Category Archives: Illinois History

Nathan Hughes: An escaped slave who fought for freedom during the Civil War

Another Memorial Day has rolled around, this time with the nation in actual peril, thanks to a new highly contagious disease, for the first time in a many years.

1898 abt Decoration Day Parade

Procession marching through downtown Oswego on Decoration Day, around 1910. Parade Marshal George White leads the parade, which usually consisted of a marching band, civic and fraternal organizations, and citizens. When the procession reached the Oswego Township Cemetery, a short memorial service was held for the community’s Civil War dead, after which Oswego school children decorated the graves of deceased veterans with flowers.

Originally established to honor the graves of Civil War soldiers and so named Decoration Day, today’s Memorial Day honors all the nation’s military personnel who have died.

As wars go, the Civil War has never been my favorite area of historical study. Better named the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery, the war pitted the largely rural Southern states against the North and its mix of rural and industrialized urban areas. Both sides were unlucky in the military commanders they chose to lead the fight against the other side. It took a few years before the North’s crop of military leaders was finally distilled down to no-nonsense men like Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, Grant invaluable because of his grasp of strategy and Sherman for his tactical brilliance. Meanwhile, the South chose Robert Lee as their military leader, a man whose grasp of the kind of strategy required to defeat a stronger foe was disastrously flawed. The result was more than 600,000 killed in action, dead of wounds, and perished from disease.

Here in Kendall County, more than 10 percent of the total population went off to fight and the war’s lasting effect was to see the county’s population steadily decline for the next century until it finally surpassed its 1860 total in 1960.

But while the South was soundly beaten militarily during the war, it immediately began fighting to win the peace, which it did. Reinstituting the terrorism that had kept the South’s slave population in line, the Jim Crow era was, if anything, even more violent than slavery itself. And the South’s efforts to redefine the cause of the war was just as successful. By the time I was in high school a century after the war was fought, we were taught that the underlying cause of the war was state’s rights. Slavery, we were told, was a dying institution at the time and would have ended had the war never been fought.

Neither of those were true. The war was mainly fought over the South’s continuing, and increasingly unsuccessful, efforts to expand slavery into the new territories being brought into the Union. All of the existing resolutions of secession passed by Southern state legislators mention the North’s attitude towards slavery as a major cause, if not the major cause, of the states’ secession. Union. And as for being on the way out, slavery was financially lucrative in the extreme. In fact, the value of all the South’s slaves was more than the value of all of the North’s industrial, railroad, and banking facilities.

As for the Civil War itself, a little over a century and a half ago this month, the conflict was in full swing with the ultimate result still very much in doubt.

While the Union was still convinced it could defeat the rebellious secessionists if just given a little more time, reality was staring to intrude. It would take more years of blood and treasure to finally stamp out the rebellion begun by the South’s pro-slavery forces.

It would also take a lot more soldiers—by 1864, the Union was scraping the bottom of the personnel barrel. But there was an as-yet untapped resource: thousands of black men who were already living in the North and areas in the South controlled by the U.S. Government. Some were Northern-born and wanted to fight; others had escaped from slavery and were eager to do their part to ensure freedom for everyone in the nation.

Many blacks were already serving in support roles as teamsters and other noncombatant jobs. Others were serving in combat with state units, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the subject of the film, “Glory.” But on May 22, 1863, with the number of potential soldiers drying up across the North, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops. Regulations called for all officers to be white, although non-commissioned officers—corporals and sergeants—were to be promoted from the ranks.

However, some light-skinned blacks passed for white in order to serve as officers, like William N. Reed, a New York abolitionist. Reed graduated from the German military school at Kiel and had served in the German army. Arriving back in the U.S. he managed to obtain a commission as colonel of the 1st. North Carolina Colored Infantry Regiment, later reorganized as the 35th U.S. Colored Infantry. Reed is recognized as the highest-ranking African American in the Civil War

US Colored troops recruitmentIllinois Gov. Richard Yates began raising a regiment of colored troops late in 1863, but the early efforts were slow, due to a combination of factors including lower pay for black soldiers and the brutal treatment black prisoners of war received at the hands of the rebels. But gradually the regiment’s companies were filled with volunteers from all over the state until it was ready to be formally accepted for service at Quincy on April 24, 1864.

Although U.S.C.T. (U.S. Colored Troops) regiments were not always fortunate in their commanders, the 29th was, with Lt. Col. John Bross of Chicago, a skilled, knowledgeable veteran, in command. The regiment was assigned to the Fourth Division, IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the first black division to serve with the Union in the Virginia theater.

Among those who enlisted in the 29th, was an escaped slave named Nathan Hughes. According to his military records, Hughes was born in Bourbon County, Ky. and was, according to his family’s tradition, of mixed black and Seminole ancestry. Like many slaves, he was apparently unsure of his birth date. His military records stated he was 33 when he enlisted in 1864, making his birth year 1831. However, his family had a birth date of 1824 inscribed on his tombstone.

Whatever his age, Hughes managed to escape slavery, but in doing so was forced to leave his family behind. Reaching Illinois, he apparently settled near Yorkville and worked as a laborer until he volunteered for service in the 29th, enlisting in Company B under Capt. Hector Aiken.

While the 29th was fortunate in its commanding officers, it was not so lucky in those assigned to command the Fourth Division, nor the IX Corps to which it was assigned. Gen. Edward Ferrero the division commander, was a former dance instructor of middling ability, and the corps commander, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was better but no military genius. After reaching the Virginia front where Union forces besieged the rebel capital of Richmond, the 29th was assigned to protect the Union Army’s supply lines, participating in a number of skirmishes. On May 9, 1864, the 29th was instrumental in throwing back a determined rebel assault on some vital Union supply convoys.

After Gen. Ulysses Grant took command of the Union armies, he orchestrated a campaign designed to destroy the main rebel force, the Army of Northern Virginia, using a series of flanking movements gradually forcing the rebel army back on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. Richmond was not only valuable as the rebel capital, but also because of its industrial facilities and its position as a rail hub—the Civil War was the first railroad war and the lines were vital to supply the huge armies involved.

But the siege of Richmond was not something Grant wanted. He had pursued rebel Gen. Robert Lee in a series of hard marches and battles through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor unsuccessfully trying to corner him before Lee was run to ground in the extensive defensive works around Richmond.

Grant knew the heavily fortified Richmond suburb of Petersburg was the key to the rebel position, but could see no way to break into it. While Lee was a good tactician and a middling strategist, he was a fine military engineer.

Battle of the Crater

This detail from a Tom Lovell painting shows the ferocious combat that took place between rebel troops and United States soldiers during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.

So the two armies, the Union Army of the Potomac and the rebels’ Army of Northern Virginia settled down in a siege neither side wanted. Enter the coal miners serving in the Union Army’s 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, who proposed to dig a tunnel under the rebel works. The idea was to hollow out a large open cavern under the rebel fortifications, fill the cavern with gunpowder, and blow up the rebel works. The mine was completed, the charge blown up, and a huge break in the rebel lines was created. But the Union assault was a confused failure, thanks to incompetent commanders. The Battle of the Crater that took place as Union troops, including Ferrero’s U.S. Colored Troops, attempted to exploit the new break in the rebel lines was depicted from the Southern point of view in the 2003 film “Cold Harbor.” It was a Union disaster.

The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry was one of the regiments that were part of the assault force, and during the melee, Nathan Hughes was badly wounded, shot in his left knee. He must have been a tough guy because unlike so many Union soldiers, Hughes survived the serious wound, including being sent to a military hospital. He not only survived but was returned to duty months later, just in time to be wounded again, this time less seriously in the hand. Doing hard marching with the 29th, Hughes fought through the battles and skirmishes of Boydton Plank Road, Globe Tavern, Poplar Grove Church, and Hatcher’s Run before Grant was able to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to bay at Appomattox Courthouse, Lee’s surrender in April 1865 effectively ending the war. The 29th was then sent down to Texas to watch the border with Mexico thanks to French meddling with that country while the U.S. was distracted with its internal conflict. The regiment was mustered out of U.S. service in November 1865.

After being mustered out with the rest of the regiment in Texas, Hughes returned to Illinois where he decided to settle on a small plot in Kendall County near Oswego on today’s Minkler Road. Like many escaped slaves forced to leave their families behind during their desperate flight north, Hughes headed back to Kentucky after the war to try to retrieve his wife and children. His three children decided to go back north with their father. His wife, for whatever reason, decided to stay in Kentucky. It must have been a wrenching decision to watch her children leave, but it must also have been an almost impossible choice for those who had been considered property only a few months before to make another such momentous change in their lives. I suspect the PTSD suffered by former slaves, as well as many of the men who served during the war, was a real burden for thousands for many years after the war.

 

 

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

In 1893, Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benesohn took this portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin. Confederate Army canons were melted down to make the pins. (Little White School Museum

Nathan Hughes came back to the Oswego area with his children, eventually remarried and lived for the rest of his life on his small farm on Minkler Road southwest of Oswego. He was a respected member of the farming community there, and was the only Black member in Kendall County of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, where he served as an officer of the GAR’s Yorkville post.

His children married into the nearby Black farming community, most members of which eventually moved into Aurora where jobs in the city’s many factories were more attractive than the labor-intensive, low income farming of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His descendants prospered, two of his grandchildren becoming the first Black male and first Black female to graduate from high school in Kendall County (both from Oswego High School). And their descendants prospered, too, becoming elementary and high school teachers, and college professors—and at least one Federal judge.

Hughes died in March 1910, and was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, where he lays today with four of his black Civil War comrades. Wrote Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall—himself a Civil War veteran—upon Hughes’s death: “It is a pleasure to bear testimony to his worth as a man and a patriot; he was loyal to his country and in all his associations was a quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits… A good citizen, he has left a vacant place in the ranks of the ‘boys in blue.’”

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

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

A bit of French colonial history close to home right here in northern Illinois…

After writing, a few weeks ago, about the Kankakee Torrent that formed the modern Illinois River Valley, I got to thinking about Starved Rock again. The Rock and most of the area now comprising Starved Rock State Park was purchased by the State of Illinois back in 1911, the state’s second state park (Fort Massac State Park at Illinois’ southern tip was the state’s first). And the park’s history is part and parcel of the colonial history of northern Illinois, something that’s fascinated me for a long time.

Starved Rock

A vintage postcard view of Starved Rock published not long after it was opened as a state park.

For the more than a century since its acquisition, Starved Rock near Ottawa and Utica has been a favorite weekend leisure destination for residents of northern Illinois. The bluff, comprised of St. Peter sandstone, soars 125-feet above the surface of the Illinois River. Created by the Kankakee Torrent, the bluff is the main attraction at the park, but it is joined by the classic old Starved Rock Lodge (and its excellent restaurant) and the miles of hiking trails that wind through spectacular canyons that have, over thousands of years, been eroded out of the surrounding sandstone by rushing water after rains and the annual snow melt.

Although the Starved Rock area has been one of northern Illinois’ premier tourist attractions for more than a century, I’d guess less than one in 10 Illinois residents have any idea that the rock itself and the rugged terrain surrounding it was once the site of the largest congregation of Indian tribes ever gathered, or that the top of the rock was the site of the first permanent French settlement in what is today Illinois.

Indians Starved Rock

Linguist Father Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet visited the Grand Village of Kaskaskia just across the river from Starved Rock in 1673. The Rock is prominent in the background in this illustration.

In 1673, when geographer and cartographer Louis Jolliet and linguist and missionary Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois River on their way back to Canada during their epic investigation into the course of the Mississippi River, they became the first Europeans to see Starved Rock. At least they were the first ones to do so legally. It’s not unlikely that renegade courier du boise—the French frontiersmen who lived among Native Americans—knew of the site’s existence well before the two French explorers arrived.

Jolliet and Marquette found a large village of the Illinois Confederacy, named Kaskaskia (not to be confused with the later French village near St. Louis), across the river from the shear  sandstone bluff.

1683 Ft St. Louis on Starved Rock

LaSalle and Tonti built Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock in the winter of 1682 to anchor LaSalle’s fur trade concession obtained from the French crown. The French abandoned the fort about 1701.

A few years later, when Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, obtained a trade monopoly for the Illinois Country, he immediately saw the possibilities Starved Rock offered. The French called the sheer sandstone bluff simply The Rock, and it became the linchpin for the first French settlement in northern Illinois. LaSalle and his right hand man, Henri de Tonti, built a strong fort atop the rock, effectively controlling passage up and down the Illinois River. LaSalle named the installation Fort St. Louis, in honor of his patron, the king of France.

The Rock’s steep sides provided excellent protection for the fort, and since the base of the bluff is washed by the Illinois River, water was no problem in case of siege.

Eventually, LaSalle persuaded thousands of local Indians to locate around The Rock by offering them the protection of French arms. It was a timely intervention because the Iroquois Confederacy, based in upstate New York, was engaged in an unprecedented series of wars of conquest aimed at solidifying their control over the Great Lakes fur trade. Historians have come to call this series of multi-year conflicts the Beaver Wars.

Just a few years before LaSalle arrived, Iroquois raiding parties had driven the related tribes of the Illinois Confederacy west of the Mississippi. By the time LaSalle established his post atop The Rock, tribes had begun to trickle back into Illinois from areas to which they had been driven by the Iroquois’ ferocious assault. Not only did the Iroquois attack and kill thousands, but they also dug up Native American cemeteries and defiled the dead. It was total war, and it’s possible that LaSalle and Tonti’s timely arrival in Illinois saved some tribes from the total annihilation suffered by other tribes such as the Neutrals which lived north of the Great Lakes.

Franquelin map color

Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle provided the information for cartographer Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin to draw this map of the area on the upper Illinois River in 1684, including the number of Native Americans drawn to the area due to promises of protection by the French.

By about 1701, however, conditions around The Rock had changed. LaSalle was dead, killed by his own men during an abortive attempt to colonize the Mississippi delta—bad navigation led him to Galveston Bay in modern Texas instead-—and the huge concentration of tribes around The Rock had depleted the area’s farmland, firewood, and game.

As a result, Tonti, who was now in charge of LaSalle’s Illinois colony, decided to move the entire operation south to Peoria Lake, called Pimitoui by the local tribes. Eventually, the French retired all the way south and west to the Mississippi River, helped along by the continued hostility of the Iroquois and their local allies such as the Fox Tribe. Along the banks of the Mississippi, the French established permanent villages at Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher, and Kaskaskia. Their descendants, greatly reduced in numbers and power, were still there, farming and shipping grain to New Orleans, when Col. George Rogers Clark and his Virginia militia arrived during the Revolutionary War.

Meanwhile, The Rock was inhabited intermittently, both by Native People and by French traders. At some point, the fort burned, possibly due to arson by Indians glad to see the Europeans leave.

At the end of the French and Indian War of the 1750s and 1760s, the British began moving into Illinois as they took over the former French possessions, This angered many long-time Indian allies of the French, most notably Pontiac, an Ottawa organizational and military genius. Pontiac’s War, whose purpose was to restore French control over the Illinois Country, nearly threw the British out of the area north and west of the Ohio River (later called the Northwest Territory). But eventually superior British military force won out.

After the war, Pontiac was murdered at Peoria, reportedly by a member of the Illinois Confederacy. This enraged Pontiac’s supporters who still venerated his leadership. They reportedly besieged the killer and his tribal relatives atop the rock, where, the story goes, they were either starved or killed or committed suicide by jumping into the Illinois River. Thus The Rock became known as Starved Rock.

Starved Rock modern shot

After nearly 350 years, Starved Rock is still an impressive sight on the Illinois River.

Today, little of Starved Rock’s rich and remarkably long history is immediately visible, although the park’s visitors’ center does a pretty good job of trying to explain the area’s importance to the colonial history of the state, the region, and the nation.

Assuming the travel and social gathering restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 are eased, you could drive up to Quebec or Montreal and visit French colonial sites, or head east to the Atlantic Coast to delve into the British colonial era or go down to Florida, Louisiana, or Texas and learn about the nation’s Spanish colonial history. Or you could save a lot of your hard-earned money and just drive down Ill. Route 71 to Starved Rock for a taste of French colonial history, Illinois-style.

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A bit of local highway history changes with the Harvey Rd. intersection closure

A bit of area history came to an end on April 27 when the Illinois Department of Transportation announced the closure of the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and Harvey Road in northeast Oswego Township.

Harvey Road mapSince the construction of Oswego East High School just off Harvey Road, the angled intersection had become the site of accidents and near-misses so it made sense to close it and redirect traffic to the signalized intersection at Treasure Drive just a short distance east of Harvey Road. Instead of joining Route 30, Harvey Road will now end in a cul-de-sac.

How did that intersection come to be the way it is today? Well, the road used to go straight past Lincoln Memorial Park and down modern Harvey Road. That’s back when the road from Aurora was called the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first marked coast-to-coast road. A few years later, when the highway was paved and became U.S. Route 30, its route diverged making the modern curve to follow the right-of-way of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban trolley line. The right-of-way for that change of course for the 2.5 miles in Kendall County, starting at Harvey Road, was purchased by the Kendall County Board using a donation from the good roads folks in Aurora and then given to Illinois to speed paving the highway.

So what’s the story behind the Lincoln Highway itself?

In 1913 Carl Fisher was a man with a vision. The Indianapolis daredevil auto racer, showman, and entrepreneur figured that what the United States needed to spur business and hasten the development of the automobile was a transcontinental highway linking the Atlantic shore with the Pacific coast.

Fisher worked hard to drum up private support for what he called a “Coast to Coast Rock Highway,” so named because it was not to be just a marked route, but was to be one with a good gravel surface that would theoretically allow travel in all weather.

Fisher’s campaign was far from a slam-dunk, however. Henry Ford for instance, a guy you’d think would have jumped at the idea as a way to sell more of his Model T’s, disdained the whole notion, holding out for government funding for major roads, not private financing. Ford, of course, had a point. But at the time Fisher was militating for his coast-to-coast highway, government funding for such a project was simply not in the political cards. But Fisher persisted, and the pledges of support started rolling in, especially after he renamed the proposed interstate road after one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln.

In June 1913, Fisher incorporated the Lincoln Highway Association at Detroit, Mich., with Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Company, as its president and Fisher serving as vice-president.

At the time of incorporation, in fact, Joy was westbound with a caravan of Packards and their owners, blazing what he considered the most direct route west to California.

By October, the association settled on the Lincoln’s main course, making use of existing roads along most of the route’s 3,389 miles. They announced the route to the public on Oct. 26, 1913 at a meeting of the governors of the 13 states through which the new highway would run. As planned, the Lincoln started at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street at New York City’s Times Square, then headed west into New Jersey and then through to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, where the terminus was established in San Francisco just outside today’s Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park just off Geary Boulevard at 34th Street.

The Lincoln Highway was formally dedicated on Oct. 31, 1913.

1924 Lincoln Highway

This 1924 map traces the original route of the Lincoln Highway–now U.S. Route 30–through Illinois from Indiana to Iowa.

As it was envisioned and designed, the highway bypassed major cities in favor of traveling through medium-sized towns and villages. Here in Illinois, it bypassed Chicago, looping south around the city through Joliet, Plainfield, on through a portion of Wheatland Township in Will County and Oswego Township in Kendall County, before reaching Aurora. The original route passed Phillips Park on modern Hill Avenue, where, in 1923, the Lincoln Highway Pavilion was built by the Aurora Automobile Club. I remember having family gatherings in the pavilion when I was a child. Completely restored a few years ago, the pavilion still exists, easily seen off Hill Avenue, the old Lincoln route near Phillips Park’s Hill Avenue entrance.

Lincoln Highway badge

The Lincoln Highway Association marked the route of the Lincoln Highway with red, white, and blue badges.

In Wheatland and Oswego townships, the road followed a winding course on existing country roads. Most of the original route has been marked by the Illinois chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association, so if you’re of a mind, you can travel that road today by following the signs east from Aurora.

But as more and more traffic surged onto the new highway, officials started looking to both simplify it’s course and to pave it. With so many twists and turns between Plainfield and Aurora, that section of the Lincoln was an obvious choice for revision. So in 1923, with the promise by Illinois officials to pave the route as soon as possible, the Kendall County Board voted to acquire 2.5 miles of right-of-way paralleling the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora Transportation Company’s interurban line.

As the Feb. 14, 1923 Kendall County Record explained: “The new right-of-way in Kendall county for the Lincoln highway is necessitated by a relocating of the route to shorten the distance between Plainfield and Aurora.”

1924 Lincoln Highway shelter

The Lincoln Highway Shelter on the highway at Philips Park in Aurora was built for camping auto travelers in 1923 by the Aurora Automobile Club. Completely restored a few years ago, it’s a living reminder of the highway’s glory days.

Spurred on by the promise of quick action in Springfield, Kendall County officials were moving quickly. The policy at that time was that local government was responsible for obtaining highway rights-of-way, and then the state would cover the costs of engineering and construction. That spring, Gov. Len Small promised that if the right-of-way was procured at once, he’d add the Plainfield-Aurora section of the Lincoln to the 1923 highway program, along with the even more eagerly sought paving of Route 18, The Cannonball Trail Route (now U.S. Route 34).

Kendall County taxpayers, however, were not totally on the hook for the cost of the land. The Good Roads Committee of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce raised $1,000 in donations from city residents to defray Kendall County’s costs. “The money [for the right-of-way purchase] was all donated in Aurora,” the Record noted on March 14.

It was about this same time that the old system of giving highways names—such as the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway (another of Fisher’s creations), and The Cannonball Trail—was being phased out in favor of a system of numbered routes that were government-funded. In general, east-west routes were given even numbers, while north-south routes got odd numbers. The system wouldn’t go nationwide until 1926, but by then it had already begun in Illinois. The Lincoln, for instance, was first designated Route 22 by Illinois. The Cannonball Trail, linking Chicago with Princeton via Naperville, Aurora, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich, was initially numbered Route 18.

It’s remarkable how quickly things moved during that era, especially compared to the glacial pace at which modern highway projects advance. On May 9, 1923 the Record reported: “The Chicago Heights Coal Company of Chicago Heights was the lowest bidder for paving sections 15 and 16, Route 22, Lincoln Highway, commencing at Plainfield and running west to Aurora, a distance of 5.19 miles, when the bids were opened at Springfield April 13. Its bid was $222,000.”

1936 34-30 overpass

The last unpaved local section of U.S. Route 30 was finished in 1936 when the cloverleaf intersection with U.S. Route 34 was built with federal WPA funds. (Little White School Museum collection)

In early June, the Plainfield Enterprise reported state officials were promising that all 159.4 miles of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois would be paved during 1923. And, apparently, it was. The only remaining gravel stretch of the highway in Kendall County was at its intersection with Route 18—today’s Route 34. With delays and then the advent of the Great Depression, completion lagged. It required federal Works Progress Administration funds to complete the Route 30-34 cloverleaf intersection and overpass, which wasn’t finished until 1936.

In November 1926, the states officially approved the federal government’s new numbering system, part of which designated the Lincoln as U.S. Route 30 along its entire length and Route 18 as U.S. Route 34.

Despite the advent of the interstate highway system, the Lincoln Highway still carries hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, and buses along its transcontinental length daily more than a century after Carl Fisher spearheaded its development, another living reminder of our area’s transportation and economic history. And with the closure of the Route 30–Harvey Road intersection, a bit of that history has added one more bit to the story of the Lincoln Highway.

 

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Thank Carter Harrison and the Wheelmen for better Illinois roads

In 1918, with very few exceptions, Illinois’ roads were in the same condition in which they had been for the previous century. Virtually all roads were dirt tracks, dusty in dry weather and bottomless quagmires after rains. In order for farmers to get to town in spring, heavy teams of draft horses had to be hitched to wagons and buggies. Often the vehicles were dragged to town with the wheels unable to turn at least part of the time due to the sticky prairie mud. But voters were on the cusp of making a big change in the state’s road system.

By the 1850s, numerous railroad companies were extending tracks throughout the state with the goal of making money by helping farmers get their crops to market. However, farmers still had to get their crops and livestock to the nearest railhead. Livestock could walk to market, but crops had to be hauled there by team and wagon. Unfortunately, roads were often so bad that even short distances were all but impossible to travel. Spring was bad, but late fall rains also turned dirt roads into deeply rutted bottomless mud tracks, just at the time farmers were trying to get their crops to market. And when cold weather came, frozen, rutted road surfaces made travel especially destructive to horses and wagons, not to mention the people who rode in them.

1890 abt Otto Johnson farm B&W

This photo of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Johnston at their farm outside Oswego suggests how iffy rural roads were in the area during the 1890s. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although farmers complained loud, long, and bitterly about the state’s roads, their cries went largely unheard. Instead, strangely enough, it is to the riders of high-wheel bicycles that we owe a large debt of gratitude for helping create the ancestors of today’s good roads.

With the arrival of the 1890s, the high-wheel bicycle craze was at its peak, a craze that encouraged crowds of well-to-do city dwellers to venture into the countryside and, for many of them, to experience rural life away from the railroad tracks for the first time. The cyclists called their machines “wheels,” and they named themselves “wheelmen,” especially because the vehicles didn’t lend themselves to being ridden by women dressed in the clothing of the era.

Kendall County, located just next door to more populous Kane County, proved a favorite destination for wheelmen who enjoyed riding down the East River Road (modern Ill. Route 25), just as their descendants still do on the Fox River Trail. For instance, on July 22, 1891, the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported that “A string of about 20 of the Aurora bicyclists had an excursion to this town in the evening on their wheels Tuesday.”

1890 abt Cutter & Sierp

Oswego wheelmen Slade F. Cutter (left) and Joe Sierp pose beside their high-wheeled bicycles about 1890 somewhere in town. (Little White School Museum collection)

Before his first campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1897, Carter Harrison got the public’s attention by joining a city bicycle club, all of whose members had ridden their high-wheelers the then astonishing distance of 100 miles in a single day. For his first “century,” Harrison cycled from his home on Chicago’s west side through Wheeling, Waukegan, and Libertyville, and then home. The trip took him nine and a half hours of frantic pedaling.

The upshot of Carter’s well-publicized efforts was that a growing number of influential people began demanding better roads so they could pedal their bikes faster and farther.

It was about this same time that these same people were buying and tinkering with newfangled horseless carriages. Both their wheels and their new autos required better roads on which to drive. Where farmers alone had failed to interest state officials in better roads, rich transportation hobbyists succeeded.

Reacting to the strong and growing drumbeat for better roads by the coalition of cycling and auto enthusiasts as well as farmers, Illinois established the Good Roads Commission in 1903 to study the condition of all roads in the state and recommend changes. The commission decided that dirt roads were inadequate to carry the ever-growing volume of traffic. However, township officials and their rural constituents resisted early road improvement efforts, but not because they didn’t want better roads. The improvements would cost considerable money, they argued, and besides, there was considerable uncertainty how paved roads would be maintained. At the time, the old system of having townships responsible for road maintenance was in effect. Township property owners were responsible for working on the roads in lieu of paying a road tax. The resulting patchwork system meant that one township might opt for better roads, but the neighboring one would not.

1904 abt first Oswego auto

Oswego Jeweler A.P. Werve pilots his auto–Oswego’s first–on a dirt road near Oswego in 1904. Pressure was already building for better roads thanks to hobbyists like Werve and bicyclists. (Little White School Museum collection)

But in I911, Illinois House Rep. Homer J. Tice of Greenview pushed a bill through the General Assembly that provided for automobile and truck license fees to be used for road and bridge construction. Tice and William G. Edens (the namesake of Chicago’s Edens Expressway), chairman of the Good Roads Committee of the Illinois Bankers Association, contended that good roads would be an economic asset for the entire state, rural and urban areas alike. The efforts of Tice and Edens were quickly joined by the Chicago Motor Club in mobilizing support for good roads.

As a result of all this activity, Gov. Edward Dunne signed a law in 1912 transferring the townships’ responsibility for maintenance and construction of main highways to county government. The law required each county to have a qualified superintendent of highways who was to be responsible to a three member state highway commission and a professional state highway engineer. The law provided for the state to pay half of the construction and all the maintenance costs of county highways. In order to expedite the jobs, counties were authorized to sell bonds to finance new construction projects.

Russell, John D

Oswego area farmer and politician John D. Russell was the first Kendall County Superintendent of Highways.

Some progress on better roads resulted. Here in Kendall County, the first-ever county highway superintendent was appointed. According to the Dec. 3, 1913 Kendall County Record: “Col. John D. Russell of Oswego was appointed County Superintendent of Highways by the board of supervisors Monday. His salary was fixed at $1,000 a year. This appointment was made from a field of five candidates, all of whom passed the state examination.”

But overall, the new law was a failure. Only 174 miles of road were improved under the program, all in Vermilion County. Paved highways, it turned out, were simply too expensive for counties to fund.

Then in 1916, Congress agreed to match state highway funds with federal matching funds. As a result, the state highway commission developed an ambitious plan to “pull Illinois out of the mud” with hard—paved—roads. Eventually, the plan called for construction of 4,800 miles of hard roads throughout the state. To help sell the plan, Illinois road officials pointed to a variety of studies that had been done showing that paved roads resulted in much better gasoline mileage for drivers and far less spent in vehicle maintenance.

State officials and the growing number of good roads organizations also sweetened the pot for voters by making sure every county in the state got at least one stretch of all-weather, paved highway. The $60 million bond issue to pay for the project would be retired through auto license fees, proponents said, so that non-motorists wouldn’t be paying the costs for something they were not using. Although the bond issue passed overwhelmingly in 1918 (the Kendall County vote was a remarkable 1,532–90), World War I intervened and only a two-mile road design strip was built.

But after the war, Governor Len Small pushed road construction hard, both to help the state and to enrich his friends. During his administration, proposed hard road mileage increased substantially and thousands were put to work building the new paved highways.

Cannonball Traile Route

The Cannonball Trail Route Association developed this sign used before highways were numbered.

In Kendall County, the Small administration caused a huge uproar when the right-of-way of the newly proposed Route 18—the county’s promised paved highway under the bond issue—was changed. Originally slated to run from Aurora down the east side of the Fox River on pavement laid in 1914 (modern Route 25), pass through Oswego and go on to Yorkville via modern Route 71 to hook up with another paved mile on modern Van Emmon Road. From there it would go into downtown Yorkville and cross the Fox River before heading west to Plano and Sandwich all the way to Princeton on the route of the old Cannon Ball Trail Route.

To the considerable anger of Kendall County officials, however, the Small administration changed the route to run from Aurora down the west side of the Fox River on modern Ill. Route 31 and Route 34, bypassing both Oswego and Yorkville—and the paved stretches of road that already existed. Both towns were connected with the road via paved stubs that crossed the Fox River to get to their downtown business districts, although that did little to assuage county officials’ anger.

1924 Building Route 18 at Oswego Bridge

Dwight Young snapped this photo of paving Route 18–the old Cannonball Trail Route–at the west end of the Oswego Bridge in 1923.  (Little White School Museum collection)

Even so, local folks were happy to be getting some all-weather hard roads even if not exactly the same ones they’d been promised.

But while hard roads were more economical for drivers, they did cost more to maintain using vehicle license fees alone. In 1929, Illinois became the last state in the union to levy a gasoline tax of three cents a gallon that was earmarked for road maintenance and construction. By 1930, the state boasted some 7,500 miles of paved roads (some of which, frankly, don’t seem to have been repaired since).

Oddly enough, we’re entering another era of decreasing funds for road construction and maintenance like the state faced in 1929. Given the heavy reliance on gasoline taxes to finance road maintenance at a time when electric vehicles are becoming ever more common and even conventionally-powered vehicles are far more fuel efficient than a couple decades ago, different methods of financing road maintenance will have to be found.

These days we’ve got a lot of things to worry about (dying in a plague comes immediately to mind), but seeing our roads disappear into bottomless mud pits every spring and autumn aren’t among them. Not too long ago, in fact, Kendall County’s last stretch of gravel road was paved.

Given the history of our modern road system, though, maybe the next time you are exasperated by a group of bicycle riders using the public highways, you might recall that if it wasn’t for Carter Harrison, his well-publicized high-wheeler, and his wheelmen friends, driving conditions these days might be very different.

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What’s in a name? A job, a trade, a profession, that’s what

The late Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, was once the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Harry Fuller was the former, and long-time, village president here in Oswego, Illinois. My friend Tom Fletcher is a retired history teacher and former member of the Kendall County Board.

What does each of these people have in common? Each has a last name that is descriptive of a trade that is, largely, lost in the mists of time.

Once upon a time, even here in our area of northern Illinois, individual craftsmen (and women) worked to provide residents with the things they needed to live comfortable lives. Unlike today, people living in the 19th Century did not go to a huge department or hardware store and purchase things like shoes, clothing, tools, or other necessary items. Instead, they went to individual craftsmen and women, who in turn, made each item by hand. These craftspeople, working in their specific trades, each had a name that described their profession, a name that was eventually given as a surname to the descendants of those who first engaged in those trades.

The best-known of these professionals were the smiths. Since there were so many kinds of smiths—coppersmiths, tinsmiths (also known as whitesmiths), and blacksmiths to name a few—there are a corresponding large number of families with the name of Smith.

1880 abt Young blacksmith shop retou

At his shop, located at Tyler and Madison streets in Oswego and shown here about 1880, John Young did both blacksmith and farrier work, and also built wagons and did wheelwright work. (Little White School Museum collection)

While blacksmithing is still commercially practiced today, it is a much more limited trade than in the past. A century and a half ago, blacksmiths, doing business in every crossroads hamlet and town in the country, manufactured and repaired the tools that built America, as well as turning out more mundane things such as nails, bolts, and hinges that literally held homes and businesses together. But early on, blacksmiths did not shoe horses, mules, and oxen—that job was done by the farrier. Gradually, however, the term blacksmith came to mean, in common speech, someone who shoes horses, even though those tradespeople are still officially farriers. Today’s modern blacksmiths, like my friend Tom Korthauer, specialize in sharpening, repairing, and sometimes making tools.

Another smith, the gunsmith, spent his time making and repairing pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Before guns came into wide usage, English archers became feared for use of their longbows (made by boyers) that fired arrows with shafts a cloth-yard in length. Those arrows were made by fletchers.

Meanwhile, the cooper was busy making barrels, pails, panikins, piggins, and other wooden containers while using the specialized drawknives, pod augers, and kerfing saws of his trade.

Even coopers specialized, however, and white coopers, for instance, usually found in larger towns, made mostly round grain measures, firkins, sieves, and boxes out of wide strips of basswood or poplar shaved thin with sharp drawknives.

firkin

A firkin is a small to medium wooden cask that can come either with or without a handle.

Wrights also derive their names from a wide variety of skills. Housewrights, not surprisingly, built houses. More specifically, housewrights were responsible for the framing and all the materials of the shell— the four walls and roof. The inside of the house, the woodwork and built-in cabinets, were finished by joiners who, again, worked their creative magic with specialized tools.

Millwrights were the jack-of-all-trades specialists who not only built the mill buildings, but who also were experienced at the critical work of siting and building dams and manufacturing mill machinery. Professionals who only operated mills and who were responsible for maintaining and sharpening the millstones were known as millers, a trade that has become another common surname.

Cartwrights built two-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles while wagonwrights, or wainwrights, built wagons and other four-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles. They build the wagon running gears and boxes before making use of the output from the local wheelwright. Of the two—wagons and wheels—wheels were far more complicated to make and good wheelwrights were worth their weight in gold.

In order that hides from either wild or domestic animals could be used, they had to be tanned and softened. Hides were tanned by the tanner, a process that dried and chemically preserved the leather. After a hide is tanned, however, it is very stiff (rawhide). In order to make it pliable and give it a good surface finish, the leather had to be processed by the currier.

Spinning

Spinning was one of the many home crafts that disappeared when cheap factory-made cloth became available.

Instead of buying their clothing, pioneers made their own. They grew the sheep that were sheared for wool and the flax plants that could then be spun into woolen and linen yarn. The spinning was often done by older unmarried female family members, thus the not particularly kindly term spinster. The spun yarn was then made into cloth by the weaver.

After wool was woven into cloth it had to be fulled to cleanse it of oil and dirt and to compact its fibers and raise the nap. At first, this was done at fulling parties where neighbors sat in a circle and stamped on the soap-saturated cloth with their feet. This was neither efficient nor very effective, however, for large-scale wool making. So, fullers built and maintained mills that did the work with wooden machines powered either by animals or by water.

Shoes were made by the shoemaker, who was sometimes called a cordwainer until the early 18th Century. Shoes were repaired by the cobbler.

These and other traditional crafts have provided the basis for a good deal the names in modern phone listings. Tailors made clothing while chandlers made candles and tinkers repaired metalware such as pails and basins. Carters drove carts and wagons while baxters (or bakers) produced baked goods. Parkers maintained parks while foresters maintained forests. A collier mined or sold coal while a sherman (or shearman) trimmed the nap of freshly woven woolen cloth.

For those of us interested in history and how things came to be, it is noteworthy that something as commonplace as a phone listing carries clues to the way our culture has developed and changed during the past 400 years.

 

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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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