When his secretary informed him the missionaries from the western frontier had arrived for their appointment during that summer of 1824, we can only guess what U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun expected.
What Calhoun actually got when Jesse Walker strode into the room was a bluff, powerfully built man whose complexion had been weathered during a lifetime spent outdoors, both working at his trade as a tanner and hide dresser, as well as on horseback laboring at his vocation as one of the best-known itinerant frontier missionaries.
On a trip that spanned three months, Walker had ridden east on horseback from his post along the Mississippi River at St. Louis to the Methodist-Episcopal Church National Conference at Baltimore. On the journey, he’d been accompanied by another pioneer circuit rider, Thomas A. Morris, a delegate from the Kentucky Conference.
The man Calhoun greeted was plainly dressed in the manner of frontier missionaries of the era in plain, sturdy pants, coat and vest of wool with a white cravat at his neck, carrying his distinctive large light-colored beaver felt hat that was “nearly as large as a lady’s umbrella,” Morris recalled of his traveling companion.
Walker‘s proposition for Calhoun: If the government contributed part of the cost, the Methodists’ Illinois Conference would establish a school among the related members of the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes living along the Illinois and Fox rivers of Illinois. The mission would include a blacksmith shop and a corn mill to grind grain into flour. Not only would Indian children be taught the English language, as well as the Methodist gospel, Walker said, but also their parents would be instructed in the “civilized arts” of farming.
Calhoun probably figured it was good bargain. With it, the government would obtain professional services that had been promised in various treaties for the tribes at little expense. Meanwhile the Methodists would get funding to establish a mission with the aim of converting Native Americans to Christianity in general and Methodism in particular.
Satisfied, Walker returned to Illinois where he set to work to create a permanent Illinois River Valley mission. His first attempt was at the old French village of Peoria near Fort Clark on the Illinois River. Walker and his wife, Susannah Webly Walker, opened a mission school that attracted only six Native American youngsters. Walker soon realized the Peoria mission was located too far south of the main population of the tribes he was trying to serve.
So early in the spring of 1825, Walker, in the company of John Hamlin and six others, rowed their Mackinaw boat up the Illinois and then the DesPlaines River to Chicago to scout new mission locations. During the trip, Walker became the first Methodist to hold services at Chicago.
After returning, the Walkers and five other families traveled up the Illinois above Starved Rock to the mouth of the Fox River where they established a small settlement and mission school—the seed around which modern Ottawa would grow. Some 14 Native American students were soon attending classes at the new mission school. But that site, too, proved too distant from the bulk of the area’s Indian population which was living farther north. At that point, Chief Shabbona and a fur trader and interpreter of mixed Pottawatomie and French Canadian blood named George Forquier (also spelled Furkee), volunteered to help. Shabbona was born an Ottawa but had become an influential chief of the Potawatomi people living within the Three Fires Confederacy. The Confederacy was comprised of groups of Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi who shared both cultural and family ties.
Shabbona, Walker, and Forquier explored 20 miles up the east bank of the Fox River until they found a grove with a good spring. There, on the site of what soon became the Fox River Mission, Walker drove his claim stakes. It included all of Section 15 in Township 35, Range 5 of LaSalle County, later named Mission Township in honor of Walker’s activities.
That October in 1825, Walker reported about the proposed mission site: “The place is about one hundred miles above Fort Clark [at Peoria], about twenty miles north of the Illinois River, between it and Fox River. The soil is very good, timber plenty, and the spot well watered.”
The following year he reported to his superiors that work on the mission was proceeding: “I have built a house for the accommodation of the family, which consists of eighteen persons.” The large two-story log house measured 20 x 50 feet.
“A smith’s shop, a convenience that I could not dispense with, situated as I was, so remote from the settlements of the whites; a poultry house, springhouse, and other conveniences,” completed the mission, he reported. He said he had 40 acres in crops, seven in fenced pasture, and a one-acre garden.
“Hitherto everything has been attended with much hardship, hunger, cold and fatigue; and the distance which we have to transport everything has made it expensive; but with regard to the settlement, the greatest obstacles are overcome, and a few more years’ labour will furnish a comfortable home and plenty,” he told his Methodist superiors, adding, “The school consists of 15 Indian children, 7 males and 8 females, and two teachers. I am encouraged with the prospect of considerable acquisitions to the school this fall.”
In the missionary venture, Walker was assisted by his wife; his nephew who was also his son-in-law, James Walker, who brought along a horse-powered grain mill; James Walker’s wife, Jane, Jesse’s daughter, who became the teacher at the mission school, and all their children.
The missionaries’ spirits were more than willing, but the local Indians proved infertile ground for mission work—the idea of original sin was often a non-starter with Native People. And besides that, the promised government funding never arrived. Amid rumors the local tribes were to be removed west of the Mississippi, the Illinois Conference decided to close the mission down by 1829. Then to finish the venture off, all the buildings were burned by Indians in 1832 during the Black Hawk War.
Although its life was brief, the mission nevertheless was well-known among early Illinois settlers. When Galena businessman J.G. Stoddard decided to try shipping a ton and a half of lead overland to Chicago in 1829, the expedition aimed to cross the Fox River at Walker’s mission, probably hoping the blacksmith there could make any necessary repairs. Unfortunately, by the time Stoddard’s wagons got there, the mission had closed.
Then in 1831, John Kinzie and his wife, Juliette, traveled from Kinzie’s fur trade post at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin across Illinois to Chicago. Kinzie’s party also aimed to strike the Fox River near Walker’s mission, but they never made it due to poor navigation by their supposedly experienced guide. Instead, the encountered the Fox River just below modern Oswego, well north of the old mission.
After closing down the mission, James and Jane Walker established Walker’s Grove along the DuPage River (the nucleus around which Plainfield eventually formed) while Jesse Walker continued riding his circuit.
Walker’s wife, Susannah, died in 1832 and was buried at Plainfield. Mostly retired, Walker died in 1835 at his farm located where Grand Avenue crosses the DesPlaines River in modern River Grove.
In 1850, Walker’s remains were moved to the Plainfield Cemetery, where he was reburied in the same casket as Susannah. A fine monument that was dedicated there in 1911 gives a brief account of Walker’s fascinating career and hints at his importance in the settlement of northern Illinois.