Lee County Biography

John Dixon
The Founder of Dixon


JOHN DIXON, the founder of Dixon, was born in the village of Rye, Westchester County, N. Y., October 9, 1784. At an early age he removed to New York City, where for about fifteen years he was the proprietor of a clothing store. In addition to the successful prosecution of business he was untiring in his efforts for the promotion of temperance and religious interests,and in this connection became one of the active members and directors of the first Bible Society organized in the United States. This was organized February 16, 1809, under the name of “The Young Men’s Bible Society, of the City of New York.”

While thus engaged, premonitory symptoms of a pulmonary disease manifested themselves, making a change of climate necessary, and in 1820 he set out for Illinois. He settled near Springfield, Ill. In 1825 Judge Sawyer, whose circuit nominally embraced Northwestern Illinois, requested Mr. Dixon to take the appointment of Circuit Clerk, and remove to the then village of Peoria. The Government decided upon giving Galena mail facilities once in two weeks, and Mr. Dixon got the contract. In order to secure a passage for the mails over Rock River, he induced a man by the name of Ojee—a French and Indian half-breed—to establish a ferry at the point, now known as Dixon.

This done, the travel to and from the lead mines so rapidly increased that Ogee’s coffers became full too full indeed for his moral powers to bear; the result was constant inebriation. To avoid the delays in the transmission of the mails which these irregularities entailed, Mr. Dixon bought the. ferry from Ogee, and in April, 1895, removed his family to that point. From that date the place as a point for crossing the river, became known as Dixon’s Ferry. At that time a large portion of the Winnebago tribe of Indians occupied this part of the Rock River country. Mr. Dixon so managed his business relations with them as to secure their entire confidence and friendship, which on the return of the Sauks and Foxes, under their war chief Black Hawk in 1832, proved to be of inestimable benefit to himself and family.

He was recognized by them as the “red man’s friend.” He entered the land upon which the most valuable part of the (now) city of Dixon stands, and in 1895 laid it off into town lots. In this connection it may not be improper to say that all the land thus subdivided were disposed of from time to time, and the avails, instead of being hoarded for individual use, have gone to build up the general interests of the city. In 1840, Mr. Dixon visited Washington with an application for the removal of the land office from Galena to Dixon, and Gen. Scott, and perhaps other army officers, personal friends of Mr. Dixon, who had become familiar with the topography of the country during the Black Hawk war, promptly interested themselves in his behalf, and introduced him to President Van Buren, who at once signed the order for its removal.

Mr. Dixon’s wife, formerly Rebecca Sherwood, of New York, a lady of superior mental rapacity and energy, shared with her husband the toils and tribulations incident to frontier life. He has witnessed the growth of the "Ferry" from a condition of wild grass and shubery to that of a busy city of 5000 inhabitants, bearing his honored name. He is honored and respected more than any other man who ever lived in this county.

Portraits and Biographical Lee County IL

The First White Settler on the Rock River
By Hon. Anson B. Miller Among the jurors summoned to the U.S. Court Room in Chicago, Feb. 1878, appeared the venerable and venerated John Dixon one of the oldest surviving pioneers of Illinois and the first white settler in the Rock River country. Although very aged, Father Dixon retains his sound mental powers in a remarkable degree, and is still capable of discharging the duties of a juror in the courts, to which, even in his later years, he has often been called at the great city, the whole growth of which he has witnessed from its humblest beginnings. His emigration west, and his experience in the frontier settlements of Illinois are striking illustrations of the advancement of our State during the manhood of one still living in our midst.

John Dixon was born in Westchester county NY, Oct. 9, 1784 and on reaching his majority removed to the city of New York, where he remained in business until the spring of 1820. He was one of the original members of the Young Men's Bible Society, of the City of New York, formed in 1800 - the first in the United States, of which original organization he has been for years the sole surviving member.

Early in 1820, he removed with his wife and children to Illinois, accompanied by his brother-in-law and sister. Leaving New York in a covered wagon, drawn by a single team, the emigrants passed through the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Pittsburg, and then purchased a flat bottom which they embarked with their team and effects, and floated down the Ohio river to Shawnee town, IL, then a little landing. Here they disembarked with their horses and goods and after disposing of their boat, proceeded with their wagon northwest, through pathless prairies and unbridged rivers, to the vicinity in which is now the city of Springfield. The prairie, the present site of the State Capital, was then an open wild, without a human dwelling, though a few pioneers had reared their cabins in the bordering woodlands. Near a beautiful creek in this wilderness region, Mr. D. made his home at the close of his journey was not then set off, and nearly all of Central and Northern Illinois, was embraced in the county of Madison. Early in the next year - 1821 - Sangamon county was formed, and the first court in the new county was held in the spring of that year, at the house of John Kelley, the earliest settler near the site of Springfield, John Reynolds, a Judge of the Supreme Court presided, James Turney was Prosecuting Attorney, John Taylor, Sheriff, Charles Matheny, Clerk; and Messrs. Starr, Lockwood, Hamilton and Caverly were among the lawyers present. John Dixon was appointed foreman of the Grand Jury that sat in the house of Pascal Enos, Judge Reynolds aimed to administer justice in each case, disregarding legal technicalities when opposed to equity, and often taking what he called "a liberal, town-meeting view of matters."

Gov. Coles having appointed Mr. D. Recorder of Deeds for the county of Peoria, then just formed, he removed in the spring of 1824 to Peoria, then often called Fort Clark, situated at the outlet of the lake. Mr. D. was also made Clerk of the County Commissioners' Court on the organization of Peoria county, and Clerk of the Circuit Court by Judge John Y. Sawyer, one of the five Circuit Court Judges elected at the session of the Legislature on the re-organization of the Judiciary in 1824-5, who held the first court in Peoria county in the spring of 1825, Samuel Fulton, Sheriff, and Messrs. Hamilton, Thomas, Pugh and others, members of the Bar.

Northern Illinois, now containing many counties, was then embraced in the new county of Peoria, and it became the duty of Mr. Dixon as clerk, to give notice of the time and places of elections, and the names of the judges thereof, at Chicago, Galena, and other little settlements north and east of Peoria, and to issue marriage licenses over a region more extensive than some of the kingdoms of Europe. Among the applicants to whom Mr. Dixon issued marriage licenses, was Dr. Wolcott, who married the daughter of John Kinzie, the first white settler of Chicago, a sister of the late John H. Kinzie and brothers, formerly well known citizens there. Travel between Chicago and Peoria was then performed over Indian trails on horseback, without even the marks of a highway - a long and tedious journey, but in this case doubtlessly cheered and quickened by anticipations of the good time coming.

In 1880, the Post-office Department established a mail route from Peoria to Galena, crossing the Rock river at the present site of the city of Dixon and going by way of Gratiot's Grove, in Wisconsin, far out of a direct course, to accommodate a little settlement there, mail to be carried twice a week on horseback. The contract on this route was let to Mr. D., and he removed with his family to Rock river, in the spring of that year.

Previous to his removal Mr. D. caused a ferry to be established on the river, by Joseph Ogee, at the crossing of the route and henceforth the place was known as Dixon's Ferry. Here, on the evening of a spring day in 1831, while Mr. D. was tending his ferry, he was saluted by four travelers on horseback, from the direction of Galena. They were Richard M. Young, Circuit Judge, Thomas Ford, Prosecuting Attorney, Benjamin Mills, and James M. Strode, members of the Bar -- all subsequently distinguished public men of the State. They informed him that they were going to Fort Dearborn to hold the first Circuit Court for the new county of Cook, then recently organized and requested him to pilot them through the pathless space from the Ferry to the Fort. None but Indians had made this journey. Some of the Pottawatamies, living at Paw Paw Grove, thirty miles east of the Ferry, had visited Mr. D. and invited him to their home, describing the way, Mr. D. consented to go with the men to Paw Paw, where he thought an Indian guide could be procured. Accepting the cordial hospitality of Mr. D., they took supper with him and staid till morning, when Mrs. D. gave them an early breakfast and supplied their portmanteaus with provisions for the way.

Leaving the ferry at the opening of a pleasant day, the party took the course for Paw Paw Grove, Mr. D. accompanying them, carrying his pocket compass, and carefully observing all the directions given him by the Indians, when, after an interesting .. of thirty miles through the prairies and groves, then glowing in all their natural wealth and beauty of verdure and bloom, they arrived at Paw Paw, but saw no Indians; nothing but the standing poles of their lodges appeared, the dwellers being temporarily absent. Camping at the Indian quarters for the night, the court party concluded in the morning that as Mr. D.'s business at home could permit him to accompany them no further, they would venture, with the aid of his compass, to enter upon the remainder of their journey alone; and after three day's travel, sometimes without a path, and .. Indian trails, they reached Fort Dearborn - Chicago - and in due time held the first court in what is now the grand metropolis of the Northwest, having its dozen courts of record - State and Federal - simultaneously in session.

Early the next year, 1832, this State was disturbed by the Black Hawk war, which was waged mostly in Northern IL and WI,. When the old Sauk warrior and his mounted band ascended Rock river, they stopped at the house of their kind friend Dixon, and greeted him in the most cordial manner. Among themselves they called him Na-chu-sa, because of his hair whitened with age. Dixon's Ferry was the general rendezvous of the troops - militia and regulars - arrayed against the Indians. Here Gov. Reynolds had his headquarters, and a large number of men, then or subsequently distinguished, were often the guests of Mr. Dixon.

He was appointed a guide in Col. Zachary Taylor's command, and through the war messed and lodged with the future of Buena Vista and President of the United States, a man of his own age, and bearing to him a considerable personal resemblance. Governor Duncan appointed Mr. D. Commissioner of the Board of Public Works for the sixth or northern district of the State, in place of Col. James W. Stephenson, the duties of which position he discharged during the continuance of said Board.

From his first settlement on the Rock river, nearly forty-four years since, he has remained there,, respected and beloved by all, a just return to one whose long and useful life has ever happily illustrated the blessedness of the golden rule. Appropriate, indeed , is it that the place of the first white settlement on the Rock river, now the site of an enterprising and beautiful young city, should bear the name of its honored founder. Great changes have passed over the State since he came to Illinois in 1820. Then there were only a few counties where they now number one hundred and two. The population of the State was about 55,162, now, in a little over half a century increased to millions. Not a bank was then in operation in the State, and there were no reliable facilities for home or foreign exchange. Trade from abroad was confined to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and was carried on by means of a few inferior boats. The sails of commerce had not whitened the upper lakes, nor had a single steamer plowed their waters. Chicago, Quincy, Springfield, Peoria and Galena were not even surveyed till long afterward, and Chicago waited thirteen years for her postoffice in 1838, when her eastern mail, now enormous, by different railways and almost hourly, was brought on horseback, from Niles Michigan and only once a week.

Breadstuffs and other provisions, for years and years after 1820, were procured from the East to supply what has now become the world's great granary and meat market. The first shipment of grain eastward from Chicago, consisted of less than one hundred bushels of wheat, in 1838. Contrast this small beginning with some of the single years since, when the same city oxported between sixty and seventy millions of bushels of grain and her trade in cattle, and hogs, and lumber, was over half a million head of cattle, and a million and a half of hogs, and over one hundred million feet of lumber per annum. John Dixon had lived in Illinois more than thirty years before a single line of railroad was completed to that city, now the greatest railway center on the globe. And so in everything might the times of 1820 and 1874 be compared in illustrating the wonderful progress of the State in wealth and population, and manifold improvements. But let the foregoing suffice.

The subject of our sketch completes his 90th year the present season. His prominent and eventful pioneer life, near Springfield in 1820, at Peoria in 1824 and at Dixon in 1830, and his deeds of faithful duty and generous benevolence in the State for over half a century, entitle him, not only to that historical mention from which his modesty shrinks, but to the grateful recognition and remembrance of all. His extended career has uniformly been marked by kindness, temperance, honesty and honro, all in the fullness of Christian principle. And now as he descends into the vale of years, he exhibits a cheerfulness and sympathy which show how gracefully and serenely a man may grow old. Having far outlived his own generation and almost the entire of the next succeeding, he remains among us in health and vigor, one of the few links in the chain of the living, connecting the present ora with the early history of the State.

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