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As I’ve spent time following the links to historical references from and about people in our region in the era of my great-great-great grandparents I’m finding that I’m also discovering and re-discovering things about the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.

Old Pictures

One of the many upsides to doing genealogical research is having the opportunity to look through old family photos and get a glance - however fleeting - into the lives of ones ancestors. In the house itself we have a handful of pictures, and family members have allowed for the gathering of others.

While I enjoy them all, I was particularly impressed to find that my uncle, who is certainly our foremost family historian, had pictures of three pairs of my generation’s third-great (great-great-great) grandparents. This is delightful and surprising, as these are people born in the first half of the 1800’s or, in one case, late in the 1700’s. None of them were born in, or really anywhere near, their final settlements in Illinois.

Here are Smith H. "Prairie" Johnson and Ziba Johnson (née Tompkins):

Prairie and Ziba Johnson

Prairie has the distinction of being the earliest born of the bunch, in 1797 in Vermont. Ziba was several years younger than he, born in 1809 and hailing from New York. Both are buried in Fisk Cemetery.

Joel Compton and Nancy Compton (née Townsend):

Joel and Nancy Compton

Joel and Nancy were born in 1819 and 1824, respectively. He was from New Jersey and she from Pennsylvania, and my records indicate that they were married in Pennsylvania in 1842. They opened a general store and a town that became their namesake was founded around them. Both are buried in Melugin Grove Cemetery.

John Foulk and Martha Foulk (née Morrow):

John and Martha Foulk

Both born in 1822, John was born in Pennsylvania, while Martha hailed from Ohio. These folks are the builders of our old house, the people responsible for the living history around me each day. They are buried at Restland Cemetery in a family plot.

These photos give a glimpse into their lives, and give a reference for our modern day family. Photography would have been a new technology in their times, making the existence of these pictures all the more remarkable. Clearly, these moments were special occasions, and you can see in the shots that they’ve selected their finery, such as it was. Nancy Compton, in particular, is decked out in necklaces, ribbons, and earrings.

It’s interesting to consider as one looks through these and considers current day family members where the resemblances lie - who looks like a Compton, a Johnson, a Foulk, from days of old. Or does a given person perhaps more resemble one of the other third greats, for whom we may not have pictures? There are, of course, six of these per parent, 12 to consider in all...

Part of the long-term goal is to have these pictures and the known stories about these folk preserved in order to know them better myself, but also to allow for others to know them. Having this ability is a gift many are not given, whether due to poor family record keeping or, often, due to the unfortunate nature of how their ancestors arrived into our country. It seems appropriate to make of that gift what we can.

The Other Melugin Grove Cemetary

Melugin Grove Panorama

This has been a bit of a quest.

Back when I wrote about the Melugin Grove Cemetary I noted that i had become aware of it because my uncle had told of it. As I mentioned then, it was a bit of a goldmine of former ancestors, and provided helpful technical information - birth and death dates and, in at least one case, allowed me to identify a marital partner for a cousin of a couple of generations back.

When I told my uncle about it he laughed a bit and said "that's not it", and noted that the one he meant was down a hidden path, lost behind the trees. I've been looking for it since, all along Shaw Road - lots of miles logged on the bike in that search, and many hours in the satellite view of Apple and Google Maps. I'd begun to think he must be mistaken about the road it was on, and that he was perhaps remembering a different place - something like Inlet Cemetary, which is a registered Cemetary not that far away that also happens to be in the middle of a field, behind some trees.

I should not have doubted him.

To say that this cemetary, which contains the final resting place of Zachariah Melugin, the man after whom the grove was named, is "down a hidden path" strains the definition of the word "path". But it is here, and it has the appearance of being maintained still, thanks to Boy Scout Troop 85.

Zacharia Melugin's Gravestone

The graves are old, with some dating back to at least the 1850's. At least, because the majority of them are at least partially illegible, and many completely so.

Hard to Read


There are perhaps two dozen graves visible. One of the sources I used to locate the site indicates that several of the graves had to be uncovered. What is visible makes one wonder if there might be still more here - the clearing it occupies is much larger than the space in which the stones appear.

And those sources? How did I find it? I think this one I'll keep close to the vest. It seems like a thing this hard to find wants you to work to find it - nothing this special should be casually obtained, or revealed such that it would seem easy prey to vandals.

Melugin Grove is a Place

Finding and exploring the back roads in the region seems to have stimulated my appetite for information about the geography of the area, and led to some wondering as to what it must have been like to live here during that time.

I realized - not for the first time, but this time it must have sunk in - while looking at a map of the area this morning that, as far as that map is concerned, Melugin Grove is still a place. This may be an odd thing to say, I suppose, but I believe I come by it honestly. There are dozens of place names on the area map that no longer correspond to anything that people traveling today, at 60 miles an hour in a car, would consider a separate place. The towns of Compton and West Brooklyn, for example, tiny as they are still contain a small arrangement of streets and houses that make it clear that they are places - self-standing entities, of a sort, a thing, a village or town.

But as you look on the map there are other "places" that appear in the area, with names - The Burg, for example, at or near the intersection of Shaw Road and Rt 251, or Shaws, at the intersection of Shaw and Inlet roads - where it is difficult to understand, even when one goes there, how these were considered a place worthy of a name. Sometimes, with practice, you can begin to see what might have led to it. Shaws, for example, has a a few houses in closer proximity than typically seen along a country road, a former church, a decaying gas station at the intersection, and the tumbledown remnants of what appears to have been a one-room school house (there are more of these out here than you'd think). The Burg, alternately, provides nothing to suggest anything was there, no visual hint to why it would have a name.

There are similar peculiarities - running through the area is Beemerville Road, which one might expect would be part of the straightforward naming strategy seen in the area of naming the roads after the places they go. West Brooklyn Road goes to West Brooklyn, Compton Road leads to Compton, Paw Paw Road... You get the idea. But Beemerville road? No sign of a "Beemerville" on the map anywhere along its approximately five miles of length, not even as a forgotten place name, an atavistic map icon. Was it a place once? The Melugin Grove Cemetery has has its fair share of Beemers laid to rest, so one suspects it may have been. But apparently no longer.

But Melugin Grove is still a place, at least according to Apple Maps, falling in an oddly-shaped territory framed by Carnahan Road to the west, Richards and Melugin Grove (natch) Roads to the east, Shaw Road to the south, and Butler Hill Road to the north.

Melugin Grove

In the grand scheme of things it's a small place - a little over 650 acres - but at the slower, smaller scale of moving through it on the ground, in my case on a bicycle, it feels substantial. Like so much of this little area, it's heavily wooded to a degree that can make one feel pleasantly separated and, when looking in toward the area identified on the map one sees a far higher proportion of trees and grassy clearings to crops than in most parts of the region. It has the feeling of a different place - more central Wisconsin than Northern Illinois. It becomes easy to imagine why an early settler, particularly if he or she did not fancy themselves future farmers, would choose to stop here.

Melugin Grove from the North

Melugin Grove - beyond the bean field - from the North.

Melugin Grove Cemetary

My journey down the road of researching family geneology comes in fits and starts. It occurs when I have some free time (often a rare commodity) or when I see or hear something that sparks my interest.

At a family gathering a few weeks ago my uncle mentioned a small cemetery in Melugin Grove, hidden behind some trees. This piqued my interest and so, a few days later, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to see if I could find it.

Melugin Grove cemetery Sign

It was easier to find than I expected, aided in part by the fact that it's early spring, and the trees that would typically hide it were still bare.

As I suspect is true of all places, there are many small regions in the area that carry obscure, nearly forgotten place names that were probably more sensible and useful when travel was done on foot or via horse. When you are moving through the countryside at four to eight miles an hour it makes sense to give distinct names to locations that are a few miles apart. A trip from Shaws to Melugin Grove - about 9 miles - would have been a two-hour walk or ride, perhaps trimmed to an hour if your horse was willing.

We lose that now, when the same trip takes about 10 minutes. Rather than learning about the landscape and making note of it to tell where we are, it becomes a thing to move through, an obstacle to endure, or perhaps to enjoy briefly as scenery, but not much else.

Melugin's Grove (pronounced "Ma-lew-jin", according to my uncle, who I suspect is right, this being an area about which he knows a great deal, rather than a variation of "Mulligan", which is how I've always pronounced it) is of interest to the Homestead because it's the place name given to the area just outside the town and area of Compton, Illinois. And Joel Compton was my Great-Great-Great (or "3rd Great" in the parlance of Ancestry.Com) Grandfather on my mother's side.

So this meant the cemetery might yield some interesting things:

Joel Compton Grave

Joel Compton has always been sort of a minor mystical figure in my mind. The Village of Compton is, and always has been, a relatively tiny place - a little over 400 people at its peak in 1900, considerably fewer in current day. Regardless, it's a bit of something to have a place named after an ancestor and, for me, that abstract fact was the only real information I had on Joel Compton. A gravestone is, however, a solid, tangible thing, making his existence somehow more real.

Also present were grave sites of several of his family members, and others, including my Great-Great Grandparents on my mother's side, Benjamin F Johnson and Arilla (Compton) Johnson:

Benjamin F Johnson Gravestone

Arilla Compton Johnson Gravestone

It's a sign of the era that Benjamin's marker has his full name, and Arilla's says "Arilla His Wife"

There are lots of these cemetaries in the area - larger ones, like the ones you find on the outskirts of town, and smaller ones, little municipal cemetaries like Melugin Grove. There are also private cemetaries in local churchyards, and sometimes family plots, often with a dozen or two grave sites, or sometimes fewer, moldering away on small back roads. At Melugin Grove Cemetery I found these specific sites on my first pass through, and saw many other family names that are familiar - some because I know them from living in the region, but some because I believe I have seen them in the family tree. I'll be back here later on, when I've had a chance to look back through those records and see who else I can find.