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.
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….”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.