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Columns

Reflections: By horse and wagon from New York to Oswego

Roger Matile
Roger Matile

It’s impossible to live in Kendall County and not be affected to one degree or another by the growth we’ve experienced during the past few decades.

Farmers, especially, feel the pinch as agricultural land turns into residential and commercial developments, creating congestion that makes it difficult to get equipment from field to field. And when urban homeowner meets farmer, the differences sometimes cause problems. Too many city people, for some reason, figure if land is used for growing crops it is also a handy place to dump trash or treat it like public property and trespass at will. During the spring, dust raised by working the land and planting crops, along with the unmistakable smell of anhydrous ammonia, tend to make some new suburban homeowners upset, if not downright angry.

And in the county’s small towns, as development accelerates, so do the tensions between longtime residents, newer arrivals and brand-new homebuyers. All of them begrudge the tax money necessary to provide services from schools to snow-plowing for new and old residents alike. And virtually all of them treat too much of the commercial development that is needed to keep property taxes from soaring sky high with suspicion, if not downright anger.

I suspect the native Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa people who occupied Kendall County until 1836 must have felt much the same way as they watched growing numbers of white pioneers arrive and begin turning the rich prairies along the Fox River into farms and towns.

After the Indians were removed to west of the Mississippi, growth would have accelerated at an even faster pace if the Panic of 1837 hadn’t intervened. Panics were the name of depressions of that era, and the one in 1837 was a doozy. It took Illinois almost 10 years to recover and start to grow at a really vigorous rate again. Which is not to suggest growth didn’t continue right through the years immediately after the panic.

During the late 1830s and early 1840s, thousands of Easterners emigrated to Kendall County. In particular, large groups of New Yorkers arrived and settled here. As they did, they wrote back to their families and urged more of their relatives and neighbors to come west.

One young man who made the trek west in 1843 was John Sheldon Barber, whose name I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in conjunction with the frontier’s monetary policies. Thanks to a donation two decades ago to the Little White School Museum in Oswego by Judy Abbott of Boulder Hill, we know quite a bit about John Barber’s trip west and what he found when he arrived.

Unlike many of those who came to Kendall County from New York, Barber and his party of New York neighbors traveled overland instead of using the Great Lakes route. They left Smyrna, N.Y., in the fall of 1843, traveling by horse-drawn wagons, crossing into Canada at Niagara, before heading westward around the north shore of Lake Erie. Barber explained in a letter to his parents in December 1843 that the Canadian route was taken because bad roads were reported in Ohio. But he urged anyone else coming west to stick to the U.S. side of the border. Canadian roads were also bad, he said, and he complained about high taxes, high prices and the extremely poor quality of Canadian taverns and inns.

After enduring their Canadian trek, the party crossed the Detroit River and headed west across southern Michigan to Chicago. From there, they traveled farther west to the Fox River at Elgin before turning south and following the river to Oswego, where they arrived in December. In total, Barber estimated his party traveled about 800 miles, averaging about 23 miles a day. He estimated “the whole expence [sic] of my journey has been about $13.” That amounts to a little over $450 in today’s money. Barber reported $3.40 in cash on hand after the trip, thanks to having sold an old wagon harness during the trip for $5.40.

In accord with most other early Kendall County settlers, Barber apparently didn’t feel the need to own a firearm. He asked his parents to look for his powder flask, used to load the muzzle-loading weapons of the era, because he apparently had forgotten to pack it. “If you find it, keep it,” he wrote. “I thought I put it in my chest but I do not find it; it is worth 6/- cash.”

When they arrived in Illinois, the group was looking for their old New York neighbor, Samuel Hopkins. All they really knew was that he had settled somewhere along the Fox River. As a result, the party went due west from Chicago, 36 miles to Elgin, where they learned Hopkins was living in Oswego. So they turned south and 26 miles later arrived at their final destination. One suspects that asking in Elgin today about the whereabouts of an Oswego resident would result in a puzzled look rather than information about where they lived.

Like most of the Easterners who came to Illinois, Barber was fascinated by the – to him –treeless prairies. “How would it seem to you to [go] 10 or 15 miles and not pass a tree nor a bush nor even a stump and so level that you could see a small house at the furthest side,” he asked his parents, adding, “It is the most beautiful country I ever saw.”

This wonderful land, he noted, was also inexpensive, ranging from $5 to $15 an acre depending on the availability of timber for building purposes.

Barber quickly got a job as a wood turner, a profession in which he excelled, and apparently prospered.

Barber was typical of many of those who emigrated to Illinois from New York in that he was a trained artisan and arrived ready to make his fortune in this strange, new, beautiful land along the Fox River. In those respects, he was not so different from the vast majority of Kendall County’s newest residents, arriving to begin their lives in their new hometowns on the Illinois prairie.

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

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