Sure you know about the Wild West of the Gold Rush, but long before that, settlers found plenty of adventure here, in Illinois. Janine Pumilia explores how our area developed when only animals and flatboats carried goods across the river.
Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of a story we first ran in Summer 2012. See the original here.
Ogle and Lee counties were established by strong and determined adventurers who exemplified the can-do spirit of their young republic. From the comfort of their East Coast lives, they saw both opportunity and danger in the Northwest Territory, but believed risk and hardship would someday pay off.
Fueling their enthusiasm were reports of great beauty and abundance in the new frontier. After a visit here, nationally renowned poet, author and newspaper columnist William Cullen Bryant described the Rock River as “one of the most beautiful of our western streams. … The current is rapid and the pellucid [translucent] waters glide over a bottom of sand and pebbles.”
Our nation was young and the possibilities were irresistible to strong young men with dreams.
Just 11 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Ordinance of 1787 established rules for the development of the Northwest Territory, well before the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota had formed. For six decades, until about 1850, this region was the wild American frontier, where people faced many of the same challenges later glorified in stories about the Wild West. But these early pioneers had at their disposal fewer tools, inventions and transportation options than their descendants would have during the mid-century Gold Rush. Conflicts raged among Americans, British, French and various Native American tribes; uncertainty reigned. Still, nationalism ran high after the War of 1812, and Manifest Destiny drew settlers westward.
Northern Illinois, with its connections to both the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, was strategically important to the new nation, though few people realized it early on. Our state was settled mostly from the south northward. Today, those searching for remnants of the Wild West in Lee and Ogle counties can find them in abundance.
A Beautiful Western Stream
Even today, the first thing most visitors note, as they wend along the Rock River/Route 2 corridor, is the area’s stunning beauty, despite centuries of human impact. Just imagine Ogle County when it was 60 percent prairie, 30 percent forest, 10 percent wetland and largely untouched by humans. Imagine the clarity of Rock River’s waters, before silt muddied the sand-bottom river; imagine buffalo, black bears, gray wolves, mountain lions and American elk roaming meadows and woods. Envision brightly colored parakeets alighting in the trees, and pearl-filled clams studding stream beds. All of this existed before Euro-Americans over-hunted, over-trapped, over-clammed, over-polluted and irrevocably changed the landscape.
History is filled with winners and losers, and surely no one lost more in early 1800s Illinois than Native Americans, despite their ancestry here dating back to 8,000 B.C. “Indian removal” from these parts was so thorough that Illinois, unlike all neighboring states, has no reservations at all. The natives’ tragic loss of life, land and liberty is well captured in the face of “The Eternal Indian,” artist Lorado Taft’s 50-foot masterpiece that looms 125 feet above the Rock River in Oregon.
Locals have long referred to the sculpture as “Black Hawk,” although it doesn’t physically resemble the famous Sauk chief who, in 1831, at age 64, tried to re-establish his people at Saukenuk (Rock Island, Ill.) to farm, after bad winters spent on the western side of the Mississippi had left them hungry. Saukenuk was the geographic center of their spiritual, cultural and economic life, before the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 encouraged white settlement in the Northwest Territory. The 1832 Bad Axe Massacre, in Victory, Wis., decisively ended native culture in our region.
As a 13-year-old boy living at Saukenuk, Black Sparrow Hawk had watched U.S. soldiers burn his community to the ground in retaliation for a raid made on St. Louis and Cahokia.
The same year, another 13-year-old boy, in Tennessee, joined the local militia as a courier. His name was Andrew Jackson, and he later became “Indian Fighter” Jackson, 7th U.S. President and chief architect of the Indian removal policy.
When at last the conflict ended, Black Hawk was quoted in newspapers saying: “Rock River was beautiful country. I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. It is yours now. Keep it as we did.”
While it’s easy to understand why Black Hawk was heartbroken to lose the Rock River Valley, it’s also easy to understand why early settlers braved so much hardship to claim it.
When Illinois attained statehood in 1818, most of its 40,000 residents had come from the South; nearly all towns, roads and activity were in the southern part of the state. Thanks to a strategic-minded congressional delegate named Nathaniel Pope, 8,000 square miles – 10 counties in present-day northern Illinois – were added to the state’s northern boundary, much to the chagrin of Wisconsin folk, who didn’t achieve statehood for another three decades. If not for Pope, the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs would be Wisconsin teams.
At the time, it seemed a small matter to most Illinoisans. Very little settler activity was taking place north of Peoria in 1818. But Pope foresaw the value of Chicago’s location, and the possibility of connecting northern Illinois to markets of the East Coast through the Great Lakes. He also envisioned a canal connecting Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, to open Illinois’ fertile river valleys to trade, and saw mining potential in Galena.
After the War of 1812, with Native American and British influence waning, a state structure began to form. The new Erie Canal, to be completed in 1825, would link Illinois to northeast markets. Bright, eager Americans like John Dixon and John Phelps saw opportunity and craved adventure on the western frontier. They found plenty of it.
“Nachusa” John Dixon
Along the newly renovated Dixon Riverfront, near the U.S. 52 and the IL 26 bridge, is a likeness of John Dixon, namesake of the county seat of Lee County. The son of a British soldier, Dixon was born in Rye, N.Y.; he was a successful clothing merchant in New York City for 15 years and had married Rebecca Sherwood in 1808.
In 1820, he traveled by flatboat with his family, including his sister and her husband, down the Ohio River to Shawneetown, Ill. Next they rode by wagon to Springfield. After he was named Circuit Clerk of the Northwest Illinois Court, Dixon relocated his family to Ft. Clark in Peoria. Next, he received a postmaster contract and bought out the interests of state-licensed Ogee’s Ferry, in wilderness along the Rock River, between the Galena lead mines and Peoria. Joseph Ogee was the son of a French father and Native American mother.
The ferry was renamed Dixon’s Ferry, as was the new community, although “ferry” was later dropped. Today, about 3.5 miles west of Dixon, in a rest area on the south side of Ill. Route 2, a marker denotes the place where Ogee established his ferry. In the state’s early years, that area was part of a larger Ogle County.
Over time, John Dixon became known as a friend to the Natives, who called him “Nachusa,” meaning “white hair.” At about the same time, the U.S. government (including a young Illinois militia captain named Abraham Lincoln) was vigorously pursuing President Jackson’s Indian removal policy.
At the beginning of the Black Hawk War, Fort Dixon was built on the north bank of the river. There, John Dixon mixed with many future celebrities. Among luminaries serving at Fort Dixon in the early 1830s were future presidents Zachary Taylor and Lincoln; future presidential nominee and famous soldier Winfield Scott; future Civil War generals Robert Anderson, Albert Sidney Johnston and Joseph E. Johnston; William S. Hamilton, son of founding father and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton; Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy; and John Reynolds, future Illinois governor.
After the 1832 Black Hawk war, Dixon developed his new settlement, mostly at his personal expense. In 1835, he designed a system for streets and town lots; in 1839, he worked to form Lee County and made Dixon its county seat; in 1840, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to obtain President Martin Van Buren’s consent to have the Illinois land office moved from Galena to Dixon. By 1845, about 400 people lived in his new town.
Because the Illinois Legislature was led mostly by men with southern roots, Lee County was named for Gen. Richard Henry Lee, father of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who would command the Confederate Army three decades later. (Ironically, Union Gen. Ulyssus S. Grant made his home only a few counties away, in Galena, just before the Civil War.)
The Dixons had 12 children, seven of whom died in infancy. Wife Rebecca died at age 57, in 1847. By the time he followed her in 1876, John Dixon not only survived her but all of his children.
Dixon was laid to rest one century after his nation had formally declared her “independency” from England. County records indicate that more than 10,000 people attended his funeral; the Lee County Courthouse was draped in black.
Oregon’s John Phelps
Contemporary to John Dixon was John Phelps, an indomitable figure who lived in Virginia and Tennessee as a child, then overcame great odds to traverse the wilderness alone so he could join up with the Army in New Orleans to fight the British in 1812. A man of entreprenurial spirit, Phelps married Sarah Rogan Carlin in 1816 and spent the next 15 years braving wild rivers for business travel around the country. In a memoir written in late life, he details many frontier adventures, both successful and disastrous, with great candor, even recalling times when his vanity or pride resulted in misery and loss.
“I had conceived a plan and formed a fixed determination to explore the beautiful valley of Rock River, which I had passed through in the year 1829,” he wrote. “My object was to make a location, as near as possible, on a true line leading from Chicago to Galena, believing that at some future day, at the crossing of the Rock River, it would be a very important point.”
In 1830, Phelps and “a Frenchman” set out by canoe from Mineral Point, Wis., southward on the Pecatonica River, to select a site. “We expected to reach Rock River in two days, but, owing to the crookedness of the stream, it was seven days before we reached it.” Phelps assessed the Rockford and Byron areas but concluded they “lacked enough timber.”
By chance, when he arrived at the Oregon area, Phelps met up with an old friend, Col. William S. Hamilton, son of founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was surveying Rock River country for the government. Hamilton directed Phelps to “one of the best locations he had ever seen; it embraced good timber, good water, with beautiful rolling prairie running down between two fine groves of timber.”
In November of 1833, Phelps filed two claims, one for his farm and one where he intended to make a road from Chicago to Galena. He next persuaded the Illinois legislature to approve both a road and a ferry license.
But by spring, Phelps learned the state had decided instead to locate the road through Naperville by way of Dixon to Galena, “making the road at least 30 miles longer to accommodate Mr. Naper and Mr. Dixon.” So he resolved to build his own road at his own expense.
In 1835, Phelps laid out the town of Oregon. The name is thought to mean “river of the west.” That fall, he learned that John Dixon had applied to establish his new town as the seat of Ogle County, so he worked to get Dixon’s bill defeated. In time, the rivals compromised and persuaded the state to divide Ogle County, which allowed Dixon to be named county seat for new Lee County, and Oregon to be county seat for Ogle County.
“During the years of 1835, ’36, ’37 and ’38, the beautiful valley of the Rock River was just filling up with a set of industrious farmers from the New England states and Maryland,” wrote Phelps in the 1860s. “Our rich and fertile lands began to show marks of civilization and enterprise … though the early settlers had to undergo many deprivations and hardships, doing without many comforts they had been accustomed to, yet they looked forward to the time, not far in the future, that they should be surrounded by all the necessaries of life at their own happy home. These things have been attained in a great degree.”
With Oregon well established, enterprising Phelps got the urge to move further West in the 1850s, at one point purchasing property in Austin, Texas. When his family arrived to meet him, he learned that his young son, Napoleon, his wife Sarah and his brother’s wife had become ill in New Orleans; only Sarah survived. “These afflictions in a strange land made it doubly severe: no friends to soothe our grief, or sympathize with us in our sorrows,” he later wrote. His family didn’t like Texas and longed for their home in Oregon, Ill. In 1859, he bought horse teams, a carriage and a baggage wagon, and moved his family back to the Midwest – a journey of 1,400 miles that involved about 42 days on the road.
Phelps died at age 77, in 1874, in Oregon; wife Sarah followed him in 1879. The couple was survived by a grown son and daughter.
A friend later noted that Phelps failed to mention many things in his autobiography: He was a member of the Illinois Legislature; he went to Washington, D.C., to secure a contract for carrying the mail in Dixon; he became a partner in the Frink & Walker Co., thereby bringing the first-ever line of stagecoaches through Oregon; and he spent several thousands of his own dollars to erect buildings that served as the city’s first church, school, tavern, grocery store, post office and more. Much later, a new set of Ogle County commissioners sued Phelps to divest him of the properties, because of an error in the placement of property stakes. The attorney representing Phelps in Washington federal court was Francis Scott Key, author of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Phelps lost his case and had to purchase back, at inflated prices, the same buildings he had earlier erected.
Upon his death, “the funeral cortege was large and imposing, being about one mile in length,” a friend recorded. “Taking him all in all, he was a remarkable man … When he undertook an enterprise, it was forced through to the end, whether it was a success or a failure … He was a devoted friend and was just to an enemy. He valued honor far more than wealth or fame.”
Lincoln in Dixon
As earlier noted, young Abraham Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War as an elected captain. A statue, “Lincoln, the Soldier,” by Leonard Grunelle, was installed on the site of Fort Dixon in 1916, on the north side of the Rock River, between Dixon’s two bridges. It’s one of the only statues of a beardless Lincoln, and remains a popular tourist attraction. Near it is an authentic replica of a log cabin, in homage to early settlers.
One wonders what view Lincoln would hold about celebrating this early chapter of his life. On a campaign trail, he joked about the lack of heroics in his 1832 Black Hawk War military experience, saying that he had “survived a good many bloody struggles with mosquitoes and had led a number of dashing assaults on wild onion patches.”
The years immediately following that war were filled with lightning-paced change in the Rock River Valley and elsewhere. The century had opened with no transportation options beyond animal power and clumsy flatboats or keelboats. The century closed with a transcontinental railroad system, the final spike driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, joining the nation’s East with West. In between came the riverboat, a force which damaged the landscape but contributed to a rapid development of northern Illinois that ultimately helped to tip the balance of power in the Union’s favor during the Civil War.
Game Changer: Steamboats
John Dixon and John Phelps each arrived in Ogle and Lee counties before riverboats became a fact of life.
When they made their claims, goods were transported on slow-moving flatboats or keelboats that had much more success flowing downstream than up; east-west transport of goods, powered by draft animals, was arduous, slow and expensive. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 cut transportation costs by about 95 percent, opening water transportation between the Eastern Seaboard and Great Lakes, just as Nathanial Pope had hoped.
According to historian James E. Davis, author of “Frontier Illinois,” only four Great Lakes steamers visited Chicago in 1834, but two years later, some 450 docked there. “They chugged to Peoria in 1830, to Dixon in 1836, and to Rockford in 1838, and by 1839, packets linked the Rock River and St. Louis.”
Goods soon began flowing east and west, north and south, to and from Illinois. Sailing ships were useful in the Great Lakes, but it was the steam-powered riverboat that efficiently carried passengers and goods along interior rivers.
If anyone could appreciate the improvement of these vessels over keelboats, John Phelps could. He had run keelboat trade missions on local rivers since 1818, a self-confessed greenhorn at the start. He wrote: “Finding farming a rather slow process in money-making, I determined to build a keelboat and go into trade in the rivers.” He rented out his Tennessee farm, found a boat builder to provide patterns and know-how, chopped timbers and spent his last dollars hiring a crew and constructing the boat, which he loaded with whiskey purchased on credit from a nearby distillery.
“None of us had ever been on a trip on a boat, but, as our course was downstream, we found little difficulty in keeping with the current,” he wrote. Things got dicey, however, when he arrived at the mouth of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. “We started around the point and met the current. None of us had ever pushed a boat with a pole, and there was no system. We made desperate attempts, but to no affect, for we could not move her against the current. We all became exhausted and the boat began to fall back; the water was not more than three feet on the bar. I ordered all hands to jump out and hold the boat, and keep her from floating below the point. I then put some hands to the bow line. They pulled us and the others shoved, and by that means we passed over the bar.”
After striking out at several places that “found whiskey a dull sale,” he was eventually happy to net $1,500 after six months’ labor. Thus began a series of ups and downs for Phelps’ keelboat trading expeditions; in one account, he lost nearly all cargo to the water; in another, he and two companions got stuck among floating ice on the Mississippi River, in heavy snow, their provisions gone. “We all underwent much suffering: so ended that enterprise.”
Steam-powered riverboats not only meant more goods flowed in and out of the region, but also caused the northern part of the state to rapidly absorb the people and culture of New York and New England, during the 1830s,’40s and ’50s, in time overtaking Southern influence in the Illinois Legislature.
People began adapting steam power to other uses, too, such as milling, which freed them to locate away from riverbanks. Unfortunately, because steamboat engines were powered by burning wood, deforestation was rampant, especially along riverfronts. Ironically, the resulting siltation made the river so shallow that riverboats could no longer dock in some places. Siltation also led to dramatic flooding, which destroyed several French colonial towns, including Kaskaskia, Cahokia and St. Philippe, Ill.
Still, the benefits were irresistible to settlers. Trips from New York that once took 28 or more days by stagecoach now took as few as 10. Long before railroads were established, northern Illinois had secured its reputation as a robust supplier of goods, thanks to the riverboat.
Today it’s possible to get an idea of what it was like to travel the Rock River Valley by riverboat. The Pride of Oregon, owned and operated by Maxson Riverboat & Riverside Restaurant, 1469 N. Ill Rte. 2, in Oregon, is an authentic, un-motorized 102-foot paddlewheel boat that offers sight-seeing, lunch and dinner cruises.
Necessity & Invention
Transportation wasn’t the only thing changing. The early 1800s saw the introduction of gas lighting, tin cans, matches, typewriters and sewing machines. And on the farm of a Grand Detour blacksmith, who’d come to the frontier from Vermont, a broken steel sawmill blade inspired yet one more. John Deere knew that days in the field were difficult for local farmers, because they had to interrupt their work to clean the sticky prairie soil off their cast iron plows. His self-scouring plow was a success and became the foundation for Deere & Co. By 1842, he was building and selling 100 plows per year.
Six years later, Deere moved his operation to Moline, Ill., to access water power and transportation advantages. By the end of 1849, his workforce of 16 men had built 2,136 plows. This year, the global John Deere Co. celebrated its 178th anniversary. To learn more about John Deere, visit the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Ill. Then visit the Ruby Nash home at 111 N. 6th St., in Oregon, operated by the Ogle County Historical Museum. Ruby’s father, Chester Nash, a contemporary of John Deere, developed the cultivator. Ruby taught school for 50 years.
Bandits & Regulators
Although the term “Wild West” is associated with the U.S. West Coast, Northwest Territory settlers faced the same hazards, especially before structures were in place to maintain law and order. Northern Illinois experienced this when a gang of more than 500 outlaws, called “the Prairie Bandits,” or “Banditti,” terrorized settlers from 1835 to 1841. The gang included horse thieves, counterfeiters, stagecoach robbers and murderers.
In March of 1841, the night before the first Ogle County Courthouse was to be opened, it was burned to the ground. Local historians believe the bandits hoped to destroy records needed to prosecute jailed gang members awaiting trial, though that plan failed – a clerk had taken the records home.
Outraged town leaders decided to take the law into their own hands. Organizing as “regulators,” they warned the bandits to emigrate or be horsewhipped. They captured gang leader John Driscoll and two of his sons, Pierce and William, who were “tried” by a “jury” of regulators. Pierce was released, but John and William were shot to death by the 111 regulators. Banditti activity continued for several years, but was no longer centered in Ogle County. The “judge and jury” were tried three months later in Ogle County Circuit Court for the vigilante murder of the Driscolls, but were acquitted. For the next seven years, court was held in the private homes of citizens. A historical marker along Route 2 marks the execution site.
Thanks to scholars, historical societies, libraries, recordkeepers and other caring citizens throughout counties of the Old Northwest Territory, it’s not difficult to uncover fascinating stories of our pioneer past, a time when we were the West.