We just sort of take it for granted that our pioneer ancestors back in the eastern states packed up their worldly goods in the 1830s and moved west to the frontier.
But why did they do that? What prompted so many substantial farmers and businessmen—because that what many of them were—to leave their comfortable homes in communities that had been settled for a couple centuries to decide to move to an unpopulated frontier region? There are about as many answers to that question as there were pioneer settlers.
To get to the bottom of things, the first thing we must realize is that there was more than one class of settler. First, there were the frontiersman settlers, led by men like Daniel Boone, who kept moving west on the leading edge of the frontier.
Boone, who was from a substantial Pennsylvania family and a skilled blacksmith, became famous in his own time for his exploits in settling ever newer frontier areas, from Kentucky and Tennessee all the way west to Missouri where he finally, in his late years, settled down to live as a prosperous landowner. Visit Boone’s elegant stone home on the outskirts of St. Louis and you can get an idea of the man who was anything but the primitive scout we have in our mind’s eye. From the size and construction of his home to the skillfully made ironwork hinges and other touches he created himself, the house belies our preconception of the people who pushed the frontier west.
In general, the frontier settlers required a certain type of geography to make their form of pioneering work. In particular, they required dense stands of timber to provide the materials their system of pioneering needed to work properly. Their farms were generally small, cut out of the forest with considerable labor, and not very productive due to the underlying soil types. Typically, they preferred moving farther west as the trappings of civilization caught up with them, always looking, as one of them put it, for “elbow room.”
Kendall County had but a few of the frontier settler type. Frederick Countryman was one. He lived in the Au Sable timber along Morgan Creek in the modern Minkler Road area with his Potawatomi Indian wife, En-do-ga. But the family moved west when En-do-ga’s people were evicted with the rest of the Fox Valley’s Indian residents and removed west of the Mississippi in 1836.
The second type of pioneer, the farmer settlers, were, far and away, the most numerous type of pioneers who populated Kendall County during the frontier era. These were families who had, in most cases, been successful farmers in the Eastern states, but who, for many reasons decided to head west.
Some, including some of Kendall County’s earliest settlers, moved west in stages, sometimes spending decades in intermediate locations. The extended Pearce family is an excellent example of this class of settler. Daniel Pearce was born in Maryland, and while a youngster his parents moved to Virginia. After he grew up he moved west to Ohio where he settled with his brothers and sisters until 1833, when the group moved west, settling in the area that later became Oswego Township. His sister and brother-in-law, William and Rebecca Wilson, claimed land that included what became the Village of Oswego. One of his brothers, Elijah, was one of the first settlers in Montgomery, where he and his wife ran the village’s first inn. While Daniel Pearce and his brothers John and Walter settled in the Oswego area and stayed the rest of their lives, brother Elijah and brother-in-law William Wilson and their families headed farther west in the late 1830s, first to Missouri and later to Iowa.
Along with the frontier settlers and the pioneer farmers came the pioneer businessmen and craftsmen. While these were sometimes combined with farmers—Daniel Boone is an excellent example—most often they primarily plied their trades, dealing in land, setting up blacksmith shops, and throwing dams across creeks and rivers to provide water power for the gristmills and sawmills they built to serve early pioneer families. While this class of pioneer often settled in the areas where they wound up after emigrating, not all did. In particular, pioneer millwrights often built their dams and mills, and then sold them to move on to greener pastures ever farther west.
And finally, after the frontier farmers, the farmer pioneers, and the pioneer business and craftsmen came the foreign immigrant settlers. In general, this group began arriving on the northern Illinois prairie in the 1840s after the initial wave of settlement. While English farmers had begun arriving in southern Illinois in the early 1800s, a large influx of English and Scottish immigrants came to Kendall County in the mid to late 1840s, adding names like Woolley, Stewart, Patterson, and McLaren to Kendall County’s censuses. Then arrived a wave of Scandinavians who settled in the southern part of the county.
The social and economic disruptions caused by the European Revolutions of 1848 spurred dozens of German families to leave their homes and immigrate to the United States. Many of those families, the Shogers, Burkharts, and Hafenrichters to name just a few, settled on the Oswego Prairie just east of the village with the same name. There, they were joined, in the early 1850s, by an influx of Pennsylvania German farmers who, although their families had immigrated in the 18th Century, still spoke German and so found a congenial neighborhood in which to settle.
All of these pioneer farming families came to the Illinois tallgrass prairies to make better lives for themselves and their descendants. The rich, deep prairie soil was many times as productive as the thin rocky farmland New England farmers had to cope with. And most of those English, Scottish, Scandinavian, and German immigrants were able to buy their own land for the first time in their lives, establishing themselves in communities where their descendants still live and thrive to this day.
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