Out in North Carolina, a friend of David Evans who had served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War of 1832 told Evans of the richness of the Illinois prairies west of Chicago. So in 1833—the Year of the Early Spring—Evans headed west prospecting for good land.
Following his friend’s directions, Evans traveled up the Illinois River to Ottawa and then up the Fox River, counting tributaries until he got to Big Rock Creek. He followed the creek two and a half miles upstream until he found a spot he wanted and there he staked his claim.
“There were none to dispute his claim; no mark of white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” Evans’ son told Kendall County’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, in 1877.
While “no mark of the white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” there were plenty of marks on the landscape made by other hands—namely those of the Fox Valley’s Native American residents.
In the early 1830s, the local Native People were living in a number of villages dotting the banks of the Fox River. A map in the Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987) located several Potawatomi villages on our stretch of the Fox River south of, roughly, Elgin and north of Indian Creek, included the named villages of their leaders Waubonsee, Shaytee, Naysosay, and Awnkote, plus two more unnamed villages north of Waubonsee’s. And that doesn’t even count the other villages on the DuPage and DesPlaines rivers.
“The Year of the Early Spring,” as the settlers dubbed it, persuaded dozens of families to move west to the Illinois frontier, including many of Kendall County’s best-known pioneers. But the uncomfortable fact about that influx—the Fox Valley’s first real population explosion—was that those who came were illegal squatters.
The federal government had concluded a number of treaties over the years with the resident Native People that resulted in the cession of much of their land. But the treaty provisions promised that the resident Native Americans would have the use of the lands until the land was officially surveyed and put up for sale. And in 1833, the day when most of the land in the Fox River Valley would be surveyed was still four or five years in the future and the day it would be put up for sale was still nearly a decade away.
The friction caused by squatters illegally moving onto Indian land in northern Illinois was the main cause of the bloodshed that was called the Black Hawk War. Settlers seized the lands occupied by the Sac and Fox Tribes in western Illinois, badly beating the Sac warrior Black Hawk when he complained about the thefts.
Here in the Fox Valley, a belligerent pioneer, William Davis, built a dam on Indian Creek in what is today northern LaSalle County just over the Kendall County border. The dam, just upstream from the creek’s mouth, was to power a mill Davis planned to build. But the dam prevented fish from the river swimming upstream to a Potawatomi village that relied on the fish for food. When a prominent warrior from the village complained, Davis severely beat him. When Black Hawk led his band of Sac and Fox men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois from Iowa, the resulting panic and eventual fighting offered a chance to settle scores, including the problem on Indian Creek. The resulting attack by Indians on the Davis claim led to the deaths of 14 settlers.
The continual friction between the Native People and settlers had led to passage by Congress of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. President Andrew Jackson strongly supported the legislation. The eastern “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles were first to be forced on a “Trail of Tears” west across the Mississippi to what’s today Oklahoma. By 1833, it was the turn of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes here in northern Illinois to be forced west to free up land for the growing number of settlers arriving almost daily.
To that end, the U.S. Government called thousands of members from the three tribes to Chicago in September 1833 to negotiate the cession of all their land east of the Mississippi. The negotiations got off to a strained start when the government negotiator announced to tribal representatives that officials in Washington had heard the Indians wished to sell their land. To which the Indians replied they had no idea where the government had gotten such an idea and that they had no intention of selling their land.
Several days of both above and below board bargaining followed before initial deals were reached to give the tribes rich land now in the extreme northeast corner of Missouri in exchange for their Illinois land plus other possible lands in Iowa. But the tide of settlement was already moving beyond the Mississippi and by the time the removal of the tribes really got underway a few years later, settlers were already moving into the lands reserved for the tribes.
Over the next few years, other areas were picked and had to be abandoned forcing the tribes to move off of before they were finally and permanently settled in Kansas on land much different in quality, climate, and topography from their northern Illinois tribal lands.
There were, in fact, several instances of Native People leaving the lands the government picked for them out west and returning to their old homes in northern Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan before they were again removed by government agents back west again. Sometimes, the cause was because they were simply homesick for their old homelands, while other times it was because the government-mandated reservations were too close to traditional tribal enemies.
In other cases, land that had been given by the government to various Native American tribal bands, as opposed to individuals, was simply stolen. Such a case was that of Chief Shabbona’s land in what is today DeKalb County. Litigation over its theft continues to this day.
It’s interesting to read the accounts left by early settlers who reminisce about arriving from their Eastern homes and settling onto an empty landscape. The landscape, of course, was far from empty, but those settlers were able to ignore entire villages, home to hundreds of Native American men, women, and children, apparently because their lifestyles didn’t match the of the new arrivals. Some of those Eastern pioneers expressed a little sadness that the forced departure of the region’s Native People meant the end of a historical era. Most others, though, were firmly in the “Manifest Destiny” camp that White settlement was part of unstoppable progress that eventually led to removing Native People from as much of the landscape as possible from Illinois all the way to the Pacific Ocean. For that majority group, naming local landmarks or new political divisions for the displaced tribes and their leaders was about as far as they’d go in recognizing those who had populated the region for centuries before the first Whites arrived to make their new homes on the Illinois prairies.