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La Salle County History Banner

( Most recent revision for this page: 30-JAN-2005 )

Opening Statement

La Salle County is found in the central part of Illinois, a Midwestern state of the United States of America. As a state, Illinois has had a rich and storied history. As a county of that state, La Salle has had much to do with that state's history.

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If there is any truth in the statement that Illinois is the heart of the Midwest, then it might also be equally true that LaSalle County is the crossroads of Illinois. This website, Ancestral Footsteps In the Sands of Time, attempts to trace the genealogy of a family whose various branches either started in, came to, traveled through, lived in, and/or died in LaSalle County, Illinois. To a large degree, the history of those various family branches reflects the changing economical and social scene of Illinois, and specifically, LaSalle County. Conversely, understanding the early history of LaSalle County and its home state will go a long way towards helping you, the reader, to understand the motivations, accomplishments, and the dreams of the members of this family genealogy. Since the early history of LaSalle County is more thoroughly described elsewhere in commercial publications, this overview will simply attempt to highlight pivotal events in the state and nation that might have affected the members of this genealogy.

 

THE COUNTY"S TOPOGRAPHY AND GEOLOGY

What is true of the bounties of Illinois is to a great degree true of the bounties of La Salle County.

Here is a state which, at the very heart of the "Corn Belt," contains fields as fertile as any to be found anywhere in the world, and yet under its richly productive soil lie bituminous coal reserves greater than those of any other state. Nature has placed Illinois at the center of the waterways represented by the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system...1

La Salle County is comprised of thirty-two townships totaling about 1,152 square miles in area. The county is situated in a central position in the north half of the State of Illinois. As its parent state is known as the "Prairie State" and/or the "Land of Lincoln", it will not surprise the reader that La Salle County is composed of a great deal of prairie land. But the county's most dominant feature is the Illinois River, "which intersects the county near the centre, running nearly due west..."2.

Early settlers to the area may have been confounded when they first experienced the prairie environment. Lacking trees, the prairie was one of tall grasses which grew to a height that reached over a man's head. It was not unusual for the landscape to be blackened by the ashes of lighting-caused fires. But unlike other counties in Illinois, that of La Salle was blessed with tree growth along the banks of the many streams that flowed into the Illinois River. Many early settlers found themselves gravitating towards the magnet of these tree shaded waterways.

The influence of the Illinois River on the activities of settlers to La Salle County will be touched upon in greater detail, later. For now, understand that, along the entire length of the river, it only has a "twenty-eight feet fall in a distance of nearly 200 miles."3 This translates into a river that has a speed that permitted travel upstream as well as down. It is within the confines of the borders of La Salle County that the fall line of the river appear. That fall line occupies the central position of the county near the present day city of Ottawa, the county seat.

Citizens of La Salle County have taken advantage of the blessings of mineral wealth that were, and to some extent still are, available to them. This list includes coal, limestone, clay, sand, gravel and silica sand. Silica sand remains an important resource that is marketed worldwide. Coal is one of the minerals that no longer has an economic significance within the confines of La Salle County.

While the coal industry was once a major employer in La Salle County, the only remains of that industry are the visible reminders (but usually ignored) of both the strip-mining and deep-shaft mining that had occurred. The scars of both types of mining provide daily reminders to those who drive past them. Many Europeans immigrated to Illinois for the express purpose of finding employment in that coal industry. The large family of James P. Keating was one of those to do just that. Of the eleven children born to James and his wife, Alice, six of the sons who immigrated to the Streator area were employed in coal mining. Even the husband of the one daughter was a miner. One of the sons eventually worked his way to mine superintendent, in which capacity he was the first to direct the cutting of coal from Streator's second vein. Another son gave not just sweat and tears, but his life, to the mining of coal. It might be said that at one time "Coal was King", and the Keatings were some of the king's servants.

While it may be true that the present and future generations will "...never witness in its native wilderness and beauty the fairest scenery that uncultivated nature ever presented to the view of man"4, it is still good advice to "... husband our resources and save while we can, having at least a thought for the future"5. This is an easy sentiment shared by most people who have an interest in genealogy - a hobby that is based upon the premise of husbanding resources and having thoughts for future generations.

 

EARLY VISITORS TO THE COUNTY

The history of Illinois, which now covers more three centuries of discovery, exploration, settlement and development, is exciting and full of variety, and its study is rich and rewarding. Her lands have been occupied successively by Indians, Frenchmen, Englishmen and Americans of many national backgrounds.6

Since the first whites to make their presence felt in La Salle County were French explorers and soldiers, their story is best told by others. Our story will deal primarily with those who chose to call this county "home" following the creation of Illinois as a State in 1818.

The history of the county, as a distinct entity, can be divided into three periods: its settlement in the decades of 1830 to 1850; its early development from 1850 to 1860; and its improvement from 1860 on to the present. None of these periods are separate, as each overlaps and flows into the next. None apply to the county as a whole, as each took place at slightly different intervals in varying parts of the county.

Before there even was a county by the name of La Salle, people had begun to arrive in the area. Coming from his native State of Virginia and arriving along the shores of the Illinois River in 1823, "... Dr. Davidson ... became the first American citizen to establish a home in present day La Salle County."7 Other American settlers soon followed that lead. While all of my most immediate and direct ancestral lines (the KEATINGS and the MARTENS) did not arrive in La Salle County until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, members of both these family branches married into families that had arrived in the county many years prior to 1850. A close study of the "notes" linked from those individuals will reveal when they, themselves, chose to immigrate to La Salle County.

Settlement of La Salle County was the egg that hatched the politics of the area. The early settlers, who may have numbered between 500 and 700, must have been gratified when their chosen home was recognized at the state level, even if they believed that recognition was late in arriving. "On January 15, 1831, the [Illinois State] Legislature made three counties out of [what was then] the northern Peoria County, Illinois."8 As a result, where previously only one existed, the state lawmakers created three : Putnam, Cook and La Salle.

People from New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio were the dominant majority of the settlers of La Salle County in the decades from 1840 to 1850. One of these settlers was John Applebee, husband of Sally Brooks, who arrived in La Salle County in the mid 1850's from his ancestral home in upstate New York. Though John stayed in Illinois until only 1865, he left here Nathaniel J. Applebee, my maternal great great-grandfather. Both of these Applebee ancestors may have been drawn to the area by the rich farm land that was readily available.

Other nationalities were not denied.9 Those of Norwegian descent are proud of their early heritage based in the northeast part of the county - that heritage began in the 1840's. The uprising of 1848 in lands of the European Germans led to the resettlement of many of German descent in the 1850's. A large number of immigrants from Ireland arrived in La Salle County (the construction of the Illinois-Michigan Canal was largely due to the muscle of these Irish laborers) as a result of the consequences of the 1846 potato famine in their native land. Homes were sought in La Salle County by immigrants of Polish descent who were escaping from what they considered the oppressive rule of Russia, Austria or Germany following the European Wars of 1860-1870. A distinct settlement of those of Scottish descent could be found in the county by 1860. Each group offered their own unique contributions which were added to the Melting Pot that defines the face of the county.

 

LIFE IMPROVES IN LaSALLE COUNTY

At one time, one of the motivating factors in the exploration of unknown lands was the desire to find an all-water route to the riches that could be gained in trade with the lands of the Orient. Many of these attempts to find such a route were made by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the English. It was on one such attempt that the importance of the Great Lakes and the Illinois River was first recognized.

As long ago as 1673, the French explorer, Louis Joliet, "reported that no waterway existed between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River."10 What is significant is the fact that he concluded with his belief that it would be feasible to make such a connection with a cut through the site of the Chicago portage, a distance of only one and a half miles. This dream would not become a reality for nearly two centuries.

A water connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River was a dream that did not die. In his very first message to the Illinois State Legislature in 1819, the first governor of the new state of Illinois (it was admitted to the Union of States in 1818) recommended that a canal be constructed that would connect the Great Lakes region with the Illinois River. Ironically, the completion of another canal helped people to more easily move westward to Illinois. New York City was connected to the Great Lakes, and hence the northern half of Illinois, with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.

The population of the new state of Illinois was growing. No longer were the population centers concentrated only in the southern half of the state. From this point on, the center of population density would begin its move northward. An increased population would make the proposed canal not only economically possible, but necessary. Still, plans for such a waterway could not get off the drafting tables.

The first steps towards the reality of the Illinois and Michigan Canal were made at the federal level. In 1822 the United States Congress authorized the state of Illinois to begin construction of this waterway. However, Illinois was unable to fund the work, and even the sale of the land granted by the U.S. Congress (land on both sides of the proposed route, but extending only ninety feet out) was unable to raise enough capital. Illinois would need more help.

Finally in 1827, Congress granted the state alternate sections of land, one square mile each, all along the proposed canal route. The state could sell this land (290,915 acres) to settlers and companies as a way of raising funds. The towns of Ottawa and Chicago were laid out, and in 1830 lots were offered for sale.11
 

Actual construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal began in 1836. Lack of roads presented early problems. The state taking on added debt for other internal improvements was another. And unfortunately, all problems were compounded by the nationwide Panic of 1837. All these were factors forcing the state to halt construction in 1842.

Realizing the potential advantages of completing the canal, the governor of Illinois at the time decided to risk a toss of the dice. Promising to allow foreign investors to take possession of state lots in Chicago and Ottawa as well as the lands of the canal corridor in the event that Illinois would find it necessary to default on loans, "Governor Thomas Ford negotiated a loan of $1,600,000 with British investors."12

Work was resumed on the canal in 1846 and completed in two short years. As mentioned earlier, much of the construction was due to the availability of a ready labor force. The canal was officially opened on April 23, 1848. Eventually a special canal tax on the citizens of Illinois and the resulting revenues the state earned following the opening of the canal allowed the state to repay all of its debt due to these loans.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal proved its worth for only twelve years. By the end of the American Civil War, traffic on the canal was no longer of great importance to either Illinois or La Salle County. Its death blow was dealt by the more efficient railroads that took its place. But the canal had positive results. It encouraged the settlement and development of lands along its corridor. It provided the first cheap method used by farmers to transport the fruit of their labors to more distant national markets, not to mention foreign ones. It provided the impetus for the rapid and large growth of cities of LaSalle County that were located along the canal corridor. That growth was both in industry as well as population. Though I have no proof, I strongly suspect that my Applebee ancestors made use of the advantages offered by the canal.

You might be interested in photos taken in and around Ottawa, Illinois. These photos primarily pertain to the Illinois and Michigan Canal as it existed in the early 1900's. CLICK HERE

Interstate 80 now serves La Salle County in the same way that the Illinois and Michigan Canal once did. And the Illinois River, with the construction of locks and dams, is now navigable to a much greater degree than it was in the nineteenth century. Both "rivers" - that of concrete and that of water - have helped keep La Salle County in an enviable location. Both "rivers" have allowed the citizens of La Salle County to continue to send the results of their labors to distant shores.

 



 

 

  1. Robert M. Sutton, Compiler and Editor, The Heartland: Pages From Illinois History, Deer Path Publishing Company: Lake Forest, Illinois, 1975, page i.
  2. Elmer Baldwin, History of La Salle County, Rand McNally & Company: Chicago, 1877, page 10.
  3. Ibid., page 11.
  4. Ibid., page 17.
  5. Ibid., page 25.
  6. Sutton, The Heartland: Pages From Illinois History, page i.
  7. Pastfinder: Journal of the La Salle County Genealogy Guild, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1995, page 3.
  8. Pastfinder: Journal of the La Salle County Genealogy Guild, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1996, page 26.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Pastfinder: Journal of the La Salle County Genealogy Guild, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1998, page 1.
  11. Sutton, The Heartland: Pages From Illinois History, page 68.
  12. Ibid., page 70.

 

 

Suggested Reading List

Baldwin, Elmer. History of La Salle County. Rand McNally & Company: Chicago, 1877.

Bluemer, R.G. Black Diamond Mines: A History of the Early Coal Mines of the Illinois River Valley. M&D Printing: Henry, IL, 2001.

Natta, Larry. Canal Town: Ottawa and the Building of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Ottawa Visitors Center: Ottawa, IL, 2000.

Sutton, Robert M., Compiler and Editor. The Heartland: Pages From Illinois History. Deer Path Publishing Company: Lake Forest, IL, 1975.