The History of Livingston County, Illinois 

The facts pertaining to the early settlement of Livingston County, Illinois, have over the years, been gleaned from the few old pioneers who were living at the time. I am attempting to do the same, using old records, old accounts, writings from various books over 100 years old, trying to put them into some form which will be able to help you track your ancestors through the years into this wonderful prairie state they called home. I invite you to offer any corrections or information you have which might not agree with what you find on this website. A lot of genealogy and historical data is from interpretation rather than always from facts. This is written to portray the county as it was when the settlers came, not as it may be today. It’s good to understand what they faced in this new wilderness without the modern conveniences we now have at our disposal. We try to get it as close to fact as possible, but none of us were around at the founding of this county. So enjoy and remember to always check things out for yourself, whenever you find anything on the web. Annette Liptak

Livingston County located in the northeast quarter of Illinois is about 92 miles southwest of Chicago, midway between Chicago and Springfield. It consists of 1,043 square miles in area and is fourth in size in the state. The county organized on Feb. 27, 1837, parts of McLean, LaSalle and Iroquois counties included. The first and only county seat at Pontiac, was incorporated in 1856. Township government was adopted in 1858. Pontiac, the County Seat is located on the Vermillion River. It extends west from the north part of the Grand Prairie, and has most of the characteristics of that district; and it was among the last counties of the State to attract immigration. It has been described as “a howling wilderness,” so it’s not hard to understand why it was not particularly attractive to settlers. Settlers seemed to prefer the rolling lands of the northern and western counties, or the timbered lands to the south. The construction of the Illinois Central Railroad and the Chicago & Mississippi Road brought attention to this part of the state and with it came settlers.

The history could be divided into 3 epochs: First, the occupation by the Indians, from the discovery of the prairie country by the French, to the first white settlement in the fall of 1829. Second , from the first settlement of the whites, to the building of the railroads, in 1854. Third, from that period, to the present.

Early Settlers origin

The earlier settlers came, principally, from Indiana and Ohio, with only a few, from the States further east and south, while a large portion of those who, during the third epoch, reduced the virgin land to cultivation, were immigrants from foreign lands or from more populated areas of this state. They were attracted here by cheaper lands and by a wider range of pasturage. Nearly all who came were of meager means, but possessed courage, industry and thrift and found themselves benefiting by their change of locality. Many of the most esteemed and worthy citizens came from Ireland, Germany, Norway and Denmark and England. Many freedmen also settled in the county. The population also grew by new births, with registration of births beginning in Dec. 1877, showed 318 new births recorded in a four month period.


Livingston County embraces Ranges from 3 to 8, east of the Third Principal Meridian; and Townships from 25 to 30 north of the base line of the state, being thirty-six miles from east to west, and twenty-four from north to south, with an addition of eighteen by nine and three fourths miles, lying south of the eastern half of the county. It is principally prairie land; but timber is found along the Vermillion River and its branches and also in some fine groves of native timber, in various parts of the county. The timber land does not exceed 6 percent of the area. The varieties of timber include, oak, elm, maple, walnut and osage predominate, while ash, cottonwood, whitewood and other varieties are not uncommon. A few cedars were found along the banks of the Vermillion.

The Vermillion River flows northwest, rising up in the extreme southeastern portion of the county. It has the following tributaries: South Branch, Indian Creek, Turtle Creek, Wolf Creek, Rook’s Creek, Mud Creek, Long Point and Scattering Point Creeks, most of which rise up out of the county. All of these streams are living water, fed by springs, affording ample water for stock and splendid drainage for all parts of the county. The Vermillion and the larger branches supported fish. The Vermillion affords water-power for a few mills, the best point being in Pontiac, where Thomas Williams’ fine grist mill and saw mill was located.

The soil is principally the deep black alluvial, common in this state. The surface has broader stretches of level land than are found in the northern and western counties. The lands lying south, southwest and northwest of the center of the county are, for the most part, level, while north, east and southeast of the center, the land is more rolling, yet not so uneven as to cause any ill effects from washing, when plowed. Most fields are tiled today to remove excess water.

This county has coal and stone in abundance. For years during the first two epochs, the settlers were unaware of the vast coal fields in the county. They lived around the timber so didn’t worry about fuel. When they became aware of the coal deposits, they had no means to utilize it and saw it as to have no value. About the year of 1860, Henry L. Marsh became aware of the increasing population and lack of timber so he pursued the harvesting of the coal. His trials, struggles, failures and final success would make its own chapter in the history of this county. At the depth of 180 feet, he struck a paying vein of excellent coal. His success encouraged others to like enterprises. In 1865, a shaft was sunk at Pontiac, 1868 at Fairbury, one near Streator in1872, one in Cornell in 1875 and one at Cayuga in 1878.

Ledges of limestone suitable for building purposes are found along the banks of the Vermillion; and at Pontiac. At Fairbury a fine dark sandstone of peculiar color and quality was discovered. This stone is easily dressed and a superior stone for building purposes.

Indian History

When the settlers began to come, they found Kickapoo and Pottawatomie Indians. These tribes claimed the land by right of conquest. The tribes of Kickapoo, Pottawatomies and Miamis combined to fight the Illini. The Illini made their last stand at Starved Rock in LaSalle County in 1774. They suffered a disastrous defeat, and left their enemies in undisputed control of the territory. But when the victors went to divide the land they again resorted to arms. The Kickapoos and Pottawatomies combined their forces and made common cause against the Miamis. The Miamis sent 300 warriors and the Kickapoo and Pottawatomie sent 300 warriors to meet in combat and decide the quarrel. They met on the banks of Sugar Creek and fought from the rising to the setting of the sun. At the close of the day there remained only twelve men who were not killed or mortally wounded; and of these, five were Miamis and seven Kickapoos and Pottawatomies. The Miamis retired to the east of the Wabash River, leaving the possession of the territory.

The Kickapoos and Pottawatomies divided the territory. The Pottawatomies retired to the vicinity of the Fox River, while the Kickapoos established their headquarters on Salt Creek, near where the town of LeRoy now stands. The Pottawatomies would come up as far as Rook’s Creek, on their hunting excursions, and they frequently camped on the banks of the Vermillion River, in the township of Newtown; but the boundaries were respected and the two tribes remained on friendly terms.

In the Spring of 1828, the Kickapoos moved their headquarters within the present boundaries of Livingston County. They erected a council house and built a village on the east side of Indian Grove, the tribe numbered about 700. They possessed all the ordinary characteristics of the typical American Indian, the copper complexion, black, straight hair, well-portioned limbs and keen, black eyes. The women were very attractive in personal appearance, not withstanding the fact that upon them fell all the drudgery of domestic life; the women cultivated the land, after a rude fashion, raised corn, beans and potatoes, while the men devoted themselves to hunting and fishing, but the squaws were expected to dress all game after it was brought home.

In the spring of 1830, they removed to Oliver’s Grove, then known as Kickapoo Grove, where they erected a large and permanent council house, ninety-seven wigwams and several small encampments. The Kickapoos remained at this location until September 1832, when the government took their lands and removed them to lands west of the city of St. Louis.

Shabbona, the friend of the whites, with whom many of the earliest settlers were acquainted was neither a Kickapoo or a Pottawatomie, but an Ottawa Indian. After the death of Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa tribe, they merged with the Pottawatomies.

Early Settlers

Valentine M. Darnell, Frederick Rook, and Isaac Jordan were the first white men to locate in the territory now embraced in Livingston County. They came in the fall of 1829 and settled into what later became Belle Prairie, Avoca and Rook’s Creek Townships. Darnell erected his cabin in the southern part of the timber known as Indian Grove, in 1829, soon after the Kickapoo Indians had exchanged this locality for Oliver’s Grove. Frederick Rook located five miles west of Pontiac, on the creek which still bears his name; and soon after, Isaac Jordan selected his location. These three men, with their families, were the only white persons, in this locality, who saw the “great snow” which fell in the Winter of 1830-31.

The Great Snow

This fall of snow was phenomenal and its like, probably, had never occurred before, and certainly has not since within the limits of the State. In a dead calm, it fell to the depth of four feet. This was followed by a drizzling rain, which soon turned to sleet. Then the weather became intensely cold, and the whole face of the country was covered with a sheet of ice, overlying a field of snow that was four feet deep on the level. This storm was very destructive to game of all kinds and it was several years before it again became abundant. Deer, by the hundred, starved to death, and birds, such as grouse and quail, perished in great numbers. The deer were so emaciated as to be unfit for food and were only killed for their skins.

When the snow began to fall, Major V. Darnell was over on the Mackinaw, his wife and four small children being at home in Indian Grove, with a scanty supply of provisions. He waited during the night for the snow to abate; but, at the early dawn, he mounted his horse, which was an excellent one and taking the half of a deer in front of him, without guide or compass, he started across the trackless snow-field for his distant home. It was a perilous undertaking and, at times it seemed useless to try to proceed, as his horse would sink to is saddle girths in the snow; but horse and rider persevered and, just as the sun was setting, he saw the smoke curling from the chimney of his little cabin, which was half buried in the snow.

Frederick Rook and Isaac Jordan found their provisions failing, and they conceived the idea of manufacturing snow-shoes from boards and going to Mackinaw for supplies. They accomplished the journey on their snow-shoes and when they reached that, to them, Egyptian storehouse, they were so fortunate as to receive, each, a bushel and a half of corn. They placed this on hand sleds and drew it home, arrive there on the fourth day. This corn they pounded into meal, and, by careful husbanding, made it last them till further supplies could be obtained.

Other settlers arrive

During the year 1830, Andrew McMillan and Garret M. Blue located on Rook’s Creek. Jacob Moon came to Moon’s Point in the same year. On the 5th day of 1832, William McDowell, from Sciota County, Ohio, with is five sons, John, Hiram, Woodford G., Joseph and James, and his two daughters, Betty and Hannah, settled in what is now Avoca Township, on the Little Vermillion. Their nearest white neighbor on the south was one Philip Cook; but they could call around on Frederick Rook, Isaac Jordan or William Popejoy, almost any time, by going a distance of from five to fifteen miles. The McDowell’s at once proceeded to built their cabin. The principal tool was an axe. They brought with them a few panes of glass for a window and, in this particular, they had the advantage of their neighbors. The boards which furnished the material for the door and window casing of this primitive cabin were purchased from the Kickapoo Indians and were brought from Oliver’s Grove by ox team. The Indians had hewn them out for some purpose of their own, but were induced to part with them for a small supply of ammunition

Indian neighbors

This settlement was within a short distance of the headquarters of the terrible chief, Black Hawk. The Black Hawk war was then in active operation. In 1832, William Popejoy, John Hanneman and Franklin Oliver located here and took an active part in the affairs of the settlement. . In 1832. a pioneer Methodist preacher by the name of William Walker, who had resided in Ottawa, visited and established a mission at Kickapoo Grove, for the Kickapoo tribe. Father Walker was an old man at the time and the journey was a long one for him to make; but several of the tribe were converted to Christianity, among them a young man whom Walker ordained, who held services when Walker could not come. They celebrated every Sabbath with a public dinner for the entire community to partake.

 The settlers became concerned about Black Hawk and the intentions of the Kickapoos.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk was a Sauk, they had been forced from their lands and driven across the Mississippi River. Black Hawk decided to return in 1832 to reclaim his land. He cross the river with 400 braves and their families and caused mass hysteria. They caused no problems, all Black Hawk wanted to do was plant corn on the land he was raised on, but the Militia was called out. Among the 1600 men who volunteered to fight was a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The Winnebagos and other tribes in the area fearing the Militia, would not let Black Hawk stay. Black Hawk sent five warriors to tell the militia that his people wanted to peacefully retreat across the Mississippi. All of th warriors were immediately taken prisoner. Black Hawk sent more to see what happened. They were attacked and two killed. The militia set out after the rest of Black Hawk’s people. Black Hawk attacked them, eleven of the militia and three of the warriors were killed before the militia broke and ran. The war had begun. Winnebago and Potawatomi warriors joined Black Hawk and the raided villages and farms through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. At Ottawa, Illinois, they shot, tomahawked and mutilated the bodies of fifteen settlers and kidnaped two teenaged girls. The girls were later released . These attacks created widespread panic among the white settlers and thousands fled the area. Black Hawk was still trying to get across the Mississippi. He decided to travel through the Wisconsin wilderness. To cover his retreat he sent out war parties to attack white settlements hoping to delay the pursuing soldiers. On July 21, 1832, the troops finally caught up with Black Hawk's rear guard near present-day Sauk City, Wisconsin. The ensuing battle ( The Battle of Wisconsin Heights ) cost the lives of five warriors and one soldier. The soldiers leery of an ambush let the Sauk slip away an escape. Black Hawks only hope lay in out running the soldiers and he raced to the Mississippi. When he arrived at the river he found his way blocked by an American steamship loaded with troops and artillery. Black Hawk tried to surrender and sent two warriors under a white flag to the ship. The ship's captain did not understand the request and opened fire on the Sauk. Black Hawk and his followers were trapped. The next day, August 2, 1832, the soldiers caught up with the Sauk. In what became known as the Bad Axe Massacre, the soldiers killed dozens of the Sauk including women, children and the elderly. Those who made it across the Mississippi were killed by the Sioux, who had joined the Americans. Of the 500 Sauk with Black Hawk, only about 150 survived. The Black Hawk war, now virtually over, had cost the lives of 72 whites and between 450 and 600 Native Americans.

Today if the Government hadn't pushed the Indians off their land and over onto the west side of the Mississippi River, what Chicago is now could have been Wisconsin. Back when the Government moved the Indians off of their land, they moved the northern border of the state up 60 miles. Black Hawk was one of the survivors. He was eventually forced to surrender with his friend, White Cloud, of the Winnebago's. They were sent to the east and were paraded through the eastern cities like captured animals. The public, however, greeted him, "as a brave, romantic symbol of the wild frontier and treated him like a hero. Black Hawk later was returned to Iowa. In the last few months of his life he found himself the object of admiration among Iowa settlers. He was often invited to the territorial capital to attend sessions of the legislature. His last public appearance was July 4, 1837. Black Hawk died in his lodge on October 3, 1837. His wife Singing Bird survived him. In his last public appearance he said: " A few summers ago, I was fighting against you. I did wrong, perhaps, but that is past. It is buried. Let it be forgotten. Rock river was beautiful country. I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. It is yours now. Keep it as we did."

The Exodus of Livingston County Settlers

The settlers were concerned about the attitude of the Kickapoos regarding Black Hawk’s desire to reclaim his lands. They had a meeting with the Kickapoo’s at Kickapoo Grove. Obviously they didn’t get total reassurance that the Kickapoos wouldn’t join him. The settlers only had two choices, to leave or prepare to fortify their settlement. They only had two rifles among them so the latter seemed impossible. On May 28, 1832 all the white men held a council and decided to retire to the white settlements in Indiana. That night all the settlers camped in and around the McDowell cabin, preparatory to a march the next morning. This company consisted of the William McDowell family, William Popejoy, Abner Johnson, Uriah Blue, Isaac Jordan and John Hanneman and their families, thirty-one souls in all.

In speaking of this party, Hon. Woodford G. McDowell, who was a member of this group says: “I feel sure, if the entire outfit had been required to raise $25 among them, or be scalped by the Indians, they would have been compelled to throw up the sponge, they could not have raised the money.” Major V. Darnell must have left sometime prior, as his name was not mentioned in this account. As for Franklin Oliver, he came and went among the Indians at his own pleasure, and without fear of harm. He thoroughly understood their character and was accounted a favorite among them; and in fact an Indian chief was named after him.

Interesting incidents during the journey

On the morning of May 29, 1832, the group of seven families in six wagons, took up the line of march and left behind the embryo county in possession of the Indians. From a bird’s eye view, this little group must have been a sight to behold, fearing for their very lives. The more timid were in hourly anticipation of an attack from Black Hawk, and couldn’t be persuaded to pace themselves with the ox teams which drew the women and children. On the second day of their march, the wife of Isaac Jordan presented him with an infant daughter; and James McDowell, then a young man of 17 years, together with another youth, walked to a grove to timber four miles distant to procure wood for a camp fire. On their return they found the camp in great commotion. A couple of Indians had been seen on a ridge overlooking the camp, and then they disappeared in the tall grass. Women and children were crying, and even some of the men were badly frightened, and wanted an immediate flight, as they supposed the Indians they had seen were scouts sent by Black Hawk. Others were less excited, and proceeded to light the camp fire, and prepare their supper, the elder McDowell remarking, as he held his frying pan over the fire, that “he did not purpose to be scalped on an empty stomach.”

It was soon discovered that the Indians were friendly Kickapoos, who had come to bid their friends farewell; but the incident proved the different materials of which the company was comprised. The next day the mother and child were left at the home of Philip Cook, as this was considered sufficiently remote from the seat of war to be safe; and the remainder of the party pushed on to Indiana A B. Phillips and James Spence, with their families, had taken refuge within a fortification on the Mackinaw. But, in the fall of the same year, nearly all of the persons mentioned in the exodus returned to their claims.

The second birth in the county was J. W. McDowell. When the settlers returned from Indiana, Nathan Popejoy came with them and located a few miles east of Pontiac. At this time there was only two young ladies within a distance of fifty miles up and down the Vermillion, but this soon changed. The year of 1833 saw a considerable influx of new families. Among them were: Dr. John Davis, who was the first physician in the county. About the same time came, Daniel Rockwood and the Weeds, Henry, E. F. and James, also John Recob, John Johnson, the Murray faily, Squire Hayes, John Chew, Daniel Barickman, John Downey, Joseph Reynolds and his brothers. The government had just removed the the last Kickapoo west of the Mississippi and Franklin Oliver, this year, permanently located at Kickapoo Grove, which since that date, has borne his name. That is how Kickapoo Grove became Oliver’s Grove.

Frederick Rook

Frederick Rook, the old pioneer, after whom Rook’s Creek Township is named, is described by James McDowell, as a well-made, fat-faced, easy natured and accommodating German, and not at all such a character as has been described in later days. He had a wife and family and at the date of his departure, his eldest daughter, Mary, was seventeen. He frequently deplored the lack of facilities for giving his children an education, and it is stated that this was the cause of his removing from the county at an early day. He was a capital shot, a generous provider for is family and altogether a worthy man; and the aspersions cast upon his character are without any foundation in fact, and may be considered to be false.

Other settlers

Among some of the earliest settlers were Truman Rutherford, John Foster, James Holman, William K. Brown, Judge Breckenridge, Amos Edwards and Andrew McDowell, of Long Point; Walter Cornell, Andrew Sprague, Joel B. Anderson, H. Steers, Isaac Burgit, John Darnell, John Travis, J. W. Reynolds, Charles Jones, Philip Rollins, John Marks, James DeMoss, Benjamin Hicronymous and the Garner brothers, and John Terhune, who held church services at his home because he had a book of sermons. In the fall of the year all the settlers would make a journey over to Mackinaw to attend camp meetings. This was considered to be the event of the year.

Life on the prairie

Living here in Livingston County, I find it amazing how it ever became inhabited, just considering the physical discomforts alone. Don’t get me wrong, I love this county, but I live in a house with heat and can drive everywhere I want to go. It’s hard enough for me to keep the weeds out of my flower garden, much less deal with tangled, matted roots of plants that have never been touched. I’m convinced every time we till the garden, we dig up seeds of the weeds which grew here in the 1800s. I think the settlers were a tough, determined and committed group. I admire their determination in conquering this “howling wilderness,” and calling it home. They had no money and no market for their produce, they had no tools, had to make their own and cut their own lumber to build their homes. Heated with wood which they had to cut or coal they had to dig. Raised their own food, made their own clothes, They traveled by foot, ox cart or horseback. It took days to get to the nearest settlement for supplies, then days to get back home. There were no jobs in the wilderness. They raised their own coffee, which was prepared from parched corn; they made their own sugar. They sold deer skins and the skins and furs of smaller animals for cash. When the sheep arrived, they had another whole list of new chores. They could shear the sheep, card, spin and weave this new commodity into cloth.

The pioneers didn’t go into debt, their taxes were very low, and they could raise their families on $15 to $20 a year. There were no schools for the education of the children, they had to help with the work of living on the prairie and forming new communities and taming this wilderness. A lot of the settlers avoided this part of the state because of the hardships associated with living here. But the pioneers of Livingston County showed their spunk and energy worthy of record. The tamed the wilderness, made their homes, raised their families and hauled their products to market by ox-teams to Chicago. They even drove their hogs across the pathless prairie to that point as well. When they got there they were paid, for a hog over 200 lb. they received $1.50 per 100 lb., those weight less at $1 per hundred. They would return home with the absolute necessities of life. It’s from this type of dedication and determination that Livingston County, Illinois was born. We can be proud of our first settlers.

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