The Talcott Family: Pioneers & Captains of Industry

They were rugged pioneers and captains of industry, and their influence on the Rock River Valley is still apparent today. Join Janine Pumilia as she dives into the stories of this family’s arrival and impact on our history.

Left: This illustration reminds us how difficult it was for families to travel from the East to the Northwest Territory in the 1830s. The journey took about six weeks by horse and wagon if things went well. Most early settlers in the Rock River Valley were “Yankees” from New York and New England, including the William and Dorothy Talcott family.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to the Rockton Township Historical Society for sharing its careful research and vintage photos.

“Talcott” has been an important name in the Rock River Valley since 1835, when only a handful of settlers lived here. Captain William Talcott is dubbed “the father of Rockton” and his family’s influence was no less important in Rockford throughout its Victorian era heyday and beyond.

Today, the Talcott Free Library on Main Street in Rockton, Ill., still bustles with activity. A few blocks away, services are still held in the Old Stone Church, the oldest church congregation in Winnebago County, founded by the Talcotts in 1837.

In Rockford, the 13-story Talcott Building, 321 W. State St., built in 1927 by Capt. William Talcott’s great-grandson, Wait, has evolved into The Residences at Talcott (see story at right). And Beloit College, Rockford Female Seminary (Rockford University), Rockford Woman’s Club and Keith Country Day School carry on, the Talcotts having played a role in all of their beginnings.

The earliest homes and barns in our region were built with lumber cut at the Talcott sawmill. Settlers baked the first loaves of bread here with grain processed into flour at the Talcott gristmill. Talcotts helped to bring roads, energy, railroads, government structures and many jobs to our region. At one point in Rockford history, 10 percent of the city’s population was supported by jobs at J.H. Manny & Co., co-owned by Talcotts. Their money backed innovations in farm implements that revolutionized widespread food production. The Talcotts also financed innovations in knitting machines that led to hundreds of jobs in the Rockford hosiery industry.

The Talcotts were rugged pioneers and captains of industry, but they were equally interested in shaping their new community’s values. Their moral compass was rooted in New England Protestant faith and a strong belief in public education. They were outspoken opponents of slavery decades before the Civil War. Their values are revealed to us not only in the letters they wrote but also in the actions they took and the friends they made.

Their lives intertwined with Stephen and Hononegah Mack, John H. Manny, Ralph Emerson, Robert Tinker, Abraham Lincoln and many other luminaries.

So, who were the Talcotts? Here’s a look at the first two generations who helped to shape our region.

Captain William Talcott

The Beginning

The Illinois story of the Talcott family begins with two weary men on horseback looking for supper in July of 1835.

Capt. William Talcott, 51, and his son, Maj. Thomas Blish Talcott, 29, arrived here from Horseheads, N.Y., after exploring Detroit and Chicago. Thomas recorded colorful details of their exploits in his diary. Sometimes the duo boarded at inns run by native “squaws.” Other times they slept under the stars on “prairie feathers.” Detroit didn’t impress them much and Chicago was still a modest hamlet.

“About noon we caught a young grouse tangled in the bushes so he could not fly away. Picked off the feathers and carried it along for supper,” Thomas wrote on July 23, after they departed Chicago and headed toward the Rock River. “Passed three inhabitants in the forenoon on a beautiful prairie of first rate land. Made our trip a little before night, built a fire, roasted our grouse and with raw pork and biscuit made our supper. Mosquitoes were troublesome.”

The following day, Pottawatomie natives directed them to a place “where white folks lived.” That night they slept on the floor of a home owned by Vermont-born Stephen Mack and his wife, Hononegah, near the confluence of the Pecatonica and Rock rivers.

“The land is very good and the mouth of the river is in the hands of Mack and [John] Bradstreet, of Albany, N.Y., where they calculate to lay out a town, and I think the prospect is fair for a large place to grow up here,” wrote Thomas. “There are no buildings at present.”

Mack had worked in our region as an American Fur Co. trader since 1820. He and three business partners staked claims in 1834, where Macktown Forest Preserve exists today. Mack believed a growing steamship industry and other river traffic would make his claim an ideal center for trade. He platted a community and named it “Pecatonic,” meaning “slow water.” (Not to be confused with Pecatonica, 25 miles southwest of Rockton.)

As it turned out, the steamships never arrived, overhunting ended the fur trade, Mack’s partner John Bradstreet was murdered, the nation suffered the Panic of 1837 under President Andrew Jackson’s mismanagement, and other misfortunes beyond his control doomed Mack’s plan. Pecatonic reached its zenith in the 1840s with about 300 residents but fizzled shortly after Mack’s death in 1850. None of his children were old enough to carry on his vision.

Capt. William Talcott, older and richer, with four grown sons at his side – all experienced at running New York mercantile businesses – fared much better.

“Talcott bet his future on water power rather than river traffic and this turned out to be the right bet,” explains Marilyn Mohring, president of the Rockton Township Historical Society. “And, Mack just had some bad luck.”
Farmers came from 100 miles away to have their crops processed at the Talcott gristmill. Hotels sprang up to serve these farmers and the Talcotts’ north side of the river developed while Mack’s southward settlement waned.

Capt. William Talcott,
‘The Father of Rockton’ (1784-1864)

The senior Talcott earned his title during the War of 1812 while leading a company of volunteers under Gen. Winfield Scott in Canada. He married Dorothy Blish in 1805 in their home state of Connecticut and relocated his young family to an untamed region of New York in 1810.

Perhaps it was his early pioneering in New York that fueled William’s vision for a water-powered sawmill and gristmill here. He foresaw that a coming surge of settlers would need lumber for building and a place to process the grain they grew. Impressed with the beauty and fertility of the Rock River Valley, the Talcotts lost no time taking action.

“We stayed with Mack and went out and looked the ground over and concluded to locate here and made our claims,” Thomas wrote. “Father was rather looking for water power and thought that by cutting across the bend in the [Rock] river, it would give a pretty good water power …”

Father and son staked their claims and rode back to Chicago to purchase “oxen, wagon, plow and the necessary implements to commence a bachelor’s hall. We came back and on the point of the two rivers built a small log cabin.”

That fall, Henry W. Talcott joined his brother Thomas at the “bachelor’s hall,” followed by brothers Sylvester in 1836 and Wait in 1838. Thomas wrote of that first year, “There were no ladies. We were a nice lot of bachelors and all keeping bachelor’s hall, doing our own cooking and housework of all description.” About a dozen men lived there by the end of 1835.

Capt. Talcott went back to New York in 1835 to settle business affairs and collect his wife Dorothy and their younger children. They traveled by boat from Buffalo to Detroit (the Erie Canal opened in 1825) and by horse and wagon to Chicago, arriving in Rockton in 1837. Dorothy was described by descendants as having “great energy and executive ability.” With 10 children and an ambitious husband, one imagines how useful those qualities were.

Capt. Talcott, Dorothy and the younger children first lived in a log house by the millrace. Talcott men and others dug the millrace by hand, hauling away countless loads of dirt by horse-drawn wagon. That same millrace still stretches along the east side of Rockton and makes energy. It’s managed today by Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, which also has facilities in Janesville, Beloit and Dixon on the Rock River.

By the end of 1838, both the millrace and sawmill were completed, followed by the gristmill a year later. William’s belief that “if we build it, they will come” proved correct.

By 1843, William had built Dorothy a “fine residence.” The following year he filed a platt for Rockton. He would have filed it sooner, but a legal cloud hung over the area for years as a Polish claim once promised by the U.S. government worked itself through court. The Polish settlers lost and moved elsewhere.

Given the family’s influence, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Rockton had been named “Talcott.” Instead, one of the Talcotts suggested “Rockton” and it stuck. The Talcotts’ Protestant upbringing emphasized humility, likely a factor.

Capt. Talcott lost no time soliciting a pastor from the East. The Rev. William M. Adams arrived in 1837 to organize Congregational fellowships in Rockton and Beloit. The Old Stone Church we know today was originally named First Congregational Church of Pekatoneka. (Like Talcott, Mack didn’t name his settlement for himself, although others later called Pecatonic “Macktown.”)

Of the 14 charter church members, five were Talcotts. They met for worship in their log homes until the limestone building we know today at 101 E. Union St. was completed in 1850 for $5,000. In 1854, Capt. Talcott donated to the congregation a $700 bell weighing 1,400 pounds. The beloved sound of a church bell ringing – so common in New England and conspicuously absent on the frontier – was a comforting milestone for settlers.

Capt. Talcott died a highly respected man in September 1864 at age 80. Descendants noted his joy at living long enough to see the Emancipation Proclamation end slavery in 1863.

Eight months after his death, the Civil War concluded at Appomattox, Va., on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865. Less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Capt. Talcott’s son Wait, a personal friend of Lincoln, represented Illinois mourners at the funeral in Washington, D.C.

Dorothy died 14 years after her husband, at age 79.

The elder Talcotts left behind a thriving new community and ample accomplishments for their children to build upon.

Maj. Thomas Blish Talcott (1806-1894)

The eldest child of Capt. William and Dorothy Talcott was an experienced merchant and a New York state militia member. Unmarried, he was the first to explore the Rock River Valley with his father during the 1835 scouting trip. When his father returned East to fetch family members, Thomas stayed alone in Rockton to protect their claims and build the “bachelor’s hall” he and fellow pioneers would rely upon for shelter in early years. Although he was very busy building housing, the millrace and the sawmill, Thomas made time for civic duty.

In 1836, he began a five-year term in the first group of commissioners to lead newly formed Winnebago County. The county at that time included all of Boone and parts of Stephenson counties as we know them today – some 1,152 square miles. He divided the county into election precincts so that far-flung settlers needn’t make the arduous journey to Rockford to cast votes. Then, each precinct elected constables and justices of the peace.

“Going to election in those early times meant something, and most of them undoubtedly made a full day of it,” wrote historian E.I. Carr in his 1898 book, “The History of Rockton 1820 to 1898.”

Carr notes that in the 1836 presidential election in the Rockton precinct, 19 of 20 voters, including three Talcotts, favored William H. Harrison of Ohio, a Whig, over Martin Van Buren of New York, the winning Democrat endorsed by outgoing president and slaveholder Andrew Jackson.

Countywide, 158 votes were cast in the presidential election of 1836.

Thomas married Sophia Willard in 1843; their only child, a boy, died as an infant.

In 1849, Thomas was elected to the Illinois Senate, where he worked to charter the Illinois Central Railroad. He also served in several local civic positions and was a generous donor to the Congregational church his family founded, and to Rockton overall.

Thomas Talcott witnessed remarkable decades of progress during his 88 years. He died in 1894, four years before Sophia died on Christmas Day at age 64. The couple lived at 103 W. Union St. and are buried with their infant son and many other Talcotts in the Rockton Township Cemetery.

‘Deacon’ Wait Talcott (1807-1890)

As a highly involved deacon of his Presbyterian church in Horseheads, N.Y., the title “Deacon” stayed with Wait after he joined the church his family founded in Rockton. In 1844, he enthusiastically led his congregation to pass resolutions declaring slavery to be “a great sin in the eyes of God” and banning slaveholders from attending services.

Wait married Elizabeth Anna Norton in New York and the couple lost two infants at birth before daughter Adaline Elizabeth was born in 1837. At one year old, Adaline relocated to Rockton with her parents, making a 6-week journey in a covered wagon pulled by two horses.

In 1839, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, William Ariel Talcott, the first white child born in Rockton. William’s son (named “Wait” after his grandfather) would grow up to build the Talcott Building in Rockford in 1927.

Wait was elected to the Illinois senate in 1854 and worked to secure railroad lines for the Rockton/Rockford area. At the Illinois statehouse, he befriended Abraham Lincoln, a rising star in the new Republican Party and an 1855 candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Also in 1854, Wait and his brother Sylvester became partners with brilliant but cash-strapped inventor John H. Manny, creating J.H. Manny & Co., maker of a wildly popular combined reaper and mower. Ralph Emerson and Jesse Blinn also joined Manny as partners that fall. Improved farm implements were among the most important inventions of the era and made widespread food production possible. Manny was from Waddams Grove (near Freeport) but the Talcotts, themselves farmers who owned Manny reapers, helped to convince Manny to do his manufacturing in Rockford.

Manny won a long, costly lawsuit after competitor Cyrus McCormick accused him of patent infringement.

Among the attorneys representing Manny was Abraham Lincoln, who earned a total of $1,500 for his work, by far the largest legal fee he’d ever collected. Lincoln used part of that money to fund his campaign travel around the state, including debates with Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln lost the Senate bid, won the presidency in 1860 and saved our Union, in part because of that $1,500 retainer from the Manny case, financed in part by the Talcotts.

Wait Talcott also was a co-owner of Talcott, Emerson & Co., which became Emerson-Brantingham Co., internationally known for its farm implements and later acquired by the J.I. Case Co. Today, Case is the second-largest maker of farm equipment after John Deere Co. and a subsidiary of Tenneco, Inc., a $17 billion global company headquartered in Lake Forest, Ill.

Upon passage of the Internal Revenue Act in 1862, President Lincoln appointed Wait as a commissioner for the Second Congressional District of Illinois.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Wait Talcott was too old to serve. He paid a bounty to Charles H. Redington to represent him in the war. Redington served in the 45th Illinois Cavalry and was among the men who pursued and captured John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln’s assassination.

Wait was an original incorporator of Beloit College and Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University).
To promote literacy in his community, in 1888 he donated the limestone building at 101 E. Main St. to Rockton Township for public use as a library, on the condition that taxpayers support it as a free library. Previously, people were charged each time they used the public book collection. Wait had constructed the building in 1854 to store grain. His son William chipped in $2,000 for its 1888 renovation and his brother Thomas donated $1,100 for the purchase of books. The Talcott Free Library remains a hub of learning activity in Rockton to this day.

Elizabeth preceded Wait in death in 1873 at age 60; he died in 1890 at age 83. Five of their nine children reached adulthood.

Sylvester Talcott (1810-1885)

Like his brothers, Sylvester was a merchant in New York before he sold his business and relocated to Rockton in 1836. He was immediately elected Justice of the Peace and officiated the first wedding in Rockton that same year.

In 1841 he married Mary Westlake and built a large house on Main Street. The couple had one daughter.

In 1850, Sylvester was elected as a supervisor to the newly organized Rockton Township. He was involved with industries in both Rockton and Rockford and was a partner in Manny & Co. He worked to persuade the Racine & Mississippi railroad to run a line through Rockton and worked hard to see a road built from Rockton to Freeport.

A lifelong member of the Congregational Church and a zealous Republican, Sylvester, like Wait, paid a substitute to serve in his place during the Civil War, being too old to go himself. Sylvester was remembered as “having generous impulses, quick to help the poor and needy.” He lived to age 79, Mary to age 72.

Henry V. Talcott (1814-1870)

Henry was the youngest of the Talcott sons who relocated from New York and the first to meet up with his brother, Thomas, in Rockton in 1835. He was one of 14 charter members of the Congregational church and worked in multiple family businesses.

Henry married Emeline McConnell in 1845, who gave birth to nine children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Upon Emeline’s death at age 77 in 1894, the Beloit Free Press lauded her generous hospitality and “ideal character.”

“To all the little deceits and artifices, of ordinary life, she was an utter stranger,” it wrote. “She had most positive convictions on all moral questions. Her ways were plain and simple.”
Henry died in 1870 at age 56.

Prudence Hubbard Talcott Hersey (1822-1912)

As the youngest of 10 children of Capt. William and Dorothy Talcott, Prudence moved with her family at age 15 to Rockton, traveling by boat to Detroit and then by horse and wagon. In 1854, she married Samuel Hersey, a widower with two sons, who lived “on the road between Beloit and Rockton.” They had four more children. In 1864 they lost a son to the battle of Campbellsville in Tennessee during the Civil War. Another of their sons lost his right arm in a threshing accident.

Samuel Hersey co-founded the Clark School that their children attended, which served children through 10th grade. He died in 1879 at age 65, the same year Prudence lost her mother, Dorothy Talcott.

In 1881, Prudence moved to 824 Church St. in Beloit so her youngest daughter, Harriet, could graduate 12th grade. To make ends meet, she took in boarders from Beloit College and hosted nieces and nephews from around the country who were attending the college her brothers had helped to found.

Prudence died at age 90 in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank. She witnessed Winnebago County evolve from a handful of settlers to a thriving manufacturing center with 70,000 residents.

Historical figures are always seen in partial light, their stories woefully incomplete to us. We learn about their character through letters they wrote, actions they took and legacies that live on. This energetic family helped to shape our region with courage, innovation, public service, hard work and moral leadership. They took risks and backed industries that defined us as a thriving job center in the 19th century. The Talcotts helped to shape Winnebago County as we know it.