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Our Pioneer Roots: Stephen and Hononegah Mack

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The marriage of Stephen and Hononegah Mack led to an interesting future for the Rock River Valley. Janine Pumilia explores the Macks’ role in our region’s history and unveils how Macktown Living History keeps their stories alive.

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Nearly 200 years ago, a young fur trader from Vermont stepped out of his canoe with big plans to put down roots here. He was the first of several adventurous East Coast men to scout locations, stake claims and build the Rock River communities we know today.

Stephen Mack Jr. came from a large, ambitious family. His father, Stephen Mack Sr., fought in the Revolutionary War at age 16, established a fur trading post in Detroit and founded Pontiac, Mich.

While father was taming the Michigan wilderness, mother Temperance Bond Mack was back in Vermont raising her brood of 12 children, including three sets of twins, and seeing to their proper education. Later, she would journey to the Midwest and, as an elderly widow, would join an 1848 Mormon wagon train caravan from Illinois to Utah, which was then part of Mexico.

The Mack family had grit. It’s not hard to see why Stephen Mack Jr. believed he could build a town in the northern Illinois wilderness.

“Our region was built by people who had integrity and were willing to work hard,” notes Connie Gleasman, Macktown Living History Second Sundays coordinator.

Indeed, numerous people who knew Mack described him as an honest man of his word. He was bright, hardworking and kind.
In 1818, Mack dropped out of a Boston college after illness depleted his funds. He joined his father in Michigan and learned about the fur trade, land speculation and town development. He chose to make his home in the Rock River Valley after hearing of its beauty and bounty from voyageurs in Wisconsin.

After paddling here in 1820, Mack worked for the American Fur Co. and for himself, spending summers in Fort Dearborn (later called Chicago) and scouting sites for a settlement. He clerked at a Grand Detour-area trading post near a Winnebago/Potawatomi village. This is probably where he met a girl from those tribes named Hononegah, whom he would marry in 1829.

Tradition holds that Mack paid Hononegah’s family “two fine horses, two saddles and two blankets” when they wed. He was 31; she was about 15. This mixed-race couple and their nine children would become our county’s founding family – and a fitting symbol of the extraordinary moment in history when two very different cultures co-existed here.

Like the overlap of circles in a Venn diagram, the Macks bridged both worlds.

Hononegah

There’s no evidence to indicate Hononegah was a princess or even a chief’s daughter. This cherished myth is the first one local historians dispel, but they do so with kindness. By all accounts, Hononegah earned her reputation as a generous, talented woman who was highly regarded by settlers and natives alike.

“There’s just nothing to support the princess theory,” says Ami Sommerfield, a member of the Macktown Living History Board of Directors. “She was orphaned at a young age and placed in the care of uncles, who likely lived in the Grand Detour [Ill.]area.”

Background documentation about Hononegah is scarce.

“She was English illiterate, so we have no letters to ‘hear’ her voice, and we have no known photos of her or Mack, although we do have several photos of their descendants,” explains Linda Sonneson, board secretary, Rockton Township Historical Society. With her husband, Don, Sonneson has traveled the U.S. collecting letters and other documents related to the Mack family.

Hononegah was likely born in the Madison, Wis., area in about 1814. Once married, she gave birth nearly every two years until her death at age 33 from “bilious fever” in 1847. Eight of her nine children grew to adulthood; son Henry Clay Mack, age 9, died in 1849 and is buried alongside his parents at Macktown.

Re-enactors gather at Macktown Living History Center to reconstruct the time period in which Mack and Hononegah settled the banks of the Rock River.

Re-enactors gather at Macktown Living History Center to reconstruct the time period in which Mack and Hononegah settled the banks of the Rock River. (Jon McGinty photo)

Romantic stories about Hononegah rescuing Mack from angry tribes or nursing him back to health abound, but are likely embellished or fictional, perhaps conflated with tales of Indian princesses like Pocahontas.

Reliable accounts tell us Hononegah was devoted to her family and community. She was an excellent seamstress, gifted in color design and beadwork. She chose to wear tribal clothing but dressed her children in settler apparel. She nursed the sick and dying, and was familiar with medicinal herbs.

Local historian/author Dean McMakin describes Hononegah as a “woman for her time” in “Hononegah: A New Biography.” McMackin sifts fact from folklore but Hononegah emerges no less remarkable for it. He writes:
“At the time of her birth, the world of the red man prevailed with only an occasional white adventurer who dared to venture forth into that world,” says McMakin. “By the time of her death, the red man was gone and was replaced by the white man and the white man’s institutions. Somewhere in the middle was Hononegah’s world where two dissimilar cultures coexisted in peace and harmony, both benefiting from their mutual contact.”

McMakin continues, “Hononegah successfully navigated both cultures and reveled in that experience, and when it was over, it was almost as if she then withered away and died.

“Hononegah was a remarkable woman. How could she not have been, for in her brief life of 33 years she left such an indelible impression on her generation that for many years to follow, her life would continue to be a source of discussion, and her character held in the same high esteem which was earned by her husband.”

In short, Hononegah’s lofty place in public memory was earned, not handed down by lineage.

An Extraordinary Moment

To understand the remarkable moment in which the Macks lived, some context is helpful.

Illinois gained statehood in 1818, just before Mack arrived in 1820, but most early settlers lived far south and along the Mississippi River. Northern Illinois was still wilderness inhabited only by migrating tribes that included the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk), Potawotomie, Menominee, Sauk and Fox. They had long interacted with French-Canadian voyageurs who passed through to hunt or trade, but had not faced white men who planned to put down roots. When settlers finally arrived, they came from the East Coast.

Between 1820 and Mack’s death in 1850, Fort Dearborn became Chicago and swelled from 100 residents to 30,000; Galena, Ill., rose and fell as a mining boomtown; and Mack witnessed the Illinois settler population explode from 35,000 to more than 800,000.

Conversely, he saw the native population dwindle to nearly zero as they were pushed west, were killed by the U.S. militia or perished from white man’s diseases. In contrast to every neighboring state, Illinois set aside zero acres for reservations.

Our region really was the very heart of the “wild frontier” in the 1820s and ’30s.

“A lot of people don’t realize that this was the West,” notes Sommerfield. “This is where all the action was in those decades.” The Gold Rush wouldn’t begin until the late 1840s.

Rock River Valley towns were founded by East Coast individuals who valued opportunity more than comfort. They journeyed here by the power of animals, river rafts or their own feet; trains weren’t yet an option. Black bears, wolves, bison and mountain lions lived here. Wilderness survival skills were essential. Weather, illness, hunger and strangers posed danger.

The sacrifices made by pioneers is difficult for us to fathom. They parted with family members, knowing they would never see them again. This, above all, amazes Ray Ferguson, president of the Macktown Living History Board of Directors.

“I still can’t get over the way people left their families behind and sometimes their countries behind, venturing into places they knew very little about,” says Ferguson. “I just can’t imagine leaving loved ones, not knowing if you’ll ever see them again or even be able to correspond by mail.”

“To appreciate what we have in our lives now, we need to appreciate what the people who came before us went through,” says Marilyn Mohring, president of Rockton Township Historical Society. “It also makes us wiser when planning our future.”

Life Together

After the Macks married in 1829, they lived in the Grand Detour area a short time. It’s likely they also lived in Bird’s Grove (now Hononegah Forest Preserve), where Mack set up a trading post. But they spent most of their married lives at the site where Mack chose to build his settlement, on the south side of the confluence of the Rock and Pecatonica rivers. There he staked a claim in 1834, along with three partners: Joseph Thibault of Madison/Beloit and, from Chicago, Jean Baptiste Beaubien and John Bradstreet. Mack reasoned that direct access to two rivers, each more than 100 miles long, would provide settlers with economic opportunity for trading and merchandizing. He established a ferry business in 1841 and, with state approval, built the first bridge ever to exist over the Rock River, mostly with his own funds.

Mack named his community “Pecatonic,” meaning “slow water.” Others called it Mack’s town, which shortened to Macktown. It grew to about 300 settlers in its 1840s heyday. (The village of Pecatonica, Ill., is a different town founded in 1869.)

Mack thought Pecatonic was ideally located for the future steamships he fully expected to dock on his riverbank.

A believer in education, Mack dedicated part of a building he owned as a schoolroom and paid for the teacher’s salary. He also recruited cabinetmaker Sylvester Stevens, cobbler Henry Bates and blacksmith William Shores to Pecatonic.

It is theorized that the Macks built and, for a time, lived inside a timber framed double-penned building later called Hayes Tavern. We know for certain that, in 1839, Mack built a Greek Revival-style two-story framed home that was considered the finest residence between Chicago and Galena. It had a full basement, plaster walls, a water collection system and a painted exterior that could be seen easily by river traffic. It still stands today, having been in constant use by the Macks, tenant farmers, the forest preserve caretaker, the Rockton Township Historical Society and now Macktown Living History.

The Mack home was a bustling place, filled not only with a growing family, but also people who needed Hononegah’s care, both native and white. Mack’s assistant, Narcisse Levaque, lived with the family for 10 years and stated in a deposition to the Winnebago Mixed Blood panel that “Mack was a generous man who had always been friendly to the Indians and during his employment by others had provided blankets and other matters to them at his own expense.” He added, “The Mack home was seldom without Indians.”

The Macks were not the only mixed-race couple living in Pecatonic; mixed marriages were not uncommon on the frontier. Still, some settlers looked down on men with “squaw” wives. We know from witness accounts that Mack was quick to quash criticism of his wife or her race. In 1840, he remarried her in a ceremony conducted by Justice of the Peace William Hulin to make sure his children would be recognized as legal heirs.

Eli and Sophronia Hayes moved into the timber-framed double penned building thought to be previously occupied by the Macks. They operated Hayes Tavern, which was less a tavern than a place where visitors passing through town were welcome to stay. In 1846, William and Anna Whitman built a limestone house and store called Whitman Trading Post that still stands today.

Mack was a busy founding father, family man, businessman, farmer and civic leader. He was appointed many thankless duties, from election judge to “commissioner for improvement to Rock River.”

The workload for Stephen and Hononegah Mack was exhausting, as he described in letters to siblings who begged him to come visit them. He badly wanted to, but just couldn’t get away because of responsibilities to his family, townfolk and business associates.

After a bout of poor health, Mack privately complained to his sister Harriet in an 1847 letter: “I am barely able to attend to my affairs and to add to my vexations I am constantly charged with some unprofitable public duties or other …”

Pecatonic’s Decline

From the start, fate presented Mack with enormous obstacles.
• Land speculation in the early ’30s was frenzied, as East Coast investors backed adventurers like Mack. But bad policy by U.S. President Andrew Jackson led to bank closures and plummeting real estate values during the Panic of 1837; recovery took about five years.
• Mack’s financial partner, John Bradstreet, was murdered in Iowa and his partner John Baptiste Beaubien was forced to pull out of his investments due to financial problems not of his own making.
­• Although county officials had promised to maintain the Rock River Bridge if Mack built it, they reneged and then allowed a second bridge to be built a short distance away, at the present site of the Rockton Bridge we know today. This shifted road traffic away from Pecatonic.
• Over-hunting caused a decline of the fur trade that had earlier supplied river traffic to Pecatonic.
• The steamships Mack expected to come never materialized. Just two arrived and both docked on the opposite side of the river.
• Mack’s cousin and mercantile partner, Merril Mack, died in 1844, sticking Mack with surprise debts of $4,000 to $5,000.

Meanwhile, the Talcott family’s Rockton community just across the river was booming. They had bet on river power and dug a millrace that immediately paid off when a grist mill, saw mill and furniture factory opened, attracting settlers.
“The river power turned out to be the right bet,” notes Dr. Rochelle Lurie, a Macktown Living History board member and archaeologist.

Re-enactors at Macktown Living History Center bring the early 1800s to life. (Jon McGinty photo)

Re-enactors at Macktown Living History Center bring the early 1800s to life. (Jon McGinty photo)

Heartache struck Mack in 1847, when Hononegah fell sick for several months and died in September. Much of the family had been ill that summer and Mack hadn’t been well for a year.

That year, in an October letter to his sister Lovicy, Mack mourns Hononegah. Lovicy had enquired whether Hononegah was Christian.

“Lovicy, if I know what a Christian is, she was one. She not only died a Christian but she had lived one. Not by profession but by her every act. Her every deed proclaimed her the follower of Christianity. In her the hungry and the naked have lost a benefactor, the sick a nurse and I have lost a friend who taught me to reverence God by doing good to his creatures. Her funeral proved that I am not the only sufferer by her loss. My house is large but it was filled to overflowing by mourning friends who assembled to pay the last sad duties to her who had set them the example how to live and how to die. She has gone where in God’s mercy I shall meet her soon…”

He adds that he hopes to live long enough to “see my children safely through the dangerous paths of childhood and youth.”

Also in 1847, Mack tried but failed to convince his mother, Temperance, not to join a Mormon wagon train to Utah. (See related story, The Mormon Connection.) He had already lost his father and five sisters to death in recent years. She tells him she can’t remain in a nation that won’t respect her freedom to worship as she chooses.

In 1848, Mack married a widow named Isabella Daniels, primarily to provide his children with a caregiver. But it wasn’t his fate to evade further grief. In 1849, on New Year’s Day, his 9-year-old son, Henry Clay Mack, died of illness.

In 1950, Mack was in a doctor’s care for 10 days before he died at age 52. His eight children, ages 4 to 19, were divided up, the younger ones placed among his Midwest relatives.

“All of them led productive lives and some achieved impressive accomplishments,” says Sonneson.

The fate of his second wife, Isabella, is unknown.

The void created by the Mack family’s departure from Pecatonic must have been devastating. The few remaining residents soon relocated to nearby towns or pushed westward.

As if to seal Pecatonic’s fate as an abandoned town, an ice dam broke in 1851, washing away Mack’s Rock River Bridge.

In an 1848 letter to his brother John, Mack reflects: “The destiny of man is, They come, they suffer, they go and are forgotten. But shall we leave no memorial to future generations of our existence, shall we not add our mite to the general stock of knowledge, morality and religion. Shall we not strive to make our descendants more happy, more virtuous than our ancestors. If so we shall not have lived in vain, but shall have added a link to the progressive chain to perfection, and future generations will honor us not as individuals, but as part of a community who have employed their energies and wisdom for the amelioration and elevation of the Human family.”

As it turns out, we in the “future generations” have not forgotten the Macks and other pioneers; nor have we forgotten those who lived here 8,000 years before them. All have something to teach us, and that’s why Macktown Living History exists today.

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