Kendall County History

Beginning with the flood of settlement during “The Year of the Early Spring” in 1833, new communities began springing up like daffodils after a warm spring shower. According to contemporary accounts, 1832 enjoyed a warm, early spring when the dirt roads of the era dried out much earlier than usual. The favorable conditions persuaded hundreds of immigrants to load their wagons and head west to settle on the Illinois prairies.

Oswego’s municipal boosters were first, laying out their village on the bluff overlooking the Fox River and Waubonsie Creek in 1835, followed by Newark (also 1835), Yorkville (1836), Little Rock (1836), Lisbon (1838) and Millington (1838).

One of the first things many new settlers and businessmen found when it came time to conduct their legal business was that it was a long, long way to the county seat. Residents of Oswego, Bristol, and Little Rock townships had to travel all the way north to Geneva to conduct legal business at the Kane County Courthouse, while those living in NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Lisbon, and Seward townships had to trek down to Ottawa to visit the courthouse and county officials. In the days of horseback and team and wagon travel, those were both considerably journeys.

As if the shear mileage between the people and their elected officials wasn¹t enough, 1837 brought with it one of the deepest depressions the nation would ever see. Spurred by wild bank speculation in Illinois and other western states and made worse by President Andrew Jackson¹s national monetary policies, the economic system in many areas of the country simply collapsed. Called the Panic Of 1837, the economic disaster focused the minds of county officials on their immediate surroundings, leaving far distant residents to pretty much fend for themselves.

Realizing their government didn¹t really much care what happened to them, settlers living along the Fox River between Ottawa and Aurora decided to establish a new county to call their own.

The original petition circulated in the fall of 1840 contained the names of 109 settlers, and asked the Illinois General Assembly to establish a new county comprised of nine townships. Originally, however, the nine townships would have consisted of Bristol, Little Rock, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, and Lisbon townships in what is now Kendall County, plus Sandwich Township in DeKalb County and Mission and Northfield townships in LaSalle County.

But when the new county was finally proposed in the Illinois House, however, the new county’s boundaries had been moved one township east, picking up Oswego, NaAuSay, and Seward townships, and dropping the ones now part of DeKalb and LaSalle counties. One of the remnants of that time a century and a half ago is that to this day, Sandwich Township residents often consider themselves more closely related to Kendall than DeKalb County.

When the bill to establish the new county came before the General Assembly in early 1841, its name was given as Orange County, probably after the area in New York State from where many of the new county’s settlers had come. However, upon a motion by Democratic supporters of President Andrew Jackson, the name was changed to Kendall County, in honor of Jackson’s Postmaster General, Amos Kendall. Kendall, who also acted as Jackson¹s powerful patronage chief Kendall and Jackson essentially invented modern political patronage had retired in 1840, and it is probable the Democrats who controlled the General Assembly wished to honor his memory. Another Jackson crony, Felix Grundy, was similarly honored when another portion of LaSalle County was separated into a new county.

A brief, tongue-in-cheek effort by members of the Democrat’s opponents, the Whig Party, to tweak the Democrats by changing the county’s name to “Honest Amos” Kendall County was quickly defeated, and just plain Kendall County it has remained to this day.

The bill to create the new county was passed by the Illinois House, sent to the state Senate, and was finally approved and signed into law on Feb. 19, 1841.

On April 5,1841, the first elections in Kendall County were held, and the business of county government began. In June that year, a three man commission was appointed by the General Assembly to find a site for a permanent county seat. John H. Harris of Tazewell County, Eli A. Rider of Cook County, and William E. Armstrong of LaSalle County arrived to begin their search, helped by a delegation of local citizens. Eventually, the commission picked Yorkville as the county’s first seat of government, with the provision that Yorkville donate 10 acres to the county for the construction of a courthouse and other such buildings as required by the county board of commissioners.

Yorkville was probably picked as the county seat due to its central location. That was a major consideration given the long distances the new county’s residents had formerly been subjected to when they needed to conduct official business.

Locating the county seat at Yorkville gave that village an economic boost. The presence of a county court house meant a significant amount of revenue for the village in which it was located. People who had official business to do often spent money for meals and accommodations, and the presence of the court house meant employment for several people in the community. At that time, unlike it’s sister village across the Fox River, Bristol, and the growing village to it’s north along the river, Oswego, Yorkville had no post office and no bridge spanned the river.

Approximately two months after the commission met in Kendall County, H. Carrington and Rulief Duryea deeded the required 10 acres to the county, and Yorkville became the official county seat. A few years later, however, the county sold the 10 acres without building on it.

Where the county board met for the first few months of its existence is a mystery. In 1842 a private dwelling owned by Daniel Johnson was leased by the county board for use as county courthouse and seat of county government. That first county court house was located on lot 8, block 15 in the village of Yorkville, about 2-1/2 blocks southwest of the present Historic Courthouse complex on Fox Road. The Kendall County Bicentennial Commission established a historical marker on the site in 1976.

That first courthouse was a typical specimen of Federal residential architecture, a very popular style in the 1840s because of its simplicity of design and construction. The structure was a two story design with a two story porch across the entire front of the building. The first story was of brick, with doors on both the south and west sides, the west door facing the front and protected by the two story porch. The second or main story was built of wood with clapboard siding. The main entrance was on the west end, protected by the full width porch. There were also two small windows on the front, with three larger windows on the south and north sides. The large side windows were 12 over 12’s, harking back to the building’s New England architectural heritage.

The only existing photograph of the original structure is of very poor quality, and was apparently taken shortly before the building was torn down by John McKeeryer in 1896.

While this building was the county seat for only a short time, two of Kendall County’s best remembered historical events ended there.

Kendall County’s first murder trial was held in the old building in 1843. Ansel Rider of Newark was charged with first degree murder in the death of Charles McNeil, also of Newark, by gunshot. During the trial, it was learned that McNeil was a member of a drunken lynch mob and that Rider was their intended victim. Rider was acquitted on grounds of justifiable homicide.

Then, Kendall County’s first (and last) slave auction was held at the court house in 1844 under provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law. The individual in question was bought for $1 by a local anti-slavery activist other, possibly higher bids were strongly discouraged by the large group of anti-slavery residents who gathered and was sent on his way to freedom in Canada.

In January of 1845, a petition with 145 names was presented to the General Assembly asking that the county seat be moved to Oswego. Two weeks later, the total petitioners had increased to more than 400, and the matter was ordered referred to the voters of Kendall County. In August 1845, a special election was held to select a new county seat. As noted earlier, the stakes in the selection of the site were high in the 1840s, guaranteeing a vigorous campaign.

Oswego reportedly furnished some 50 teams and wagons to transport voters to the polls, and campaigning on all sides was intense. Subsequently, it was charged that at least some of those wagons hauled Kane County voters to the polls in violation of the law.

Surprisingly, no single location received a majority of the votes, and so another election was held on Sept. 1, during which Oswego finally received a majority of the votes. The county commissioners certified the vote three days later, and decreed that the county seat be moved to Oswego. The county seat’s move had some logic behind it. Oswego Township even in 1845, was the largest in population. However, the difficulty in transportation to the new county seat by all residents of the county was to prove a decided handicap in years to come.

The first term of the circuit court in 1846 was held in the stately National Hotel on Main Street in Oswego. The new Oswego courthouse wasn’t completed for two more years. Built of brick in the then-popular Greek Revival style, the courthouse stood on the block bounded by Madison (U.S. Route 34), Jefferson, Monroe, and Jackson streets.

By the spring of 1859, residents of the county’s southern townships had tired of the additional hours spent traveling to and from the county seat. Enough petitions were signed to force a new vote on the location of the county seat. In balloting that year, Yorkville won as the site of the new county seat. But with the start of the Civil War, efforts to move the county seat back to Yorkville slowed considerably.

Not until June 16, 1864 was the Kendall County Record able to report from Yorkville that Yorkville is the bona fide capital of Kendall County. Last Thursday, just after our paper was off, we had the intelligence that the Records were to be moved immediately. Two of the offices were finished and the Treasurer and Circuit and County Clerks were to take possession. And at it they went… and the teams started for the borough of Oswego and in a few hours that village ceased to be the County Seat. All county business will now be done at the new Court House in this place.

Prior to 1850, the county’s nine townships had no formal names. But due to new legislation allowing the township form of government to familiar to so many early pioneers from the New England states, named townships and township governments were established that year. In addition, instead of a three person county commission at the top of county government, the new system utilized a board of supervisors, with the nine township supervisors making up the county board.

Here’s the origin of the names of each of the nine townships:

Little Rock is named after Little Rock Creek, which flows through the township. Actually, the township is probably named for the village of Little Rock, which is one of the oldest organized settlements in the county. The small village, which tumbles along Galena Road near the Kendall_Kane border, was a stop on the Chicago_Galena Road, and the old Frink and Walker Stagecoach inn was still standing in what is left of the village until 2003 when it was demolished. The village did not prosper, as first the main Galena road was moved north to go through Elgin, and then roads were made largely obsolete by the construction of the first railroad, which went through Plano.

Next is Bristol Township, named after the Bristol family. Although pioneer miller John Schneider was really the first settler in the township, the Bristols were better known. Lyman Bristol donated the site of the village of Bristol, now the north side of the city of Yorkville. Today’s village of Bristol was first known as Bristol Station, and was a stop on the railroad that passed Yorkville and the old village of Bristol to the north. Bristol is the county’s smallest township, losing substantial acreage to both Kendall and Oswego townships because of the meander of the Fox River. The township was also known as one of the county’s wettest, with swamps galore.

Oswego Township was named after the village of Oswego, which was in turn named after the largest city in the home state of many of the area’s first settlers. Oswego is an Iroquois Indian word meaning place of the flowing out or mouth of the stream. Oswego, N.Y. Oswego Township’s namesake sits at the mouth of the Oswego River, while Oswego, Ill. sits at the mouth of Waubonsie Creek.

Fox Township was named after the river that bisects the township. The Fox River was originally known by the earliest French explorers as the Pestekouy River, or Buffalo River in the Algonquian dialect spoken by local Native Americans. The river carried that name through the 17th Century, but became known as Riviere de la Roche, or River of the Rock, in the early 18th Century. The name is probably a reference to the proximity of the river’s mouth to Starved Rock, which the French dubbed la Roche, or The Rock. Later in the 18th Century, the river became called the Fox River, probably a reference to the Fox Tribe, which inhabited southeastern Wisconsin. It’s possible the Fox used the river to attack their enemies, members of the Illinois Confederacy who controlled the Starved Rock area, and thus the stream became known for its most fierce travelers.

Kendall Township was named after the county, which was named after Amos Kendall, a powerful Democratic politician in the Andrew Jackson administration. Kendall later became a business partner of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the Morse Code and the electric telegraph, and made his fortune with Morse.

NaAuSay Township carries a Native American name that supposedly means Headwaters of the AuSable, a reference to the famous creek that meanders through it. The AuSable Sandy Creek was a prominent landmark on Indian treaties and other documents dating back 200 years and more.

Big Grove Township was named after the large grove of hardwoods that dominated the prairies in the township when the first settlers arrived. A portion of the timber still stands today.

Early settler John Moore was credited with naming Lisbon Township, commenting he wanted a different name, and he certainly found one. The township is the only geographic feature in Kendall County named after anything Portuguese.

Seward Township is named after William H. Seward, who served as governor of New York State and as a U.S. Senator from that state. Seward was well-known for his anti-slavery sentiments, and was one of the founders of the Republican Party. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, he tapped the politically-powerful Seward as his Secretary of State.

During the Civil War years, more than 1,200 Kendall County men served in the Union Army. After the war, they returned to become some of the county’s most popular leaders.

From 1870 onwards, Kendall County slowly lost population. From it’s 1860 census count of 13,074 in 1860, the county’s population declined to 10,555 by 1930. That year, however, the county’s population again began to increase, gaining about 600 new residents by 1940 and then rising to 12,115 by 1950. The decade of the 1950s saw population growth begin in earnest with the start of the sprawling unincorporated Boulder Hill Subdivisions in Oswego Township. By 1960, the county ¹ s population reached a historic high, 17,540 residents, a 45 percent gain over the 1950 population. 1970’s population was 50 percent higher than 1960s, and by 1980, the county’s population was up to 37,202. The 1980s brought slower growth, thanks to the nation’s economic slump, and Kendall County’s 1990 population was only 6 percent higher than 1980s, growing to just 39,413.

But during the 1990s, growth began overflowing into Kendall from the county’s three neighboring collar counties, Kane, DuPage, and Will. Kendall County’s 2000 population stood at more than 54,500. And in 2003, the county was named the fourth fastest growing in the nation by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The 21st Century has brought substantial change to Kendall County. The once-ubiquitous rural landscape is rapidly being replaced by Suburban Street scenes as municipalities formerly both inside and outside the county grow into Kendall County. Montgomery, Aurora, Plainfield, and Joliet, all formerly located outside Kendall County, now have annexed substantial portions of county real estate. In addition, county municipalities such as Yorkville and Oswego have also continued to grow, adding to urbanization pressures.

The 109 settlers who, a century and a half ago, signed that first petition to form Kendall County probably never dreamed their beautiful prairies would be one day studded with subdivisions from which residents make pleasant day trips to the communities of Geneva and Ottawa thought then to be so distant.

By: Roger Matile

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