Northern Illinois History - Richer Still

As I’ve spent time following the links to historical references from and about people in our region in the era of my great-great-great grandparents I’m finding that I’m also discovering and re-discovering things about the region and it’s history. This has led me, in part, into a Wikipedia rabbit hole that has been surprisingly (and pleasantly) informative.

For some reason, the early history of the Midwest United States isn’t really a topic touched on in detail in high school or the survey courses in college. I suppose the reality is that, just as we midwesterners are considered to live in fly-over country ("Oh - you live in [fill-in-the-small-town-name-here] in Illinois? So, that’s basically Chicago, right?"), from an historical perspective we get passed over as well. In some ways this is odd, given our love of westerns, since the Midwest was "the west" in the early and mid-1800’s. I suppose the lack of picturesque buttes and dramatic, multi-colored stone columns make our prairie less enticing for movie makers, though the fertility of the region probably makes it better suited to be considered a garden of the gods...

Still, the region has a history rich in stories of pioneers, settlers, outlaws, Native Americans, and the inevitable conflicts they encounter. And as one digs, one begins to realize specifics about the surrounding land of which one was unaware. For example, I’ve long been aware that many of the place names in the region have Native American roots. But the degree of this, and the specificity of it, or to be more accurate, my ignorance of that specificity, is surprising to me.

For example, down the road a piece is a small town next to a state park, both of which are named Shabbona. I’ve always assumed, based on the spelling and the pronunciation, that this has a Native American derivation. However, beyond that, the name has only otherwise been of interest as a thing that I periodically try to convince my wife and child is pronounced "Sha-Bone-Uh". (You know, for my own general amusement; And, based upon their responses to my efforts, it is only for my amusement...).

But as I’ve been working through some of the accounts in these old books, I came across references to Chief Shabbona. The accounts are written from a white settler perspective, of course, and they often appear to have been written by people who were children during the era, or are the immediate children of those early settlers, but they reference Chief Shabbona stopping by their family homes or in their villages in a somewhat causal way that suggests they knew he had been important, but that he was clearly very much a real person in their memory. For example, in Recollections of Pioneers from Lee County, Illinois, 1893, Mrs. Ezra Berry writes the following in her account of A.V. Christiance, the second settler and first tavern owner in Melugin Grove:

The old Indian, Shabbona, used to stop there quite frequently and talk, and tell stories of the Black Hawk war and how he helped warn the settlers and they escaped the cruel scalping knife. (pg. 188)

The tavern, such as it was, would have been situated along the stage route between Galena and Chicago, and Chief Shabbona lived until 1859, so the account seems feasible. Certainly the description of the stories attributed to Shabbona would fit the things about which he might speak. Well, perhaps a small portion of the things about which he might speak. As the Wikipedia entry for him makes clear, this man was extremely experienced and accomplished for his day, having prominent roles in the War of 1812, in multiple Native American negotiations, in the Black Hawk war, and in general as a leader for his people. During the Black Hawk War it appears that he did, indeed as the old book recounts, warn the white settlers of Black Hawk’s approach as well as counseling Black Hawk against the conflict (which would turn out to be good advice not taken). It’s unsurprising, given all of that, that he’d turn out to have multiple places named for him. And I literally knew nothing about any of this, all of which makes me think my attempts at familial pronunciation humor may have received the appropriate reaction after all...

There are multiple other examples. In terms of the Wikipedia deep dive the curiosity about Shabbona leads to pages about Black Hawk) himself, the Blank Hawk War, and so on. I did realize that Abraham Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War, but I had no idea how many other recognizable major and minor names from our history were also associated. Andrew Jackson was president during this period (which fits with his larger, more generally problematic historical profile on the subject of treatment of Native Americans). William Henry Harrison, who would go on to be the shortest serving president of the United States, was the Territorial Governor. Zachary Taylor, also later a US president who’s primary distinction as such was that of having lived longer in office than Harrison (16 months for Taylor vs 31 days for Harrison), was a colonel in The Black Hawk War. Then 2nd Lieutenant and later Confederate President Jefferson Davis was assigned by Colonel Taylor to escort Black Hawk to prison. In fact, despite it being a brief conflict, The Black Hawk War was apparently quite the political stepping stone, as the Wikipedia entry also notes "At least seven future U.S. Senators took part, as did four future Illinois governors; future governors of Michigan, Nebraska, and the Wisconsin Territory...". Again - I had no idea.

And there is more still, which I will leave for another day. Succinctly put, it’s clear there is a rich and vibrant history to our little patch of prairie here in the Midwest that has been left off of our broader history teachings. Perhaps this is not vital for an understanding of the greater history of our nation, but it certainly makes for a much more colorful picture of this region.