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Reflections: Pioneer Illinois was a dangerous land of opportunity

Bailey Hobson was one of the earliest settlers in both Kendall and DuPage counties. After spending the grueling “Winter of the Deep Snow” of 1830-31 at his claim near modern Newark, he moved to a new claim on the DuPage River at what’s now Naperville.
Bailey Hobson was one of the earliest settlers in both Kendall and DuPage counties. After spending the grueling “Winter of the Deep Snow” of 1830-31 at his claim near modern Newark, he moved to a new claim on the DuPage River at what’s now Naperville.

In 1826, pioneer Robert Beresford headed north up the Fox River from Ottawa to stake a claim in what would one day become Kendall County. Pierce Hawley soon followed, the two families settling in a hardwood grove in what would one day become Kendall County’s Big Grove Township. They staked their claims in what was then known as Weed’s Grove (named in honor of early settler Edmund Weed), but whose name changed to Holderman’s Grove after Abraham Holderman arrived and bought out the earliest pioneer families.

In 1828, Beresford sold out to John Dougherty and moved back to Ottawa. Dougherty was followed by the aforementioned Edmund Weed, who decided to finally settle down in the grove that bore his name. Also arriving that year was Vetal Vermet, a one-time fur trader who had decided to settle down with pioneer missionary Jesse Walker’s daughter, Huldah, as his new wife. Not too far away, Fredrick Countryman settled with his Potawatomi wife, En-Do-Ga. At the time, the small settlement was the only one along the trail from Chicago southwest to Ottawa.

The Kendall County community of the 1830s was small, and anyone who reads local history soon becomes familiar with that era’s small band of hardy settlers. It’s hard, in fact, not to begin treating them almost like family friends. Besides the Weeds, Doughertys, Hawleys, Vermets and Countrymans, there were the Sweets (Stephen and Allanson), Edward Ament, Peter Specie, and the Hollenbacks, among a few others.

In that familiar, exclusive group there was also Bailey Hobson. Hobson, besides having one of the all-time great sounding pioneer names, was one of the earliest arrivals along the Fox River. And like Pierce Hawley, his name suddenly disappears from Kendall County records and old settler reminisces soon after his arrival in 1830. But unlike Hawley, Hobson didn’t actually disappear completely. Instead, he moved east, not west like many other early area pioneers, and became one of the first settlers in DuPage County, where he eventually rose to become a respected businessman and politician.

According to “A History of the County of DuPage, Illinois” by C.W. Richmond and H.F. Vallette (Scripps, Bross and Spears, Naperville, 1857), in the spring of 1830, Hobson decided to prospect for land west to Illinois. A native of Tennessee, he had married and settled in southern Indiana. But, he recalled in Vallette and Richmond’s book, by the spring of 1830, he had grown “weary of the toil of clearing the encumbering forests from the rugged banks of the Ohio river.”

In May of that year, Hobson left his home in Orange County, Indiana, to prospect for land in Illinois. As strange as it might seem to those of us weaned on television and movie frontiersmen who always traveled armed to the teeth, Hobson left Ohio “without arms amounting to more than a jack-knife for defense and destitute of chart or compass.”

He traveled northwesterly until he suddenly emerged from the Eastern forest onto the prairie country in western Indiana. Turning farther north and west after crossing the Wabash, he eventually struck the Illinois River near the modern town of Peru. Then setting his course up the Illinois to the Fox River, he headed up the east bank of the Fox. He eventually came across Holderman’s Grove and the tiny settlement of five cabins there.

Making the grove his headquarters, Hobson explored farther east, traveling up the DuPage River to Walker’s Grove at today’s Plainfield. He also ascended the Fox River as far as Long Grove, just south of Yorkville. He finally decided to make his squatter’s claim about six miles from Holderman’s Grove and three miles from the Fox River in the timber where Newark is located today. After marking his claim, Hobson headed back east to get his family, arriving back in Indiana about July 1.

Hobson and a hired man named Stewart loaded Bailey’s family up in a wagon, and on Sept. 1, 1830, they started west. Less than a half mile from home, the wagon overturned, and after four hours of work, all was reloaded and the trek resumed. We suspect Mrs. Hobson was not amused.

The going was hard, but the party eventually reached the banks of the Wabash, crossing into Illinois on a ferry about two miles above Terre Haute. It was not easy traveling across the Illinois prairie, either, since it was dotted with sometimes extensive wetlands. But eventually, the Hobsons reached Fort Clark at modern Peoria before turning their course northward, finally arriving at Holderman’s Grove about Sept. 22 after a 400-mile trip.

While Hobson sowed some fall wheat, cut prairie hay for the livestock he had brought along and built a cabin, the family stayed at Holderman’s. After three weeks of hard work, the Hobsons moved to their claim.

But Hobson was not satisfied with the land in Kendall County. Later that fall, he explored north to Specie Grove in Oswego Township, where he stayed briefly with Peter Specie, before heading east to the DuPage River, exploring into what would one day be DuPage County’s Lisle Township before he found land that finally suited him.

In December 1830, Hobson and Stewart traveled to the new claim, having to wade the partially frozen DuPage River. Cold, snow and wind forced the two to return to Hobson’s old claim, however. The rest of the winter – called the Winter of the Deep Snow by pioneers – was so severe the family nearly starved, only managing to survive after Hobson’s epic, grueling 14-day trip east to buy food.

In the spring of 1831, Hobson permanently moved his family to the new DuPage claim. Although disappearing from Kendall County’s history, Hobson built a mill on his DuPage claim and was named a county commissioner charged, in 1842, with obtaining land on which to build the first DuPage County Courthouse in Naperville. By the 1850s, he was a prosperous businessman and farmer.

While many of the region’s earliest settlers faded into the mists of history, many others did not. Bailey Hobson was one of those hardy pioneers who managed to survive and thrive in their new homes on the Illinois prairie.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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