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Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “So level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.


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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

The long search for one town’s clean drinking water

Among the things we tend to take for granted these days—until its supply gets interrupted anyway—is water available when we turn on the taps in our homes. The safe water that comes out of the faucets in our homes and businesses has become so common a thing, in fact, that any interruption in the supply is big news.

But there was a time, of course, when there was no running water available in homes and businesses. And the assurance of safe, clean drinking water is an even newer development.

I got to thinking about the topic the other day while I was taking my morning post-exercise shower. Having hot and cold running water in our homes has become so common we really don’t think much about it any more. But as recently as my early childhood, automatic water heaters weren’t enjoyed by everyone, and some homes in our little corner of northern Illinois still relied on outhouses—privies—in place of in-house bathrooms.

The story of the quest for reliable fresh water supplies is one of those topics that seems so mundane as to not matter much at all. But at one time, the lack of safe drinking water was a literal matter of life or death from waterborne diseases such at typhoid fever. And the hazard didn’t depend on whether people were rich or poor, either. The husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861.

Even during pioneer days, using Waubonsie Creek’s water for drinking or cooking was problematical; you never knew who or what was using it upstream. (Little White School Museum collection)

When my hometown of Oswego was settled in the early 1830s, most of the surface water in the area was relatively safe to drink. The pioneers selected their new village’s site because it was situated at a good, hard-bottomed ford across the Fox River. Waubonsie Creek, that flowed through the community, as well as the smaller Bartlett’s Run provided fresh running water, as did the numerous springs that dotted the bluffs along the creek and river.

Those were adequate sources for the earliest arrivals, but as settlement continued area wetlands were drained and farming tended to create harmful runoff from silt to animal waste into streams and springs alike. The reaction was to hand-dig wells, but given Oswego’s underlayment with a thick layer of hard limestone that was often unsuccessful, making those earliest wells if not rare at least sparse throughout the community.

Margaret Phillips Young, who arrived as a youngster with her parents in 1839, remembered it was her job as a child to carry water for the family’s cooking and drinking needs.

“In ’41 Mr. Towle rented the tavern and built a home, which is now the Hinchman house,” she recalled in 1906. “There I met Mrs. Towle. I loved to look at her as at a beautiful picture, and often wondered if she knew my scrutiny was admiration or thought it impertinence. I saw her every day the first summer we lived here, for I had to carry the water for housekeeping from that place to the west side of Main street, where we lived and as I was allowed only a five quart tin bucket I made many trips.”

When it came to washing clothes, drinking water was too precious to use for that purpose, so families used Waubonsie Creek.

Margaret Phillips Young again: “I must not forget to mention the sawmill on Waubonsie creek, built by the Hopkins brothers…And there being no cisterns in the place and not many wells the women had a place to wash under the trees at the creek. If there came a shower they would seek shelter in the mill.”

During dry spells, even hand-dug wells, much less the springs in the area, could either dry up completely or become extremely reduced in flow. Wrote the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Jan. 30, 1869: “The thermometer on Tuesday morning at seven o’clock showed 16 below zero—it was still; no wind stirring. There is prospect of a dry month in February. Water is very scarce, most of our citizens are hauling ice from the river to get water for washing, etc.”

And on Dec. 5, 1872, the Record reported from Yorkville: “The continued drought is getting troublesome if not serious. Wells in this vicinity are very low and many do not afford a pail of water a day. Cisterns are also dry, and housekeepers have to get ice from the river for washing and culinary purposes. Rain is needed badly.”

Oswego Postmaster and Kendall County Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank watched Oswego history unfold from this frame building in the midst of the community’s downtown. He built the post office in 1874 and lived in its second floor apartment. After his death, he willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it became the community’s first library. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next week, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, addressed the same issue, noting that the reduction in well water levels and the disappearance of springs had become noticeable and that possibly it was time to consider a municipal water supply: “Items this week are not very plenty with me and in the order of making my communication of the usual length, I undertook to fill up with the water question, but in trying to show the necessity of a public water supply in this town, to explain why by digging wells we cannot reach water a readily as heretofore, why springs are drying up, why there is so much less rain than formerly, and why water is getting continually scarcer, I got into water so deep that I had to back out for this time.”

Drought wasn’t the only problem with the town’s hand-dug wells, either. In 1835, Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold had laid out the original village of Oswego, consisting of 20 blocks, each block bisected by two perpendicular allies and containing eight lots, each measuring 66 x 132 feet. With lots that small it was difficult to assure that the hand-dug wells of the era were a safe distance away from the household privy. And that meant that waterborne diseases such as typhoid were distressingly common.

It would take a while for the connection between tainted drinking water and disease to be made, but when it was, attempts began to try to supply municipal residents with clean drinking water supplies.

While village officials and residents were looking at safe drinking water options, typhoid was a regular visitor to the community. For instance, the Record reported from Oswego on Nov. 13, 1873 that: “Nov. 13: James Shumway is quite sick with the typhoid fever; one of his daughters is also sick. Mrs. S. has been on a visit to the New England States and was expected home yesterday.”

Actually, in Oswego, the efforts to provide sufficient drinking water for horses in the downtown area were initially considered to be of more importance to residents than a safe municipal supply for humans. In October 1875, the village financed construction of a windmill, holding tank, and stock tank at street level at what is today 60 Main Street, then the vacant site of the old National Hotel that had burned in 1867.

Rank reported from Oswego on Oct. 21 that “The water trough by the post office will soon be a reality; Kuchl is doing the excavating work. Theron Richards and Bis Hunt are constructing the tower and the Marshall Wind Engine Co. will put up the wind mill; the National well is used for the supply of the water,” adding on Dec. 2 that “The town authorities caused the erection of a building over the supply water tank, the casing, sawdust interlining and covering of the trough, the painting of the whole, including the windmill tower, the laying of the flagstones around the trough, and the putting down of tile for the drainage of that part of the street.”

Oswego’s village fathers, with the health and comfort of downtown business customers’ teams in mind, were at first more interested in providing watering tanks for livestock than a municipal watering supply. (Little White School Museum collection)

The supply was not only used by horses of downtown residents and those visiting businesses there, but also by the residents themselves, a less than optimal situation. Rank’s suggestion that an actual municipal water supply might be a good idea continued to percolate through the community.

As it was, the village was finding out that providing even minimal water service involved regular maintenance. By 1881, the lack of maintenance and regular cleaning of the supply tank, as well as failure to maintain the windmill meant the whole system was failing badly. Wrote an exasperated Rank of its condition that September: “Our public watering tank is a nuisance. The thing is either dry or else it will contain some water slimy enough to make an alligator puke to drink it.”

In 1885, the village decided to have a well dug with the aim of supplying municipal water to the village’s downtown area. The well was apparently dug on the crest of the bluff in the area of Van Buren and Washington streets and was spring-fed. Its flow, when completed, was directed using a hydraulic ram downtown via 3” iron pipes buried in Van Buren and Main streets. As laid, the water main ran down Van Buren Street to a stable on the west side of the street, just north of South Adams Street. At Main Street, a “T” was installed along with a running fountain and watering tank. From there the water main ran up the street to the downtown business district. In front of the post office in the middle of the block between Washington and Jackson streets, the main crossed to the west side of the street until it got to Jackson Street, where it crossed back to the east side of the street before ending in a running fountain and watering tank in front of the livery stable at the corner of Main and Jackson.

Virtually all of the buildings downtown connected to the municipal water supply.

But the hydraulic ram system soon proved both unreliable and inadequate. On both the 1885 and 1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps of downtown Oswego, the fire insurance company rated Oswego’s municipal water facilities as “Not Good.”

By 1894, it was clear the water system was simply not functioning well or safely, and the village board began looking into a better well, erecting a water tower, and installing larger water mains throughout the village. Plans slowly moved ahead before Chicago Bridge and Iron submitted the low bid on the new system’s elevated tank and other parts excepting the water mains themselves.

Not that everyone in town was in favor of spending the money to upgrade the system, of course. Many long-time residents, including Record correspondent Rank, weren’t convinced the new-fangled pressurized system would be worth the money it was costing the village government to install it.

The basswood tank on Oswego’s first water tower under construction in 1895. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on installing the system didn’t begin until April 1895. In the April 24 Record, Rank reported that “The building of the new waterworks was commenced Monday without being accompanied by any special ceremonies. It should have been delayed a few days longer; being it is a work of great importance, all risks should be avoided including that of commencing it on a waning moon. Three days later would have brought it in the new of the moon. The contract for the mason work was taken by Frank Swanson.”

The new system called for larger mains and servicing more of the village with municipal water. The old 3” mains, however, were to be maintained in the downtown business district.

On July 3, the Record reported the water tower had been finished, with iron legs holding up the huge basswood tank measuring 20 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall. A gasoline engine powered the pump to temporarily draw water from two wells, the old one dug several years before, and a new one on the site of the water tower, with the new permanent engine on order and expected to arrive soon.

“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost,” Rank wrote. “They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has. The new well was walled up by Frank Swanson; in order to do the work a pump throwing an eight-inch stream of water was kept going constantly for three days and three nights; it pumped dry pretty much all the wells of the neighborhood. The well contains now ten feet of water. The engine is expected to be set up Tuesday. The job is nicely done, and the gang of men that did it are very clever fellows and got along with our folks splendidly.”

Oswego’s first firefighters with their new hose cart, purchased by the village, August 1895, Washington at Tyler Street, Oswego. The new water tower, completed earlier that year, is in the background. (Little White School Museum Collection)

With the village’s municipal water supply in operation, Oswego also decided to establish a permanent fire brigade. The village purchased a high-wheeled hose cart and canvas fire hose, all to be housed in the village hall on Washington Street. Eventually a fire bell was purchased and a tower for it and to hang wet hoses to dry was added to the building. A volunteer fire brigade was established consisting of 20 members to staff the new equipment.

Expanding the municipal system to more areas of the village began in early summer 1896. By late fall, 6” and 4” water mains had been laid with more installed the following summer, the job largely completed by July 1897.

The water system got it’s first test in an emergency in early fall 1897 when fires, just hours apart, broke out in the downtown business district on Sept. 8. Thanks to the village’s new hose cart, volunteer fire brigade, and pressurized water system, though, both blazes were quickly extinguished.

One of the fires was in the old Star Roller Skating Rink, which was next door to the Oswego Post Office. The post office building was owned by Record correspondent Rank, who was also the village postmaster. In addition, Rank lived in an apartment above the post office. So the fire brigade’s quick work dousing the second blaze that day was of special interest to him. It also caused him to change his mind about the usefulness of Oswego’s new municipal water system.

“So now, here it goes,” he wrote in his apology for opposing the water system in the Sept. 15 Record. “We are a miserable set of poltroons and nincompoops, a blight upon the earth which would revolve much easier if it wasn’t for us…May we soon be extinct and long may wave the enthusiasts of the water works.”

The Oswego water tower with the new 65,000 gallon steel tank that replaced the old wooden tank in 1906. (Little White School Museum collection)

While the new system was indeed working even better than village officials had hoped, there were still some problems, primarily the continual leakage of the wooden water tank atop the water tower. As a result, in the spring of 1906, the village board voted to replace the old tank with a new steel tank.

As Rank wrote in the March 14 Record, “About ten or 12 years ago the old basswood tank was erected on the street that leads to the Plainfield Road. The tank has seen its better day and for the last year has been in a decrepit condition Friday night at a special meeting of the [village] board, Mayor Cutter gaveled through a motion to erect a new one, which is sorely needed.”

Kottoe & Bro. of Aurora won the contract to dismantle the old tank and install the new one. As specified, the new tank was to be manufactured of 5/16” soft steel and measure  18 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. It was to be set on the old tower, which was judged to be sturdy enough to handle the new tank. Officials said the additional height and smaller diameter of the new tank was estimated to give about 10 more pounds of water pressure in the downtown business district.

With the new tank installed, the water tower would stand at a total height of 125 feet, with a capacity of 65,000 gallons of water. Another new innovation possible with the steel tank was a hatch in the tank’s side at the bottom to allow it to be regularly cleaned, something impossible with the old tank.

And as it turned out, the old tank really did need some cleaning.

The new water tower under construction in 1958 to replace the old 1895 tower. This tower, in turn, was replaced by a newer, larger water tower in 2005. (Little White School Museum collection)

Village residents were shocked at what they found when the old tank was demolished. As Rank reported on July 11, 1906: “We Oswegoans were all along congratulating ourselves for enjoying such excellent water: Water that was so pure and free of any taste or smells. We were happy in being blessed with such good and healthful water. When it came to the taking down of the old tank recently it was found there was a heap of dead and decaying sparrows in it; it caused some of us copious water drinkers to almost gag when we heard of it; the beer trade doubtless was considerably increased by it. Let the new water tank be made sparrow proof.”

That new steel tank atop its tower legs served the community well for nearly 50 years until a new, much larger, water tower was built to replace it in 1958. For those of us who grew up in Oswego, the old tank was a landmark, one that was especially prized in summers when the automatic shut-off on the pump failed. That caused the tank to overflow like a landlocked Niagara Falls, word of which quickly spread around town so that those of us with ready access to bicycles could ride through the refreshing—though admittedly vigorous—cascade.

In 1900, Oswego’s population stood at just 619. By 1950, it had doubled to 1,220. And with post-World War II growth just beginning, in 1960, the population had risen to 1,510. And from then on it never slowed down, doubling again by 1980 and again by 2000.

Today, Oswego’s population stands at right around 35,000 and its municipal water system of eight wells and five water towers sometimes struggles to keep up with demand, particularly during hot, dry summer months. Recently, the village board announced plans to join a consortium of other area municipal water users who will tap into Lake Michigan’s water to supply their customers, something that would have certainly astonished those village residents in 1895 suspicious about that newfangled water tower idea.

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From Scotland to Illinois: Isabella Harkness’s account.

Well, here we are in March, also known as Women’s History Month. In honor of the month’s designation, I started looking back through our collection of manuscripts and diaries down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego and among other treasures came across the account Isabella Harkness left of her family’s early travels from her native Scotland to the Midwestern prairies in northern Illinois.

Isabella Harkness, the oldest of 10 children, was born 18 May 1825 in Bowden, Roxburghshire, Scotland to Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness. When she was 15, the Harkness family immigrated from Scotland to New York State, settling near Lake Champlain. In 1846, the family moved to Crown Point, N.Y. on Lake Champlain.

Looking for a better life, Andrew Harkness moved his family west to Kendall County, Illinois between 1849 and 1850. Andrew and Janette and their living children all went in 1849 except daughters Isabella and Margaret, and one son, James, who stayed behind at Crown Point.

In 1850, the three adult siblings still living in New York moved west to Illinois to join the family.

Isabella Harkness in an undated portrait taken many years after her exciting trip from Crown Point, New York, to Kendall County, Illinois in 1850.

Isabella Harkness in an undated portrait taken many years after her exciting trip from Crown Point, New York, to Kendall County, Illinois in 1850.

Isabella’s short handwritten journal includes a brief account of the family’s move from Scotland to the United States, and a longer, day-by-day diary of the Harkness siblings’ 16-day trip from Crown Point up Lake Champlain by steamboat, on by rail to the Erie Canal, and then to Buffalo by canal boat. At Buffalo, they boarded a steam packet for Chicago. They then traveled west by horse and wagon, arriving at the Harkness farm in Kendall County on 21 May 1850.

Isabella worked as a domestic “hired girl” for two farm families during 1851, the account of which is found in her 1851 diary, a copy of which is also in the collections of the Little White School Museum at Oswego. On 4 March 1852 she married John Dunn, a native of England, born 18 May 1825 in Bowden, Roxburghshire. They bought what is now known as the Ament farm in 1854 where Isabella, despite getting a somewhat late start in life for her family, bore nine children.

John Dunn died on 21 December 1901, and Isabella followed on 11 April 1915. They are buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Yorkville, Illinois.

Here is Isabella’s story. I have only changed it by adding punctuation and capitalizing words at the beginning of sentences; otherwise, this is Isabella’s story just as she wrote it:


I was born in 1825, May 18 about 45 miles south from Edinburgh in Scotland. There being a large family of us, I was the oldest, and Father thought that by removing to America he would be better able to provide for us, so on the 1st of April 1840, we embarked for America. On the 27th of the same month we landed at New York

We settled in the Northern part of the State of NY in the bosom of a wild American forest. It was but very thinly settled our house being 8 miles from any other house. We lived there 6 years. Then we moved to Crown point on Lake Champlain, and there we buried a brother aged 3 years and 7 months, and a Sister 5 years and 4 months. They both died in 1847. In 1849 the family all left Crown Point excepting a brother & Sister & myself to go to Illinois. From that time I lived in a respected family to do house work and sewing until May 1850 when I also started for the West.


A journey from the State of NY to Ills

The time has now arrived that I must leave Crown Point and go to that far distant West. I have bid my acquaintances and associates farewell perhaps for ever. I have looked for the last time at the Brick Church that stands on the green, where I have sat and listened with deep interest to the good and solemn voice of our dear Minister Mr. Herrick.

I have been into the graveyard and looked at the two graves of our departed Brother and Sister and picked a few of the remaining rose leaves that grow by the side of their graves. There was nothing but silence there. I took the last lingering look hoping to meet them in a better and brighter worked above where we shall meet to part no more.

Monday May 6th 1850

I went down to the Lake accompanied by James and Margaret. It was about 10 o’clock. We waited until 2 and the boat did not come. We went to Mr. Hammonds. We was very tired.  After we eat some dinner we went and lay down and slept about 2 hours, and felt quite rested. We did not go to bed again that night. About 12 o’clock we called up Mr. H. and James. We made some tea and felt quite refreshed.

Tuesday 7th

We went down to the Lake about 1 o’clock in the morning and went on to the Burlington. The boat was very much crowded. We got to Whitehall about 7 in the morning and stopped a little while at the Phoenix Hotel. We went on to the [railroad] cars at half past 7 and had a very pleasant ride. The seats were cushioned and made very comfortable. We got to Schnectady [Schenectady] about 2 in the afternoon and went to Fowler’s Hotel and took dinner. We stayed their all day as the Canal Boat was not ready. Margaret & James went out a shopping and bought a few articles.

Wednesday 8th

A typical Erie Canal passenger packet boat of the 1850s. Packet canal and steamboats sailed on regular schedules. Regular cargo vessels of the era only sailed when they had full cargoes.

A typical Erie Canal passenger packet boat of the 1850s. Packet canal and steamboats sailed on regular schedules. Regular cargo vessels of the era only sailed when they had full cargoes.

We went on to the Canal Boat called William H. Edda, and took Breakfast. The boat started at 1 o’clock. It was very pleasant. I went up on deck and looked all around and saw a great many new places. We was very much [unreadable]. We got along very well. At night there was 18 berths put up for the Ladies. I believe they were all filled.

Thursday 9th

We are still on the Canal boat. It is very cold and rainy and the wind blows. It is very unpleasant.

Friday 11th

This morning when we got up we had got to Utica. We hurried off from the boat as they wanted to weigh it. It is still very cold. It snowed some. About 3 o’clock we got to Rome.

Saturday 11th

It is quite pleasant today. About noon we got to Syracuse and saw where they make salt.

Sunday 12th

It does not seem much like Sunday. Every thing is going on just as any other day. We have come through Clyde, Lyons, Newark. Margaret and myself and 2 or 3 others got off and walked about 2 miles and then we came to Palmyra. We closed the day in singing some hymns.

Sailing across the aqueduct over the Genesee River in Rochester, N.Y. was one of the more spectacular experiences of Erie Canal travelers. This photo of the aqueduct was taken about 1897. It was later converted into the Broad Street Bridge. (Rochester Public Library collection)

Sailing across the aqueduct over the Genesee River in Rochester, N.Y. was one of the more spectacular experiences of Erie Canal travelers. This photo of the aqueduct was taken about 1897. It was later converted into the Broad Street Bridge. (Rochester Public Library collection)

Monday 13th

It is very pleasant and warm to day. I have been up on deck most all day. We have come through Rochester. It is a very large and beautiful place. We crossed the Aqueduct over the Genesee river. In the after noon we came through Brockport. How pleasant it is to see the peach trees all in blossom.

Tuesday 14th

It is very pleasant again this morning. There was a little girl about 2 years old fell over-board. The Agent jumped over and got her out. She was not hurt but wet and frightened. We have come through Medina and Middleport and Rynels Basin. How pleasant it is to see the trees looking green and some of them white with the blossoms. About sun-down we got to Lockport where went through 5 locks all close together.

Wednesday 15th

This morning when we got up we had got to Buffalo. We went to the Merchants Hotel and took breakfast. It is a very large building. There is winding stairs goes clear up to the top of the house

The Empire, seen here in an 1850 illustration, was similar in design to the Key Stone State and other better quality steam packets that traveled between Buffalo and Chicago.

The Empire, seen here in an 1850 illustration, was similar in design to the Key Stone State and other better quality steam packets that traveled between Buffalo and Chicago.

I went out and walked up and down several streets until I blistered my feet. We went on to the Steam Boat in the morning. It was called the Key Stone State. It was the largest and most splendid boat I had seen in a great while. We had a cabin passage and every thing as comfortable as we could wish for.

Thursday 16th

It is very pleasant this morning. There is no wind and the boat goes very smooth.

Friday 17th

Last night we had a hard storm and several of the windows are broken. In the forenoon we was on the river St. Clair, in the afternoon we got on to Lake Huron,  The lake began to be very rough. A great many of the passengers were sea sick. James & Margaret were both sick. I did not feel sick at all.

Saturday 18th

This morning the lake is still rough. I feel a little sea sick to day. This after noon we came to Machinak [Mackinac] where they catch a great many fish.

Sunday 19th

we are now on lake Michigan. in the afternoon we got to Millwakie [Milwaukee] and all the families that came with us all the way left us here. But we have formed new acquaintances but still they are strangers to us. After they had all left the boat, it was so much lighter and the wind blew and tossed it up and down. The lake was very rough, so much so that the piano, and tables, and sofa, were moved out of there places. They had to fasten them to keep them from being broken to pieces. We was all sea-sick and glad to lie down on the carpet.

Chicago about 1850 in a panoramic view from Lake Michigan. Illustration from History of Chicago. From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. (3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1888) by Alfred T. Andreas.

Chicago about 1850 in a panoramic view from Lake Michigan. Illustration from History of Chicago. From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. (3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1888) by Alfred T. Andreas.

Monday 20th

We had got all most to Chicago. We could not eat much breakfast. The Lake was still rough. We are glad now the boat has got to Chicago. We soon got a man to carry us to Mr. Wrights. They had been expecting us, and received us very kindly. In the afternoon we went out and called on a few of our acquaintances that had left Crown Point a few years before.

Tuesday 21st

We are now about 50 miles from our new home. We had to travel the rest of the way in a wagon. The roads were very dusty. When we got to Naperville we stopped at the New York house and took dinner. The road seemed very long to us. When we came within a few miles of the place we saw some children that appeared to be coming from school. We asked them who was there teacher as we knew that Sarah was teaching. They said her name was Harkness and that she boarded at the next house. She did not know us at first but soon found out and got into the wagon and road home with us.

When we got in sight of the house we saw Betsy with a pail in her hand watering her flower beds. She threw the pail and ran to meet us. She was like to tears and all to pieces. Christina was also glad to see us, and little Mary said now the “dils have tum”  they all appeared to be happy and enjoying good health.

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