Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

Beginnings of Lee County, Illinois

The first known white man to frequent these parts, was Pierre LaPorte, a Frenchman from Fort Frontenac, Ontario, who hunted, trapped and traded along Rock river from the Turtle village, now practically, Beloit, Wisconsin, to its mouth.

With the exception of a few trips made to the Rocky Mountains, Pierre LaPorte covered the Rock River territory from the year 1780 to the year 1810.

He sold his furs usually, each springtime at the point now called St. Joseph, Michigan, and the point now called Chicago, in Illinois.

On a few occasions he trapped up-stream along Rock River, and at the end of such expeditions he sold his cargo of skins at Green Bay, now Wisconsin. At this point in the narrative, it may be interesting to learn that each person or member of a trading party was expected to carry over the portages and along the trails, not less than eighty-seven pounds of baggage.

This old Frenchman died at his home in Fort Frontenac, now Kingston, Ontario, about the year 1830. Of his descendants living in and about Dixon may be included Frank E. Stevens, the editor of this work, Mrs. William H. Edwards, States Attorney Harry Edwards, and the LaPortes, the Herricks and the Nisbets of Paw Paw, this county.

LaPorte was but one of the myriad Frenchmen who blazed the way for the civilization which followed so rapidly. Like most of the Frenchmen, this one found no trouble at all in dealing amicably with the Indians. They were hospitable and honorable in their dealings and they were remarkably true to all their friendships. The Indians who occupied the Rock River country, principally Winnebagoes, were like Indians elsewhere, treated fairly and they ever were found to be firm in their attachments, civil in their conduct and honorable in their business transactions.

LaSallier, spelled also LeSaller and LeSellier, a Frenchman, probably was the next person to invade the country, and beyond any doubt, he became the first settler of Lee County.

During the Illinois trip of Major Long, in the year 1823, mentioned later on, LeSallier, according to Keating, the secretary of the party, must have settled on Rock River in the year 1793. He is said by some to have married a Pottawatomie woman, although Keating, who generally was accurate, said he married a Winnebago woman. In Carr's book mentioned hereafter, this woman was called a Pottawatomie.

Some authorities state that a daughter of this marriage was the woman who married Joseph Ogee, a half breed Frenchman. If that is true, then according to the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, she was a Pottawatomie, because that treaty which could make no mistake, called Ogee's wife, Madeline, a Pottawatomie woman.

Dr. Oliver Everett, who was considered accurate in his statements, and who was said to have investigated the question when it was close at hand, pronounced her the daughter of LaSallier. In a conversation with William D. Barge, August 13, 1886, he told Mr. Barge he knew the woman was LaSallier's daughter. Such evidence is pretty strong. Nevertheless, I cannot conceal my very grave doubts.

If LaSallier married a squaw, as he did, their offspring would be half breeds and Madeline would have been a half breed and naturally I would suppose the 1829 treaty of Prairie du Chien would have called her a half breed, because she was as much a white as she was a Pottawatomie Indian. In the neighborhood of the section of land which she was given in Wyoming Township, she was styled a Pottawatomie and she retired to Kansas at last with the Pottawatomie Indians.

Just when LaSallier left the country it is impossible to state and almost impossible to conjecture. Gurdon S. Hubbard, the best authority on early Illinois settlements, made the statement that three or four trading posts on Rock River were operated in the interest of the American Fur Company from 1813-14 to 1826-33. In 1835 the ruins of LaSallier's cabin were discernible and part of the logs, in a ruined condition, were left and seen many times by the late Joseph Crawford, our first county surveyor. The exact location and size of the buildings are plainly in view today.

About the next early settler we easily can learn everything because he married here, lived in the state all his life and died an Honored citizen over in the neighboring county of Winnebago.

From the "History of Rockton," by Edson I. Carr, pages six to sixteen inclusive, I find that Stephen Mack, soon after the War of 1812, came to Detroit, probably about the year 1814, with the family. Ambitious for adventure and a life of activity for him-self, he joined a Government expedition around the lakes to Green Bay. Green Bay being the great fur market of the West, and fur trading the sole occupation of the people, Mack resolved upon opening a trading point of his own. To this end he was directed to the Rock River country. On a pony he started across the country, reaching in due time the point where Janesville now stands.

Following the stream downward, he paused at the Turtle village. The Indians there directed him to Bird's Grove. In seeking this spot, however, he took the wrong trail and passing it, continued until he reached a Pottawatomie village in what is now Lee County, at or near Grand Detour. Here he remained two or three years, traded for furs, carried his furs on the backs of Indian ponies to Chicago, and there he sold them, stocked up with merchandise, and then trudged back to the village.

Mack was an honest trader; he did everything possible to win the good will of the Indians, but he failed. His marriage to Ho-no-ne-gah, the chief's daughter, failed to cement any strong friend-ships among the tribe because he refused to sell members firearms and liquor.

His last trip to Chicago was made with three ponies. He had conducted a successful enterprise in trade and he started on his return trip with more goods than on any previous occasion.

The Indians had determined upon his destruction and this return trip had been selected as the time to do it. But in their evil calculations they had overlooked one very important person, his wife. This faithful woman had learned of the plot and at about the tune she expected her husband would reach a certain point, she struck out from camp and met him, and together they traveled to the Winnebago village in Bird's Grove. Thus terminated the residence of Stephen Mack. He passed the remainder of his life in Winnebago County with his faithful Indian wife. The story of his life is dramatically interesting, but it has no place in these pages after his departure from the borders of Lee County.

The exact location of Mack's Pottawatomie village has been the subject of some debate, but it is pretty generally conceded now to have been located in Lee County not far up-stream from the LaSallier cabin on what is now the Eugene Harrington farm on section 19 in Nachusa Township, 22 N., range 10.

Some have thought LaSallier moved into it about 1817 or 1818, when Mack moved out, but no credit can be attached to that position.

Around this cabin there was a very large cemetery. Every one of the many graves long since has been examined and the; contents returned. The writer found a small piece of human bone in a grave not six feet from the spot on which the cabin stood. The graves were very shallow, but some of the explorers dug very deep into the ground in the hope perhaps that articles of curiosity or value might be found. This cabin, from the appearance of the ground today, must have been a double affair, one built alongside the other, in size about eighteen feet square.

LaSallier must have been a bird of passage. After the visit of Webb, we find him acting as guide for a party traveling from Chicago to the lead mines at Galena. The route lay through DuPage, Kane, Ogle and Stephenson counties, and a full account of it may be found in "Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter's River, etc., performed in the year 1823, under command of Stephen H. Long, U. S. T. E.'' The Webb account is so full and so reliable and so pertinent that a verbatim copy of it should be inserted herein. It is to be found in his book entitled "Altowan; or. Incidents of Life and Adventure in the Rocky Mountains," volume 1, pages xiii-xxvii.

''In the winter of 1821-22, I was stationed at Chicago, then about one hundred and fifty miles in advance of the pioneer settlers. All west and north of us, with the exception of the old French settlements at Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, was an untrodden wilderness, or trodden only by the lords of the forest and the adventurous trapper and voyageur. A short time previous, the fifth regiment of infantry, under the command of Colonel Snelling, had established itself on the Upper Mississippi, at the Falls of St. Anthony. Early in February, 1822, the principal chief of the Pottawatomies, one of the most friendly tribes west of Lake Michigan, reported to the agent at our post, that his tribe had received an invitation from the Sioux Indians to unite with them in cutting off the garrison at St. Peter's, at the Falls of St. Anthony; and, as evidence of his truth, produced the tobacco said to have been sent to them by the Sioux, and which generally accompanies such propositions for a war league. As no doubt was entertained of the truth of this report, the commanding officer directed me (the adjutant) to make arrangements with some of the voyagers connected with the Indian trading house near the fort, to carry the intelligence to Port Armstrong, situated on Rock Island in the Mississippi, near the mouth of Rock river, thence to be forwarded to Colonel Snelling. They however, refused all my offers, alleging that none of them had ever crossed the country in the winter season; it was impracticable, etc., etc.

"The same love of adventure and excitement which had induced me to exchange a station in this city for Detroit, and then from an artillery into an infantry regiment, added to a conviction that the lives of a whole regiment of officers and men, their wives and children, were in jeopardy, and that it was possible to avert the impending blow, induced me to volunteer to be the bearer of the intelligence to Fort Armstrong.

"I accordingly took my departure, accompanied by a sergeant, who was a good woodsman, and an Indian of my own age. The first two or three days were days of weariness to me, and of frolic and fun to the Indian; because we necessarily traveled on foot, in consequence of the extreme severity of the weather, with our provisions on a pack horse to break the snow, and make a trail in which to walk. The actual suffering consisted in riding our regular tour; but I, being "all unused' to travel through the snow on foot for hour after hour consecutively, was weary and worn out when we came to bivouac at night; while the Indian, was apparently, as fresh as when we started, and cracked his jokes without mercy upon fagged Che-mo-ca-mun, or "Long Knife,' as they denominated all whites. I found however "as I had been told by those who were learned in such matters that the endurance of the Indian, bears no comparison with that of the white man. He will start off on a 'dog-trot,' and accomplish his eighty or a hundred miles in an incredible short space of time; but when he comes to day after day of regular work and endurance, he soon begins to fag, and finally becomes worn out; while each succeeding day only inures the white man to his work, trains him for further exertion, and the better fits him for the following day's labors. Thus it was with the Indian and myself; and on the evening of the fourth day, I came to camp fresh as when we started, while the Indian came in, weary and fatigued; and of course, it was then my turn to boast of the endurance of the Che-mo-ca-mun, and the effeminacy of the ' Niche-nawby. '

"My instructions were, to employ the Pottawatomie as a guide to Rock River, where the country of the Winnebagoes commenced, and then take a Winnebago as a guide to Fort Armstrong, the leading object being so to arrange our line of travel as to avoid the prairies, upon which, we would necessarily suffer from the cold. I had been apprised that I would find an old Canadian voyageur residing with his Indian family in a trading hut on Rock River, and it was to him my Pottawatomie was to guide me.

"Toward evening on the fifth day, we reached our place of destination; and old LaSaller, recognizing us as whites, and of course from the fort, intimated by signs, as he conducted us to the loft of his hut, that we were to preserve a profound silence. All who live in the Indian country learn to obey signs; and it is wonderful how soon we almost forget to ask questions. I knew that something was wrong, but it never entered my head to inquire what it was, Indian-like, quite willing to bide my time, even if the finger closely pressed upon the lips of the old man had not apprised me that I should get no answer until it suited his discretion to make a communication.

"It was nearly dark when we were consigned to the loft of the good old man; and for three long hours we saw him not. During this period there was abundant time for meditation upon our position; when all at once the profound stillness which reigned in and about the hut, was broken by the startling sound of a Winnebago war dance in our immediate vicinity ! This, you may imagine, was no very agreeable sound for my sergeant or myself, but it was perfectly horrifying to my Pottawatomie; all of which tribe, as also their neighbors, were as much in awe of a Winnebago, as is a flying-fish of a dolphin. But all suspense has its end; and at length the war-dance ceased, the music of which, at times, could only be likened to shrieks of the damned, and then, again, partook of the character of the recitative in an Italian opera, until, at length, it died away, and all was silence.

"Then came old LaSaller, whose head, whitened by the snows of eighty winters, as it showed itself through the trap in the floor, was a far more acceptable sight than I could have anticipated it would be when I left the fort. Having been informed who we were, and my desire to procure a Winnebago to guide me to Fort Armstrong, he inquired whether we had not heard the war-dance, and if we could not conjecture its object! He then proceeded to state that two Winnebagoes, who had been tried and sentenced to be executed for the murder of a soldier at Fort Armstrong, had escaped from the jail at Kaskaskia, and arrived on the river a few days previous; that in consequence, the whole nation was in a state of extraordinary excitement, and that the war-dance to which we had listened, was preparatory to the starting of a war-party for Fort Armstrong to attack it, or destroy such of the garrison as they could meet with beyond its palisades; and that of course, our only safety was in making an early start homeward. I inquired whether I could not avoid the Indians by crossing the Great Prairie, and thus striking the Mississippi above the fort. He answered that by such a route I would certainly avoid the Indians until I reached the vicinity of the Mississippi; but that we would as certainly perish with the cold, as there was no wood to furnish a fire at night. The mercury in the thermometer, as I well knew, had stood at five degrees below zero when I left the garrison, and it had certainly been growing colder each day; and therefore I apparently acquiesced in his advance, and requested to be called some three hours before daylight, which would give us a fair start of any pursuing party and bade him good-night.

"But the old man doubted my intention to return to the fort, and shortly after, paid us another visit, accompanied by a very old Winnebago, who avowed himself the firm friend of the whites, and proceeded to point out the folly of any attempt to proceed in my expedition. He inquired its purport; and when I told him that it was to visit a dying friend, he said I had better postpone the meeting until after death, when we would doubtless meet in the paradise of the white man I But at the same time gave me to understand that he did not believe such was the object of my visit to the banks of the Mississippi. Indian like, he sought not to pry farther into my affairs, but expressed his respect for all who knew how to keep to themselves their own counsels and the counsels of their government. His remarks were kind, and in the nature of approbation for the past and advice for the future; and coming from such a source, made a lasting impression.

"Again we were left to ourselves; and then, doubtless, I wished myself safe in garrison. But to return, and that too from fear, and the object of my journey unaccomplished, was inevitable disgrace. But what was still more important, was the consequence to others of my return. I could not but think there was an understanding between the Winnebagoes and the Sioux; and if there had lingered on my mind a doubt of the story of the Pottawatomie chief, that doubt was now at an end; and of course, a sense of duty to a whole regiment of officers and men, their wives and children, was as imperative in requiring my advance, as was the fear of disgrace in forbidding my return. With two such motives for a right decision, there could be no doubt as to my course. It required more courage to retreat than to advance; and I determined upon the latter.

"Some hours before the dawn of day, we started, apparently for garrison; but once out of sight of old LaSaller, we knocked the shoes off our horses to avoid being traced by them in crossing the river, threw away our caps, tore up a blanket to make the hood worn by Indians in extreme cold weather, and took a course by the stars directly west. I should have mentioned, that my Indian now having become valueless, I urged his return to his own tribe. But neither persuasion nor threats could induce him to go. In every bush he imagined he saw a Winnebago, and he dared not return alone. I then urged what was quite apparent would be the fact, that he could not sustain the forced march to which we were destined, and upon which our safety depended. But it was all in vain; and I was compelled to take him with us.

"And now, after this long introduction, I come to the point of my story. The second day after leaving Rock River was the coldest I ever experienced. The ground was covered with about eight inches of snow; and no one who has not experienced it, can well imagine with what piercing effect the wind passes over those boundless fields of snow, unbroken by a single tree. On that day, at Port Armstrong, sixty miles south of me and sheltered by woods, I afterward ascertained that the mercury never rose above fourteen degrees above zero! How cold it was where we were, it is impossible to conjecture; but I know that when my Indian failed in strength, and absolutely refused to take his turn in riding the horse to break a trail through the snow, I rode his tour of ten minutes in addition to my own; and when I got down, discovered that my feet, face, hands, and knees, were frozen.

"To encamp without wood was an impossibility. The country is a high, rolling prairie; and from a naked hill, about five o'clock in the afternoon, I discovered an island of woods lung southwest of us some ten miles.''

The continuation of the narrative makes no further reference to Lee County, so is abandoned with the statement that Lieutenant Webb reached Fort Armstrong and a detail notified Colonel Snelling of impending danger in time to avert it.

From the "Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter's River (etc.), Compiled from the Notes of Maj. S. H. Long and Messrs. Say, Keating and Colhoun," by William H. Keating, considerable light is thrown on LaSallier, in a very few words.

On June 11, 1823 (Vol. 1, p. 175), when the expedition at Chicago had decided to select the route to Galena, rather than Fort Armstrong, no person could be found to guide it along that route until "an old French engage, of the name LeSellier," undertook to direct it. "This man,'' says Keating, "who had lived for upwards of thirty years with the Indians, had taken a wife among the Winnebagoes, and settled on the headwaters of Rock River; knowing the country as far as that stream, he presumed that he could find his way thence to Fort Crawford.''

This remark tallies to a nicety with Webb's and adds the important information that for upwards of thirty years he had lived with the Indians. The added information about his having settled on the headwaters of the Rock River, easily enough might have been a mistake in the writer's knowledge of geography. Had LaSallier been as early a settler as that in Wisconsin, at the headwaters of the Rock River, his name would be found in the Wisconsin historical collections. But it is not; wherefore we are driven to the conclusion that the man had lived where Webb found him, since about the year 1793.

He could not have remained long after Webb's visit, because, when in 1830, John Dixon took up his residence at the ferry, there was no LaSallier and in 1835, when Joseph Crawford surveyed in the neighborhood, the cabin had rotted into a mass of sticks and dirt. It is difficult to imagine how in so short a space, a solid log cabin could push itself into a state of complete decay unless it had burned, and inasmuch as the stones new on the mound wear the appearance of having been subjected to fire, the cabin must have burned or else the stones were part of a fireplace. LaSallier guided the party safely until the Pektannons (Pecatonica) had been reached a few miles above its mouth. Here LaSallier informed the party that the Sauks pronounced the diminutive of a word by add-ing a hissing sound, LaSallier must have been a man of some information! At this point too it became evident that he had reached the limit of his knowledge of the country. Accordingly he was sent ahead to secure an Indian to act as guide for the rest of the trip to Prairie du Chien. The elder brother of the chief of the village to which LaSallier went, a Sauk, so-called, was secured. LaSallier had explained his mission and with one accord the Indians, mostly Winnebagoes, greeted the party with manifestations of friendship. The new guide's name was Wanebea.

On page 194 LaSallier is credited with translating certain words uttered by a Winnebago, into the Sauk; then into French; then into English in order to test the accuracy of some of the vocabulary Major Long had written during a former trip. LaSallier did this work with surprising accuracy.

During the trip to Prairie du Chien, LaSallier also communicated much information about the Sauks, useful to any student of ethnology, (p. 223.) LaSallier, too, had a singular regard for the decencies of conversation, because when listening to and interpret-ing some of the things concerning squaws, which were detailed in a revolting manner, the old fellow blushed; "which, with a Canadian trader, might be supposed not to be an easy thing.'' Thus it will be seen by this parting allusion to LaSallier that at Grand Detour he was a Canadian trader. At Prairie du Chien in the summer of 1823, is the last view, written history gives us of this old first settler, whose parting information was to interpret Wanebea's discourse on the soul and the spirit.

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