Stark County and Its Pioneers


A retrospective Glance, including the various Voyages of Discovery, by means of which a knowledge of this land was conveyed to the Old World, and emigration induced to drift hitherward—Geological Changes—Carboniferous Period—Formation of our Coal Measures—Character of the resident Indians—Black Hawk's Incursions, etc.

     In one very important sense, at least, Stark county had no existence prior to the Act of the General Assembly of Illinois, approved March 2,1839, creating such a county. But this phase of political life had "its antecedents," as we sometimes say; and it may be worth while to consider them for a short time, as we know that ages previous to that epoch, our prairies basked in the sunlight, our groves towered in primeval beauty, and our rivers rolled with fuller, broader streams than they do today. Once, these lands formed part of "Old Putnam," aptly styled "the mother of counties," and then, this region was known in Methodistic annals, as "Peoria Mission."
     Going back to 1825, we lose old Putnam in a gigantic county called Pike, stretching over all the state north and west of the Illinois river, in which Chicago (Ford's History of Putnam and Marshall Counties) formed a village on Lake Michigan, of about a dozen houses, and sixty inhabitants, and Peoria a small settlement on the west bank of the Illinois river, also in
Pike county, while a few workmen had clustered around the lead mines of Galena. But a road through the unbroken wilderness, eastward or southward, was not made until late in this year (1825) when "Kellogg's trail" pointed the devious way from Peoria to Galena. Not a white man's habitation, not a bridge or ferry was to be seen along its entire route; indeed, northern Illinois was still the hunting ground of the Winnebagoes and Pottawatomies. However, the honey bee, and "white man's foot" in blossom, had already whispered to the redman of the coming stranger; and "the white canoes with pinions" were pushing their way toward western waters. Thus, events which might seem to have but a remote, had really a marked significance in shaping our future history.
     Still following up the stream of Time for a brief space, we come to 1818, when Illinois was admitted into the great sisterhood of states. Two or three years previous to this, "The Military Bounty Land Tract" had been surveyed by order of the government, and the greater part of it subsequently appropriated in bounties to soldiers of the regular army, in service during the last war with Great Britain, thus complicating titles to millions of acres of valuable land, to the great vexation of settler and dealer for time to come. But, sweeping past all these dates, ere a section had been measured, or a corner stone put down, or a tree "blazed " throughout all this wide domain; ere the nineteenth or the eighteenth century had dawned upon our world—in 1680 the gallant LaSalle, with his Italian Lieutenant Tonti, and a Franciscan Friar, Father Hennepin, as historian of the expedition, had parted with their steady oars the tranquil waters of the Illinois, built Fort St. Louis on Buffalo Rock, near Ottawa, and on, or near Peoria lake, say some authorities, another fort which, in memory of his many misfortunes and disappointments, he called Creve Coeur. (Broken heart.) The details of these operations are already obscured by the mists of years—the diary of Father Hennepin being the only record of them known to exist. From this, it seems that Hennepin was left to make his way to the Mississippi, (which he spells Meschaasipi,) and Tonti to look after the forts on the Illinois, while LaSalle started on foot and alone to return to the French settlements in Canada, a distance of not less than twelve hundred miles. Returning the following spring, (1681) he found his forts deserted, probably through fear of Indians; but nothing daunted, commenced his search for Tonti, who throughout all the vicissitudes of his wonderful career, seems to have been a brave and faithful follower of LaSalle. They met at Mackanac in the present state of Michigan, and immediately began their enterprises anew, appearing upon the Illinois with a large company of natives and Frenchmen.
     Now who can say these events have no interest, no meaning for us? When the soldier adventurer and priest at last made their way back to the land of their fathers, what tales they told of the wondrous beauty and fertility of the "Illinois country" and of the rude but friendly aborigines, for friendly as a rule they undoubtedly were then, sending their chiefs out to meet their white brethren, smoking the pipe of peace with them, and offering them corn and venison. What wonder then that two years later, say 1683, we find LaSalle again leading out a colony from France destined for the valley of the Mississippi. But owing to misunderstandings between himself and his naval commander, perhaps to the obstinacy of the latter, they failed to find the mouth of. the great river, and finally landed at Matagorda bay in Texas. Here, after enduring the most appalling sufferings, he was basely murdered by two of his own men while again trying to make his way to the homes of his countrymen in the north. The world knows little of his achievements or of the countries he visited save from the brief record of Hennepin, "an ambitious and unscrupulous priest." Yet has he left to us his name forever associated with deeds of dauntless heroism, and must always be considered as the father of colonization in this great central valley of the west. As we still trace back link by link the chain of discoveries that opened up this land to a knowledge of the civilized world, and made possible the scenes of thrift and prosperity that surround us, we find Marquette sailed down the Mississippi as far as the mouth of the Arkansas in 1673, and on his return, entered the Illinois, which then for the first time, reflected the face of a white man. And in all the years that have since glided by, we may well query if that river has borne upon its bosom a better man than the saintly, the pure minded, the heroic Marquette! "My companion," said the good father, referring to Joliet, "is an envoy of the king of France, but I am a simple minister of Christ." His death was singular, and a fitting close to his holy life. While passing up lake Michigan with his boatmen, he landed at the mouth of the stream that now bears his name: retiring a short distance into the woods he reared a rude altar, and kneeling beside it yielded up his spirit, in the act of prayer! There are those who can sneer at this man as a "fanatic," or a "misanthrope." But his self-sacrificing devotion to his mission, to what seemed to him duty, rises to the height of sublimity, and entitles him to the reverence of man­kind. Again we are indebted to a Catholic father, (Claude Allouez) for tidings of this land, as far back as 1665, at which date he was a successful missionary to the Indians of the northwest, and was the first white man who ever heard of our prairies, which he says he did on the shores of lake Michigan from a tribe of Indians from this neighborhood, known as the Illini, and Nicolas Perrot and party were the first who ever set foot upon them. Although one hundred and thirty years before, viz. in 1541, De Soto, the brave but unfortunate Spaniard had stood upon the banks of the Mississippi and found but a grave where he had thought to con­uer an empire.
     In September, 1534, about twenty years after Columbus, moored his caravels on the shores of the New World, Cabeza de Vaca, and his comrades crossed the great river as far north as the Tennessee; indisputably the first men from the Old World who ever looked into its turbid waters, thereafter to become a vast thoroughfare of commerce and civilization. One can hardly take in this hasty glimpse of events long past, without reflecting how closely the history of any land is bound up with the history of its lakes and rivers, its navigable waters; they are the natural inlets and outlets of wealth, of society, of civilization. Our fine railroads are now relieving us from utter dependence upon our water courses, but in the early settlement of this county what could have compensated us for the loss of the Illinois river. It was, so to speak, our sole port of entry, our source of supply, our base of operations for everything pertaining to the settlement of the Spoon river country. All our first settlers made their way here from the river, and nearly all, it would seem from Peoria, by the routes now known as the Slackwater and Princeville routes. But this is a digression, and these are all but as things of yesterday, when compared with certain other events that had occurred, having as important a bearing upon our present comfort and prosperity, as aught of later date could possibly have. We allude of course to geological changes, and would fain carry the reader back for a brief moment through these " eons of ages." Back, back, through drift and glacial epochs, through Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene periods, all of which have left their records strewn around us in imperishable and unmistakable characters. But we pause not now, to describe or decipher them, till we reach what is known among scientific men as the "Carboniferous period," when our earth was enveloped in a humid atmosphere and subjected to a more than tropic heat. This we are told was the era, first of inland seas, which were gradually changed by the rains into fresh water lakes, and these in the course of centuries were by natural causes transformed into spreading marshes from whence sprang the gigantic ferns and club mosses, growing to the dimensions of our forest trees. Being bituminous in their nature, and absorbing vast quantities of carbon from the highly charged atmosphere, they became of course highly combustible, and by various upheavals and subsidences, alternately exposed and submerged, subjected to influences, the nature of which, we can only decide by their results, they became in this region the famous "coal measures of Illinois," so necessary to the material comfort and wealth of our present and prospective millions! Probably not more than a mile from where these lines are penned (by a glowing coal fire during the winter of 1874 and 1875) once spread several of these mighty basins, with their rank growth of vegetation, and today bridging the ages with their lives, creep low "at our feet, the dwarf ferns, rushes, and swamp grasses that bear indisputable marks of descent from the giants of the Carboniferous age." In view of all these wonders science is so quietly unfolding to our vision, can we do less than bow our heads in reverence before that Almighty Power, (call it what you will) nature, or nature's God, that "has fashioned the earth and given the seas their bounds," out of chaos and barrenness brought order and fertility and teeming life; raised the mountains, spread the valleys, and made our entire land what it is today, an Eden of beauty, a fitting abode for a great and free people.
     It would of course be expected that in a work of this kind something would be said of the former owners, or at least occupiers of the soil, more especially as they and their barbarous deeds are staple articles with most writers of local history or legends, in this western country. And there is often something rather fascinating in this field, for a touch of wild romance or thrilling adventure attaches itself always to Indian traditions. But we shall be compelled to leave these in the hands of Mr. Longfellow, who it is imagined had a more remarkable class of aborigines to deal with, for from what we can glean, either from spoken or written authority, very little of interest is to be found in the annals of the Pottawatomies. Mr. Clifford's statement is " that the whole caboodle of them were on one occasion frightened out of their wits, and contemplated abandoning their village on Indian creek, by the report of an old blunderbuss in the Essex settlement," in 1832 or 1833. By this time they had learned something of the power of the white man, and knew they held their position only on his sufferance, therefore their fears took the alarm at any indication of hostility. Between the two races, then standing face to face, there was doubtless a mutual antipathy, often a mutual dread. Our pioneers report those they found here, as a dirty, shiftless set, the men of the tribe eking out a precarious living by hunting and fishing, while the women broke the sod, built the " poney fences," and raised paltry crops of corn. They were given to begging-most importunately, if not to stealing from their white neighbors; their villages or encampments, of which there were several within our present county limits, formed rendezvous, especially on Sundays, for the idle and vicious, where horse trading and liquor drinking went on, much as in later days at a Gipsy camp. So destitute of any element of poetry or romance were the last days of the red man in this region, and their trails, their corn pits, and the graves of their dead were the legacies they left us when they took up their enforced march west of the Mississippi about 1835-6. We know there is an impression in some quarters that the Sacs under their famous chief Black Hawk, penetrated into this vicinity, during those frantic death struggles of their nation, which were finally terminated by the battle or massacre of Bad Axe, in 1832. Indeed a writer in our late " Atlas of Stark County " locates the camp of the old warrior in Goshen township, but this idea is contradicted by an authoritative history which distinctly states "his village was on a point of land between the Mississippi and Bock rivers near their junction," and as the government had caused some lands in that vicinity to be surveyed and sold, and white settlers had moved upon them, he committed some outrages and uttered threats against whom he conceived to be the invaders of his rights; but was frightened into peace by the arrival on the scene of Gen, Gaines with an overwhelming force of volunteers, in 1831. Indeed, he had retired west of the Mississippi, when the forces reached Rock Island. But again in 1832, influenced by the counsel of a Winnebago chief, who had a village on Rock river, he made his last desperate raid into Illinois, keeping however, along the Rock river country, little war parties, making savage incursions across what is now the northern portion of Henry and Bureau counties, sending panic far and wide through old Putnam, but never in any more direct way invading our limits. But it was an era of excitement. Many settlers along the frontiers of northern Illinois, in dread of the untold horrors of savage warfare, fled from their lands and homes, some of them never to return. It was at this crisis that volunteers from Spoon river rendezvoused at Hennepin, as related by Mr. Clifford, under the direction of the gallant Col. Strawn in " Bonaparte hat and laced coat," and it is said no less than fifteen hundred men reported themselves for service at that point. But though the fear was genuine, it was to some extent unfounded, and soon after the massacre on Indian creek of Fox river, about ten miles above Ottawa, (alluded to in our sketch of Col. Henderson) Black Hawk and his train of starving followers, were tracked to the heights of the Wisconsin where they stood at bay, and suffered a disastrous defeat. Unable longer to resist, the old chief retreated in haste to the Mississippi, which he attempted to cross. But before he could accomplish this, however, his band was almost annihilated, and himself a prisoner. So were the settlements henceforth delivered from all fear of Indian invasions. In these scenes of bloodshed, the Pottawatomies took no part, although it is supposed that the Sacs expected their cooperation when they made their last desperate venture in Illinois. Here we leave the red man, to meet the fate decreed him by a relentless destiny, and as is common in our world turn from, the setting, to hail the rising sun.


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