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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 when museum volunteer, Al Westerman, was researching land records at the Lake County Recorder of Deeds. There, Westerman came across records of Bennett's land purchases. The find aroused curiosity since local legend and one published history claimed that Bennett had been merely a "squatter" and not a land owner.

If the squatting story was incorrect, what else might we find about this pioneering settler? The research eventually took myself and Al Westerman to Delhi, New York where we met historian Shirley Houck, who was also interested in the Bennett Family story.

Amos Bennett (1797-18??) was born in Fairfield, Connecticut to freed enslaved people Timothy and Lillie Bennett. Around 1799 or after, the Bennetts moved  their family 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 (1877) that Bennett arrived in 1834. He "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."

Gravemarker for Miles Bennett, the brother of Amos Bennett. Bennett Family Cemetery, Delhi, NY. 
Photo courtesy of Shirley Houck.

However, it is my belief 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 Bennett's 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. Halsey stated 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 he may have been part of the westward migration of 100 families from Delhi that settled in the Gurnee area. This group included Philip Blanchard, who was a friend and neighbor to Bennett, and also an abolitionist.

Bennett built a log cabin southwest 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 (1805-1881) lived with him for a time in Gurnee, and purchased property in what is now Greenbelt Forest Preserve. Alfred later moved to Ottawa County, 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."

By 1843, Bennett remarried. The story is that he "traveled south" and when he returned he brought his new wife, Ann Frances. 

In August 1843, Bennett ran (unsuccessfully) for public office for Lake County Commissioner against William Shephard, Seth Washburn and Stephen Bennett. 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 held at the confluence of Second and Third Lakes (northwest of Washington Street and U.S. Route 45). 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.

Bennett bought and sold many acres of land, and borrowed money using his land, horses and a wagon as collateral. 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 visits to county courthouses to find records verifying where Bennett re-settled his family.

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

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

In 1997, the Lake County Forest Preserves honored Amos Bennett by placing a plaque near the site of his homestead in Gurnee. 
Photo courtesy of LCFPD. 

In 2008, descendants of Tim and Lill Bennett gathered in Delhi, New York for a family reunion. 

In 2023, the Village of Gurnee and Warren Township High School's Black Student Union dedicated a new plaque to Bennett at the site of the historic Mother Rudd Home in Gurnee. 

The Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County continues its research on the Amos Bennett Family. We would very much like to hear from descendants or historians with more information. 

- Diana Dretske

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Treaty of Chicago, September 26, 1833

The private ownership of land was a European convention unfamiliar to Native Americans. Land came down to tribes from their ancestors, and in turn they passed over the stewardship to their children and their children's children for countless generations.

American Historian, Clarence Walworth Alvord (1868-1928), wrote: "To allow the whites to use the land was one thing; to cede to them the permanent possession of the land was quite different."

Westward migration by Euro-American settlers after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 (which connected the Great Lakes with New York City via the Hudson River), put pressure on the U.S. Government to expropriate lands from Native peoples. The Erie Canal increased efforts to open northeastern Illinois to non-native settlement and brought hundreds of settlers into Michigan and Illinois.

Often, mistakenly, the Treaty of Prairie du Chien (there were four between 1825-1830) is cited as the reason Native Americans left northeastern Illinois. In fact, it was not until the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 when their Natives lands were expropriated. 

The Treaty of Chicago brought an estimated three thousand Native Americans, traders, government officials, army troops, land speculators, and adventurers to Chicago, then a small village. Aptakisic (Ah-be-te-ke-zhic) of the Half Day area Potawatomi was one of the leaders present.

American author, Washington Irving (1783-1859), and Englishman, Charles J. Latrobe (1801-1875) (shown at right) happened to be in Chicago at the time of the treaty. (LaTrobe later became the first lieutenant-governor of the colony of Victoria in Australia).

LaTrobe wrote about the event extensively in his book, "The Rambler in North America," published in London in 1835, and excerpted here from John J. Halsey's "History of Lake County, Illinois" (1912). Latrobe noted that the tribal chiefs did not wish to sell their land, but the U.S. commissoner said, "That nevertheless, as they had come together for a council, they must take the matter into consideration."

Latrobe wrote of the scene on September 21, 1833: "The council fire was lighted under a spacious open shed on the green meadow, on the opposite side of the river from that on which the fort stood, [near the north end of the present Rush Street Bridge in Chicago]... Even though convinced of the necessity of their removal, my heart bled for them in their desolation and decline... and their speedy disappearance from the earth appears as certain as though it were already sealed and accomplished." 
Cover page from "Treaty of Chicago" 1833. National Archives at Chicago. 

Indeed, by September 26, 1833, the treaty was signed between the U.S. Government and the United Nation of Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians. Five million acres were sold to the United States including the last tracts of Native occupied Great Lakes’ land.

The treaty stipulated that these tribes resettle west of the Mississippi River by the time the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Congress, which did not occur until 1835. However, fewer than half of the Potawatomi moved onto reservations in western Missouri and Kansas. Some went north into Canada, while others resettled in northern Michigan and Wisconsin.

Settlement of the newly ceded land was not to occur until the treaty was ratified in 1835. Notably, the county's first Euro-American settler, Daniel Wright, arrived in 1833. Wright fondly recalled that Native people assisted him with building his first cabin and in planting crops along the Des Plaines River near today's Lincolnshire. 

Native Americans returned to Lake County for decades after the Treaty of Chicago to hunt and to honor their ancestors. Today, people from many tribal nations call the Chicago region home, and continue to sustain their cultures, languages and traditions. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Revolutionary War Veterans

In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution designated two Revolutionary War veterans buried in Lake County–Henry Collins and Reuben Hill.

"Battle of Lexington" April 19, 1775.
Postcard circa 1910, Curt Teich Postcard Archives G1274.
The American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783) was the culmination of a political revolution in which the thirteen united former British colonies rejected the right of Great Britain’s Parliament to govern them and formed a Continental Army to fight for independence.

Henry Collins (1763 – 1847) was born in Southborough, Worcester County, Massachusetts. He enlisted from Southborough on March 3, 1781, at the age of 16 years and 10 months, when a levy was placed on the town to supply a number of men for the army.

These men were mustered in at Sutton, Massachusetts. Henry served in a company commanded by Captain Sewall in the regiment commanded by Colonel Ebenezer Sprout (1752–1805). From Sutton the regiment was marched to Springfield, Massachusetts, and from there to West Point.

Portrait of Ebenezer Sproat (aka Sprout), from "History of the Town of Middleboro, Massachusetts," by Thomas Weston, 1906.

Henry Collins served his two year enlistment in the same regiment, and was discharged at West Point in December 1783 at the end of the war. Collins' discharge was signed by General Henry Knox.

After the war, Collins lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Canada. In 1832, he returned from Canada to Vermont where he applied for a war pension. He was placed on the pension rolls of Vermont at the rate of $80 per year.

In 1844, Collins moved to Lake County, Illinois with his son Joseph H. Collins. They settled on land in Newport Township along Edwards Road east of Hunt Club Road.

On April 10, 1847, Henry Collins died and became the first burial at Mount Rest Cemetery. The cemetery is located just south of the State Line on the Skokie Road. His son Joseph left Lake County in 1855 and re-settled in Iowa.

In 1964, the American Legion Post of Gurnee added a new marker to his grave which mistakenly stated that Collins was the “only American Revolutionary Service Man buried in Lake County.”

Reuben Hill (1765 - 1858) was born in Goshen, Connecticut. While living in New York State, he enlisted in the fall of 1780, at the age of fifteen, with Captain Shaw’s Company. He enlisted twice more with different companies and was discharged as a private on January 1, 1783. In 1834, he successfully applied for a military pension.

About 1840, Reuben's son, Seth Hill, purchased property in Wauconda Township, Lake County. It is probable that the entire family, including Reuben and his wife Patience, came west at that time. In the 1850 census, Reuben and Patience, both aged 85, are living with their son's family. The family farm was in Section 25, along Route 176, south of Bangs Lake.

The Hills are buried at the Wauconda Cemetery.

I came across one more mention of a Revolutionary War veteran. The Biddlecome School History (Newport Township), written in 1918 by students, lists Oded Eddy as a veteran having "served seven years" in the war. However, Oded never lived in Lake County.

Elijah Eddy, grandson of Revolutionary War veteran, Oded Eddy.
Oded Eddy (senior) was the grandfather of Newport Township settler, road commissioner, and Biddlecome School director, Elijah Eddy (1821-1902). I believe the children mentioned Oded on their list of veterans, simply because of the connection to their school's former director.

Oded served as a lieutenant in the Continental Army from 1776 to 1778 (and not for seven years as the children stated). He died in Oneida, NY in 1825.