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Chapter 9

Calhoun's Early Settlers; LaSalle Tells of Indian Massacre at Cap au Gris


SITTING AT ATLAS in March, 1824, the County Commissioners' Court, as we have seen in a previous chapter, overruled Nicholas Hansen and Leonard Ross, representing the Atlas party, and held by unanimous decision that the temporary Pike seat of justice was still at Coles' Grove. The subscribing commissioners were Ebenezer Smith, James Nixon and William Metz.

These three commissioners, who played so important a part in the early county seat struggle, were all early settlers in the Coles' Grove precinct. Judge Ebenezer Smith had arrived there in May, 1819, settling about five miles south of the present site of Hardin, where he operated a ferry across the Illinois river. There were only five settlements in what is now Calhoun county when he arrived. It is said that to rid his family of the menace of drunken Indians, he bought a trading post in the vicinity that was kept by a French-Canadian, and destroyed it. Captain Nixon had settled in what is now Point precinct in the lower part of Calhoun county in a very early day, and the Metz family arrived about 1822 and settled where Brussels now is.

The commissioners adjourned the March (1824) term of court after having accepted a proposition of John Shaw to rent a house owned by him in Coles' Grove, to be used as a clerk's office, for 6 1/4 cents a year. What happened between the March term and the ensuing June term to alter the attitude of the honorable commissioners, the records do not disclose. Apparently the Atlas party, appealing to the judge then presiding in the circuit, secured some form of injunction restraining the Coles' Grove party from carrying out its plan to remove the seat of government. At any rate, we find the commissioners, meeting at Atlas in June, 1824, rescinding their former orders relative to the county seat and adopting an entirely different procedure, designed to restore the seat of government to Coles' Grove

On June 7, 1824, the commissioners meet in the log courtroom in Atlas but adjourn without any formal action. The following day, with Smith, Nixon and Metz all in their seats, court is reconvened and the following is the first order of the session:

"Ordered that the doings of this Court at a special term held on the 26th, 27th and 28th days of January (which doings were in part unrecorded by Clerk Whitney), and also the doings of this Court of last March term, be and the same are hereby confirmed and established: except a contract entered into with John Shaw for the purpose of leasing a house, the rent of which was six and one fourth cents, in Colesgrove, which contract is by mutual consent released and dissolved: and also an Order of Adjudication respecting the County-seat, which Order is revoked and rescinded."

The commissioners next proceed to erect new election precincts in preparation for the coming August election, wherein John Shaw is again contesting with Nicholas Hansen for a seat in the 1824-26 legislature. The commissioners are meeting when the bitter slavery campaign of 1824 is nearing its climax. Once more the hope of the Atlas party rests in Hansen. Once more the Coles' Grove party puts its trust in John Shaw. If Shaw wins, he is expected to have sufficient influence in the legislature to put through another county-seat bill and appoint another commission to locate the permanent seat of justice. Therefore, the Shaw commissioners, sitting at Atlas, attempt to create an election setup favoring Shaw and handicapping the Rosses.

The first move to this end was the setting up of three townships Coles' Grove, Atlas, Franklin at the January (1824) session. The county was then reapportioned in such way as to give Coles' Grove township nearly half of the electors then resident in the county. Now, in setting up new election precincts, Coles' Grove is favored by being provided with two polling places.

On the petition of the required number of legal voters it is ordered that the township of Franklin be erected into an election precinct for the ensuing two years, and Thomas Bristow, Lewis Allen and Garret Van Dusen are appointed judges of election in that precinct. The present sites of Pittsfield, Rock Island and Galen were in this election precinct.

The action divided Coles' Grove township into two precincts is recorded as follows:
"On reading and considering the petition of sundry inhabitants of this county, praying that all that part of Colesgrove township, lying east of the dividing ridge may be designated and laid off as an election precinct: and it appearing to the Court that said tract contains the requisite number of voters: it is therefore considered that the prayer of the petitioners be granted; and that John Bolter, Pendleton Lamb and Antoine Ramontre be and they are hereby appointed judges of election in said Precinct."

The same action is taken relative to that part of Coles' Grove township lying west of the divide and north of the southern end of the eastern precinct, and Asa Carrico, William C. Brown and Joshua Twichell are named judges for the precinct, for which the polling place is Coles' Grove.

"That part of the county called and known by the name of Atlas township" is erected into a fourth election precinct, and Dexter Wheelock, Abner Young and John Ross are appointed judges of election to "open the polls to be held at the County-seat."

Pursuant to your historian's plan of projecting the county-seat war upon a developing background of pioneer history, which for the most part has never before published, it is fitting that we pause to consider the early history of the famous precinct here set up in Coles' Grove township, and embracing all that part of the present county of Calhoun east and south of the Coles' Grove precinct.

The polling place for this new precinct was at Cape or Cap au Gris (meaning Cape of Grit or Grindstone), an early French settlement located at or near the present site of West Point Ferry in Richwoods Precinct in Calhoun county, south and west of Batchtown and on the Mississippi river. Carpenter, in his history of Calhoun county, says "the French settlers who lived here came sometime after 1800 and by the year 1811 there were 20 families, who had a small village on the bank of the river, and cultivated a common field of about 500 acres. This field was located on the level land about a mile from their town. One writer said that these families were driven away by the Indians in 1814, but there is some doubt as to the accuracy of the statement, as John Shaw, who took part in battles near the place and who mentions all attacks made on Missouri people, makes no mention of any harm coming to the settlers at Cap au Gris."

By 1824 there was a numerous settlement on the southern flats of what is now Calhoun and in those precincts now known as Point and Richwoods. In the election returns for 1824, on file in the archives division at Springfield, it appears that 72 votes were cast in the Cape au Gris precinct, as against 55 in the Coles' Grove precinct, and 52 in Franklin precinct, which included all of Illinois north of Coles' Grove township and west of the Fourth principal meridian, excepting Atlas township. The Franklin precinct vote therefore included the Fever River settlers at the present site of Galen, near the Wisconsin border.

Cape au Gris (or Cap au Gris, as it appears in the certified election returns at Springfield) served as a voting place for many years, beginning with the election of 1824. The entire southern part of Calhoun county was known as Cap au Gris Precinct until 1848, when the name was changed to Point. Carpenter relates that by 1900 the little town had disappeared and the name has since been applied to a point in Missouri, opposite to where Cap au Grist once stood.

Even prior to the French settlement at Cap au Gris, some French trappers and half breeds had started a colony about a mile above the present Deer Plain ferry on the Illinois river, in the southern part of Cap au Gris precinct. They remained until about 1815, when they were driven out by the very high water. Still earlier, in 1801, a French trapper named O'Neal, probably the first permanent settler in the Military Tract, assumed by some to have been one of the Acadian exiles of 1775 immortalized in the story of Evangeline, settled a few miles above the present site of the Golden Eagle ferry at the southern tip of Calhoun. He lived there many years before the first settlers came, and until his death in 1842, living the life of a hermit, alone and unknown, his story untold, a recluse who refused all intercourse with the settlers. His home was a small cave which he hollowed out about a quarter of a mile from the Mississippi river. In 1850, Solomon Lammy, who then owned the farm at the Two Branches in Point precinct where the hermit's cave was located, dug up the boards of the cave floor and leveled the ground on which large saplings were then growing.

In the first settlement of the original Pike county, O'Neal is believed to have antedated Davison, the strange hermit who was found living a few miles above the mouth of Spoon river by the first settlers in what is now Fulton county. Davison, who was selected as one of the early grand jurors in the Pike circuit court, was a physician and a man of culture and refinement. How long he had resided where he was first found is not known, but the shrubbery and trees he had planted about his habitation had grown to a large size when the first settlers came. He refused all intercourse with the whites, and about 1824 put his effects into a canoe, paddled down Spoon river and up the Illinois to Starved Rock, where he lived in obscurity for some years and died with the story of his life locked in his own bosom.

The southern part of the new Cap au Gris precinct, set up by the commissioners at Atlas in 1824, was famous as the scene of one of the most atrocious massacres of early tribal days. Here, in November, 1680, the blood of women and children flowed as perhaps on no other spot within the confines of the original Pike county. Here the fierce Iroquois, sweeping out of their eastern fastnesses, fell upon the women and children of the Illinois tribes and perpetrated one of the most fiendish butcheries of record.

Some years prior to 1680, the Iroquois had sent a war party against the Illinois Indians and had forced them to flee their ancient hunting grounds. The Iroquois returned to their eastern strongholds and the Illinois tribes reoccupied their village sites along the Illinois river.

Meanwhile the economic situation resulting from the vast fur trade incited the Iroquois to a renewed assault. In 1680, the war whoop of the Iroquois again resounded along the Illinois river and the Illinois tribes again fled before the avenging bows and tomahawks of the fiercest of all tribal warriors. Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, then rapidly canoeing down the Illinois river in search of his lost lieutenant, Henri de Tonti, has left to the historian the best account of this great onslaught that reddened the soil of the original Pike county.

As LaSalle and his party neared Starved Rock, they found everything in ruins. Instead of the flourishing village of the Kaskaskias that had stood there, LaSalle says:

"Their town had vanished and the meadow was black with fire. Parts of bodies and charred buildings remained. Even the graves had been robbed and the bodies flung from the scaffolds where they had been placed."

As LaSalle continued down the Illinois river, he found six places where the Illinois Indians had camped, and on the opposite side of the river six places where the pursuing Iroquois had camped. He realized that the Illinois Indians were fleeing down the river and were being pursued at close range by their ancient enemies. As he neared the mouth of the Illinois river, it became apparent that the Illinois tribes, with one exception, had withdrawn beyond the Mississippi. Only the Tamaroas had remained, apparently oblivious of danger. Then, at a point designated by Carpenter as about a mile above the present Deer Plain ferry, at a place now known as Marshall's Landing, there broke upon the vision of the Frenchmen a scene that beggars description. Francis Parkman, most delightful of historians, in his "LaSalle," gives us the following description drawn from LaSalle's diary:

"As the French drew near to the mouth of the Illinois, they saw a meadow to the right, and on the farthest verge, several human figures erect, yet motionless. They landed and cautiously examined the place. The long grass was trampled down and all around were strewn the relics of the hideous orgies which formed the ordinary sequel of an Iroquois victory. The figures they had seen were the half-consumed bodies of women still bound to the stakes where they had been tortured. Other sights there were, too revolting for record. All the remains were of women and children; the men, it seems, had fled, and left them to their fate. The French descended the river and soon came to the mouth."

Seven hundred Tamaroa women and children are believed to have perished in this frightful massacre, which occurred the last week in November, 1680. Carpenter relates that many skulls, parts of skeletons, and weapons have been found near this spot in former years by farmers plowing the land.

M. DuChesneau, a Canadian official, writing in December, 1681, about this flight of the Illinois Indians, is quoted by Carpenter as saying that about 1200 men, women and children were killed by the Iroquois on this expedition, and that the survivors of the Illinois tribes crossed the Mississippi river. The invading war party comprised 500 Iroquois warriors, with 100 Miami. This onset was the opening campaign of nearly a hundred years of warfare for dominion over the West.

In this region, in the southern part of what is now Calhoun, as late as 1813, the savage war whoop was heard and the wilderness rang with the clamor of border warfare. Indians, coming down the Mississippi river in canoes, battled with the soldiers from the fort on the Missouri side, opposite the site of Cap au Gris. Here, in the summer of 1813, a war party of 60 to 80 Indians from the north fought a bloody battle with 13 soldiers who had crossed the river from the fort. And here, out of that bloody encounter, the sole survivor of the detachment, emerges into the light of history for the first time that challenging figure of those early days, that strange and many-sided character known as John Shaw, a man whose life is inextricably interwoven with the beginnings of Pike county history, but whose own beginning and ending are unknown.

With the glimpse into the stirring history of the section embraced in the new Cap au Gris precinct, we return again to the log courtroom in Atlas, where the commissioners' court, meeting in special session on July 29, 1821 (three days before the election), apparently is attempting to foreclose the election and insure the seating of John Shaw in the state legislature.

At this special term, Ebenezer Smith and James Nixon, commissioners, and James W. Whitney, clerk, present, court is convened and the first action initiates a series of unusual actions, inexplicable except in the light of events subsequent to the election three days later. In the words of the official record the strategy of the Shaw party develops:

"It appearing to this Court that the Clerk for some time past, has not resided at the County Seat, nor kept the Records and Papers belonging to the County at that place, and the Court having considered the facts and the law arising upon the case, does adjudge and determine that the said office of Clerk is now vacant; and that for the aforesaid cause, James W. Whitney, the Clerk, be and he is hereby removed from office." With the handing down of this order, Court adjourned until the following day.

On the next day, July 30, two days before the election, the strange political drama is which My Lord Coke is cast for a role that lands him in the courts on charges of malconduct in office, proceeds to unfold. The first move, following Whitney's ousting on the day before, is recorded as follows:

"James W. Whitney appointed Clerk pro tem of this court." Follows an order of the Court that "Thomas McKee be and he is hereby recommended to the Governor of this State as a fit and proper person to be appointed and commissioned as a justice of the peace for this county." McKee was a Shaw candidate for commissioner, along with Smith and Nixon, in the election two days later.

Then follows another act in the Whitney drama, which, in the light of future events, has all the earmarks of a political deal. Here is the official entry by Whitney himself:

"Ordered that James W. Whitney be and he is hereby recommended as a fit and proper person to be appointed and commissioned as County Surveyor of this County: - said office being now vacant by the removal of Stephen Dewey out of the county; who has heretofore held that office."

Stephen Dewey was among the earliest settlers in Coles' grove township and was the first surveyor for Pike county. He laid out the town of Lewistown, Fulton county, in 1823, and shortly afterward moved there and served for many years as county and circuit clerk, doing efficient work in the organization and establishment of the new county that had been cut off from Pike.

And now, the commissioners having ousted Whitney, an Atlas partisan, as county clerk, appear to have maneuvered the ousted clerk into a compact whereby Whitney, in return for his appointment as county surveyor and his reinstatement as county clerk, agrees to certify the election returns in such manner as to insure the election of Shaw and the other Coles' Grove candidates, which appears from the fact that the Atlas vote in the bitterly contested election is never certified by Clerk Whitney to the Secretary of State at Springfield. The denouncement of this apparent compact is revealed in the following official entry in the records of the court on the day after the Whitney ouster:

"James W. Whitney, appointed Clerk of this Court, appeared in open Court and produced the appointment, and certificate of having taken the oath of office in open Court, as follows, to-wit: - We the undersigned County Commissioners appoint James W. Whitney Clerk of the County Commissioners' Court of said County; and we do hereby give and grant unto him full power and authority to execute and discharge the duties of that office according to law.

"In witness whereof we have hereto set our hands and seals at Atlas this 30th day of July, A. D. 1824.
"EBENEZER SMITH,
"JAMES NIXON."
And the following: "Be it remembered that on the 30th day of July, 1824, J. W. Whitney, Esqr., personally appeared before me and took the several oaths prescribed by law, as Clerk of the County Commissioners' Court.

"LEONARD ROSS, Justice Peace."
"And the said Clerk proposed Levi Roberts and Bigelow C. Fenton (both Coles' Grove partisans) as his securities who are approved by the Court."

The commissioners, having thus ousted and reinstated Whitney in a special session at which no other business of consequence was transacted, adjourned one of the strangest court sessions in the county's history "until Court in course."

Two days later, the people of the county and state went to the polls in the most momentous and far-reaching election of early times and voted for or against the convention and slavery, voting in such decisive manner that the question was settled for all time in the state of Illinois.

The settlers of Pike county, slave and anti-slave, Shaw and anti-Shaw, Ross and anti-Ross - partisans of Atlas and partisans of Coles' Grove - going to the polling places at Atlas, at Coles' Grove, at Cap au Gris, and at Bristow's house in Franklin precinct, voted their opinion of slavery in a most convincing manner, but close indeed was the decision on the burning question of the location of the permanent seat of justice.