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Columns

Reflections: What was it like when Native Americans and settlers lived together here? Complicated

Chief Shabbona
Chief Shabbona

Starting in 1835, under terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Fox Valley’s Native Americans were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi River.

But that meant the region’s white settlers lived alongside their Native American neighbors for about a decade. How were relations between the two groups? An honest appraisal would have to say the relations were mixed.

By the time whites began settling the region between Chicago and the Fox Valley, the area was populated mostly by bands of the Three Fires Confederacy. A cultural mixture of the Potawatomi, Chippewa and Ottawa tribes, Three Fires villages dotted the banks of the Fox, Des Plaines and DuPage rivers. The member tribal groups had been hostile to the U.S. until the end of the War of 1812, after which they determined to live in peace with Americans.

Settlement in the Fox Valley region didn’t begin until about 1826, when Robert Bearsford’s family moved up the Fox River from its confluence with the Illinois River at Ottawa and settled in modern Kendall County’s Big Grove Township. Bearsford’s claim was reportedly at the southernmost point of the hardwood grove.

By 1829, a couple other families had moved to the Big Grove area, including former French Canadian fur trader Vetal Vermet’s family, as well as American Frederick Countryman and his Potawatomi wife, En-do-ga.

In August of that year, whiskey provided a trigger for a relatively violent incident between the two cultures. Peter Lamsett, nicknamed Peter Specie by the settlers for his policy of only accepting coins – specie – in payment for the goods and services he sold, brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice Alexander Doyle at Chicago (then governed from Peoria County) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians.

Specie, a French Canadian who had engaged in the fur trade before concentrating on providing various services to new settlers, was on his way from Chicago with his ox cart to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Countryman and a half-barrel to Vermet at Big Grove when he was set upon by the Potawatomi Chief Half Day and two warriors near the DuPage River. The Indians took a quantity of alcohol, one of them slashing Specie with a knife during the scuffle. Specie continued his delivery but was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who stole more liquor. Specie told Justice Doyle he estimated about 10 gallons of whiskey had been taken. The Peoria County court records don’t report the resolution of Specie’s complaint.

The most contentious event between the area’s settlers and native people was 1832’s Black Hawk War. In spring 1832, the influential Sauk warrior Black Hawk determined to move his band of about 1,500 men, women and children back across the Mississippi River to Illinois in violation of government orders.

Conflict broke out, and local people from tribes seized on it to settle some scores. The most violent of these was the Indian Creek Massacre in La Salle County, where 14 men, women and children at the William Davis claim were killed.

A few miles north, Hollenback’s store at modern Newark was looted and burned, as were the cabins of settlers who had been warned to flee by the Three Fires’ Chief Shabbona. At the William Harris cabin, panic reigned. The family’s horses had bolted meaning the couple, their seven children and Mrs. Harris’ father, the aged and crippled Mr. Coombs, had to flee on foot. Realizing he’d slow them down, Mr. Coombs told the family, “Leave me to my fate, and save yourselves; I am an old man and can live but a little while at best.” Which they tearfully did, thinking they’d never see him alive again. But when an Indian raiding party arrived at the Harris cabin and saw Mr. Coombs was an invalid, they let him be and passed on to other pickings, not exactly the picture of ruthlessness we expect to see during a war.

And as for the perpetrators of the Indian Creek Massacre, the suspects were arrested and tried in Ottawa after the war. But since the survivors of the attack, including Sylvia and Rachel Hall, teenage girls who had been seized and held for ransom, could not positively identify the warriors who had attacked the cabin, the charges against the Native Americans were ruled unproven and they were released.

After the war, until the native people were removed, relations seemed to be good. Smith Minkler’s recollection of visiting the claim of William Wilson, Oswego’s first settler, in late 1833 as told to the Rev. E.W. Hicks for his 1877 history of the county might have been typical: “Mr. Minkler was down there [at Oswego] one day when Wilson’s boys were astride of an Indian pony, and the Indians with wild shouts of glee were pulling it along the trail. It seemed to be great fun for them.”

Shabbona, who had warned the settlers to flee during the Black Hawk War, was rewarded with a small reserve at the grove named for him. But he, along with Waubonsee, and the other chiefs and families, were all ordered to move west anyway. The first group left Chicago in 1835 for a grueling trip, first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas, that rivaled in tragedy the famed Trail of Tears of the Five Civilized Tribes. Other groups left in 1836, but some of those who’d been removed hated where they’d been situated and filtered back to northern Illinois. It wasn’t until 1837 that the last of the Three Fires were finally permanently removed.

Even after that, Shabbona returned for visits to his land until it was simply sold out from underneath him, something that still is in litigation to this day. Virtually homeless, the old chief’s friends bought him a small house where he spent the last two years of his life. The highlight of that period was Aug. 21, 1858, when he was invited to sit on the dais during the first Lincoln-Douglas debate and when he was able to greet his former Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln.

Like most of history, the era when settlers and native people lived together in the Fox Valley is complicated, an era when both sides had something to learn from each other.

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

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