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It’s summer on the prairie once again in the Prairie State

It’s mid summer here on the Illinois prairie, and the cast of floral characters has changed from the cheery blooms of early spring to the whites of field daisies and blues of spiderwort and chicory as we close in on August.

A surprising number of the species of wildflowers we see along roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, and in abandoned cemeteries are the same ones that brightened the year of the first settlers on the prairie. They were a determined bunch, those early pioneers, who had been forced to adapt to an entirely new way of settling a frontier that offered few of the ingredients for the tried and true methods of early American settlement.

So it would have been interesting to have been able to listen in on the conversations that must have taken place as the tide of settlement finally reached western Indiana. Because there, pioneers ran out of the dense woodlands of the Eastern forest and looked out across the vast, mostly treeless expanse of tallgrass prairie that gently rolled west from the eastern edge of the Prairie Peninsula as far as the eye could see.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the technology of pioneering western lands was well established.

Using the abundant timber in the sprawling Eastern deciduous forest that stretched from northern New England to central Florida, all the way west to the Mississippi River, log cabins and outbuildings were built based on a design brought to the New World by Swedish settlers in the 1600s. Fields and pastures were enclosed with Virginia rail fences, with rails split from logs from the trees that had to be cleared to plant crops. Trees were girdled—stripped of bark in a belt around the circumference of the trunk—to kill them and the next year a crop of sorts could be planted among the standing trunks. Then the backbreaking work began to cut down the dead timber and chop, dig, and lever stumps out of the ground.

It was a technology well understood, if extremely labor intensive.

Historic prairies in the USNobody, even today, is entirely sure what created the giant, horizontal V-shaped expanse of grassland that stretches west from western Indiana and includes much of Illinois, a lot of Iowa and Missouri, and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the Illinois Geological Survey notes, the Prairie Peninsula’s soil and climate is perfectly capable of supporting forests, and indeed miniature hardwood forests—called groves by the pioneers—dotted the tallgrass prairies.

Fire is one obvious answer to the conundrum. During the settlement era of the 1830s, fierce prairie fires roared over the prairies driven by the prevailing westerly winds, consuming anything combustible in their paths, including trees that were not fire resistant or tolerant. During the settlement era, these fires were entirely natural in nature, caused by early spring and late fall thunder storms. But scientists and anthropologists also have come to agree that in the pre-settlement era, prairie fires were set on purpose by the Native People who lived on the prairies. The reasons ranged from aids to hunting to clearing brush from wooded savannas to encourage the growth of desirable species and to increase grazing areas for game animals, particularly deer. Deer are creatures of the edges of forests, and periodic fires maintained the open woodlands that encouraged the growth of saplings and other plants deer prefer.

Whatever or whoever created them, the prairies must have caused many a pioneer to stop, scratch their head, and wondered to themselves, “What now?” Because there just wasn’t enough timber out on the prairies to sustain the traditional timber-centric pioneer settlement technology.

Granted, the lack of trees wasn’t all bad. No backbreaking tree and stump removal was required, and prairie soil was incredibly rich. But timber stands were only found in and around wetlands and along stream courses. Smart early settlers quickly snapped up the groves dotting the prairies, then subdividing them into small woodlots for sale to later arrivals.

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

This detail of AuSable Grove from the 1870 Oswego Township plat map illustrates how many of the county’s groves were divided into small woodlots and sold to individual farm families.

James Sheldon Barber, who arrived at Oswego in December 1843 wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, New York, that it was generally agreed that a farmer needed a 10-acre woodlot to provide sufficient timber for fences and buildings and for firewood.

The lack of timber only got worse as the tide of settlement rolled farther west, until it reached the shortgrass prairies starting in western Iowa. From there on west, trees were virtually nonexistent.

To cope with the lack of timber, within a decade and a half of the first settlers arriving on the Illinois prairie, new technologies were developed to deal with the problem, chief among them being the timber-conserving balloon frame construction technique that used sawn lumber for building construction instead of logs.

The surprise bordering on awe in which the open, rolling grasslands of the Prairie Peninsula were greeted by our pioneering ancestors stayed with them the rest of their lives. The shear openness across which travelers could see for miles and where the sky seemed limitless—huge changes from the claustrophobic Eastern forests—proved a challenge for some and an incredible delight for others.

In 1834, former sea captain Morris Sleight traveled west from his home in New York to prospect for a likely place to settle, eventually reaching the small settlement along the DuPage River that would one day become Naperville. On July 9, he wrote to his wife, Hannah back in New York, of his impressions when he first encountered the tallgrass prairie: “The first view of a Michigan Prairie is Delightfull after Passing the oak openings & thick forest, but the first view of an Illinois Prairie is Sublime, I may almost say awfully Grand, as a person needs a compass to keep his course—but the more I travel over them the better I like them. There is a great variety of Flowers now on the Prairies, but they tell me in a month from this time they will be much prettier.”

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

Junius Sloan captured this image of his parents’ farm in this 1866 oil painting, which gives a rough idea of what the Illinois prairie was like 150 years ago. The farm was located near Kewanee in Henry County. The original painting is owned by the Kewanee Historical Society.

Elmer Barce, in The Land of the Pottawatomi, noted: “Nothing could be more delightful than the open prairies. They were covered with a giant blue-stem grass in the late summer. A party of hunters in 1821 found some so high that a horseman could tie the ends over the top of his head. The color of the prairie flowers in the spring is bluish-purple, violets, bluebells, iris, and others. In midsummer it is red with phlox and Sweet William. In the autumn, it is yellow with golden rod, rosin-weed, and wild asters.”

Harriet Martineau, the distinguished British lecturer, visited the Fox Valley in 1836, and commented on the area west of Batavia: “I saw for the first time the American Primrose. It grew in. profusion over the whole prairie as far as I could see, graceful and pretty…the whole prairies were exquisitely beautiful.”

The New Englanders who began arriving on the Kendall County prairie in large numbers in the late 1830s were astonished by what they found.

Wrote Oliver C. Johnson, a descendant of early settlers Seth and Laureston Walker, who arrived in Kendall County from Massachusetts about 1845: “When these people who had come from the rocky hills of New England saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, they thought it a paradise compared with the country they had left.”

Their first introduction to the Illinois prairie sometimes left settlers speechless. Mrs. M.E. Jenesen, a member of Oswego’s Nineteenth Century Club, recalled in a 1905 lecture: “No words of mine can convey to you the vastness, the grandeur and beauty of the natural prairie in 1850, when I first came to Oswego…The music of the big frogs down in the slough and the drumming of prairie chickens must have been heard to be appreciated. The Fox River was pretty then. Its banks furnished attractions for those who liked a stroll—a sort of Lovers’ Lane, in fact.”

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

Goose Lake Prairie State Park south of Morris provides beautiful views year round, but is especially showy this time of year when the summer wildflowers strut their stuff.

James Sheldon Barber, noted above, traveled with a wagon train of friends from Smyrna, New York overland to Oswego in the late fall and early winter of 1843. After the dense forests of his home state and the other regions he’d traveled through, he marveled in a letter to his parents after arriving in Oswego: “How would it seem to you to [travel] 10 or 15 miles & not pass a tree nor a bush nor even a Stump. & so level that you could see a small house at the farthest side & then again there [are] Paurairies [sic] in this state where you may [travel] for 2 or 3 days & not see a tree nor anything of the kind.”

But all that wild beauty left other impressions as well, especially loneliness among the pioneer wives who arrived with their families.

In 1833, Chester and Lucinda (Wheeler) House arrived in what would become Kendall County’s Seward Township, staking a claim on the west bank of AuSable Creek where Chester built their log cabin. As the Rev. E.W. Hicks, the county’s first historian, described the House cabin in 1877: “It was a home, though so different from the comfortable surroundings that were left behind; and not only a home, but a frequent resting place for the traveler, and a beacon light, for persons were so often lost on the prairie that through the whole of the ensuing winter on dark nights Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and 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.”

William and Mary Young arrived in Chicago from England in 1835. In 1877, she explained Rev. E.W. Hicks how the couple made their way to Kendall County: “Mr. Young found work in a wagon shop during the winter, and there Isaac Townsend, being in Chicago, happened to meet him, and asked him if he would like to go out into the country. Mr. Young said yes, for he had the ague [malaria] very hard in Chicago. So we came out here [NaAuSay Township] in February. 1836. Mr. Townsend lived with Major Davis, and when we arrived, the wife of an Irishman who was keeping house for them said to me, ‘O, I am glad to see a woman, for I have not seen one for three months!’ Well, thinks I, we have got into a wilderness now, sure enough. However, we stood it better than I had feared, though we did have some times that were pretty hard.”

More and more settlers arrived on the prairies west of Chicago founding towns and villages, and as the country grew up around those early settlers the prairie plants disappeared under carpets of cultivated crops. Today, thanks to efforts began decades ago, area residents can get at least a glimpse of what the countryside looked like during the settlement era at prairie restorations throughout Illinois.

In fact, there’s a 45-acre prairie restoration right here in Kendall County at Silver Springs State Park with a one-mile nature trail winding through the big bluestem grass and prairie plants. A bigger chunk of prairie is not far away at Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County not far south of the Grundy-Kendall line. Nearly four square miles in area, Goose Lake Prairie includes some true native prairie along with thousands of acres of restored prairie.

Buffalo at Midewin

No, this isn’t Montana, it’s a typical scene of the Bison Restoration area of Midwen National Tallgrass Prairie on the old site of the Joliet Arsenal. Bison were introduced to the prairie in 2105.

Goose Lake is impressive, but to get a better idea of what the Illinois prairie really looked like, you need to visit the U.S. Forest Service’s 30 square mile Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on the old U.S. Army Arsenal site near Joliet. Not that all 30 square miles are pristine tallgrass prairie, of course. Midewin is definitely a prairie restoration work in progress, but it is a work that is progressing nicely to create a sizeable island of native prairie in the middle of the vigorous population and commercial growth our region has been undergoing for several decades now. And best of all, since 2015, the U.S. Forest Service has been reintroducing American bison at Midewin to help eventually create a true native prairie ecology. You can even enjoy watching the buffalo roam on the Midewin Bison Cam.

Besides their aesthetic attributes—spring on an Illinois prairie really is nearly indescribable—restored prairies limit and filter stormwater runoff, protect threatened species of both plants and animals, help recharge groundwater aquifers, and remove carbon from the atmosphere—a not inconsequential result in this day and age of global climate change.

And now in this long journey we’ve taken, from prairie to pioneer settlement to development and vigorous population growth, we’ve finally begun to see the value of connecting the circle back again to prairie here in the Prairie State.

 

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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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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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U.S. Mail was the Internet of the 1830s

James Herrington apparently enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the tavern business, because he was extraordinarily good at it. But not only was he Geneva’s first and most successful early tavern keeper, but was also the person who lobbied successfully for the Kane County village’s first post office.

In fact, the post office was awarded even before the town had settled on its permanent name. Herrington had begun referring to the new settlement as La Fox, and when its first post office was granted March 12, 1836 at his urging, it was named La Fox. Geneva wouldn’t receive its permanent—and modern—name for three more months, and the postal service wouldn’t officially change the post office name until 1850.

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John Short built the Bristol House as his home, post office, and stagecoach inn. It was just one of several similar facilities sprinkled along stagecoach routes west of Chicago.

Like Herrington, John Short in Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville here in Kendall County) also operated a combination tavern and post office, as did Levi Hills in Lisbon, and many other tavern-keepers throughout our region of northern Illinois.

Early on, the federal government realized reliable communication within and between regions of the country was vital to the new nation’s growth and to an informed electorate. In those pre-railroad and pre-telegraph days, that meant total reliance on the mails, either carried privately or by the national postal service.

One of the first things the Federal government did, once it was firmly established, was to create an official definition for the mail. Starting with the first post office department under Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock. Only postmasters were entrusted with a key for this lock; without the key, the postmaster was, simply not a postmaster because he could neither accept nor send the mail.

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 to be considered part of the official mail (carried in the portmanteau) and what wasn’t.

1830s-arrival-of-the-stage

The arrival of the mail stage was always an exciting event in pioneer communities in northern Illinois since they brought newspapers, letters, and passengers.

With the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress began settling that debate. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and, later, the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory. Among the Act of 1792’s most important provisions were:

+++Congress’s assumption of the power to establish post offices and post routes. Previously, the Post Office Department had established post routes on its own. With Congress’s involvement, it was assured the number of post offices would greatly and quickly expand due to constituents’ political pressure;

+++Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau. 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 maintain an informed electorate; and

+++Establishing the legal basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies for the delivery of the mail. By the 1830s, the stage companies were virtually quasi-public arms of the federal government. In fact, if a stagecoach company lost the government mail contract, government regulations required all of its rolling stock and horses had to be sold to the new contractor.

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.

Two years after the War of 1812 ended and still feeling the war’s effects, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, with the aim of further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery. Among its provisions, the law mandated mail service had to be extended to any county courthouse. Included 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 certain it would receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county seat was.

Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system. It was McLean’s decision to rely on private stage contractors to carry the mail instead of using government equipment and employees. Along with the stage delivery system, McLean perfected and expanded the “hub and spoke” sorting system originally adopted in 1800. The system relied on central distribution offices—hubs—that supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices via the spokes.

While post offices were vital to the growth of the region, sending mail was an expensive proposition in those years. Regular postal rates remained constant from 1825 to 1838, but the rates themselves were high in comparison to the cost of living at that time. A single sheet letter mailed up to 30 miles was six cents. The cost went up to 10 cents if mailed from 30 to 80 miles, 12-1/2 cents for 80 to 150 miles; 18-3/4 cents for 150 to 400 miles; and 25 cents for a single sheet mailed more than 400 miles. Two sheet letters cost double to mail, while the postage was tripled for a single sheet that weighed more than an ounce.

A collection of letters in the archives at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego confirms that postal rates continued unchanged for some years, and also suggests how effective the postal service was in maintaining communications between the frontier and the settled areas in the old colonies.

In December 1843, James Sheldon Barber arrived in Oswego after an 800-mile journey with a wagon train from Smyrna, N.Y. On Dec. 17, he wrote back to his parents describing his journey and his current circumstances. The single sheet letter, datelined Oswego, is marked with 25 cents postage.

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James Sheldon Barber’s December 1843 letter home from Oswego to his parents in tiny Smyrna, NY. The creases left behind when Barber folded the letter origami-like into an envelope, complete with triangular flap closed with red sealing wax. (Little White School Museum collections)

From accounts in Carlyle R Buley’s The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1978), and elsewhere, it appears the letters Barber sent to New York are typical of the era. Each is written on a single 10×16-inch sheet of good rag paper folded in half to create a folio of four 8×10 inch pages. The text of each letter is written on three of the pages. The fourth page is devoted to the letter’s exterior that, when folded with origami-like complexity, turned it into a compact 2.5 x 5 inch packet complete with an envelope-like triangular flap on the back, which was fixed with red sealing wax.

One of the most remarkable things about Barber’s letters is his certainty they would be transported east from the Illinois frontier and faithfully delivered in a timely manner at his parents’ home in a small hamlet in upstate New York. At the time, Kendall County was just two years old. Oswego Township had been settled for only 10 years and the village had yet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. But even from such a presumably rough and tough frontier region, Barber’s letters made it back to his former home.

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Major post roads in the Fox River Valley area of northern Illinois from the mid-1830s through the early 1850s.

By the time Barber was sending his letters home, mail routes throughout northern Illinois were well defined. Mail delivery in what are now the 24 counties of northern Illinois (there are more now than back then) had begun adjacent to the Mississippi River when the first post office was established June 6, 1825 and named Fever River (after the small tributary on which the settlement was located), only to be renamed Galena in 1826. Rock Island, located on the Mississippi itself, got its post office in September of the same year. Both offices became major distribution hubs.

But while the first two post offices in northern Illinois relied heavily on river transport for mail delivery, nine other post offices were established in the region before the next one (Ottawa) that mainly relied on river transport. Clearly, the region’s growing road system was becoming more vital to the delivery of the mail as new roads connected the county seats and other settlements in the growing region. In fact, by following the creation of post offices, a person can fairly easily follow the evolution of the region’s road system linking its major developing towns.

Around Galena, the postal system was gradually expanded, with Apple River granted an office in 1828 and Ogee’s Ferry—later Dixon—getting its office in 1829. Both Dixon and Apple River were branches that relied on the Galena hub.

As an illustration of how quickly the northwest corner of Illinois was developing during that era, and how unimportant the rest of the northern part of the state was, Jo Daviess County boasted seven of the first 11 post offices established in northern Illinois.

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Frink, Walker & Company’s general stagecoach office at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Lake Street in Chicago is where many of the mail routes of the 1840s west of Lake Michigan began. Frink and Walker eventually controlled virtually all the stagecoach traffic in the upper Midwest.

In March of 1831, Chicago finally got its post office, following the establishment of Cook County in January of 1831, with mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, then the nearest post office. In 1832, mail delivery was weekly from Detroit via a one-horse wagon. The next year, 1833, a two-horse post wagon delivered the mail. Not until regular four-horse stage service started in 1834 did Chicago’s mail arrive more than once a week.

Chicago remained the only post office in northeast Illinois until Ottawa was granted its post office in December 1832, suggesting growth was outstripping the post office’s ability to establish new offices. LaSalle County, of which Ottawa was the seat of government, had been established in January of 1831, meaning it took nearly two years for the town’s post office to be granted.

Chicago and Ottawa were officially linked by a state road in 1833, although it’s likely mail was carried on horseback from the Chicago office to Ottawa beginning in 1832. In 1833, the post office at Juliet (later renamed Joliet) and the DuPage post office, which was located in the extreme northeast corner of Section 19 of DuPage Township, Will County, were both established as Chicago branches. DuPage was a regular stop on the High Prairie Trail from Ottawa to Chicago. Plainfield didn’t get its post office—another branch—until January of 1834, followed in April by the post office at Holderman’s Grove, also on the High Prairie Trail. The post office at Holderman’s was the first in what would, in 1841, become Kendall County.

As settlers began filling the area between the Fox River and Lake Michigan, more branch post offices were established on the region’s major thoroughfares using the Ottawa and Chicago hubs. Cass post office in Downers Grove Township on the High Prairie Trail, Brush Hill post office on the Galena and Ottawa roads, and Naperville were established in 1834, 1835, and 1836, respectively. Aurora and Oswego both got their post offices in 1837.

Montgomery was reportedly on the list to receive its post office in 1837, but the McCarty brothers, Samuel and Joseph, Aurora’s founders, appropriated the post route to Galena. According to at least one history, Montgomery was in line to get its post office, but Aurora supporters were able to somehow delay the delivery of the official postmaster’s key to the Montgomery postmaster. Without the key, of course, the official portmanteau could not be opened, ergo no mail delivery. Meanwhile, the McCarty brothers used their political connections to expedite the application for their own post office. At the same time, Aurora boosters improved the trail from Naperville to Aurora (today’s Aurora Avenue and East New York Street) by bridging the numerous wetlands that lay between the two settlements in the timber—called the Big Woods—that stretched from one to the other. The McCartys also promised the stagecoach company hauling mail over the route that they’d provide free room and board for the stage driver and would also put the coach’s four-horse team up free of charge. The result was that Montgomery lost its first chance for a post office and their direct access to the Galena Road at the same time.

In 1908, when Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora,” right near the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”

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On June 26, 1840, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced updated mail schedules and routes, including the modified Fox River Trail route from Ottawa north to LaFox–now Geneva in this advertisement published in Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, the  Illinois Free Trader.

Lisbon, in southern Kendall County, had gotten its post office in 1836, thanks to Levi Hills moving the log post office/tavern from Holderman’s Grove six miles out onto the prairie along the High Prairie Trail. Farther west on the Galena Road, Little Rock post office was established in 1837, followed that same year by the post office at Newark.

Meanwhile, at LaFox (Geneva), Herrington operated the post office in his home/tavern. In 1837, mail to LaFox first came from Naperville, and later that year from Aurora. But then in early June 1840, LaFox got its own mail delivery when it became the terminus of a new route up the west bank of the Fox River from Ottawa via Dayton, Northville, Penfield, Bristol, and Aurora to LaFox every Friday.

But just a couple weeks later, the route changed. On June 26, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced the mail up the Fox River Trail would be delivered three times a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. He also announced a route change, with the addition of Oswego to the list. The mail traveled up the west side of the Fox River to the Oswego ford across the Fox, and then north along the East River Road (today’s Ill. Route 25) through Aurora to LaFox

Interestingly enough, many of those post offices established during the go-go settlement years of the 1830s are still in business, continuing to serve their communities 180 years later. And every time you drop a letter in the mail in Oswego or Aurora or Geneva, you’re participating in a bit of the region’s long and fascinating post office history.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Business, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Montgomery, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation

Everything started somewhere and sometime, even Kendall County

There were big doings 176 years ago next month down in Springfield.

In February 1841, the Illinois General Assembly, in a veritable fit of constructive action possibly never seen before or since, feverishly worked on establishing four new counties. Three new counties had been formed in January; the four ready for approval in February would bring the grand total for 1841 to seven.

Debate on each of the proposals that February was hot and heavy, as Whigs and Democrats maneuvered to get the best advantage possible for their respective parties. When the political dust cleared and a vote was finally held Feb. 19, 1841, the second new county formed that month (the first was Grundy County on Feb. 17) was voted into law.

It was to be named Kendall County after former President Andrew Jackson’s Postmaster General, Amos Kendall.

The flood of settlement that began in the Fox Valley in 1833 continued in 1834 and 1835. Enough people made their way to the banks of the Fox River by that year that towns were being surveyed and laid out. Boosters (optimists all) laid out Oswego on the bluff overlooking the Fox River and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek in 1835 as well as Newark in the timber called Hollenback Grove, and Bristol along the north bank of the Fox River. Yorkville, across the river from Bristol, followed in 1836, as did Little Rock, followed by Lisbon and Millington in 1838.

As population increased, so did the need to do business at the county seat. For those living in what eventually became Bristol, Little Rock, and Oswego townships, that meant a long trip north to Geneva in Kane County. For those living in what became Fox, Kendall, NaAuSay, Seward, Lisbon, and Big Grove townships, conducting official business meant a trip down the river and across the prairie to the LaSalle County seat of Ottawa.

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Lock 14 on the I&M Canal at LaSalle. Illinois borrowed heavily to build the canal and the Panic of 1837 nearly bankrupted the entire state. (Illinois Department of Conservation photo)

Added to the inconvenience of travel in the Fox Valley’s pioneer days and in the midst of the area’s biggest spurt in population growth ever (in percentage if not actual numbers), the Panic of 1837 struck like a sledgehammer blow. The word “panic” doesn’t carry the emotional baggage “depression” does these days, but the Panic of 1837 was a major financial depression in its fullest and most devastating sense. Unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, the Panic of 1837 almost led to the financial destruction of state government in Illinois as the nation’s monetary system collapsed.

The financial collapse seriously affected construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The failure of the state’s banking system idled canal construction crews, and the inability of the state to pay contractors for work already done or materials delivered rippled unpleasantly through Ottawa’s economy.

The problems with the canal meant little to settlers around Yorkville, Pavilion, and other northern regions of huge LaSalle County—the proposed canal was out of sight and largely out of mind. The continued preoccupation of county officials with canal matters finally persuaded northern county residents their interests were being ignored, and those interests could best be served by establishing a new county whose seat of government would be much closer, in both geography and attitude, to the governed.

Finding themselves at the neglected far fringes of Kane and LaSalle counties, and still feeling the bond with each other forged during the crisis of the Black Hawk War of 1832, residents of the nine townships decided to petition the state to form a brand new county.

Acting on these convictions, supporters of forming one or more new counties at the expense of LaSalle began to circulate petitions. As early as Oct. 10, 1840, the Illinois Free Trader, Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, published a legal notice informing the county’s residents “That application will be made in the Legislature of the state of Illinois…for the formation of a new county to be taken off of the county of LaSalle.”

The petition given credit by the Illinois State Archives as the one leading to the establishment of Kendall County began circulating on Nov. 12, 1840.

“The petitions of the Subscribers, inhabitants of LaSalle, DeKalb, and Kane counties,” the appeal read, “most respectfully Showeth that your petitioners suffer much inconvenience in doing all their business relative to their respective counties By reason of the great Territory embraced in the said countys and believing that the time has now arrived when it has been made absolutely necessary that a new county be Laid off of those.”

The document was signed by 109 male settlers, including such early Kendall County pioneers as Clark and George Hollenback, Earl Adams, Joseph B. Lyon, and Henry Misner,

As proposed by the petitioners, the new county would have comprised nine townships. Since townships are supposed to be square (and contain 36 sections of one square mile each), the proposed county would have had three tiers of townships, each row three townships long, comprising a perfectly square county.

As originally requested, Bristol, Little Rock, Kendall, Fox, Lisbon, and Big Grove townships in today’s Kendall County would have been joined by Sandwich Township from DeKalb County plus Northfield and most of Mission townships in LaSalle County.

Sober second thoughts…

The request for the new county apparently stirred up a number of competing factions, only some of which can be reconstructed a century and three-quarters. On Nov. 27, 1840, the General Assembly received a second petition from residents of the area that contended “there are sundry petitions now circulating to present to your honourable body for the division of Lasalle County and that many of those petitions were got up for private and Selfish purposes without references to publick good and convenience or benift and if those proposed divisions were carried out they would Material prejudice the remaining part of Lasalle county without any particular advantage or benefit to them Selves….”

1839-northern-ill-counties

How LaSalle and Kane counties looked in 1840 before LaSalle’s east side was sliced off and Kane lost its southern three townships to create Kendall and Grundy counties.

Then in a petition dated Dec. 18, 1840, several times the number of LaSalle County residents than signed the first document pleaded with the General Assembly not to dismantle LaSalle County. If a new county was absolutely necessary, however, the petitioners suggested removing the four southwest townships, known then as Sandy Precinct, would be acceptable.

“Your petitioners, inhabitants of La Salle county, represent that divers petitions are in circulation, praying for various divisions of said county and in such a manner as virtually to ruin the same,” the third petition read. “Some of your petitioners have signed heretofore other addresses on this subject, without defining boundaries, and some without due examination, but now present this their prayer as the result of their ‘sober second thoughts.’”

The petition carried the names of many of the area’s influential men, including Peter and Smith Minkler, William W. Winn, John Inscho, Solomon Heustis, and William Cowdrey.

Sober second thoughts aside, the wheels of state government had already begun to turn, and the division of LaSalle County was inevitable. As noted in another context entirely, the wheels of state government move slowly but they grind extremely fine. On Dec. 30, 1840, State Rep. Dodge rose in the Illinois House to present, in the words of the Journal of the House of Representatives of the Twelfth General Assembly of the State of Illinois (1840), “the petitions and remonstrance of sundry citizens of LaSalle and Kane counties; which, without reading, on his motion were referred to a select committee.” Committee members included Reps. Dodge, McClernand, and Ormsbee. On Jan. 11, 1841, the petition for a new county was referred to the General Assembly’s Committee on Counties. Then on Jan. 16, Rep. Carpenter reported a bill titled “An act to create the county of Orange” for its first reading.

The new county was configured differently than the one the citizens’ petition of Nov. 12 had suggested. Instead of including what is today Sandwich Township of DeKalb County and Mission and Northfield townships of LaSalle County, the new county was shifted east one township, picking up Oswego Township from Kane County and NaAuSay and Seward townships from LaSalle to complete the nine-township square county.

The Committee on Counties probably shifted the boundary to straighten up the lines of the two donor counties. If the configuration had remained as originally petitioned, Oswego Township would have thrust like a lone tooth south from Kane County, while NaAuSay and Seward would have created a clumsy narrow finger jutting north from LaSalle County.

Although Sandwich Township was denied membership in the new county, efforts have sporadically been engaged in over the past 175-plus years by that township’s residents to annex to Kendall County. So far, those efforts have not been successful, although many Sandwich area residents still feel more of an affinity to Kendall County than to DeKalb.

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The state capitol building at Springfield was less than two years old when the Illinois General Assembly voted to create Kendall County. Today, the building is a state historic site.

From Orange to Kendall…

In the end, the General Assembly decided to create two new counties from LaSalle, and Democrats in Springfield were working hard to make sure the new counties would carry the names of politicians prominent in their party. One of the counties was named Grundy after U.S. Senator Felix Grundy of Tennessee, a Jackson stalwart. But the decision to name the other county after one of Jackson’s closest political operatives led to some tougher sledding.

On Jan. 19, the bill to create Orange County received its second reading. After reading the bill’s title, Rep. Peck moved to amend the bill by changing the name of the county from “Orange” to “Kendall.” The amendment was approved, with Rep. Abraham Lincoln voting in favor.

The new name was selected to honor Amos Kendall, former Postmaster General under both Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Kendall had announced his plans to retire from the office in May 1840 in order to seek more profitable employment. As Jackson’s and Van Buren’s Postmaster General, Kendall had been the Democrats’ patronage chief, handing out sought-after post master slots. In effect, local post offices became Jackson’s grassroots eyes throughout the nation. But in his favor, Kendall brought a new level of efficiency and honesty to the Post Office Department, even operating the sprawling agency at a profit for a few years while stamping out rampant corruption. Not surprisingly, the powerful Kendall was not well liked by the Whig opposition.

To illustrate that political hi-jinks are nothing new in Springfield, following the successful vote amending the name of the county to Kendall, Rep. Gillespie rose to further amend the bill by inserting the words “Honest Amos” in front of the word Kendall.

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Postmaster General Amos Kendall in an 1835 engraving. Kendall was one of the most powerful politicians in both the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations.

Gillespie’s move echoed sentiments expressed during an 1837 Congressional debate in Washington, D.C. when U.S. Rep. Henry A. Wise of Virginia branded the Postmaster General “Honest Iago” Kendall during a particularly nasty debate over the nation’s financial policy. Iago was the friend of Othello in Shakespeare’s play who whispered lies about the doomed Desdimona. Wise intimated that Kendall was doing the same thing to President Jackson regarding the nation’s financial health. The insult apparently appealed to the anti-Democrats, only to be brought up again in Illinois during the debate to establish Kendall County.

Gillespie’s amendment was tabled, however, and the new county—just plain Kendall County—was established by a vote of 54-27.

Writing from the state capital, the Illinois Free Trader’s Springfield correspondent reported to his readers in Ottawa: “Gentlemen—Today the bill for the creation and organization of the two new counties off of LaSalle and Kane came up in order in the House. Some debate arose on a motion made by Mr. Peck, to change the name of the county formed of Part of LaSalle and Kane counties from “Orange” to “Kendall,” but the motion prevailed and the bill was ordered to be engrossed for a third reading. The bill to organize the county of “Grundy” was referred to the canal committees…These counties, you are probably aware, will include a strip off of the east side of LaSalle eighteen miles in width and one tier of townships of the south end of Kane county.”

On Feb. 3, the act to create the county of Kendall was passed for the final time by the House, and was sent to the Senate for its concurrence.

In the Illinois Free Trader’s Feb. 4 edition, the paper’s Springfield correspondent gloomily predicted: “The bills for the division of our fine county will pass and Kendall and Grundy be established in all probability. However much I may regret that the county has been divided at this time, and under its embarrassed circumstances at this time, no blame can be attached to our representative and senator who have been most fully instructed in relation to it.”

His prediction proved correct when, after successfully passing the state senate, the county was officially created by an act of the General Assembly on Feb. 19, 1841.

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A pen and ink sketch by Janis Hoch of Kendall County’s first courthouse in 1841. The county rented the private residence from Daniel Johnson. County voters decided to move the courthouse to Oswego in an 1845 referendum. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County inaugurated…

County government began in earnest on April 5, 1841, when voters, in the first-ever Kendall County election, elected a sheriff, coroner, recorder, surveyor, treasurer, probate justice, clerk, and three county commissioners—the precursor of today’s county board.

Later that year, a three-man commission appointed by the General Assembly, consisting of John H. Harriss of Tazwell County, Eli A. Rider of Cook County, and William E. Armstrong of LaSalle County, met in Yorkville to determine the location of the new county’s seat of government. The three decided that Yorkville, with its central location, would be the best site. In August 1841, county officials leased a private residence owned by Daniel Johnson, situated on Lot 8, Block 15 in the village of Yorkville as the county’s first courthouse, and then appropriated the grand sum of $30 to “fit up” the new facility.

oswego-courthouse

This image of the Greek Revival courthouse built at Oswego in 1847 probably began as a Daguerrotype before it was heavily retouched. It stood on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

Since that time 176 years ago, the county seat has moved twice, once in 1845, when the voters decided to move it northeast to Oswego, and again in 1864.

In 1845 after 175 registered voters petitioned the General Assembly, a special election was scheduled to determine whether the county seat should remain in Yorkville. Proponents of the move noted that Oswego Township had been the county’s most populous for several years. Further, they pointed out that Yorkville didn’t even have its own post office. To get their mail, residents had to cross a footbridge across the Fox River to the Village of Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville). In balloting in August of that year, no county village received a majority of votes as the new county seat. In a second referendum held on Sept. 1, 1845, the voters picked Oswego as the new county seat.

In April 1847, the county commissioners let a contract for $2,545 to Luke W. Swan to build a new courthouse in Oswego. Festus Burr, an Oswegoan who was also the town clerk, drew the plans for the two story, Greek Revival style building, which was located on the site of today’s Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office.

2015-kc-courthouse

Opened in 1864 during the Civil War, the Historic Kendall County Courthouse was renovated and restored with extensive federal and state grants.

But by April 1859, most residents had apparently tired of traveling to the extreme northeast corner of the county to do their legal business, and another vote was held, the results of which were to move the county seat back to centrally-located Yorkville.

A new courthouse was ordered built by the county board, and architect O.S. Finnie was hired to draw the plans for a fashionable Italianate style structure. The brick and stone courthouse was completed in 1864 at a cost of $22,051.62. The county’s records were removed from Oswego to Yorkville in June 1864 by team and wagon where they’ve remained ever since.

The decision of those 109 settlers to strike off on their own in 1841 was as important then as it is today, 176 years later. They wanted to control their own local political destinies, and so do we. They achieved their goal; it remains to be seen if we are interested enough to maintain what they built, locally, statewide, and, especially, nationally.

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Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History