of moving the county seat back to Yorkville, Boyd and his wife and children moved to the village of Bristol, just across the river from where the new courthouse would be built during the upcoming Civil War. And it was there that Boyd met his violent end.
Although mortally wounded, Boyd hung on until Jan. 5, 1860 when he died. Hollenback recalled years later: “The identity of his assassin was never discovered. The excitement of the trial and execution of [abolitionist John] Brown for a time dwarfed everything else. The assassination of Boyd had been so deftly accomplished there was little that could be done, and nothing was done by the Grand Jury of Kendall County.”
In what is undoubtedly Kendall County’s coldest case, Boyd’s murder is still unsolved after 163 years.
So you like history’s mysteries? As you can see, we’ve got plenty right here in the Middle Fox Valley. Some we’ve solved, and some we haven’t. What’s a local historical mystery that’s piqued your interest?