Category Archives: Native Americans

Plenty of people already lived in the Fox Valley when the first settlers got here…

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.

This map from Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, published by the University of Oklahoma Press at Norman in 1987, (with the Fox River marked in green) shows the number of Potawatomi villages on the mid-Fox River in 1830.

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.

The Sac warrior Black Sparrow Hawk, whose name was shortened to Black Hawk by American officials, tried, unsuccessfully, to peacefully live among White settlers. His efforts actually caused a war in which hundreds of his people were killed.

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.

Although Waubonsee, war chief of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Tribe was rewarded for his pro-American stance during the Black Hawk War, he was still forced west of the Mississippi with the rest of his people in 1836. (Original image in the author’s collection)

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.

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Filed under Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “So level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

Appreciating the Fox River, an old, old friend…

Sat down in my small office here at History Central this morning and was treated to the scene of hundreds of Canada Geese sitting out on the ice shelf that grew in the Fox River’s main channel during our recent bitter cold spell.

The view from my home office window this morning. That black strip out on the other side of the trees on the island is several hundred geese enjoying northern Illinois’ latest cold snap by sitting on the ice.

And it occurred to me how much I love and appreciate this old river.

My family has owned the spot I’m sitting on right now since 1908 when my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town. They picked out four lots in the old, never incorporated Village of Troy on the east bank of the Fox River of Illinois about a half-mile above the Village of Oswego.

This photo by Irvin Haines shows the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory at right, North Adams Street (called Water Street back then) and, just a few yards upstream from the mill, the vacant lots where my sister built our current house in 1985.

They probably picked the site because it was right next door to my great-great-grandparents’ house and just a short distance south of my great-grandmother’s sister’s house.

They contracted with my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, to build their steep-roofed story-and-a-half Queen Anne-style retirement home on the two lots on the east side of Troy’s Water Street—now Oswego’s North Adams Street. And he did a great job, too. The house (now where my son and wife live) is still as sound and sturdy as the day my great-grandparents moved in, in October 1908.

The Lantz House Irvin Haines built for my great-grandparents, with the magnolia tree my sisters and I gave to my mother as a birthday gift many years ago in full bloom.

They reserved the two lots west of Water Street lying on the east bank of the river for grazing room for their cow and driving horse, and gardening.

The old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory was located right next door to the north of those two lots, separated by the 66-foot wide Third Street right-of-way, which had been platted as part of Troy but never completed. The sawmill, whose power was provided by the adjoining dam across the river, had served the Oswego community for several years before William Parker added the furniture factory to process the numerous Black Walnut trees in the community into chairs, tables, and various kinds of chests.

At some point, the mill and furniture factor had burned down, leaving behind the remains of the building’s thick flagstone foundation and the millrace that had powered the turbines that, in turn, powered the entire operation.

Meanwhile, across the river at the west end of the dam, the Parker Gristmill had ground local farmers’ grain into flour and meal before being closed down around the turn of the 20th Century. In the early 1920s, Irvin Haines (yes, the same person who built my great-grandparents’ house) dismantled the mill and used the timber, sawn lumber, and foundation stones to remodel the old Seely Barn at the west end of the Oswego Bridge into the Turtle Rock Tearoom—which is still standing and is today a private home.

The old dam washed out sometime around the first or second decade of the 20th Century, never to be rebuilt.

Upon my great grandparents’ death during World War II, their house passed on to my grandparents. My aunt and uncle moved into the house during the war and then in 1955 my parents bought it when they were forced to quit farming due to my dad’s poor health. We moved off the farm in December that year and I began my love affair with the river.

The Fox River (of Illinois; the Fox River of Wisconsin empties into Green Bay), 202 miles long, has its source northwest of Milwaukee, just west of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the river flows 84 miles past Brookfield, Waukesha, Big Bend, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake and Wilmot before crossing the border into Illinois at the north end of the chain of six lakes on the border between Lake and McHenry counties. From there it flows generally south and slightly west to its mouth on the Illinois River near Starved Rock at Ottawa.

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map of the Old Northwest showing the Illinois River and the first mention of the modern name of the Fox River I’ve been able to find. (Indian Villages of Illinois, Vol. II, Atlas and Supplement, Sara Jones Tucker)

The Native People living along the river when the French arrived in the Illinois River Valley in 1673 called the river Pestequouy, the Algonquian-speaking peoples’ word for the American Bison. That indicated that by then buffalo were common on the prairies along the river’s course. After LaSalle’s efforts at colonizing the Illinois River Valley in the early 1680s, the Fox became known among the French as the River of the Rock. The French had named the landmark Starved Rock simply “The Rock.” Near the end of the 17th Century, the French moved their trading operations south to Lake Peoria on the Illinois River. It was after that period that the Fox River got its modern name, most likely named after the Fox Tribe, some groups of which lived along its northern reaches in the early 1700s.

Between 1764 and 1775, fter the British won the French and Indian War, Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled the area that eventually became the Old Northwest Territory with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.

On this map, the Fox River was finally given its modern name. The name was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

The villages of Native People in northern Illinois as of about 1830, just as settlement was about to explode in the Fox River Valley. The river is picked out in green on this map. (Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History)

The Fox Valley was a rich place used as a hunting ground by the member tribes of the Illinois Confederacy. When the Illinois gradually lost population and power in the early 18th Century, interrelated bands of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes created the Three Fires Confederacy and moved from their homelands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana to fill the vacuum in the Fox Valley. These were the people living in the river valley when the first White settlers began arriving in the late 1820s.

The Three Fires and their cousins who had been living along the river for a few thousand years had manipulated the landscape to maintain the prairies and open wooded savannas that characterized the area when those White settlers arrived. That also included changing the river itself by building weirs to trap fish that tended to change water flows and create new islands and other features. But when the Whites showed up, they began making much more profound changes to the river and the prairies and hardwood groves in its watershed.

Drainage of wetlands that dotted the prairies, most of which were the remnants of Ice Age lakes, began as soon as pioneer farmers arrived and continued as new technologies were brought to bear. This had the beneficial effect of sharply cutting the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and hordes of biting flies. But it also led to the more rapid runoff of stormwater, leading to larger and more frequent floods on the Fox River.

Laying clay tile to drain wetlands on the Oswego Prairie east of the Village of Oswego abut 1900. The tile run went through a ridge on its way to empty into Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In addition, the groves were cut to provide firewood and building materials and the prairies were plowed and turned into cropland. That led to more soil erosion and the once-clear river was turned into a muddy stream.

But those changes didn’t hold a candle to the effect the dams the region’s pioneer millwrights threw across the river to power sawmills and gristmills. According to The Fox River Area 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 became the most dammed stream in Illinois…The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams.” According to the assessment, 25 dams dotted the river’s course at one time or another, including at Oswego, Millington, Millbrook, Millhurst, and Yorkville here in Kendall County.

Noted the assessment’s authors, “The Fox River probably produced more hydro-power than all other streams in Illinois put together, excluding the Rock River. In addition to sawing wood and grinding grain, these mills ran factories. The Fox River Valley became more heavily industrialized than any other area of comparable size in Illinois.”

The dams themselves created problems. The dead water behind them—none of them except one in the Chain of Lakes were built with floodgates that would all the current to cleanse the river bottom behind them. As a result, the mill ponds up and down the river quickly filled with silt, covering the gravel gamefish preferred to lay their eggs. The dams also prevented fish from migrating to other spawning grounds.

The decline in gamefish, particularly, was noted and everyone from the U.S. Fish Commission to local angling clubs tried to fix the situation by stocking the Fox with a dizzying variety of fish, from Rainbow Trout to German Carp. Needless to say, the trout didn’t survive, but the carp certainly did, displacing native species and with their feeding habits contributing to the river’s already serious turgidity.

But it was the Fox Valley’s industrialization, which continued well after hydro power was economical, that caused the most severe problems. Instead of a source of power the river became viewed as a convenient dump for all manner of industrial waste. Especially starting when manufacturing coal gas became popular for home lighting, heating, and cooking the pollution of the river began spiking. And, of course, citizens in the growing towns along the river contributed by dumping their own, often untreated, sewage into the river.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

By a century ago the problem had become acute. The Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on May 17, 1922: “In spite of all efforts which have been made in previous years and laws which have been passed by the legislature, the pollution of Fox River continues to make the waterway a menace to health. The Fox is a beautiful stream. The fishing in years gone past has been good and the boating in some places enjoyable. But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

But the industrial interests had the money to buy as many politicians as needed to keep any meaningful change from taking place. As a result, when we moved into my great-grandparents’ house in 1955, the river was in even worse shape than ever. Within a couple years, chemical factories upstream dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killing just about every living creature in the Fox from Aurora to Yorkville. During the first episode, we counted more than 500 dead fish along my parents’ riverbank.

We spent summers on and along the river in those years, but were always careful to wear our “river shoes” when wading to avoid stepping on broken glass or scrap metal that could provide a nasty cut in the polluted water. We enjoyed our river scows, too. From my office window, I look right at the bit of riverbank where some long-dead relative installed a large iron staple in concrete where I’d chain up my boat.

Fishing was fun, but it was strictly “catch and release” for us long before the term came into vogue. One look at the stunted Black Bullheads, Catfish, and Bluegills, often with lesions (that proved to be cancerous when studied) on them, prevented us from wanting to eat any of them.

Ice skating on the Fox River at the mouth of Waubonsie Creek about 1920. (Little White School Museum collection)

Still, the river valley was a great place to grow up. Winters were colder then, with -20° F. cold snaps not uncommon, which meant the river provided some great ice skating. Trudging down to the riverbank to sit on a handy log to change into my skates was a treat all winter. In fact, I’d often go skating for an hour or so before school. And I only fell through the ice once, and since it only involved one leg getting wet, I decided that discretion was probably a good idea and never bothered my parents with the details.

After the annual spring flood was over, it was back aboard our flat-bottomed river scows. When I became fascinated with the Age of Sail I talked my mother into sewing canvas sail and then built the necessary rigging for my boat, installed leeboards and even managed to sail upstream with the rig.

The memorial to Jim Phillips celebrating his efforts to save the nation’s air and water from pollution, acting as his alter-ego, “The Fox.” The memorial is on the banks of the Fox River in Oswego’s Violet Patch Park just off Ill. Route 25. The memorial, signed with the “cartoon”Fox” Phillips used to advertise his exploits, honors his activities and also illustrates the positive changes his activities prompted.

Then things began to change, thanks to activists like Jim Phillips who weren’t afraid to tackle all the money paying for politicians to ignore the river’s pollution. Acting as his secret identity of “The Fox,” Jim began waging a campaign against polluters using a brilliant combination of humor and public relations to shine a light on what was going on. His exploits were picked up by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, the local press, and even National Geographic. His exploits, such as dumping the Lake Michigan outflow from a U.S. Steel coking plant onto the pristine white carpeting of the corporate offices in downtown Chicago and plugging untreated industrial effluent pipes emptying into local creeks and the Fox River itself, helped lead to a national reassessment of what we were doing to our own environment.

And, since that was the era when politicians could still work together for the greater good of society in general, that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon as well as similar agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels as well.

Today, the Fox River I look at out of my office window (which, by the way, is situated about where center field was back in the day when this was a vacant lot that housed the neighborhood baseball diamond and go-cart track) and see hundreds of Canada Geese and know that come spring the Walleye and Smallmouth Bass anglers will be back with a vengeance, it really gives me a good feeling. Seeing something that was so distressed that even as an eight year-old I knew it was in serious trouble recover to become something so unbelievably valuable as a recreational and natural areas resource is more satisfying than just about anything else I can think of.

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Disappearance of wheat fields marked a major change in northern Illinois’ prairie farming

This year’s grain harvest has largely wrapped up here in the Fox River Valley, following roughly the same schedule it has been on for the last 1,200 years.

Illinois’ Native People began cultivating corn sometime between 900 and 1000 AD. It joined the beans and squash they’d been propagating to create the basis for their subsistence crops they called “The Three Sisters.”

Interestingly enough, modern farmers still grow versions of the Native People’s “Three Sisters,” although these days soybeans have taken the place of native edible beans and pumpkins have largely replaced other squash. But still, it’s sort of comforting that a 1,200 year-old harvest tradition continues into the 21st Century.

The member tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy had moved into the area west and south of Lake Michigan in the 1740s, displacing the member tribal groups of the Illinois Confederacy. The Three Fires relied on growing “The Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) for a large proportion of their died. Like the region’s modern farmers, the Native People completed their harvest in late fall.

By the time the first permanent White settlers began arriving along the banks of the Fox River, the resident Native People were inter-related members of the Three Fires Confederacy comprised of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people. These people, too, relied on growing The Three Sisters for a large percentage of their diet. Over the centuries since its introduction, corn had been crossbred and otherwise genetically modified by its Native American growers.

European immigrants had quickly adopted growing what they called “Indian corn” to differentiate it from the “corn’ they called wheat back in that day. It grew okay in the thin, rocky soils of New England, but crops kept getting better the farther west White settlement moved because soils were better, too. When the frontier finally moved out of the Eastern woodlands onto the tallgrass Prairie Peninsula in the 1820s, corn found its ideal habitat.

But those White settlers did not live on corn alone. They needed wheat for bread and other foods, along with oats to feed their livestock, and rye and barley for foodstuffs as well as to manufacture the alcoholic beverages that seemed to power so much of frontier society.

So the crops grown on those first Fox Valley pioneer farms were quite diversified, right along with those of their neighbors all the way west to the Mississippi. Wheat was considered a vital crop, both for consumption on the farm, and after pioneer town developers arrived, for sale in town. Corn was fed to the farm’s livestock, which could then walk the 40 miles east to market in Chicago. Rye and barley were both used on the farm, but were also good sale crops and which could also be turned into extremely valuable—and easily transported—whiskey.

Grain, too, could be hauled to the Chicago market, although the 80 mile round trip in wagon-and-team days was time-consuming, keeping the farmer away from taking care of his other responsibilities such as feeding and otherwise caring for his livestock, not to mention taking care of his family on their often isolated farmsteads.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

So when the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened following the course of the Chicago-Des Plaines-Illinois River system from Lake Michigan to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru, it created a nearby, easily reached incentive to begin growing more grain of all kinds than could be consumed on the farm.

For one thing, it meant the meat being produced from Chicago’s stockyards could move south to the St. Louis–New Orleans market as easily as east to the New York market.

Even more importantly, its existence meant that grain from the rich region west and south of Chicago could finally be shipped north as well as south. Previously grain taken to the Illinois River system went downstream to the St. Louis market. But with canal boats hauling it, grain moved north as easily as south. Chicago’s grain elevators were ready to handle the huge influx of grain, too, readying it for shipment east to the New York market.

Thus began cash grain farming in earnest. And within a year or so, the first railroad, whose right-of-way followed the course of the canal, opened. That offered a year round grain and livestock shipping opportunity for area farmers, something the canal, which had to close during the winter months, could not.

It was during this period of the late 1840s and early 1850s, that northern Illinois’ wheat crops experienced a number of failures. And since it was a major crop during those years, it led to severe financial problems. In response, farmers tried everything they could to try to make the area a viable wheat-producer, including introducing dozens of new wheat varieties and tinkering with planting schedules.

The preferred wheat for market was hard winter wheat, which was planted in the fall, germinated and greened up, went dormant over the winter, and then resumed growing in the spring to be harvested in late summer. But northern Illinois’ climate and its very soil warred against producing good winter wheat crops. The region’s numerous freeze-thaw cycles during an average winter tended to kill the vulnerable wheat seedlings. Then if it did begin growing it was often attacked by a variety of diseases including rust and blight along with insect pests such as the Hessian fly and chinch bugs. And, oddly enough, the soils on northern Illinois tallgrass prairies seemed to be too rich to support good wheat crops. Farmer Edmund Flagg decided in the mid-1830s from his own observations that the worst soils of the Prairie Peninsula were best-adapted to growing wheat.

Before the advent of mechanical reapers, harvesting “small grains” (wheat, oats, barley, rye) was both labor-intensive and subject to weather-related problems. Those problems were so severe and prevalent on the Illinois prairies that farmers, a group normally reluctant to adopt new methods, were eager early adopters of mechanical harvesting equipment. McCormick Reapers were manufactured under license south of Oswego at AuSable Grove in 1847.

And then there was the problem that growing and harvesting wheat is extremely labor-intensive and very dependent on just the right weather conditions during the harvest cycle. Wheat had to be cut, bound into bundles, stacked to dry, and then threshed. Excessive moisture in the form of rain at any time after the grain was cut could lead to it developing rust or other fungus, or even sprouting spoiling the crop.

This need for speed during the wheat harvest spurred by the upper Midwest’s damp climate during the peak harvest season led to early and intense interest in mechanical harvesters that allowed far more acreage to be cut, bundled, and shocked than the old manual methods. Area farmers not only imported early harvesters made by Cyrus McCormick and others, but they also licensed them for manufacture here. Out in AuSable Grove south of Oswego Daniel Townsend secured a McCormick license and produced harvesters in the 1840s. Eventually, of course, the folks in Plano here in Kendall County became one of the premiere harvester manufacturers in the nation.

Corn, in comparison, was pretty hardy stuff. It could even be left standing in the field all winter if necessary, to be successfully picked and husked in the early spring with no visible impact on its value as a human or animal food.

Northern Illinois farmers gradually switched to trying to grow spring wheat and met with more success. But the spring varieties were softer and less attractive for milling into bread flour than the hard winter varieties. So, wheat growing began to disappear from Fox Valley farms in favor of corn and oats, which found a ready market in area cities during the era when horses provided the main motive power.

Not so in central and southern Illinois, where wheat farming was part of the Southern farming culture that had arrived with those regions’ pioneers. The southern part of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Virginia and the Carolinas who came west through Kentucky and Tennessee, and then up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. They were also some of central Illinois’ first pioneers.

Southern farming culture was far more subsistence-based than that of the New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians who settled northern Illinois. The soils and climate of the southern half of the state favored wheat farming, which fit in with the culture Southern farmers brought with them. That culture not only included the kinds of crops they grew, but also extended to their farmsteads.

Probably built around 1847, the barn south of Oswego on the Daniel Townsend farm was used both as a traditional barn, but also may have housed Townsend’s manufacturing operation to produce McCormick reapers. The barn was built on the traditional stone Pennsylvania plan with slit ventilating windows.

Barns, for instance, were common sights on the northern Illinois landscape but not so farther south. According to Richard Bardolph, writing in the December 1948 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the editor of Moore’s Rural New Yorker visited Illinois in the 1850s and reported to his readers, that “barns are scarcely to be seen on the prairies, and they seem to be considered more of a luxury than a necessity.”

In contrast, here in the Fox Valley barns were among the first structures pioneer farmers built. They were multi-purpose buildings farmers relied upon for everything from grain and hay storage to protecting livestock from the region’s bitter winters to storing farm equipment. Storing farm equipment under roof seems to have been another Southern farmer cultural trait they didn’t share with their Northern counterparts.

As late as the 1940s, one of my Kansas cousins came east to learn Midwestern farming practices from my father and uncles. One of the things he took back with him was the importance of storing farm equipment out of the weather to lengthen the equipment’s lifespan and to assure it worked when needed. That was a new concept for many Kansas farmers of the era whose roots extended east through Missouri into Tennessee and Kentucky.

During the Great Depression here in northern Illinois, wheat farming nearly disappeared. The 1935 Census of Agriculture for Kendall County reported only four farms grew wheat, amounting to a bit over 400 bushels. We now know that 1934 was probably the worst year for northern Illinois farmers during those awful years. Drought, chinch bug invasions, crop diseases, dust storms, and just about any other disaster you can think of afflicted the region’s farmers. The price of corn had collapsed in 1933, bringing only 14-cents a bushel, down sharply from $1.14 in 1925. That made it cheaper for many farmers to burn it as fuel in their stoves and furnaces than coal. Sears Roebuck, in fact, marketed special stove grates in those years designed for corn, which burned hotter than coal or wood.

In addition, corn could also be fed to animals on the farm, producing livestock the farm family itself could consume. Many a farm family of those years helped feed their city cousins. In general, it took about seven bushels of corn to produce a pound of beef and 6.5 pounds to produce a bushel of pork, Many farmers favored raising hogs because pork could be turned into a variety of meats from roasts and chops to sausage and with smoking, hams and bacon. And corn could also be used as human food as well, ground into corn flour to make cornbread, fried mush, and other dishes. This diversity of use apparently made growing corn a more sensible course for the region’s farmers.

Also in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois Extension Service began promoting soybeans as a new cash crop for Illinois farmers struggling through the Great Depression. And so starting here in Kendall County in the dismal year of 1933 a variety of beans far different than those grown by the region’s Native American farmers began to sprout on the Illinois prairies, just as the need for so much oat acreage was disappearing as the horses who used so many bushels of oats for food were replaced by motor vehicles.

Today, Illinois still produces a fair amount of wheat, but the vast majority of it is grown in central and southern Illinois where the climate, growing seasons, and soils favor it. Here in northern Illinois, occasional fields of wheat can be spotted by the alert motorist, along with a few acres of oats here and there. But for a crop that was once a vital staple of pioneer farms, the disappearance of wheat fields marked one of the many profound changes in prairie farming.

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The era when the Fox River Valley’s Native People and settlers lived along side each other

Starting in 1835, under terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Fox Valley’s Native Americans were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi River.

But that meant the region’s white settlers lived alongside their Native American neighbors for roughly a decade. How were relations between the two groups? An honest appraisal would have to say those relations were mixed.

By the time whites began settling the region between Chicago and the Fox River Valley, the area was mostly populated by bands of the Three Fires Confederacy. About 1745, reports that the interrelated tribes of the Illinois Confederacy had become so weakened they could no longer claim control of that area prompted the Three Fires member tribal bands to move south from their current homelands in Michigan and Wisconsin to fill the vacuum created by the Illinois’ difficulties.

A cultural mixture of the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa tribal bands, Three Fires villages soon dotted the banks of the Fox, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Illinois rivers. The member tribal groups had been hostile to the United States until the end of the War of 1812, after which they determined to live in peace with Americans.

Ottawa, located at the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River, was the jumping off spot for many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers. This 1845 map of the area west of Chicago was published in the Guide Through Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin & Iowa. Showing the Township lines of the United States Surveys by J. Calvin Smith. New York in the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Settlement in the Fox Valley region really didn’t begin until about 1826 when Robert Bearsford’s family moved up the Fox River from its confluence with the Illinois River at Ottawa and settled in modern Kendall County’s Big Grove Township. Bearsford’s claim was reportedly at the southernmost point of the grove of mixed hardwood trees.

By 1829, a couple other families had moved to the Big Grove area including former French Canadian fur trader Vetal Vermet’s family as well as American Frederick Countryman and his Potawatomi wife, En-do-ga.

In August of that year, whiskey provided a trigger for a relatively violent incident between the two cultures. Peter Lamsett, nicknamed Peter Specie by the settlers for his policy of only accepting coins—specie—in payment for the goods and services he sold, brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice Alexander Doyle at Chicago (then governed from Peoria County) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians.

Specie Grove in Oswego and Kendall townships of Kendall County was named after Peter Lamsett Specie, who was living there when the county’s first White settlers arrived. This clip from an 1876 map of the county in the Biographical Directory of the Voters and Tax-Payers of Kendall County, Illinois by George Fisher & Company.

Specie, a French Canadian who had engaged in the fur trade before concentrating on providing various services to new settlers, was on his way from Chicago with his ox cart to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Countryman and a half-barrel to Vermet at Big Grove when he said he was set upon near the DuPage River by the Potawatomi Chief Half Day and two warriors. He said the Indians took a quantity of alcohol, claiming one of them slashing him with a knife during the scuffle. Specie continued his delivery, but testified he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who, he said, stole more liquor. Specie told Justice Doyle he estimated about 10 gallons of whiskey had been taken. The resolution of Specie’s complaint is missing from the county court records, but the case and Specie’s testimony does suggest some significant tensions between Native Americans and the increasing number of White settlers—even those generally considered sympathetic to the tribes.

Sauk Warrior Black Hawk

The worst clash of the era between the area’s White settlers and Native People was 1832’s Black Hawk War. An influential Sauk warrior, Black Hawk determined to move his band of about 1,500 men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois in the spring of 1832 in violation of government orders. Black Hawk had a long history of opposing White settlement of western Illinois. During the War of 1812, Black Hawk, who had allied himself with the British, out-generaled Illinois militia troops who tried to attack the Sauk Tribe’s main settlement at Rock Island. After that war, Black Hawk still remained attached to British interests to such an extent that the tribal group he led was called the British Band by U.S. officials.

In 1832, the British Band’s return to Illinois caused conflict to break out across northern Illinois. Local tribes people seized on the opportunity to settle some scores. The most violent of these was the Indian Creek Massacre in LaSalle County, where 14 men, women and children at the William Davis claim were killed over Davis’s cruel and violent treatment of local Three Fires people.

A few miles north of Indian Creek, Hollenback’s store at modern Newark was looted and burned, as were the cabins of settlers who had been warned to flee by the Three Fires’ Chief Shabbona. At the William Harris cabin, panic reigned. The family’s horses had bolted meaning the couple, their seven children, and Mrs. Harris’s father, the aged and crippled John Coombs, had to flee on foot. Realizing he’d slow them down, Mr. Coombs told the family, “Leave me to my fate, and save yourselves; I am an old man and can live but a little while at best.” Which they tearfully did, thinking they’d never see him alive again. But when an Indian raiding party arrived at the Harris cabin and saw Mr. Coombs was an invalid, they left him be and passed on to other pickings, not exactly the picture of ruthlessness we expect to see during a war.

Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Prairie Potawatomi

And as for the perpetrators of the Indian Creek Massacre, the suspects were arrested after the war and tried in Ottawa. But since the survivors of the attack, including Sylvia and Rachel Hall, teenage sisters seized and held for ransom, could not positively identify which warriors had attacked the cabin, the charges against the defendants were ruled unproven and they were released, which seems an interesting comment on the attitude towards justice, even on the frontier that was northern Illinois at that time.

After the war, until the Fox Valley’s Native People were removed, relations seemed to be good. Early settler and eventual orchardist Smith Minkler’s recollection of visiting the claim of William Wilson, Oswego’s first settler, in late 1833 as recounted in the Rev. E.W. Hicks’1877 history of the county might have been typical: “Mr. Minkler was down there [at Oswego] one day when Wilson’s boys were astride of an Indian pony, and the Indians with wild shouts of glee were pulling it along the trail. It seemed to be great fun for them.”

Ambrotype of “Chief Shaubonee” made on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field

Shabbona, who had warned the settlers to flee during Black Hawk’s war, was rewarded with a small reserve at the grove west of the Fox River in modern DeKalb County that had been named for him. But he, along with Waubonsee, and the other chiefs and families, were all ordered west anyway. The first group left Chicago in 1835 for a grueling trip first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas that rivaled in tragedy the famed “Trail of Tears” of the Five Civilized Tribes. Other groups left in 1836, but some of those who’d been removed hated where they’d been situated and filtered back to northern Illinois. It wasn’t until 1837 that the last of the Three Fires were finally, permanently removed.

Even after that, Shabbona returned for visits, living on his land off and on until it was simply sold out from underneath him, something that is still in litigation to this day. Virtually homeless, the old chief’s friends bought him a small house where he spent the last two years of his life. The highlight of that period was at Ottawa on Aug. 21, 1858 when he was invited to sit on the dais during the first Lincoln and Douglas Debate and when he was able to greet his former Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln.

Like most of history, the era when settlers and Native People lived together in Illinois’ Fox River Valley is complicated, an era when both sides had something to learn from and teach to each other. And that’s perhaps something worth thinking about throughout November as the nation celebrates this year’s Native American Heritage Month.

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Columbus, genocide, and federal holidays: Trying to make sense of the Age of Exploration

Some historians like to bicker about whether the driving force in history is people or events, in other words, do individuals create historical events or do historical events create significant individuals through their reactions to those events?

Actually, when you get right down to it, history doesn’t seem to be much more than a series of accidents and mistakes that combine to form a historical context lurching from one catastrophe to another. If that might be a trend in history, then the history of North America has certainly seems to have followed it.

The New World’s accidental history began as soon as Christopher Columbus weighed anchor on the coast of Spain and headed west across the Atlantic. This week, we commemorated the results of that voyage, which proved catastrophic for millions of Indigenous people in North, Central, and South America while creating opportunities for downtrodden people elsewhere on earth for the next five centuries.

When Columbus finally sighted land at the end of his voyage 530 years ago this week, he was positive he had discovered either China or India. But as one historian noted, he hadn’t even discovered Indiana.

Much to their later chagrin, the Tainos people welcomed Christopher Columbus and his three ships loaded with European fortune hunters on Oct. 12, 1492. It didn’t take long for Columbus to set out on a program designed to enrich both his Spanish backers and him, personally. Outright theft, murder, rape, and genocide that wiped out most of the Indigenous People in the Caribbean followed.

Instead, Columbus landed on an island off the coast of what became known as the Americas but was so convinced he had reached the mysterious East that he named the inhabitants of his new discovery Indians, a name not a few of them have been trying to live down ever since.

It seems to have been, in fact, a fortunate thing that Columbus never actually found North, Central, or South America, given his murderous proclivities. The first people Columbus stumbled across were the Tainos, a peaceful bunch in which Columbus immediately saw possibilities. “They should be good servants,” he wrote in his journal. After which he instituted a brutal regime of torture, rape, and murder against them in order to steal whatever gold, silver, or other valuables that might have had.

After establishing a colony on the island of Hispaniola during his second voyage to the New World—and in direct violation of his orders from the Spanish monarchy—Columbus figured the numerous indigenous people living there would make fine slaves, and so he began shipping hundreds of them back to Spain, and enslaving thousands more on Hispaniola allowing Spaniards serving under him to rape, pillage, and murder.

As historian Samuel Elliott Morrison put it: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

Alarmed by the reports they were receiving about the brutality of Columbus towards not only the Native People, but also Hispaniola’s European colonists after Columbus’s fourth voyage, the Spanish crown ordered an investigation. That led to Columbus’s arrest and return in chains to Spain where the authorities stripped him of his titles.

Despite Spain’s initial decision to treat Native People with respect and kindness, when it apparently occurred to them they didn’t have to worry about reciprocal attacks from organized Indian or Chinese armies, the ethical gloves came completely off. And the Spanish quickly came to consider all the Indigenous People as surplus population. Five hundred years before the Germans perfected the method, the Spanish practiced the Final Solution on entire peoples living in North, Central, and South America.

Although Columbus thought he’d found India or China (he remained convinced until his death), it quickly became apparent to others that a) there seemed to be a major error in their calculations of the diameter of the earth and b) there further seemed to be a large mass of land taking up all that space between Europe and Asia. Due to those miscalculations of the Earth’s diameter, those early explorers thought that what turned out to be North, Central, and South America was a narrow island. Stories of rich nations and cities just beyond the horizon, some undoubtedly concocted by Native People eager to see murderous, greedy Europeans go elsewhere, became a staple of the colonization of the New World.

So, when the French landed in Canada and began exploring to the west, they were sure they would soon reach China. In fact, a series of rapids on the St. Lawrence River was named La Chine because early colonists were sure China was just up the river a few miles beyond the rapids. With that as a precedent, every time a French adventurer took possession of land as the boundaries of exploration were pushed ever farther westward, it was with one eye on the Chinese. For instance, when the French seized the Sault Ste. Marie rapids leading from Lake Superior just before 1620, the official doing the taking had brought along rich robes for the ceremony because he was sure a few Chinese potentates would show up for the festivities.

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, explored the Mississippi River in 1673, proving it didn’t empty into the Pacific Ocean.

The conviction that rich Asian markets lay just beyond next hill to the west drove two centuries’ worth of searches for the non-existent Northwest Passage. And unlike those homicidal Spanish conquistadors, the French generally tended to be more benign in their colonial treatment of Native People.

French geographer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, who were sent to discover whether the Mississippi River was a sort of Southwest Passage to the Pacific, both had high hopes of finding the long-sought route. Instead, they discovered the Mississippi didn’t flow southwest. Rather, they found, it headed pretty much directly south or slightly southeast to end up emptying into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Gulf of California as had been hoped.

The Jolliet-Marquette expedition had began in 1673 when Jolliet was commissioned to find out exactly where the Mississippi went given Native People insisted it led to a huge body of water. He and a few companions left Montreal and paddled up the Ottawa River following the old trade route the Chippewa and Ottawa people had blazed and perfected centuries before.

The party crossed Rainy Lake and portaged into Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, eventually arriving at the French post of St. Ignace. There they picked up Father Marquette, who was added to the expedition for his linguistic skills.

The party then paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to the Fox River of Wisconsin that emptied into Green Bay. Paddling up the Fox, they portaged to the Wisconsin River at the site of today’s Portage, Wis., and then followed the Wisconsin down to its mouth on the Mississippi.

During their voyage down the Mississippi, Jolliet made navigational observations until, upon reaching the mouth of the Arkansas River, he realized the Mississippi had to flow into the Gulf of Mexico not the Gulf of California. In addition, at the mouth of the Arkansas, they were welcomed by an Indian village whose residents were using Spanish trade goods. That was alarming because Spain and France were quarreling at the time, creating a potentially unhealthy atmosphere for the French explorers.

So the expedition turned around and paddled back north. Reaching the mouth of the Illinois River, they were advised by some helpful Native People the smaller river was a shortcut to the Great Lakes, so they became the first Europeans to explore the Illinois River Valley. Both Jolliet and Marquette commented on the rich prairie land they saw during their voyage north, and both correctly predicted the territory would prove to be a productive farming region.

Father Marquette lived just one more year before dying on the lonely Lake Michigan coastline near modern Marquette, Mich.

Nineteenth Century artist George Catlin’s depiction of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s 1682 ceremony claiming the Mississippi River’s watershed for Louis XIV. LaSalle named the entire river basin La Louisiane in the Sun King’s honor. The thoughts of the resident Native People having their ancestral home renamed after a foreign monarch were not recorded.

Jolliet was within sight of Montreal when his canoe upset in some rapids and he lost all of the journals and maps he had made during the expedition. However, he reconstructed much of the information, and that eventually caught the attention of Robert René Cavalier, Seur de la Salle, who concocted a grand scheme for the settlement of the lands Jolliet and Marquette had first explored as well as lands along the south shore of Lake Michigan east of the Chicago River.

And so it came to pass that nearly 200 years after Columbus landed, LaSalle finally discovered Indiana.

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Oswego’s historic downtown business district honored with National Register recognition

A roughly two-block section of Oswego’s historic downtown business district called the Downtown Oswego Historic District by village officials has been added to the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The bounds of the new downtown Oswego historic district added to the National Register of Historic Places is outlined in red on this map. It includes some of the community’s most historic areas.

The area selected for recognition is that section of Main Street from the north side of Jackson to the south side of Washington Street, which is generally considered the heart of downtown. That stretch of Main Street includes the brick and limestone Union Block on the east side of the street built in 1867; the classic frame false-front Rank Building, built by Oswego Postmaster Lorenzo Rank in 1874; and the Burkhart Block on the south side of Washington Street. On the west side of Main at Washington Street, the Schickler and Knapp buildings erected by two of Oswego’s German immigrant businessmen in the late 1890s and early 1900s are included, as is the 1840s native limestone Parke Building at the northwest corner of Main and Jackson.

The first settlers on the site of what is considered the original village of Oswego were William and Rebecca (Pearce) Wilson, who arrived with the extended Pearce family in 1833. Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, settled on what’s now Fox Bend Golf Course, where the old Pearce farmhouse still stands just east of the Waubonsie Creek bridge on Route 34, while brothers John and Walter settled west of the river. The Smiths built their cabin at the busy modern “Five Corners” intersection of Routes 25 and 34, and Jefferson Street.

But the Pearces were farmers, not town builders. It took a couple enthusiastic entrepreneurs, Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. “Squire” Arnold, to see that the lay of the land on the bluff overlooking the Fox River’s narrowest point for miles in either direction would be a good spot to build a new town.

The 1838 survey plat of Oswego Township showed the small village of Oswego at the Fox River narrows. I’ve highlighted the roads that crossed at Oswego, making it an area transportation hub. Also important was the Fox River ford just upstream from Waubonsie Creek’s mouth on the river.

The site also happened to be the intersection of four well-used Native American trails. One came across the prairie from the west, crossed the river, and headed east and a bit north to the ford across the DuPage River and on to Chicago, while another branched off that trail at Oswego and headed southeast across the prairie to Walker’s Grove, also on the DuPage, and then on to Chicago as well. From Oswego where those two branches merged, another trail headed southwest to Ottawa. A fourth trail came up the west side of the Fox River from Ottawa crossed the river on the Oswego ford, and ran north to the new settlement of LaFox—later renamed Geneva.

Arnold and Judson realized that ford was another geographical plus for their potential town site. Located just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River, the ford featured shallow, slow-moving water running over a smooth limestone floor that extended all the way across the river. Native Americans had used it for thousands of years and the White pioneers made immediate use of it as soon as they arrived. It would remain the only way to cross the river until the first timber-frame bridge spanned the river at Oswego in 1848.

Arnold, an ambitious emigrant from New York, had some experience with town building, having been involved, along with Chester Ingersoll, with turning the Walker’s Grove settlement on the DuPage River into the village of Plainfield in 1834 and then serving as that new town’s first postmaster.

The original 20-block village laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold is colored pink in this clip from Warner & Beers’ 1870 plat book and atlas of Kendall County. The plat illustrates how each block was laid out bisected by alleys running perpendicular to each other. (Little White School Museum collection)

Judson, a wealthy frontier businessman, like Arnold originally from New York but most recently from Michigan, partnered with Arnold to lay out their village on a square plan aligned with the east bank of the Fox River. As platted in 1835 by the two (and making, by a couple months, Oswego Kendall County’s oldest municipality), the new village contained 18 blocks, each 280.5 feet (17 rods in surveyor’s terms) square and containing eight lots, each 66 feet wide and 132 feet deep. Two 16.5-foot alleys running perpendicular to each other bisected each block.

They named all of the streets but two after U.S. Presidents, including Harrison, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson, Washington, Van Buren, and Tyler. The two non-Presidential street names were Main and Benton, named after U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a political ally of President Andrew Jackson and strong supporter of westward expansion.

The two originally named their new town “Hudson,” after the river in New York with which they were both so familiar. Arnold opened the first store in the new village right in the middle of what would become the village’s business district. Both Judson and Arnold began pushing for Congress to grant their new town a post office, and those wishes were granted on Jan. 24, 1837, with Arnold named the first postmaster.

The only known photo of the east side of Main Street as it looked before the devastating February 1867 fire destroyed all the buildings pictured, including the stately National Hotel. Levi Arnold opened Oswego’s first store and post office in the building to the right of the National Hotel. (Little White School Museum collection)

But there was a fly in the town-builders’ ointment. For whatever reason, Congress named the new post office “Lodi.” Lodi wasn’t a bad name, of course, carrying the name of a town in New York’s Finger Lakes Region, but it apparently didn’t suit Arnold and Judson. Within some months, the few permanent male residents held a referendum to choose a new permanent name. When the few votes were counted, neither Hudson nor Lodi had more than one vote. Instead, “Oswego” won with two votes in its column.

Kendall County was established in February 1841. The General Assembly appointed a three-man commission to pick a site for a county seat and they chose the hamlet of Yorkville, six miles south of Oswego. But with all those roads leading to the new town, Oswego was growing faster than other areas of the new county. So Arnold, Judson and other Oswego boosters immediately began encouraging moving the county seat to Oswego. They engineered a referendum in 1845 that populous Oswego won over the more centrally located Yorkville.

This view, looking north from Washington Street and reminiscent of cow towns in the Old West, shows the west side of Oswego’s Main Street, around time time the 1867 fire destroyed the east side of the business district. The only building in this image still standing is the native limestone Parke Building on the right side of the photograph. The building now houses the American Male & Company’s clothing stores. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new courthouse was built just outside the downtown area on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Jefferson, and Monroe streets. With that, Oswego’s business community began to cater as much to the traveling trade of the circuit court’s judges and lawyers as to the surrounding agricultural area with three hotels and numerous blacksmith and wagonwright shops.

But Oswego’s location in the northeast corner of the county was proving inconvenient for residents needing to go to the county seat in those days of horse and buggy and horseback travel. So another referendum was held in 1859, and the voters approved moving the county seat back to Yorkville. With the Civil War intruding, it took a few years to get a new courthouse built, but in June 1864, the county’s records were hauled down to Yorkville, and Oswego returned to its status as a mercantile hub for the surrounding agricultural area.

From the time Judson and Arnold platted it 187 years ago, Oswego’s downtown catered to the residents of the community itself, as well as to the farmers working the land around it, as well as to those elected county officials and members of the legal community during its stint as the county seat. As such it boasted a wide variety of businesses from the aforementioned hotels, to retail merchants, to service providers like barbers, milliners, and others.

Postmaster Lorenzo Rank built this false-front Italianate commercial building to house the Oswego Post Office in 1874. He lived in the building’s second floor apartment. In 1912, the post office moved south to the brick Burkhart Block. Rank willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it was used for a variety of purposes, including the site of the private lending library operated by the village’s Nineteenth Century Women’s Club. When the tax-supported library was built in 1964, the building was sold. It has housed a number of businesses over the years, including hosting for many years the offices of the Oswego weekly Ledger-Sentinel. The building is still used for business purposes. (Little White School Museum collection)

When I looked at the way the district is drawn, it occurred to me that it includes the sites of five of Oswego’s earliest post offices. While the building that housed it is long gone, the village’s first post office opened by Arnold in conjunction with his store (the first in the village) in 1837 was located at what is now 68 Main Street. It moved across the street and north to the limestone Parke Building at Main and Jackson in the 1840s and then back across the street and south to Lorenzo Rank’s new building in 1874. When the brick Burkhart Block was finished at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1912, the post office moved there before moving for the last time back north at the northwest corner of Main and Washington into the Schickler Building. Its last move was out of downtown altogether to the northeast corner of Madison and Jackson in March 1969.

After all the storefronts on the east side of Main were destroyed by fire in February 1867, a consortium of businessmen built the brick and limestone Union Block. Druggist Levi Hall was the first to move into the new block, locating in the storefront at the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

As noted, the designated historic district includes a lot of Oswego’s business and economic history. The brick Union Block on the east side of Main at Washington opened late in 1867 following the devastating February 1867 fire that destroyed everything on that side of Main from Washington to Jackson except the limestone horse barn of the stately National Hotel. The first occupant of the new block was Levi Hall, who opened his new drug store on the site of Arnold’s first store in December 1867 with a special sale of Christmas toys and decorations, a tradition that would continue through several subsequent owners for the next century.

By 1885, the brick and limestone Union Block on east side of Oswego’s Main Street was joined by Lorenzo Rank’s post office building, W.J. Collins’ Star Roller Skating Rink (with flagpole), and at the far left of the photo, the Shoger Brothers livery stable at Main and Jackson, one day to become the home of Zentmyer Ford Sales. (Little White School Museum collection

Other buildings came and went downtown including the Star Roller Skating Rink that occupied the site of the old National Hotel on the east side of Main Street for several years.

The west side of the street didn’t experience the same urban renewal caused by a raging fire. Instead, the old frame buildings were gradually replaced by newer brick buildings, first the Oswego Saloon in 1897, the Knapp Building—site of today’s Masonic Hall and Oswego Family Restaurant—adjoining it to the south in 1898. Then in 1899, John Schickler built his block of brick stores next to the Knapp Building, filling the space from there all the way south to Washington Street.

Meanwhile north of all that brick construction, Henry Helle was maintaining his shoemaking establishment at the southwest corner of Main and Jackson.

Earl Zentmyer bought the Parke Building on Main at Jackson from Gus Shoger and opened a combination service station and Ford dealership in 1922. This snapshot was taken in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

Across Jackson Street to the south, O.A. Parke’s limestone former post office and general store had subsequently become home to a variety of stores and other businesses, including a bowling alley, jewelry store, farm implement business, tin smithing business, and blacksmith shop. In 1922, a young fellow from Aurora named Earl Zentmyer bought it from its owner, Gus Shoger, and turned it into a combination gas station and Ford dealership. Zentmyer eventually bought the old Shoger Brothers Livery Stable across Main Street from the stone building and operated it as a service station and Ford dealership until it burned in 1965.

The Burkhart Block at Main and Washington was built by Oliver and Clinton Burkhart to house the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront, the Burkhart & Shoger auto dealership to the left, and the Oswego Post Office and the switchboard for the Chicago Telephone Company in the two storefronts to the right of the bank. This photo was taken about 1913 by Dwight Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

Also included in the historic district is the brick Burkhart Block, completed at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1911 to mainly as the home for the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront. But also originally housed in the structure were the Burkhart and Shoger Studebaker dealership, the new Oswego Post Office, and the local switchboard of the Chicago (later Illinois Bell) Telephone Company.

Oswego’s streets were unpaved when this photo of an early auto northbound on Main Street through the heart of the business district about 1905. During that era, the hitching posts lining the street were not decorative; they were meant to be used. More than 100 years later, the downtown streetscape still looks familiar. (Little White School Museum collection)

Over the years the very transportation routes that allowed Oswego’s downtown to grow in the first place conspired to curb that growth. In 1870, the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road linked the coalfields lying between Ottawa and Streator with Geneva, running through Oswego and giving it a direct link with nearby Aurora. Regular passenger service meant the shopping opportunities of that much larger town were just a short train ride away, putting a brake on downtown Oswego’s expansion much beyond its three block base. Then in 1900, downtown Oswego was directly linked to downtown Aurora when the interurban trolley tracks of the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway were completed. For the next 22 years, shopping in downtown Aurora was a short, cheap trolley ride away, serving to keep the selection and size of downtown businesses small.

The final blow to any major expansion of the downtown was dealt by the advent of practical, economical automobiles, trucks, and buses coupled with the post-World War I state-financed drive to build all-weather hard roads. Initial concrete highways roughly followed some of those old 1830s routes through Oswego, again making it a transportation crossroads. In all, three state highways started in Oswego and one U.S. highway passed through following those old trails. And that made it even more convenient for residents to do much of their shopping elsewhere.

Oswego’s modern downtown, recently recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has not only managed to preserve a number of historic structures, but is still home to a mix of successful small retail and service businesses. (Little White School Museum collection)

Even so, Oswego’s downtown and near-downtown maintained a mix of retail and service businesses that catered just fine to the surrounding agricultural area, from general merchandise and grocery stores to doctors and dentists to grain and livestock marketing firms.

The heart of any town is its downtown business district. Oswego’s village government and business community have been both lucky and skillful at keeping the downtown healthy, willing to spend both tax dollars and funds generated by the business community on public improvements over the years that have kept it an inviting place to visit, shop, and run a business.

And to top it all off, Oswego’s downtown is also one of the village’s—and Kendall County’s—most historic areas, anchoring the greater Oswego community since 1835.

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Chief Shabbona’s ghost still searching for justice 170 years after his land was stolen

For those of us interested in local history, it’s always fascinating when a bit of it pops up out of the time stream to intrude on modern life.

That’s what’s going on now as our friends west of the Fox Valley in DeKalb County find they’re having to deal with a bit of mid 19th Century chicanery that led to the illegal theft of land from one of the region’s most revered Native American leaders.

Ask someone to name a local Indian chief, and you’re likely to hear the names of either Waubonsee or Shabbona. Both men were influential leaders of their tribal groups and historically important, but it was Shabbona who was dubbed “Friend of the White Man” by the American settlers that flooded into northern Illinois after 1832. It wasn’t, however, necessarily a compliment from the viewpoint of Native Americans.

Ambrotype was made of “Chief Shaubonee” on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field. Little White School Museum collection.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington. The son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother, he grew to be just under 6 feet in height, and was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely with its pronunciation. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name variously spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena. There were undoubtedly many more.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac conceived of and then conducted 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River. The effort failed due to the disinterest of the French in getting reinvolved in a war with the British and the effective military response of British military officers.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, taking advantage of the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from their current homes in Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois where they settled along the Kankakee, Illinois, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

Waubonsee was the principal war chief of the Potawatomi tribal bands in northern Illinois. Little White School Museum collection.

The three tribal groups mixed and intermarried freely. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potowatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an ethnic Ottawa, was elevated to chief of that Potawatomi band upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires remained mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British, and it’s likely individual members of the confederacy may have participated on the British side.

After the Revolution, and despite the British crown ceding the region to the new United States, British military and trading forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military and political leader Blue Jacket.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won that battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict, suggesting he had more than a passing interest in the outcome.

Despite that setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American defiance of U.S. government and economic control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the area northwest of the Ohio River—the Northwest Territory. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, when he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s political vision, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin lending his local prestige to recruit more members of the Wabash Confederacy.

The Native American nationalist leader Tecumseh was killed in action during the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812. Granger Collection, New York.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with local chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans. At the Battle of Tippecanoe, like Wayne before him, Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

But just a year later, war again broke out again, this time between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its major theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs allied with the British and participated in the battle and subsequent Fort Dearborn massacre at Chicago. After the battle, Shabbona and Waubonsee both used their influence to save lives of several captured Americans.

Then they led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois to think things over. After much deliberation, he concluded further military opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1827, when the Winnebagoes decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities.

Shabbona’s reserve granted in the Treaty of 1829 was located in Section 23 and the west half of Section 26 and the east half of Section 25 of Somonauk Township, DeKalb County, Illinois. In this original U.S. Township Survey Plat, Shabbona Grove is outlined in green.

At least partly in return for his efforts to stop a shooting war, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove, and where the chief maintained his village. When the land was finally surveyed, it was legally described as Section 23 plus the east half of Section 26 and the west half of Section 25 of modern DeKalb County’s Shabbona Township.

Then Black Hawk’s band of Sauk and Foxes crossed the Mississippi River back into Illinois in the spring of 1832. This time, thanks largely to Illinois Gov. John Ford’s incompetent military and political leadership, an actual shooting war broke out, with both state militia and U.S. Army troops marching against Black Hawk’s group of roughly 1,200 men, women, and children.

Just as in 1827, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands officially out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful trying to keep individuals out of the war. Realizing the dangers angry individual members of the Three Fires posed when fighting broke out along Old Man’s Creek, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to either Ottawa or Chicago.

One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potawatomis in revenge for Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that in accord with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, all Native People were to be removed from Illinois, and in 1836, most were moved west of the Mississippi under threat of military force.

Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, although he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted for the benefit of himself and the Three Fires band he led. He returned to Illinois in 1837 and lived on his land at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been illegally sold at public auction. And the money from the sale, instead of being held in trust for him, apparently reverted to the government.

This 1871 plat book view of Shabbona Grove shows no evidence the chief used to own most of the grove. But it does show the numerous woodlots the grove has been subdivided into by settlers needing timber for firewood and building materials.

It’s never been adequately explained just how the theft of Shabbona’s land happened, either. After all, other reserves granted by various treaties—including two here in Kendall County—were owned until legally sold by their Native American owners, who were fairly paid for them. It’s also interesting, that official maps of Kendall County still sometimes show the outlines of those reserves, unlike Shabbona’s reserve in DeKalb, which was almost immediately erased from the region’s maps—almost like DeKalb’s leaders wanted to erase all evidence of the old chief’s ownership.

That the two sections of timber were extremely valuable to DeKalb County’s earliest settlers goes without saying. The county was almost entirely prairie with only a few groves, the largest of which was Shabbona’s grove. After its sale, early maps show that its new owners lost no time in subdividing the grove into dozens of valuable woodlots the settlers needed for building materials and firewood.

A few years later, a group of area citizens who remembered the contributions the old chief had made to the region bought him a small 20-acre farm near Seneca, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In an interesting historical sidelight, in 1858 he attended the first Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottawa where he reportedly greeted his old Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln, and where he was seated on the dais with the rest of the dignitaries.

Chief Shabbona’s granite marker purchased and emplaced by his former neighbors long after his death and the later plaque installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1983.

Shabbona died on his farm July 17, 1859, and was buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery. For many years, his grave was unmarked, but then his old neighbors took up a collection to place a huge boulder on his grave with the simple inscription: SHABBONA 1775-1859. Finally, in September 1983, a bronze plaque, donated by the Illinois State Organization of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, was placed in front of the boulder with the inscription, “CHIEF SHABBONA – Born in 1775, this gentle man of peace, friend of white settlers, died July 17, 1859, near Morris, Grundy Co., Illinois.”

In 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior, after years of study, finally decided that, yes, the old chief’s land was stolen from him all those years ago. They have been in talks with the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi, the logical heirs of Shabbona, as well as the current owners of the land stolen from the chief as well as the local governments involved ever since, to see how that wrong done so many years ago might be at least partially righted.

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Hard-won environmental gains owe a big debt to a local environmentalist

When I was a youngster, the old-timers used to regale us with stories about how clear and pure the Fox River was when they were young. Like many really good stories of days gone by, they weren’t true.

The Native People who arrived along the banks of the Fox River some 10,000 years ago were the first to modify the stream. The weirs and other structures they used to harvest the river’s fish gradually attracted river debris, filled in, and created or enlarged islands and otherwise changing the valley’s topography.

But it was the white settlers who emigrated to the Fox Valley beginning in the late 1820s who really modified the river in major ways. And quickly, too. Those pioneer farms began the erosion of the Fox Valley’s topsoil, and wetland drainage to create more cropland had a major impact on the river’s water levels.

The biggest changes to the river, however, were the numerous dams that began dotting the stream from its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa north all the way above the Wisconsin state line. The Fox Valley’s millwrights built low dams to power sawmills and gristmills to serve the valley’s growing population. The dams, built without floodgates that would have maintained an undercurrent to scour the river bottom, created still ponds that allowed the silt eroded from all those farms that rain washed into the stream to gradually settle out.

The machinery at the Parker Gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River just above Oswego was powered by one of the river’s many dams. This photo was probably taken around the turn of the 20th Century by local photographer Irvin Haines. (Little White School Museum collection)

The dams also barred fish from ascending the river to spawn, as well as ruining some prime spawning areas by covering them with silt. The dams, in effect, created short stretches of river habitat that had a serious impact on the river’s original vertebrate and invertebrate populations.

From the mid-19th Century on, the Fox River had become an economic engine for the entire valley. First, the mills provided economic boosts for their surrounding communities. Then, after the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Railroad was built linking Ottawa at the river’s mouth with towns as far north as Geneva, the river’s water itself, in the form of ice, could be marketed. Large ice harvesting operations were begun above every dam on the river. The ice warehoused during the annual winter harvests was shipped out for use in homes to keep food fresh in ice boxes and commercially to cool the beef and pork being shipped east from Chicago’s slaughterhouses in newly invented railroad refrigerator cars.

Clamshells recovered near the old Rehbehn Brothers Button Factory in Yorkville with button blanks drilled out. (Little White School Museum collection)

Fish were commercially harvested from the river, as were the freshwater mussels and clams that covered the riverbed. Harvested clam shells were sold to button factories—one was located in Yorkville for a few years—where special drills punched out mother-of-pearl button blanks in various sizes that were turned into finished buttons by further processing. In amongst the millions of clams harvested an occasional pearl of great price was discovered.

Then as the years passed and industrialization in the Fox Valley increased, the river came under new, additional stresses. City storm sewer systems directed stormwater directly into the river, along with significant debris (including manure from the era’s thousands of urban horses), leading to drastic swings in the river’s water quality and levels. Municipal sewer systems, which were admirable from a public health standpoint, piped sewage directly into the river. The industries up and down the river did the same, sending their waste downstream—out of sight out of mind, the policy seemed to be.

Some of that industrial waste was even more harmful to humans as well as the fish and other animals who lived in the river than the growing volume of human and animal waste flowing into the stream.

By the 1880s, some people began realizing that some of the river’s uses were, to say the least, incompatible with its ecological health—all those dams, for instance. The low dams in the river that allowed silt build-up behind them were also blockades to spawning fish. Remedies were possible, of course, at least to the migration of fish. Those were called fishways, structures added to dams that would (at least theoretically) allow fish to bypass the dams during annual spawning runs.

Irvin Haines sits atop what might be the wreckage of the fishway in the Parker Dam just above Oswego around 1903. Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice storage houses loom in the background. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dam owners, of course, didn’t want to spend the money on fishways. That led the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation requiring them.

In November 1882, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville: “Notice has been served on the owners of all dams on Fox river asking them to put in fishways, and the owners refuse. The State Fish Commissioners will begin suits in the courts, which the mill men will contest to test the constitutionality of the law. The dam-owners have formed a league and employed Hopkins & Aldrich as their attorneys.”

In January 1883, the Aurora Beacon noted: “We have neglected to mention that in the suit commenced by the Fish Commissioners against Messrs. Hord, Broadhead & Co., owners of the Montgomery Dam, the case was regularly placed before justice Baldwin, when the defendants allowed a judgment to be taken. From this they appealed to the Circuit Court–and from thence they say they will pursue it through the higher courts. A prominent point they propose to make is the indefiniteness of the law, which makes no provision as to what shall constitute a fishway, or how it shall be constructed.”

The dam owners did indeed continue to protest, fighting the law in the courts, but consistently lost and fishways were gradually installed in all the dams, though in practice they proved of little value.

But even if fishways were provided, the polluted character of the river militated against the Fox’s wildlife. On Sept. 18, 1890 the Record noted: “The fish of Fox and other small rivers must soon be exterminated if factories and cities continue to use the streams for sewers. The glucose factories up the river are poisoning the fish by wholesale, and the fish in Vermillion river at Streator are killed by the water pumped from coal mines and refuse from paper mills.”

Conditions only worsened with the dawn of the 20th Century. The Feb. 9, 1916 Record reported: “The [Illinois Rivers and Lakes] commission has surveyed the Fox river and discovered it to be ‘a dirty, evil smelling waterway’ from which the fish have been killed off. The reason is that its flow is not sufficient in the summer months to purify the sewage dumped in it.”

Jim Phillips speaks during a program presented during Jolliet-Marquette II Expedition 1973. The group reenacted Father Jacques Marquette and geographer Louis Jolliet’s 1673 expedition from the Straits of Mackinac to the Arkansas River and back. (Little White School Museum collection)

More laws were passed, but enforcement was either lax or nonexistent. And so that day in the late 1960s when Kendall County resident Jim Phillips was taking a walk and found dead baby ducks in a small stream near his house made him decide to do something to try to change the status quo. He assumed the alter ego of “The Fox” and using a combination of audacity and humor he began plaguing polluters in a series of guerilla raids designed to shine the harsh light of publicity and ridicule on them.

His efforts, small at first, snowballed. Pollution became big news. His efforts were helped by what he termed his “Kindred Spirits,” and copycats around the nation began to wage their own campaigns against air and water pollution.

Sympathetic officials at the national, state, and local levels listened and, amazingly, acted. It was an era when “conservative” and “conservation” were not enemies, and both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. acted in a bipartisan ecological campaign to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as similar agencies at the state and local levels all designed to not just stop pollution, but to reverse it and save the nation’s air and water.

The result? Today, the Fox, that “dirty, evil smelling waterway” of a century ago, is now a destination for anglers, canoeists, kayakers, bird watchers, and folks who just like enjoying nature. Gamefish and freshwater mussels and clams are again plentiful and the Fox is once again an economic engine for the towns dotting its banks.

Private citizens funded this permanent memorial to Jim “The Fox” Phillips overlooking the Fox River at Violet Patch Park, Ill. Route 25, Oswego. Informational signs explain how the environmental crusader helped save the Fox River. The graphic on the rock is how Phillips signed his anti-pollution exploits. (Little White School Museum collection)

In a time when national environmental policy is cause for great concern, it’s worth thinking about how far we’ve come and why it’s so important we continue to insist on clean air and water.

And as part of that process, you might want to stop by the Little White School Museum at 72 Polk Street here in Oswego and visit their latest special exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” which will be open now through August. The exhibit was mounted by undergraduate students in the Exhibit Design class of Aurora University’s Museum Studies Program. Museum hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Mondays, 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but like all local history museums, they welcome donations. For more information on the exhibit, call the museum at 630-554-2999, or visit their website, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

For more information on Jim Phillips, check out the new book by Pauline Marie Gambill, The Fox Feats and Shark Tales of Pollution Fighter James F. Phillips and Animal Rights Warrior Steven O. Hindi, just published last year and available at bookstores and on Amazon.com.

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Spring and the start of the fur trade’s seasonal cycle likely didn’t include our Fox River

It would have been a grand sight, seeing voyageurs paddling their canoes down the Fox River here in what’s now northern Illinois as the winter fur-trapping season ended. The water sparkling as it dripped off their red-tipped paddles, the voyageur crews’ colorful costumes contrasting with the flowing water, and the French paddling songs drifting on the breeze would have been spectacular, wouldn’t it?

If it had actually happened, yes, it would have been pretty spectacular.

But the truth is, the Fox River has always been a shallow, although wide, stream whose water levels varied widely, making navigation iffy at best during most of the year and downright impossible the rest of the time.

Every spring for well over a century, brigades of huge 35 to 40-foot freight canoes—called canots du maître (master canoes) or Montreal canoes—set off from Montreal and Quebec, each canoe laden with some three tons of goods destined for fur trading posts all over the Great Lakes region—and beyond. The route started just above the Lachine Rapids at Montreal on the Ottawa River. Paddling upstream via a number of often dangerous and usually difficult portages on the Ottawa, the arduous route then ran up the small Mattawa River, where paddling upstream ended at its source on Trout Lake and crossed the height of land where streams began flowing into Lake Huron. From there it was down into Lake Nipissing and then into the French River for 70 miles of easy paddling downstream into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron for the sometimes stormy paddle to the fur trade depot of Michilimackinac at the straits between lakes Huron and Michigan.

Reenactors portray voyageurs paddling a 35-foot Montreal birch bark canoe as it would have appeared during the period the British dominated the fur trade following the French and Indian War beginning in the 1760s.

There, the goods were broken down into smaller cargoes for smaller 20 to 25-foot north canoes that were handier on the inland trade routes to the actual post of traders, such as the one at Chicago and posts on the Illinois River. The main route to get to the Illinois Country was via the Chicago portage—which, depending on how full or empty the Des Plaines River was could be up to 60 miles long—or the St. Joseph River east of Chicago.

To get to the Chicago portage, the brigades had to paddle right past the mouth of the Root River just south of today’s Milwaukee in modern Wisconsin, a short portage from which led to the headwaters of our Fox River—which is not to be confused with the Fox River that empties into Green Bay. So the Root-Fox route would have cut off some distance to reach the Illinois River, but the Fox usually wasn’t deep enough. Not that fur traders never used it, of course, but it seems as a regular route on the fur trade highway, it was a very, very minor player indeed.

In fact, the only account we have of a French party considering using the Fox as a  shortcut from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River post at Le Rocher—Starved Rock—ended with the French missionaries and the boatmen transporting them to their destination in central Illinois deciding to go on to Chicago instead of chancing finding deep enough water in the Fox.

Map probably drawn by Rene Paul of St. Louis in 1815 and subsequently copied by Lt. James Kearney, U.S. Army. Paul was St. Louis City Engineer and also worked as a surveyor. (Source: Plate XL, Indian Villages of the Illinois Country, Vol. 2, Part 1, Atlas, Sarah Jones Tucker, Illinois State Museum, 1942)

The route they investigated went up the Root River and then over a nine-mile portage to Muskego Lake in what is today southeastern Waukesha County, Wis., which empties into the upper reaches of our Fox River.

Traveling in 1699, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Seminary priest on his way to the Mississippi River, reported that “some savages had led us to hope we could ascend [the Root River in Wisconsin from Lake Michigan] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [our Fox River] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either.”

Although apparently not a regular route for French and Indian fur traders, the Root–Muskego Lake–Fox route was apparently used by at least some hardy and adventuresome travelers because the portage is clearly marked on a variety of maps of northern Illinois drawn around the time of the War of 1812.

The frequent lack of sufficient water in the Fox was not the only problem, of course. Maps from the late 1700s until the 1820s suggest that the Fox Valley was fairly lightly populated by Native People. There were only a few permanent villages along the river during that era, including at what is today called Maramech Hill near Plano and in the Oswego area near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Those were considered “permanent” villages, but they undoubtedly moved frequently as the farmland around them played out. It’s also likely villages were established at one time or another at or near the mouth of Blackberry Creek and all the other creeks that empty into the Fox. The farming was generally pretty good in those spots with rich bottomland soils, as was the fishing, which meant good living conditions.

During the winter months, those permanent villages broke up into small family groups, which, in turn, moved to their favored winter hunting grounds so as to spread out the hunting pressure during the lean times of the cold and snowy months.

The Fox River is picked out in green on this map of Native American villages in the Fox and Illinois River valleys as of about 1830. (Source: Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, Helen Hornbeck Tanner, University of Oklahoma Press, 1987)

Along with hunting, the Native People did their trapping at those winter camps. For instance, Chief Waubonsee, whose permanent village was located along the Fox from Oswego north to Batavia depending on the year, reportedly spent his winters with his family along the Illinois River. A lot of other Potowatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa family groups from northern Illinois spent their winters there, too, and that made it profitable for fur traders to open depots along the river. In particular, the American Fur Company, which took over the trade in the Old Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War had a series of fur trade posts along the river that were regularly serviced from the company’s western headquarters at Fort Mackinac.

Press for compressing cured hides into 90 pound pièces for the fur trade. Note the wrapped bundles of hides atop the press and to the right of the press mechanism. I took this photo many years ago at the Snake River Fur Post, a reconstruction operated by the Minnesota Historical Society at Pine City, MN.

The fur trade ran on a time-honored schedule that was established by French and, later, British traders starting in the early 18th Century. In the late spring, canoe brigades arrived from Montreal and Quebec to drop off trade goods for the coming season and to pick up the furs that had been accumulating at the posts during the previous winter. As the prime peltries were brought in during the winter and early spring months, they were stretched, dried, and packed into 90 lb. bundles, called pièces, in preparation for shipment. When the brigades arrived, they off-loaded trade goods for the coming season–which had been carefully packed in the same dimension 90 lb. pièces as the furs would be–and reloaded the big freight canoes with the bundles of pelts, which were then transported back to the trading headquarters on the Ottawa River.

By the 1820s, the fur trade brigades had given up using the traditional birch bark freight canoes and were using Mackinaw boats, sturdy double-ended craft that could be either rowed or sailed and could carry about the same amount of cargo without the maintenance problems and fragility inherent in bark canoes. By the 1830s, when settlement began in earnest here in the Fox Valley, the fur trade had almost entirely ended in northern Illinois. The furbearers had been trapped out, the Native People upon whom the companies relied on as major fur pelt suppliers were being forced west of the Mississippi by government removal policies, and northern Illinois was rapidly being turned into farmland by ever-increasing numbers of American settlers.

Even though the Fox River may not been much of a voyageur highway, it was a key part of the Old Northwest’s rich history and heritage during the fur trade era.

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