The earliest American settlers came to Kendall County starting in the late 1820s on foot, and by wagon, ﬂatboat, and steamship on Lake Michigan via Chicago.
Oswego’s first settlers, William and Rebecca Wilson and their children, along with their extended family, the Daniel, John, and Walter Pearces, traveled here to the Illinois prairie by wagon to settle permanently in the summer of 1833. The four men had walked west the summer before prospecting for good land and decided the area at and near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River would be a good spot to settle. They brought their families the next year.
In 1834, John and William Wormley walked all the way to Oswego Township. According to Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian, they walked from New York State with nothing but their riﬂes and a change of clothing. The Wormleys said they averaged 36 miles per day on the trip. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty good going. U.S. Cavalry standards usually called for a march by horse units of 20 miles per day.
When they got to the mid-Fox Valley, they decided this was the area in which they wanted to settle, so they walked all the way back and brought their families out by horse and wagon the next year. Like the Pearces, descendants of the Wormleys still live in the Oswego area.
Those who travelled by wagon had a longer trip, but they could also carry a good deal more equipment and household items with them. Plows and scythes were the main farming implements packed, while the women packed spinning wheels, quilts, candle molds, and seed for the first year’s crop. Sometimes treasured furniture was brought along to make the prairie cabin more comfortable and as a reminder of their former homes and lives.
Pioneers who came by wagon sometimes brought livestock along with them, from chickens and cattle to milk cows. Cows not only could provide fresh milk and cream on the trip, as well as butter. Butter could be made after a fashion while traveling by putting cream in a covered bucket and hanging it from the rear axle of the wagon. The constant jolting and bumping and jouncing of the wagon over the prairie eventually churned the cream into butter.
Settlers who came by wagon from the settled East were in for a shock as they encountered what passed for roads farther west. Roads that were laid through wooded areas still had tree stumps left m the roadway in the 1830s and early 1840s. The stumps were generally cut within two feet of the road surface so that wagons could clear them.
Although the roads did exist, the western residents of the era didn’t seem to be real clear on the concept of government-owned roads. For instance, a traveler on the National Road from Wheeling, West Virginia to Vandalia reported during a journey to Illinois in the 1840’s that “On passing a house newly built we had to avoid a deep hole dug right in the middle of the road (this was the State Road be it remembered), from which the clay for daubing the chimney had evidently been taken. To be sure, the road was a mere track, but there was a good deal of passage on it, and it was the route of a stage carrying the mail.”
Settlers who wished to travel by flatboat first journeyed to Wheeling, Pittsburgh, or some other town on the Ohio River, where their wagon and team were exchanged in trade for a flatboat and usually some cash. The journey down the Ohio brought settlers to Shawneetown in southern Illinois where their flatboat would be traded, along with some cash, for another team and wagon for the trip to the prairies of northern Illinois. Flatboats had value because they were made of sawn lumber, something that was not overly common and so was of some value on the Illinois frontier.
For settlers with enough money, and who didn’t want to bring a lot of personal possessions or livestock with them, the quickest way to get to Illinois from Eastern states was via the Great Lakes. Steamboat travel was ﬁnally becoming commonplace in the 1840’s as a method of traversing the lakes, but sailing ships still predominated. Settlers usually got to Albany as best they could and then took the Erie Canal to Buffalo on Lake Erie. From there, they would board a steamboat for a quick passage (which was also expensive), or would take a lake schooner for a less expensive, though more leisurely (depending on the weather), sailing voyage to Chicago.
Della Agusta Southworth—later Mrs. Lyell Aldrich—an early settler in Kendall County, left an interesting record of such a sailing voyage. Mrs. Aldrich’s family came west to Illinois in 1838 when she was a 10 year-old girl.
“We took passage on the schooner ‘Detroit’ at Oswego, N.Y., on July 6, 1838, and five weeks later arrived in Chicago on Aug. 12. The Welland Canal with its 25 locks, almost one to a mile, was than not constructed to admit easy passage for so large a vessel as ours. So frequent delays occurred from running around and getting stuck in the locks. The keel had been taken off the schooner to save space, which caused her to drift in all directions.
“At Mackinac Island head winds delayed us for more than a week giving us time to visit the places of interest. When we finally reached Chicago, we sailed up the river toward the west, landing on the bank opposite the old log fort.”
It never gets old for me to compare 19th Century travel to travel today. These days, it is about a day’s drive from here to Niagara Falls via four-lane highways—no more waiting a week up at the Straits for the wind to change or the entire trip taking more than a month.
I always think it’s valuable to keep such facts in mind to offer a bit of perspective as we complain about today’s heavy traffic, gasoline prices, or road construction delays.