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Friday, October 22, 2010

Amos Bennett, First African-American Settler

Amos Bennett was the county's first African-American settler, arriving in Gurnee by the fall of 1835.

Despite this remarkable distinction, Bennett's story was sparsely documented in early histories and went unresearched by historians until the 1990s. The discovery that sparked the museum's groundbreaking primary research on Bennett occurred in 1993 while museum volunteer, Al Westerman, was researching land records at the Lake County Recorder of Deeds, and came across records of Bennett's land purchases. The find was curious, since local legend and one published history had claimed that Bennett was merely a "squatter" and not a land owner.

If the squatting story wasn't correct, what else might we find about this pioneering settler? The research eventually took us to Delhi, New York where I met historian Shirley Houck, who was also interested in the Bennett Family story.

Amos Bennett (1797-18??) was born in Fairfield, Connecticut to freed slaves Timothy and Lillie Bennett. Around 1799, the family moved to Delhi, New York, taking with them a paper verifying their freedom and safe passage. The Bennetts became the first free Blacks to settle in Delhi, and leased property in an area known as the Hardenburgh Patent on Federal Hill. They worked as sheep shearers, laborers and farmers.

Elijah Haines wrote in his Past & Present of Lake County, Illinois that Bennett arrived in 1834, and "was a colored man, and the first of the African race who came to what is now Lake County; he is said to have once remarked, with much self-satisfaction, speaking apparently with reference to the Indians, that he was the first white man that ever planted corn in Lake County. He was a very intelligent man and much respected."

Grave marker for Amos Bennett's brother,
Miles Bennett, Bennett Family Cemetery,
Delhi, NY
However, I believe that Amos Bennett and his first wife Clara and their children (Henry and Emily) left for Lake County, Illinois in the fall of 1835; leaving behind his parents and siblings, including a twin brother Almon. This timeline follows the last record of Amos Bennett in Delhi which is dated August 28, 1835, when he paid a portion of his father’s lease.

Historian, John Halsey, also felt that the 1835 date was likely, stating in his county history of 1912, that Amos arrived "before the close of 1835," settling "on the River above Vardin's Grove [Libertyville]."

Others have speculated that Bennett came west much later. That they may have been part of the westward migration of 100 families from Delhi that settled in the Gurnee area, including Philip Blanchard who was a friend and neighbor to Bennett and also an abolitionist.

Bennett built a log cabin northeast of the intersection of Washington Street and Milwaukee Avenue in Gurnee, and later had a house and property on Dilley’s Road north of Grand Avenue near today’s Gurnee Mills. His brother, Alfred, lived with him for a time in Gurnee, and purchased property in what is now Greenbelt Forest Preserve. Alfred later moved to Michigan.

Amos Bennett owned over 140 acres in Lake County. He sent his children to the local one-room school. Bennett was known as Dr. Bennett for his healing skill with herbs. He is reported to have saved the life of Hannah Blanchard (wife of Philip) after she was struck by lightning.

According to primary research by Debra Mieszala, in the spring of 1840, Bennett made an appearance at the first session of the circuit court in Libertyville. His complaint? He wanted a divorce from his wife Clara. Mieszala's published article on the proceedings "Clara, Clary, Clarice! Amos Bennett's First Wife Identified Through the Use of Court Records," appeared in the Lake County Illinois Genealogical Society newsletter, (Volume 21, No. 4, Apr-Jun 2001) excerpted as follows:

"Amos told the court that he had married his present wife, Clara, in the State of New York in July 1820. He stated that in July 1836, Clara had committed adultery with Thomas Wilkinson, a Mr. Wood, and other persons unknown to Amos.... he "remonstrated" against the "wicked practices of said Clary," and as a result she left him. Clara removed to Cook County, where Amos claimed she was living with other men... The case was found in Amos's favor in April 1841."

In 1843, Bennett ran for public office for Lake County Commissioner against William Shephard, Seth Washburn and Stephen Bennett. He received only one vote (probably his own) and lost the election, but this makes him the first African-American to run for public office in Lake County.

He and his children were welcome at community gatherings, including a Fourth of July celebration at Third Lake in 1844. It was the first Fourth of July celebration in Lake County and was held at the confluence of Second and Third Lakes. Nearly 100 people gathered from neighboring communities, including the Bennetts. When dinner was ready, all the families paraded in a circle and then came together at the chowder kettle where Reverend Dodge (Millburn Congregational Church)blessed the food. After the meal, Reverend Dodge gave a prayer for the freedom of the slaves in the South, and Nat Doust read a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1846, Bennett and 30 other families pooled their money and purchased a three-acre tract of land and created the Warren Township Cemetery. Also about this time, Bennett married Ann Frances (b. 1817) of Virginia. Amos and Ann had four children, Josephine, Lilly Ann and twin boys (names unknown).

Bennett bought and sold many acres of land, and borrowed money using his land, horses and a wagon as collatorel. The last record found documenting Bennett in Lake County is dated May 13, 1852. That is the day he sold his remaining 40 acres to Philip Blanchard for $200 and paid off his mortgage.

In spite of much effort, the story of Amos Bennett ends in 1852. We have been unable to discover what became of him and his family. Although at least one source claimed he moved to Wisconsin, the Bennetts do not appear in census records there or elsewhere in the United States. It would probably take a visit to county courthouses to verify where Bennett re-settled his family.

In 1997, the Lake County Forest Preserves placed a memorial plaque on a boulder commemorating Bennett along the Des Plaines River trail near Washington Street in Gurnee.

In 2008, descendants of Tim and Lill Bennett gathered in Delhi, New York for a family reunion. The Lake County Discovery Museum would very much like to hear from any of their descendants, or historians with more information about the family.

Historian, Shirley Houck (1926 - 2013), visiting the Bennett Cemetery, on
Federal Hill near Delhi, New York. Photo courtesy of Shirley Houck.


Lisa Mischke ( said...

I recently discovered I am a descendant of Capt. Joseph Bennett, the slavemaster who "owned" the Thomas and Lillie in Fairfield, CT. I was reading some history about how slaveowners used to free their slaves when they got too old to work, basically making them wards of the state. It seems Thomas and Lillie had three more children after they left Fairfield, so hopefully this was not the case with them, and they had some time in life to be free before they were old.

Diana Dretske said...

There's so much more that can be researched. It's a fascinating story. Thanks for reading and posting about your connection to Lake County, Illinois's first African-American settler. I am always interested in learning more, if you would like to share any of your family research.
Best wishes,

Diane Ciccone said...

I am a descendant of Tim and Lill Bennett, who migrated to Delhi NY. They were manumitted in the spring of 1799 and became the first free black family in Delhi NY as noted in the 1800 census. They were married on Feb. 17, 1791 at Green Farms Congregational Church in Fairfield Conn. They had several children, Nancy being their first in 1791. William Ward Bennett, (my direct line) was also born in Conn in 1793. Another son Ira was born in 1795, twins Amos and Alman in 1797.
In the 1800 census of Delhi NY, the Bennett household had Tim as the head of the household with six other members of the household.
In the application for manumission the authorities inquired into the health and said age and found them "in good health and not older than forty- five nor less than twenty-five years"

Deborah Jenkins said...

Diane, i have a Juliana, Julia Ann Roberts Bennett born about 1828 in Delhi. She moved to Michigan around thd spring lake , WhiteHall areas. Married a Walter Duke, a "colored man", also listed as mulatto in MI census records. ABNER Bennett was witness to marriage in 1850. Amos i think went to michigan as well. Do you have a Juliana or Julia ann roberts bennett. I cannot find her in delhi in 1830 or birth record for 1828.or parents. Could she be one of tim bennett and lill disbrow bennett? Thank you deb cartwright jenkins

Deborah Jenkins said...

Looking for information on bennett, roberts and duke families in and around delaware county, especially, delhi bennwtts who have a juliana roberts bennett born in delaware coynty in 1828.

Diana Dretske said...

Hello Deborah,
Thank you for your note. You've energized me to do more research. I will let you know if a connection to your Julia Ann Roberts Bennett and Tim Bennett/Lil Disbrow Bennett is found.
Best wishes,