Tag Archives: climate

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

When we used to skate the river…

Headed down to The Village Grind this morning for my Wednesday coffee and giant cookie and noted there was a bit of skim ice on the river. It’s to be expected, what with the temps getting down in the lower teens at night lately. But if this year holds true to recent form, we’ll see no freezing over of the river’s channel.

Global warming? Well, yes, a little. But mostly it’s because the character of the river’s changed a lot over the last 50 years, driven mostly by the explosive development we’ve experienced out here in our formerly rural corner of northern Illinois.

Dwight Young snapped this photo of ice on the Fox River about 1911. The view is looking east from the west side of the river towards Oswego, and shows the usual, for that time, ice-choked main channel just as the annual spring freshet began.

Dwight Young snapped this photo of ice on the Fox River about 1911. The view is looking east from the west side of the river towards Oswego, and shows the usual, for that time, ice-choked main channel just as the annual spring freshet began to break the thick ice into large floating cakes.

When I was growing up along the river in the late 1950s and early 1960s, winters were cold and snowy. Temperatures of -20° F. were not uncommon and they lasted for several days at a time. If we were lucky, the autumn had been dry, and with low water in the river and those even lower temperatures, the main channel froze over regularly.

That meant ice skating heaven for us youngsters. On frigid, crisp mornings as the sun was just coming up, we’d lace on our skates and glide downstream to the U.S. Route 34 bridge across the river, a half-mile trip. It sometimes took awhile, due to rough ice and even missing ice in areas where springs welled up from the bottom of the river, or flowed into the stream from the bank. Some of those spring-fed areas were deep, as well, much deeper than the riverbed immediately surrounding them.

Or if a trip south wasn’t in the cards, we’d head north, skating from smooth patch to smooth patch, watching out for open water, and listening to the ice cracking like rifle shots as it contracted in the cold.

Even though it was -20°, a hooded sweatshirt was plenty of clothing to wear, because skating on the river was hard work and we were plenty warm, although thick gloves or mittens were a must. I preferred wearing my shooting mittens because I could open the finger flap to tie my skates or make any adjustments. And besides, mittens are a lot warmer than gloves.

Nowadays, the river never completely freezes over, although sometimes it makes a valiant try. When the channel narrows to an ice-bordered riffle, the Canada geese leave, which is fine with me. When I was a kid the only geese we saw were migrating in spring or fall. Today, there are some 60,000 of the critters living in the Fox Valley, and they’re pests who stain the ice with their droppings and create the most remarkable racket. It’s enough to create a soft spot in a person’s heart for the foxes and coyotes who are expanding their populations here.

Why doesn’t the river freeze over completely? Well, our winters are getting warmer, but that’s not really the reason.

The real reason is because the water temperature has been warmed before it ever entered the river. A half-century ago when I was skating up and down the river, its major tributaries were other streams and the springs that pepper its banks. But by the early 1970s, development in the Fox Valley was having a major impact on the amount of fresh water in the river. By 1973, only about 25 percent of the water in the river was fresh, coming from tributaries, by the time it got to Kendall County. That meant that by the time it got here, three-quarters of every gallon in the river had already been used at least once by folks upstream. The numerous municipal wastewater treatment plants, along with private and industrial wastewater outflows had replaced natural streams and wetland seepage as the river’s primary tributaries. And every use of the river’s water warmed it up just a bit until by the time it reached its middle course, the water was too warm to solidly freeze.

The good news, I suppose, is that with infrequent freezing, the river has also ceased turning into an unruly stream with ice dams and jams that flood low-lying areas. In the 1800s, spring freshets were common, caused when the ice suddenly gave way during spring rains or a particularly fast warm-up. When that happened, such as the great Freshet of 1857, bridges and dams were attacked by the fast-flowing water and the thick ice it carried downstream. In 1857, virtually every bridge and dam from Elgin south to Ottawa was either destroyed outright or badly damaged.

Not today. Today, we wish mightily for cold enough weather to persuade the Canada geese to move to another place or at least a nice deep covering of snow or ice that makes it hard for them to find enough food to give them a helping hand out of the area. But lately, that’s mostly a forlorn hope. And certainly skating down to the Oswego bridge or north all the way to Boulder Hill are similar forlorn hopes.

In some ways, these modern times are definitely not all they’re cracked up to be.


Filed under Fox River, Frustration, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events