Tag Archives: survival

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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European colonists’ ultimate weapon: consumerism

The trade in pelts and furs between Europeans and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal parts of American history. In the end, the trade destroyed the culture of every American Indian group it touched as it pushed the “frontier” ever farther west in the search for the pelts of fur-bearing animals.

The first northern European explorers and settlers in the New World were disappointed. Unlike the gold and silver riches found in the Spanish colonies well to the south, northern North America produced little mineral wealth. But early on, the French, Dutch, and British colonials discovered that this New World abounded in rich fur bearing animals ranging from martens to mink to the beaver.

17th Century hats

Elaborate European hat fashions for both men and women from the 16th through the early 19th Century required new sources of animal fur–especially beaver pelts–to manufacture the felt need to make the hats.

The trade in furs quickly became an economic mainstay of the earliest colonies in Canada and what would one day become the United States. Furs were sought to make warm clothing and to adorn Europe’s wealthy. And beaver pelts were particularly desired because of that fur’s unique properties that resulted, when beaver fur was the basis, in the world’s finest, strongest felt. In turn, felt was important because it was necessary to make the hats demanded by 17th Century custom and fashion.

It almost seems absurd that colonization, commercial contests, and wars would be conducted over the desire for fashionable hats, but there it is.

One of the most intriguing colonial industries, the fur trade grew up around the collection of valuable furs. The French colony in Canada became the main supplier of prime furs to European manufacturers, where the local populations of fur-bearing animals had long been wiped out. Beaver and other pelts were collected during the winter months when the fur was at its thickest—called prime winter pelts in the trade—and then taken to market in the spring for shipment back to Europe.

From the 16th through the early years of the 19th Century, the fur trade was centered in Montreal and Quebec. Brigades (from the original usage of the word meaning groups or companies) of fur trade canoes left Montreal every spring to travel to posts in the interior of North America. The original route took them up the Ottawa River, over the height of land via the Grand Portage into Lake Nipissing and then down into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the northern shore of the lake through North Channel to the impressive rapids at Sault Ste. Marie and then into Lake Superior.

It took a few years until the French realized there were other Great Lakes to the south of Georgian Bay and Superior because of a strategic error made by Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s, when he allied himself with an Algonquian tribe that was fighting off an incursion by the well organized, ruthlessly efficient Iroquois. As a result of this French error, the Iroquois proceeded to eliminate any Frenchmen they found in or near Lakes Ontario, lower Huron, Erie, and Michigan for the next several decades. By the 1630s, the French had mapped Lake Superior but not the lower lakes.

Image result for Montreal canoe

Frances Hopkins painted this portrait of a brigade of Montreal canoes navigating through the fog on Lake Superior.

Eventually, however, the Iroquois relented thanks to French diplomacy, and the French began to extend their trade routes into the lower lakes. Combined forts and fur trade depots were built at Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. Each spring the canoe brigades would take trade goods to the western posts and pick up furs trapped during the winter season for transport back east. The big Montreal birch bark canoes used in the trade, 35 feet long, hauled four to six tons of cargo each. Trade goods and furs were packed into standardized bundles weighing 90 lbs. each, called “pieces,” for easier packing in the canoes and transport across the numerous portages between the western posts and Montreal.

trade silver

A selection of trade items from the late fur trade era includes a trade silver broche (top left), and cast German silver beaver, turtle, and kissing otters (bottom row).

At the forts, the trade goods were either traded directly with Indian trappers or were trans-shipped to the interior in smaller canoes. As a result, European trade goods eventually reached virtually every comer of North America. Here in Kendall County, several silver ornaments made especially for the fur trade–called trade silver—were found in the late years of the last century. In fact, trade silver became a sort of fur trade currency beginning about 1765 after the British had at last driven the French government from Canada, and continuing through the early 1800s. Also reported being found locally were brass pots, flintlock firearms, and iron trade axes—often called tomahawks. One excellent example of an iron trade ax is on display in the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

While trade silver was sought after by Indian trappers, the prime winter beaver pelt was the actual currency of the fur trade. As an indication of a single pelt’s value, in I703, one prime pelt could buy six small knives, two small axes, 10 lbs. of salt pork, a pint of lead shot, or two pints of gunpowder. In 1733, one pelt would earn a half pound of white glass beads, three-quarters of a pound of colored glass beads, one brass kettle, a pound of lead, one and a half pounds of gunpowder, or two pounds of sugar.

Image result for Hudson's bay point blanket

A traditional red four-point Hudson’s Bay Company blanket was worth four prime winter beaver pelts.

Special blankets were manufactured especially for the fur trade that featured short black stripes–or points~-woven into one edge. Each point stood for one prime beaver pelt. So a four-point blanket could be bought with four prime beaver pelts; a two point was worth two prime pelts. Replica fur trade blankets are still sold in Hudson Bay Company stores in Canada and here in the U.S. by such outlets as L.L. Bean, and they still have points woven into one edge, a direct tip of the historical beaver felt hat to the blankets’ original design and purpose.

Eventually, the fur trade companies such as the Hudson Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company became, in essence, the Indian tribes‘ employers who traded necessities for the tribes’ annual fur pelt production. In tum, Native Americans depended on the companies for food, clothing, and other necessities. By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, the fur trade had largely moved west of the Mississippi since most fur bearing animals in the Fox Valley had been eradicated. Local American Indian bands had, by that time, lost much of their unique culture and were reduced to relying on fur company and government gifts.

In the 1830s, as the fur trade moved west of the Mississippi, the lore of the mountain man was born as the U.S. began its assault on the far West. While it took nearly 200 years to eradicate fur bearing animals east of the Mississippi, the process went much faster on the shortgrass prairies and the mountain West. By the late 1850s, the fur trade era was finished virtually everywhere, with the exception of a brief resurgence during the buffalo slaughter of the 1870s.

And so here we once again find ourselves watching the seasons turn from winter to spring, the time of year when the big brigades of Montreal canoes were being readied to load up and head west along the St. Lawrence River and the last of the winter’s pelt harvest was being pressed into the 80-pound “pieces” that would be sent back east.

While land grabs and other such actions on the part of Europeans are popular reasons why Native Americans were overcome so thoroughly, the real answer seems to be that Indians were bought off by cloth blankets, iron cookware, glass beads, iron axes and flintlock muskets. In the end, consumerism did them in.

 

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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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Clarissa Stewart Hobson: A savvy, resolute pioneer wife and mother

March is Women’s History Month, and every year about this time I can’t help but think about the contributions women made to the settlement of Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.

From Christiana Holmes Tillson, who drove in a carriage from Massachusetts to Illinois with her husband in the 1820s to Juliette Kinzie who traveled on horseback with her husband from Prairie du Chein to Chicago in 1830 to the women who came to the Fox River Valley that was then the western frontier later that same decade, it’s hard to deny these were a special, hardy group females.

Hobson, Clarissa

Clarissa Stewart Hobson about 1870

Of that group the one that always seems to stick in my mind is Clarissa Stewart Hobson, who followed her husband west and found herself in circumstances that were not only isolated and extremely lonely, but which could also be profoundly dangerous.

Clarissa Hobson’s husband, Bailey, had located the family in southern Ohio near the banks of the Ohio River. Hobson soon despaired of ever clearing the heavy forest on the land he’d claimed, and so decided to prospect farther west into Illinois, where he heard there was good prairie land that didn’t need to be cleared of trees.

In May 1830, Hobson left his family and his claim in Ohio for a prospecting trip west. As Richmond and Valette put it in their 1857 history of DuPage County, “Without arms amounting to more than a jack-knife, for defense, he mounted his horse, and destitute of chart or compass, groped his way, as best he could, through the dense forests and deep ravines, and forded the bridgeless waters that lay in his course.”

He roamed as far as the Fox River of Illinois, choosing a spot in what was then called Hollenback’s Grove, now the location of Newark in southwestern Kendall County.

Hobson didn’t get back from his prospecting trip until the first of July, when he began making arrangements to sell his Ohio claim, load up the family’s possessions in a wagon, and head west. The Hobsons, their five children, and Hobson’s friend and brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, weren’t ready to leave for their new home until Sept. 1, 1830.

Hobson seems to have been a determined person, but one without much common sense. Traveling so late in the season necessarily meant no crop could be planted upon arrival in time for it to be harvested and that virtually every bit of food the family would need would have to be purchased. Further, it also meant that only the rudest sort of cabin could be erected in the short period of time until winter struck the Illinois prairies. But he didn’t let those concerns bother him.

The family spent 21 days on the road before arriving at Hollenback’s Grove, where Hobson immediately set out to build a cabin to house the family and to sow a few acres of winter wheat on the adjacent prairie. The Hobsons finally moved into their cabin in October, but the lack of supplies was already becoming a problem. So Hobson mounted his horse and, leaving the family to fend for itself, rode east looking for some food to buy. He finally found someone with some preserved pork to sell out on the Oxbow Prairie near modern Magnolia, Illinois, about 60 miles southwest of Hollenback’s Grove.

Hobson, Bailey

Bailey Hobson, about 1845

Hobson returned home, but instead of immediately hitching up his yoke of oxen and going to get the pork to stave off the family’s looming lack of food, he decided to go prospecting for better land. Leaving his family at home again with Stewart, he rode across the prairie to the DuPage River, where on the east side of the stream he found the land he thought would be a better claim.

By that time, the weather was getting pretty cold. In fact, the winter of 1830-31 would become fabled in frontier tales as “The Winter of the Early Snow.”

After being gone five days, Hobson got back home, and again deciding against going and getting the pork he’d already purchased, he and Stewart instead set off for the new claim.

By then it was December and brutal winter weather was starting to set in. Reaching the DuPage, the oxen refused to cross the stream, which was covered with ice ice, so Hobson had to break it up by walking in front of the wagon leading the team. Almost as soon as they arrived, the first major snow of that long winter hit, driving the two men from their tent camp to find shelter with a nearby settler where they waited out the storm. Then they headed back across the prairie to rejoin the Hobson family.

At this late date we can only speculate what Clarissa Hobson was thinking as her footloose husband continually wandered around the countryside instead of going and getting food for his family, which was in increasingly dire straits as Hobson and Stewart finally straggled home across the snowy prairie tired, wet, cold, and hungry.

The initial snowstorm changed to rain, then again to snow, and more rain, and then the temperature plunged, freezing the prairie solid. When the storm passed, Hobson finally decided it was time to go to the Oxbow Prairie to get the pork, leaving Stewart to look after the family. He planned to be back in ten days, but in the end, it took more than 20 days for him to return, and that without the promised pork, which had to be left behind due to continual snowstorms.

At that point, the family’s prospects were REALLY bleak. They had been subsisting solely on corn for two months, and were rapidly running out of that. The only thing Hobson could think to do was take Stewart and go back for the load of pork, reasoning that maybe the two of them could get the food through the increasingly deep snow somehow or another.

According to the account of that harrowing winter Clarissa’s family gave to Richmond and Vallette for their 1857 history of DuPage County, she reluctantly agreed, “Brushing the tears from her face, and summoning all the courage and resolution she could command, entreated him to go and leave her to do the best she could.”

Hobson and Stewart took one yoke of oxen to break a trail through the deepening snow, leaving Clarissa and the children to look after 13 head of cattle and three horses and themselves.

I’ll let Richmond and Vallette tell Clarissa’s story from that point on:

On the second day after the departure of Messrs. Hobson and Stewart, it commenced snowing and continued without interruption for two days and nights, covering the earth upon a level, three feet deep. On the third day, just at sunrise, the wind began to blow with fury from the west, and continued like a hurricane, without cessation, for three days, sweeping the snow from the ground and piling it in drifts twenty, thirty, and even forty feet high, while the atmosphere was so thick with the driving snow, as almost to turn daylight into darkness.

On the first morning of the wind storm, Mrs. Hobson, taking a pail, went to a spring a few yards from the house for some water, but before reaching the house she was compelled to throw the water upon the ground and make all possible haste back. The children opened the door for her, which, being in the west side of the house, it required all their strength to close again. It was not opened again until after the storm had subsided. The snow, which was constantly driving into the house, supplied them with water; but who shall describe the feelings of that mother, as alone with her little ones, the days dragged wearily along, while her mind was filled with the most fearful apprehensions. Husband or brother she should in all probability see no more. Her children might perish in her sight, while a like fate awaited herself. It was, indeed, a severe trial of endurance, and needed all the fortitude of her soul to sustain such agonizing reflections while the raging storm swept around her solitary dwelling.

After the wind had ceased, Mrs. Hobson went out to look after the cattle and horses, but could discover nothing of them, and concluded they had been covered in the snow-drifts and perished. The day passed without any of them making their appearance. The next morning they all came around from the east side of the grove, whither they had fled and remained during the storm.

The fuel which had been prepared and put in the house was now exhausted, while that which had been left outside was embedded in a deep snow drift. The only alternative was to dig this wood out of the snow with a pick-ax, and Mrs. Hobson accordingly set about it, working and resting alternately, as her strength would permit. Weak and faint from hunger, and with hands frozen and blistered, she worked on day after day, unable to get out more wood than would barely serve from one day to another. A cow, that was accustomed to being fed at the door came into the house one day and seemed to reel, as if about to fall. Mrs. Hobson pushed her outside of the door, when she immediately fell dead. Fearing that the wolves, which were very plenty and hungry, would come to the door to feed upon the carcass, she covered it deep in the snow.

On the fourteenth day after his departure, Hobson returned with some provisions, leaving Stewart at Holderman’s grove with a part of the oxen that were unable to finish the trip. On his arrival, he found the wood which they had prepared, all consumed, and Mrs. Hobson tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for fuel.

Hobson, Clarissa Stewart

Clarissa Hobson, about 1880

The Hobsons were an extremely lucky family in that they survived “The Winter of the Deep Snow” with their lives, because so many other prairie settlers did not.

When Spring finally arrived, Hobson left Kendall County for good, and moved his family to their new claim on the DuPage where he built the gristmill that became the basis for his later fortune. There, Clarissa bore seven more children.

Hobson died in 1850, but Clarissa lived on at the claim the family moved to in 1831 for three more decades until her death in 1884 (outliving six of her children), her life a testament to the hardihood, resilience, and bravery of the women who pioneered the Illinois prairies alongside their husbands.

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