European colonists’ ultimate weapon: consumerism

The trade in pelts and furs between Europeans and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal parts of American history. In the end, the trade destroyed the culture of every American Indian group it touched as it pushed the “frontier” ever farther west in the search for the pelts of fur-bearing animals.

The first northern European explorers and settlers in the New World were disappointed. Unlike the gold and silver riches found in the Spanish colonies well to the south, northern North America produced little mineral wealth. But early on, the French, Dutch, and British colonials discovered that this New World abounded in rich fur bearing animals ranging from martens to mink to the beaver.

17th Century hats

Elaborate European hat fashions for both men and women from the 16th through the early 19th Century required new sources of animal fur–especially beaver pelts–to manufacture the felt need to make the hats.

The trade in furs quickly became an economic mainstay of the earliest colonies in Canada and what would one day become the United States. Furs were sought to make warm clothing and to adorn Europe’s wealthy. And beaver pelts were particularly desired because of that fur’s unique properties that resulted, when beaver fur was the basis, in the world’s finest, strongest felt. In turn, felt was important because it was necessary to make the hats demanded by 17th Century custom and fashion.

It almost seems absurd that colonization, commercial contests, and wars would be conducted over the desire for fashionable hats, but there it is.

One of the most intriguing colonial industries, the fur trade grew up around the collection of valuable furs. The French colony in Canada became the main supplier of prime furs to European manufacturers, where the local populations of fur-bearing animals had long been wiped out. Beaver and other pelts were collected during the winter months when the fur was at its thickest—called prime winter pelts in the trade—and then taken to market in the spring for shipment back to Europe.

From the 16th through the early years of the 19th Century, the fur trade was centered in Montreal and Quebec. Brigades (from the original usage of the word meaning groups or companies) of fur trade canoes left Montreal every spring to travel to posts in the interior of North America. The original route took them up the Ottawa River, over the height of land via the Grand Portage into Lake Nipissing and then down into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the northern shore of the lake through North Channel to the impressive rapids at Sault Ste. Marie and then into Lake Superior.

It took a few years until the French realized there were other Great Lakes to the south of Georgian Bay and Superior because of a strategic error made by Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s, when he allied himself with an Algonquian tribe that was fighting off an incursion by the well organized, ruthlessly efficient Iroquois. As a result of this French error, the Iroquois proceeded to eliminate any Frenchmen they found in or near Lakes Ontario, lower Huron, Erie, and Michigan for the next several decades. By the 1630s, the French had mapped Lake Superior but not the lower lakes.

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Frances Hopkins painted this portrait of a brigade of Montreal canoes navigating through the fog on Lake Superior.

Eventually, however, the Iroquois relented thanks to French diplomacy, and the French began to extend their trade routes into the lower lakes. Combined forts and fur trade depots were built at Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. Each spring the canoe brigades would take trade goods to the western posts and pick up furs trapped during the winter season for transport back east. The big Montreal birch bark canoes used in the trade, 35 feet long, hauled four to six tons of cargo each. Trade goods and furs were packed into standardized bundles weighing 90 lbs. each, called “pieces,” for easier packing in the canoes and transport across the numerous portages between the western posts and Montreal.

trade silver

A selection of trade items from the late fur trade era includes a trade silver broche (top left), and cast German silver beaver, turtle, and kissing otters (bottom row).

At the forts, the trade goods were either traded directly with Indian trappers or were trans-shipped to the interior in smaller canoes. As a result, European trade goods eventually reached virtually every comer of North America. Here in Kendall County, several silver ornaments made especially for the fur trade–called trade silver—were found in the late years of the last century. In fact, trade silver became a sort of fur trade currency beginning about 1765 after the British had at last driven the French government from Canada, and continuing through the early 1800s. Also reported being found locally were brass pots, flintlock firearms, and iron trade axes—often called tomahawks. One excellent example of an iron trade ax is on display in the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

While trade silver was sought after by Indian trappers, the prime winter beaver pelt was the actual currency of the fur trade. As an indication of a single pelt’s value, in I703, one prime pelt could buy six small knives, two small axes, 10 lbs. of salt pork, a pint of lead shot, or two pints of gunpowder. In 1733, one pelt would earn a half pound of white glass beads, three-quarters of a pound of colored glass beads, one brass kettle, a pound of lead, one and a half pounds of gunpowder, or two pounds of sugar.

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A traditional red four-point Hudson’s Bay Company blanket was worth four prime winter beaver pelts.

Special blankets were manufactured especially for the fur trade that featured short black stripes–or points~-woven into one edge. Each point stood for one prime beaver pelt. So a four-point blanket could be bought with four prime beaver pelts; a two point was worth two prime pelts. Replica fur trade blankets are still sold in Hudson Bay Company stores in Canada and here in the U.S. by such outlets as L.L. Bean, and they still have points woven into one edge, a direct tip of the historical beaver felt hat to the blankets’ original design and purpose.

Eventually, the fur trade companies such as the Hudson Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company became, in essence, the Indian tribes‘ employers who traded necessities for the tribes’ annual fur pelt production. In tum, Native Americans depended on the companies for food, clothing, and other necessities. By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, the fur trade had largely moved west of the Mississippi since most fur bearing animals in the Fox Valley had been eradicated. Local American Indian bands had, by that time, lost much of their unique culture and were reduced to relying on fur company and government gifts.

In the 1830s, as the fur trade moved west of the Mississippi, the lore of the mountain man was born as the U.S. began its assault on the far West. While it took nearly 200 years to eradicate fur bearing animals east of the Mississippi, the process went much faster on the shortgrass prairies and the mountain West. By the late 1850s, the fur trade era was finished virtually everywhere, with the exception of a brief resurgence during the buffalo slaughter of the 1870s.

And so here we once again find ourselves watching the seasons turn from winter to spring, the time of year when the big brigades of Montreal canoes were being readied to load up and head west along the St. Lawrence River and the last of the winter’s pelt harvest was being pressed into the 80-pound “pieces” that would be sent back east.

While land grabs and other such actions on the part of Europeans are popular reasons why Native Americans were overcome so thoroughly, the real answer seems to be that Indians were bought off by cloth blankets, iron cookware, glass beads, iron axes and flintlock muskets. In the end, consumerism did them in.

 

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Lock, stock, and barrel: Matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks oh my!

Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.

The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.

Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”

With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.

The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.

Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.

Matchlock

Matchlock muskets were undependable, but were widely used in the 1500s.

The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.

Wheellock

Wheellock firearms were complicated and expensive. The wheellock was wound up like a clock. Pulling the trigger made the wheel spin, creating sparks like a cigarette lighter.

Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.

The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.

“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.

Brown Bess

The sturdy, dependable Brown Bess flintlock musket armed British armies until the early 19th Century. Many Americans also used the Brown Bess during the Revolutionary War. Unlike rifles of the era, musket barrels could accept bayonets.

At least that was the plan.

With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.

Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.

Pennsylvania rifle

A classic Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle with powder horn and bullet bag. Long rifles were extremely accurate, but were slower to load and fire. In the hands of such skilled marksmen as Morgan’s Riflemen, the weapon gained an out-sized reputation during the Revolutionary War.

Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements  justified.

The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.

Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.

Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.

In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.

Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.

 

 

 

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Filed under Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Clarissa Stewart Hobson: A savvy, resolute pioneer wife and mother

March is Women’s History Month, and every year about this time I can’t help but think about the contributions women made to the settlement of Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.

From Christiana Holmes Tillson, who drove in a carriage from Massachusetts to Illinois with her husband in the 1820s to Juliette Kinzie who traveled on horseback with her husband from Prairie du Chein to Chicago in 1830 to the women who came to the Fox River Valley that was then the western frontier later that same decade, it’s hard to deny these were a special, hardy group females.

Hobson, Clarissa

Clarissa Stewart Hobson about 1870

Of that group the one that always seems to stick in my mind is Clarissa Stewart Hobson, who followed her husband west and found herself in circumstances that were not only isolated and extremely lonely, but which could also be profoundly dangerous.

Clarissa Hobson’s husband, Bailey, had located the family in southern Ohio near the banks of the Ohio River. Hobson soon despaired of ever clearing the heavy forest on the land he’d claimed, and so decided to prospect farther west into Illinois, where he heard there was good prairie land that didn’t need to be cleared of trees.

In May 1830, Hobson left his family and his claim in Ohio for a prospecting trip west. As Richmond and Valette put it in their 1857 history of DuPage County, “Without arms amounting to more than a jack-knife, for defense, he mounted his horse, and destitute of chart or compass, groped his way, as best he could, through the dense forests and deep ravines, and forded the bridgeless waters that lay in his course.”

He roamed as far as the Fox River of Illinois, choosing a spot in what was then called Hollenback’s Grove, now the location of Newark in southwestern Kendall County.

Hobson didn’t get back from his prospecting trip until the first of July, when he began making arrangements to sell his Ohio claim, load up the family’s possessions in a wagon, and head west. The Hobsons, their five children, and Hobson’s friend and brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, weren’t ready to leave for their new home until Sept. 1, 1830.

Hobson seems to have been a determined person, but one without much common sense. Traveling so late in the season necessarily meant no crop could be planted upon arrival in time for it to be harvested and that virtually every bit of food the family would need would have to be purchased. Further, it also meant that only the rudest sort of cabin could be erected in the short period of time until winter struck the Illinois prairies. But he didn’t let those concerns bother him.

The family spent 21 days on the road before arriving at Hollenback’s Grove, where Hobson immediately set out to build a cabin to house the family and to sow a few acres of winter wheat on the adjacent prairie. The Hobsons finally moved into their cabin in October, but the lack of supplies was already becoming a problem. So Hobson mounted his horse and, leaving the family to fend for itself, rode east looking for some food to buy. He finally found someone with some preserved pork to sell out on the Oxbow Prairie near modern Magnolia, Illinois, about 60 miles southwest of Hollenback’s Grove.

Hobson, Bailey

Bailey Hobson, about 1845

Hobson returned home, but instead of immediately hitching up his yoke of oxen and going to get the pork to stave off the family’s looming lack of food, he decided to go prospecting for better land. Leaving his family at home again with Stewart, he rode across the prairie to the DuPage River, where on the east side of the stream he found the land he thought would be a better claim.

By that time, the weather was getting pretty cold. In fact, the winter of 1830-31 would become fabled in frontier tales as “The Winter of the Early Snow.”

After being gone five days, Hobson got back home, and again deciding against going and getting the pork he’d already purchased, he and Stewart instead set off for the new claim.

By then it was December and brutal winter weather was starting to set in. Reaching the DuPage, the oxen refused to cross the stream, which was covered with ice ice, so Hobson had to break it up by walking in front of the wagon leading the team. Almost as soon as they arrived, the first major snow of that long winter hit, driving the two men from their tent camp to find shelter with a nearby settler where they waited out the storm. Then they headed back across the prairie to rejoin the Hobson family.

At this late date we can only speculate what Clarissa Hobson was thinking as her footloose husband continually wandered around the countryside instead of going and getting food for his family, which was in increasingly dire straits as Hobson and Stewart finally straggled home across the snowy prairie tired, wet, cold, and hungry.

The initial snowstorm changed to rain, then again to snow, and more rain, and then the temperature plunged, freezing the prairie solid. When the storm passed, Hobson finally decided it was time to go to the Oxbow Prairie to get the pork, leaving Stewart to look after the family. He planned to be back in ten days, but in the end, it took more than 20 days for him to return, and that without the promised pork, which had to be left behind due to continual snowstorms.

At that point, the family’s prospects were REALLY bleak. They had been subsisting solely on corn for two months, and were rapidly running out of that. The only thing Hobson could think to do was take Stewart and go back for the load of pork, reasoning that maybe the two of them could get the food through the increasingly deep snow somehow or another.

According to the account of that harrowing winter Clarissa’s family gave to Richmond and Vallette for their 1857 history of DuPage County, she reluctantly agreed, “Brushing the tears from her face, and summoning all the courage and resolution she could command, entreated him to go and leave her to do the best she could.”

Hobson and Stewart took one yoke of oxen to break a trail through the deepening snow, leaving Clarissa and the children to look after 13 head of cattle and three horses and themselves.

I’ll let Richmond and Vallette tell Clarissa’s story from that point on:

On the second day after the departure of Messrs. Hobson and Stewart, it commenced snowing and continued without interruption for two days and nights, covering the earth upon a level, three feet deep. On the third day, just at sunrise, the wind began to blow with fury from the west, and continued like a hurricane, without cessation, for three days, sweeping the snow from the ground and piling it in drifts twenty, thirty, and even forty feet high, while the atmosphere was so thick with the driving snow, as almost to turn daylight into darkness.

On the first morning of the wind storm, Mrs. Hobson, taking a pail, went to a spring a few yards from the house for some water, but before reaching the house she was compelled to throw the water upon the ground and make all possible haste back. The children opened the door for her, which, being in the west side of the house, it required all their strength to close again. It was not opened again until after the storm had subsided. The snow, which was constantly driving into the house, supplied them with water; but who shall describe the feelings of that mother, as alone with her little ones, the days dragged wearily along, while her mind was filled with the most fearful apprehensions. Husband or brother she should in all probability see no more. Her children might perish in her sight, while a like fate awaited herself. It was, indeed, a severe trial of endurance, and needed all the fortitude of her soul to sustain such agonizing reflections while the raging storm swept around her solitary dwelling.

After the wind had ceased, Mrs. Hobson went out to look after the cattle and horses, but could discover nothing of them, and concluded they had been covered in the snow-drifts and perished. The day passed without any of them making their appearance. The next morning they all came around from the east side of the grove, whither they had fled and remained during the storm.

The fuel which had been prepared and put in the house was now exhausted, while that which had been left outside was embedded in a deep snow drift. The only alternative was to dig this wood out of the snow with a pick-ax, and Mrs. Hobson accordingly set about it, working and resting alternately, as her strength would permit. Weak and faint from hunger, and with hands frozen and blistered, she worked on day after day, unable to get out more wood than would barely serve from one day to another. A cow, that was accustomed to being fed at the door came into the house one day and seemed to reel, as if about to fall. Mrs. Hobson pushed her outside of the door, when she immediately fell dead. Fearing that the wolves, which were very plenty and hungry, would come to the door to feed upon the carcass, she covered it deep in the snow.

On the fourteenth day after his departure, Hobson returned with some provisions, leaving Stewart at Holderman’s grove with a part of the oxen that were unable to finish the trip. On his arrival, he found the wood which they had prepared, all consumed, and Mrs. Hobson tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for fuel.

Hobson, Clarissa Stewart

Clarissa Hobson, about 1880

The Hobsons were an extremely lucky family in that they survived “The Winter of the Deep Snow” with their lives, because so many other prairie settlers did not.

When Spring finally arrived, Hobson left Kendall County for good, and moved his family to their new claim on the DuPage where he built the gristmill that became the basis for his later fortune. There, Clarissa bore seven more children.

Hobson died in 1850, but Clarissa lived on at the claim the family moved to in 1831 for three more decades until her death in 1884 (outliving six of her children), her life a testament to the hardihood, resilience, and bravery of the women who pioneered the Illinois prairies alongside their husbands.

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Filed under Environment, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Women's History

Observing Women’s History Month with the stories of three strong women

In the 19th Century, women were still legally considered the property of, first, their fathers and later their husbands. Denied the right to vote, they were likewise often denied the right to manage their own affairs.

Not that some pretty strong characters didn’t manage to succeed on their own, of course. During the pioneer era here in Kendall County a number of women patented land when it was first offered for sale by the government. Granted, some of those women were acting on behalf of their husbands, but some were trying to make their way on their own. Eliza Moore, for instance, entered 80 acres of land in 1839 in what eventually became Big Grove Township. By 1850, the U.S. Census reported her farmland and private property was worth $1,500, more than most of her neighbors.

But it took women of unusually strong drive and personality to fight their way out of the boxes in which society insisted they belonged. A close reading of history, though, suggests there were a number of strong female personalities, women who proved they could do the same jobs men traditionally held if they could only get the chance to do so.

Three of those strong female personalities were born here in Kendall County. Sadly, two of them were forced to carry on some of their most important activities in secret while the other apparently denied herself the lifetime fulfillment most women today take for granted: Emily Murdock was born into a poor but influential Oswego family in 1853; Mary Rippon was born on a farm near Lisbon Center in Lisbon Township in 1850; and Sarah Raymond was born in 1842, also in almost entirely rural Lisbon Township.

Of the three, two became respected educators, while the third became a mystery novelist, all during an era that if not actually frowning on, didn’t exactly encourage their career choices.

Van Deventer, Emily M

Emily Murdock Van Deventer became a mystery novelist, publishing at least 21 books under the pen name Lawrence L. Lynch. (Little White School Museum collection)

Emily Murdock’s father, Charles, was a justice of the peace and prominent Republican official in Oswego. Her brother, Alfred X. Murdock, was a lively young man who marched off to fight in the Civil War with his comrades in the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Unfortunately, Alfred was killed at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta.

For her part, Emily followed tradition, marrying Lawrence L. Lynch, a traveling salesman, when she came of age. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on April 19, 1877: “Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, a recently married couple and late of Cheyenne, Wyo., are now stopping at C.L. Murdock’s, the bride’s parents, she being the veritable Miss Emma Murdock.”

At least at first, her friends in Oswego had little idea that Emily  led a secret life as a successful mystery novelist. In a field then almost solely the purview of men, she apparently realized her chances for success were slim under her own name. Instead, Emily chose a man’s pen name. And for that name she picked “Lawrence L. Lynch,” the name of her first husband. In order to be successful at her chosen field, then, Emily had to pretend—in print at least—to be a man.

Local news accounts reported that Emily traveled throughout the U.S. with Lawrence Lynch until he disappeared from the scene in 1886. Exactly what happened to Lawrence is a local mystery; he simply drops out of news items. The earliest novel she wrote that I’ve been able to track down was Shadowed By Three, published in Chicago in 1882. Interestingly enough, the book was published while she was still married to Lynch. According to a note in the Feb. 28, 1884 Kendall County Record, two years after her first book was published: “The Murdock family—which now consists of three members—has been having a pretty hard time of it, the daughter, Mrs. Lynch, is just recovering from a spell of sickness; Mrs. Murdock is yet disabled from a fall on the ice several weeks ago; Mr. M. was down during the biggest part of last week but now is up and out again, and while thus at home, Mr. Lynch, an absent member of the family, was said to be snowbound out in Dakota.”

The last newspaper mention of Lawrence was in the Nov. 11, 1885 Record: “L.L. Lynch has come home from a long absence in Michigan, during which he has experienced a railroad accident, but got over the effects of it some time ago.” In March 1886, Emily is still going by the Lynch name, but in July 1887, when she remarries Dr. Abraham Van Deventer, a prominent local physician, she’s again using her maiden name, Emily Medora Murdock.

By 1905, her secret vocation as an author of mystery thrillers was well-known throughout her home town. In November of that year, a reporter for the Kendall County Record noted she had published 20 novels, with her 21st just sent off to the publisher. Her books were translated into French and German, and she also sold serials to popular magazines.

Emily died May 3, 1914 in Oswego. She is buried beside Dr. Van Deventer in Montgomery’s Riverside Cemetery.

1914 Raymond, Sarah E

Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam became the first female superintendent of a major public school system in the nation. (Little White School Museum collection)

Sarah Raymond, born in Lisbon Township in 1842, was educated in her local one-room school. She was unusual in that her parents decided to send her on to the Lisbon Academy—one of the county’s private high schools. After graduation, she taught in the county’s rural schools before enrolling at Illinois State Normal University—today’s Illinois State University at Normal. She graduated in 1866 and was hired to teach in the Bloomington public schools. Apparently an educator of considerable talent, Sarah gradually worked her way up to the post of principal of Sheridan School, and then moved on to become first assistant principal and then principal at Bloomington High School.

On Aug. 4, 1874, Raymond was appointed superintendent of the Bloomington School District, the first woman in the nation to hold such a position. She continued in that capacity until she decided to retire from education in 1892. In 1896, she married Capt. F.J. Fitzwilliam of Bloomington, although her joy was short-lived—the captain died in 1899. During her time with Bloomington’s schools and later during a few years spent in Boston, she rubbed elbows with such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Julia Ward Howe. Sara Raymond Fitzwilliam moved back to Illinois, and in 1907 she was named executrix of the will of James Trotter, and oversaw the design of a memorial fountain by famed Illinois sculptor Lorado Taft in Trotter’s memory on the grounds of Bloomington’s Withers Public Library. Dedicated in 1911, the landmark Trotter Memorial Fountain is still a Bloomington landmark in Withers Par. In 1914 she was one of the co-authors of the history of Kendall County published that year. She died Jan. 31, 1918 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Yorkville. The Bloomington School District’s Sarah E. Raymond School of Early Education is named in her honor.

Although she lived an exceedingly successful life for a woman born in a rural farming community, a person can’t help but wonder, though, whether she wouldn’t have been a happier woman had the conventions of the time allowed her to marry and have children while she continued to be an educational leader.

Rippon, Mary full

Mary Rippon was appointed as the first female professor at what is now the University of Colorado, Boulder. The school’s Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre is named in her honor. (Little White School Museum collection)

Mary Rippon did marry and have a child, although no one but a few close friends ever knew it. Her life took a tragic turn early on when her father died on their farm near Lisbon Center when Mary was just 10 months old. Fortunately, her extended family valued learning and she was well-educated, even being sent to Normal, Illinois for her high school education. There, one of her instructors was Joseph Sewall; the two would continue a professional relationship for decades.

After graduating from high school in 1867, Mary studied in universities in Germany, Switzerland, and France. In 1878, after having taught high school for a year and a half, she joined the faculty of the brand new University of Colorado. Her old teacher, Joseph Sewall, was the university’s first president and she became the school’s first female professor. Teaching French and German, Rippon was offered a full professorship in 1881 and was appointed to the prestigious position of German Language and Literature Department chair 10 years later.

But Mary Ripon carried a shattering secret with her: In 1887 she met young Will Housel, a student in her German class. Unknown to virtually anyone, she and Housel were secretly married in 1888, and she bore him one child, a girl, Miriam. Had anyone known she had married much less bore a child, her career as a college professor would have been destroyed. To keep her marital status a secret, she traveled to Europe ostensibly on sabbatical where she gave birth of Miriam. She then returned to the U.S. where she continued her career—alone. For the rest of her life, however, Mary helped financially support Miriam.

Miriam first lived in a series of orphanages, with Mary paying her expenses, before the girl finally went to live with her father, Will, who by that time had divorced Mary and re-married. Mary lived with her secret the rest of her life, revealing it only to a few of her closest friends. She died Sept. 9, 1935 and is buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado. The Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was named in her honor (for the whole fascinating tale see Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon by Silvia Pettem, The Book Lodge, Longmont, CO, 1999).

Three very strong-willed women, all with Kendall County roots. And three stories of women working to make their way as best they could in what was very much a man’s world, stories that are well worth revisiting during this year’s Women’s History Month.

(Note: A shorter version of this post was published in the March 2, 2017 Oswego Ledger.)

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It took government, civic cooperation to build the first hard road system

Saw an interesting factoid the other day. Bucking the Republican Party’s fixation on cutting everything government does, the new Democratic governor of West Virginia has decided to make a strong push to sell bonds to upgrade the Mountain State’s roads and bridges.

As he lays the groundwork to get an increase in the state’s gasoline tax passed to retire the bonds he plans to sell to finance the program, he bucked another modern right wing idea—facts are only for elitists—and actually had a study done on the costs to the state’s drivers of the current, poorly maintained system. According to the study, done by TRIP, a Washington, D.C. based national transportation study group, poor roads in West Virginia cost each of the state’s drivers $1,357 a year in vehicle repair and maintenance, traffic accidents where poor road design and/or maintenance is a factor, and lost time and additional fuel use due to traffic congestion. That comes to more than $1.4 billion a year in additional costs for West Virginia drivers.

And the sad news is that with the right wing fixation on cutting taxes at all levels and not spending on even vital services, we’re gradually working our way back to where roads were more than a century ago.

For instance, Illinois’ early road system was a serious drag on its economy. Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. The system barely worked while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of automobiles and, as they were called at the time, auto trucks were filling roads, the system was at the breaking point.

View from Poverty Point Oct 27, 1912 Photo: Dwight S. Young

Dwight Young snapped this photo near his home, Poverty Point, on what is now U.S. Route 34 just west of the Oswego Bridge on Oct 27, 1912. The road was paved with concrete in 1924. (Little White School Museum photo)

The township financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated areas—road mileage might be the same in rural areas as in heavily populated townships, but more urban taxpayers were helping share the burden.

Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. And as soon as the state got involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was efficiency: It was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on one with a dirt surface.

During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces and their performance monitored, averaging nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than six miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (nine miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about seven mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.

So if motorists could save so much gasoline, state officials figured they might agree that part of that savings could be used to build the better roads. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half of them over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, on hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. After the calculations were complete, auto taxes were calculated not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.

An interesting historical aside: That 23-cent a gallon gas  back in 1911 sounds cheap but it is equivalent to $5.64 a gallon in 2017 dollars.

With the advocacy of several groups, and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of Chicago’s Edens Expressway), a statewide organization was formed to lobby and draw up specifications for hard roads.

1911-abt-washington-at-main

In the first decade and a half of the 20th Century, the transition from horse-drawn to motorized vehicles was well underway, as this photo of Washington Street in Oswego illustrates. (Little White School Museum collection)

Edens, a born organizer, started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new rural free delivery system, which became a notable government success story. Leaving government, he became a successful Chicago banker who was active in Chicago’s social and political scene.

With the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, Edens helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, whose first convention was held in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.

Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.

The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission (hope has always sprung eternal in Illinoi), use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the whole system.

Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”

Not that the idea of hard roads had entirely clear sailing, of course. In particular, township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.

Farmers also protested about the cost and wondered whether better roads would even benefit them. But skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Eventually, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, finally tipping the balance in favor of support.

Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed the Illinois General Assembly with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.

Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating a Kendall County Superintendent of Highways. The county board appointed John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, to the position. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907.

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In 1915, a demonstration stretch of concrete pavement 15-feet wide was built from Aurora to the Waubonsie Creek bridge in Oswego, one of the first all-weather hard roads in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hard road plans drawn up

The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall plan for a state system of paved highways.

For instance, a stretch of 15-foot wide concrete pavement snaked along the Fox River from Aurora south to Montgomery past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision to Oswego. Another shorter stretch was poured from Yorkville along Van Emmon Road towards Oswego on the east side of the Fox River. But without a plan to link these isolated demonstration stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.

And when the final plan emerged, it turned out to be a classic bait and switch. In the end Kendall County didn’t have much to say about where the first trans-county concrete highway would be built. Nearly a century later later, we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of decisions on where the area’s major highways would be routed.

In November 1916, Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately got behind the good roads program begun by his predecessor, Gov. Edward F. Dunne.

“Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden promised the General Assembly in January 1917. “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”

Lowden, like Dunne, tapped William Edens, then serving as president of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, to organize the statewide good roads campaign effort.

Unfortunately, just as pressure for good roads was reaching critical mass, the nation plunged into World War I. Even so, on Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure was resoundingly approved by state voters. The vote here in Kendall County was overwhelming, 1,532 yes to 90 no.

The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money, to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.

Special interests awarded Kendall route change

In order to get enough votes statewide, the plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. During the referendum campaign, its route was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego, then south to Yorkville where it would cross the Fox River and turn towards Plano and on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the same route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.

But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small replaced Lowden. And when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up locally. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side of the Fox River as an extension of River Street in Aurora and Montgomery, past Montgomery’s sheep yards, across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy main line at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district slightly to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west on modern Route 34. To cope with angry Oswego and Yorkville residents, paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in in the two communities.

1924-abt-31-34-road-constr

In 1924, despite the controversy over its route, Route 18 (today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34), was built connecting Aurora with Sandwich. Above, crews pour concrete on the stretch of road at the west end of the Oswego Bridge. (Little White School Museum photo)

The route, the Kendall County Record fumed in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use the two sections of concrete road already laid in the county along what would become Ill. Route 25 and Van Emmon Road. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB&Q mainline at the Wormley crossing was required.

“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall complained on Jan. 26, 1921.

Local consensus was that the new route was picked to cater to the meatpacking and other commercial interests of Aurora and Chicago that favored a direct route to Princeton rather than one that passed through local communities.

Despite the protests, state officials insisted on the new route. By the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way had been purchased. Surveying took place in 1923, with actual construction moving ahead in 1924. By late May of that year, the 18-foot wide stretch of concrete had been laid to the county line at Sandwich and was curing.

1936-eje-rt-34-overpass

In 1936, the final, short stretch of concrete linking Naperville with Oswego was laid, including the bridge over the EJ&E tracks just east of the modern intersection of U.S. Routes 34 and 30, as well as the Route 34-30 interchange. Above, construction on the bridge is largely finished, and work on the approaches is ready to begin. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the old demonstration concrete section of modern Ill. Route 25 with the new Route 18 spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July 1924 a new concrete bridge was built across Waubonsie Creek to carry the new hard road section connecting with the 1914-era road that stopped at the north bank of the creek. The old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December.

The section of modern Route 34—originally called Route 65 by the state—from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start on that stretch until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, that section was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway (today’s U.S. Route 30), and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the EJ&E tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until two more years had passed.

With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished, and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and western Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads. Today, with traffic on Kendall County roads heavier than anyone in 1919 could have conceived, we’re still dealing with the effects those decisions made so many years ago have on our daily lives.

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Marking change in Kendall County during African American History Month

One Monday night in May 2004, when I was still covering the Oswego School District Board for the Ledger-Sentinel, I sat at the press table during the board meeting, resigned to listen to yet another staff presentation, this one on the program—English Language Learners—designed to help students who live in homes where English is not the first language spoken.

What really got my attention during the teachers’ presentation was the revelation that more than 50 different languages were being spoken in homes throughout the school district. If a more dramatic example was needed that Oswegoans were no longer living in the relatively isolated small farming town of my youth, this was certainly it. Nowadays, I’ve found by a bit of digging, fewer non-English languages are being spoken at homes throughout the school district, but the number is still more than 30.

Times in our little corner of the Midwest had actually begun changing many years before 2004, of course. By even the 1970s Kendall County had gone a long way past the era—which extended as late as the 1950s—when Kendall County residential developers added covenants prohibiting blacks and Jews, and sometimes Catholics, from buying homes they were building. And the era of the official and unofficial “sunset laws” that prohibited blacks from being in area towns after the sun set had also been as quietly discarded by that time as they had been instituted in the first place.

The interesting thing to me, as I grew up in and then made my home in Kendall County— and learned about the racism that was downplayed so effectively in our history classes—was not the casual racism that existed virtually everywhere; I expected that. Rather it was that the county, almost from the time of its earliest permanent setters, was home to varying numbers of minority residents who were, for the most part, accepted on their own merits by their white neighbors.

Among the settlers who arrived in Kendall County in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray and Elias Dial, all of whom settled around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area of Fox Township on the county’s west border.

The party, unlike so many other pioneers of that era who hailed from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, had come directly from the South. Also unlike settlers from other regions, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 county history, the Rev. E.W. Hicks wrote that the families “brought two colored women, former slaves, who had been a long time in their families—Dinah in Mr. Carns’ and Silvie in Mr. Murray’s. They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

It is unlikely either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when they arrived on the Illinois prairies. De facto slavery was winked at by state government as long as the fiction could be maintained that the people in question were indentured servants. And with state government still heavily influenced by slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who enjoyed owning their fellow humans. The low regard their owners had for the two women brought here in 1834 is suggested by the failure to record their surnames—assuming they had been given them by their owners in the first place, of course.

1894-grove-school

Kendall County schools, even rural one-room schools, were integrated from the beginning. In December 1894, the students and teacher from the Grove School southeast of Oswego on Grove Road, posed for the camera creating an image you would not have seen in the states of the old Confederacy, or even in many big northern cities. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the tempestuous years leading up to the Civil War, the federal Fugitive Slave Act and Illinois’ own Black Laws made it difficult, if not downright dangerous, for free black people to live in Illinois. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the county’s black population stood at six persons, two each in Oswego and Kendall townships, and one each in Fox and Franklin (later renamed Seward) townships. The county’s 1860 census recorded a single black person living in Oswego Township. Whether those counts were accurate or not is one of history’s open questions.

After the Civil War, Kendall County’s population began a long, slow decline, with the county total declining by some 3,000 residents between 1860 and 1920. The reasons for this probably ranged from the lure of cheap land west of the Mississippi to the lingering psychological effects of the Civil War.

But strangely enough, while its overall population was declining immediately after the war, the county’s black population boomed. From the single black person officially counted in 1860, Kendall’s black population grew to the official county of 54 in 1870, with nearly half of them calling NaAuSay Township, bordering Oswego Township to the south, home.

Most of NaAuSay Township’s 22 black residents lived and worked on farms in the township’s northwest corner. Thomas Lewis and his wife, Lucinda; George Washington and his wife, Emma; Neuman Northcup and wife Lusan; and Alfred Lucas and his two nearly grown children were all residents of that neighborhood. According to the census records, the value of the individual farms in this small island of black culture in overwhelmingly white Kendall County was comparable to their white neighbors, as was the value of the personal property they owned.

1903-smith-ferdinand

The son and grandson of former slaves, Ferdinand Smith was the first black student to graduate from high school in Kendall County as a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903.

As the years wore on, however, the county’s black farmers slowly left the land to live in nearby towns where they found work off the farm. The family of Nathan Hughes is a good example of the trend. Hughes, a Civil War veteran, farmed in NaAuSay Township in the Minkler Road area after the Civil War. He married into the Lucas family, which already had roots in the township’s farming community, and his children subsequently married into the Smith family, which was living in Oswego. Hughes was a respected member of the community who was an officer in the Yorkville post of the politically powerful Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ organization.

In 1903, Hughes’ grandson, Ferdinand Smith, became the first black student to graduate from a Kendall County high school. As the June 1, 1903 Kendall County Record reported: “”It was the first time a class contained a colored member; the Negroes were well represented in the audience and Uncle Nathan Hughes was there to see his grandson take this important step” Then in 1904, Ferdinand’s sister, Mary, became the first black female to graduate from a Kendall County high school, followed in 1907 by their sister, Frances. Many descendants of the Hughes and Smith families still live in the Fox Valley area.

Today, Kendall County’s African-American population is substantial, most having arrived as part of the housing boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unlike the two slave women brought here from South Carolina in 1834, though, they’ve come to the Fox Valley voluntarily. And with any luck, like the members of the extended Hughes and Smith families, their descendants will value the roots they’ve put down here.

We’ve been lucky here in the Fox Valley in recent years that, probably thanks to careful management by our political leaders, we’ve been relatively free from the plague of official violence against people of color—at least outside of Chicago, where a major clean-up seems now finally underway. As the nation observes African American History Month, it will benefit everyone to take a look back and remember that we’ve all got a stake in the future of our country in general and Kendall County in particular–no matter what the color of our skin is.

 

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How the Post Office helped settle America

As the frontier of the new United States moved ever farther west, post offices, the post roads that served them, and the newspapers that were given preferential treatment by the post office made up the glue that held the new republic together.

When they were still scattered groups working their way towards the inevitable confrontation with Britain, the members of the Committees of Correspondence realized that reliable, secure communication—in those days that meant the mails was essential. The existing colonial mail system operated by the British government, was expensive and was definitely NOT secure, since it was common practice for post office personnel to open and read suspicious communications. Thus the conspirators established the Constitutional Post, North America’s first truly independent postal system.

mail-on-horseback

Carrying the mail on horseback, as it mostly was during the first decade of the nation’s existence, was expensive (one man on horseback could only carry so much mail) and dangerous for the mail carrier since the mails usually contained money.

When it came time to create a more perfect union with a new Constitution, the founders recognized that a safe, secure national postal system, open to all at the same price, was not only vital to the new country’s growth, but was required if the representative democracy they’d invented was to function properly.

Starting with the first post office department under the Articles of Confederation headed by Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock, for which postmasters were supplied a special key. Anyone without a key could not, by definition, be a postmaster because they could neither accept nor send mail via the official portmanteau.e

The term “mail,” in fact had always referred to the bag in which communications were carried, since it was a derivation of the French word “male,” meaning sack or bag.

While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was considered part of the official mail to be carried in the portmanteau and what would not be so considered.

With the Constitution approved and in effect, Congress tried to settle the debate over the official carriage of the mails with passage of the Post Office Act of 1792. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory that included the modern states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Among the act’s most important provisions were:

¶ Codifying Congress’s power to establish post offices and post routes in accord with Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution. Previously, the Post Office Department established post routes. Congress’s involvement assured the number of post offices would quickly expand due to constituent pressure, even on the lightly settled frontier;

¶ Forbidding government inspection of the mails. In Europe, the mails were routinely intercepted and inspected by the government. With the assurance of privacy for all users, from the government itself to individuals and businesses, were able to use the mails confidently;

¶ Establishing the basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies. By the 1830s, the stage companies, due to their reliance on mail contracts for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their revenues, were virtually quasi public arms of the federal government; and

¶ Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau—meaning their delivery was often hit or miss at the whim of the stagecoach drivers or horseback mail carriers. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to an informed electorate.

Combined, these provisions assured the astonishing success of the government’s first venture into information technology—efficiently delivering the private and business communications and news the mails contained. And each provision had a profound effect on the settlement and development of northern Illinois and the rest of the Old Northwest.

And then, two years after the War of 1812 began, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery system. Among its provisions, the law mandated extending mail service to all county courthouses. Included in the law were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was guaranteed to receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county and its seat were.

1830s-arrival-of-the-stage

By the 1820s, roads in the old 13 Colonies had been sufficiently improved to permit the use of stagecoaches built in Troy, N.Y. and Concord, N.H. Eventually, the Concord Coach became the stage industry’s standard vehicle, although companies also used a variety of other wagons and carts as well.

Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of other innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system.

McLean was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system invented by Joseph Habersham, a former Georgia merchant who was John Adams’ postmaster general. Habersham’s system, introduced in 1800, made every post office in the nation into either a hub or a spoke.

The system relied on central distribution offices—the hubs—which supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices that comprised the spokes of the system.

McLean also perfected the system under which the post office department controlled the mails at individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mail from office to office. To move the mail during early days of the republic, that meant brave men on horseback willing to fight off wild animals, thieves (no credit cards or money orders in those days, cash only), and angry Indians. Eventually, as roads were improved, companies were established that moved the mail with wagons and then coaches by stages, broken up by stops where teams could be changed, mail exchanged, and passengers fed and rested. And thus the derivation of “stagecoach.”

By 1828, McLean’s network of private stagecoach contractors was in place and working very well, although he frequently and bitterly complained about stage company owners cheating on their contracts. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract bid was required to sell its coaches, horses, and other assets to the successful bidder.

When the Post Office Act of 1792 was passed, most mail in the former colonies was carried by horseback because of the near total lack of even rudimentary roads. State governments jealously guarded their rights to build and maintain roads, resisting every effort of the Federal Government to lend a financial hand, an attitude that nearly drove President George Washington (a huge post office supporter) to distraction. So to get around the states’ resistance, instead of creating roads, Congress created post routes. And as those post routes were established, their citizens demanded state and local governments improve their road systems, because people wanted their mail on time.

As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, whose mail was delivered via the Great Lakes. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon went into service between the two towns, followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.

Ottawa, 60 miles southwest of Chicago, was granted its post office in 1832, with mail arriving from Peoria either overland or up the Illinois River by steamboat. Communities in Kendall County, through which two of the three major Chicago to Ottawa trails ran, received mail from both the Ottawa and Chicago hubs.

Our small county of Kendall got its first post office at Holderman’s Grove on the Chicago to Ottawa Road in April 1834, with other offices springing up in 1837 at the villages of Little Rock, Oswego, and Newark.

With the establishment of post offices, the county’s new settlers could correspond with the folks back east and could also make sure they were informed citizens thanks to the newspapers carried in the official mail.

Today, the post office still provides a vital, dependable, secure link to every community in the country, even as it tries to survive attacks by those whose goal it is to transfer government services, and our tax dollars, to private companies.

 

 

 

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