EARLY TIMES AT DIXON'S FERRY
By John K. Robison 1880

Emigration to the Northern part of Illinois before the Black Hawk War, was almost entirely confined to the mines at Galena. The rich farming lands of the prairies and river valleys had received but little attention; only a very few attempts had been made to improve claims and make homes away from the Galena section. Early in the summer of 1827, Mr. 0. W. Kellogg, traveled by wagon from Fort Clark, now Peoria, to Galena. He reached and crossed Rock River a few miles above the present city of Dixon. Passing up the valley of the Pine Creek country between Polo and Mount Morris, he touched the western part of West Grove, then proceeded north to Galena. Mr. Kellogg was the pioneer traveler over this route and thus marked out a course of travel which became known as "Kellogg's trail." A large number of fortune hunters on their way to the mines, passed over this trail the summer and fall of the same year. Before this trail, the road connecting the mines with the settled portions of the state, passed by Rock Island. As the country became better known, the Kellogg trail was thought to pass too far east to be the shortest route to the mines. In the sprin.g of 1828, "John Boles, who was traveling across the country," says The History of Ogle County, published in 1878, "left the beaten trail some miles south of Rock River and crossed that stream just above where it is now crossed by the Illinois Central railroad at Dixon. He then passed up through the country, about one mile east of Polo; thence north to White Oak Grove, and so on to Galena." This trail immediately came to be the popular route of travel and was known as "Bole's trail." Crossing Rock River in the early times was a remembered feat, as the report of Go!. Strode shows in a letter written to the Governor of the State, giving an account of his command swimming the river at Dixon in 1827. The method of crossing the river with teams before the establishment of a ferry was primitive and simple. On arriving at the place of crossing, the wagons were unloaded and the loads carried over in canoes by the Indians, the wagon was then driven with the side to the stream, two wheels lifted into a canoe then shoved a little out into the river, and another canoe received the other wheels, when the double boat was paddled or poled to the other side; the horses were taken by the bridle and made to swim by the side of the canoe, cattle swam loose; then commenced the lifting out of the wagons and reloading, and the journey was renewed, all hands happy that the task of crossing the river was completed. Once James P. Dixon, well acquainted with the hardships of crossing, arriving on the banks of the river with the mail wagon, called for the Indians for their assis- tance but received no answer; vexed at their delay and their arrogance when they did assist, he boldly unchecked his horses, so as to give them a chance to swim, and crossed the river with the mail and wagon in safety.

With the establishment of Bole's trail, the site of Dixon became a fixed place for the early travelers to cross the river. This was often attended with a great deal of inconvenience.

The Indians were not always present or in readiness with their canoes. When the river was low it was easily forded, but this was not always the case. It seems the first attempt to establish a ferry at this place was made by J. L. Bogardis, of Peoria, who sent a couple of men here in the summer of 1827, or very early in the spring of 1828, for that purpose; a shanty, 8 by 10 feet, was erected on the bank of the river and work on a boat soon afterwards commenced. When the boat was about half completed, the Indians set fire to it, and told the builders to "go to Peoria." The two men hastily gathered up their kits and departed. In the spring of 1828, Joseph Ogee, an Indian Interpreter and Trader, settled here, erected a log house, and established a ferry. Ogee had married a Pottawottomie woman, and had adopted many customs and habits of the Indians, and was unmolested by them - remaining in possession of the ferry until he sold out to John Dixon. Father Dixon's object for changing his home from Boyd's Grove, where he had a short time before taken up his abode, was to occupy a more central position for his mail contract. He arrived at the ferry with his family the 11th of April, 1830. His hair was then as white as in the last year of his life. His personal appearance was almost unchanged from 1821 to 1876, his hair being white through all these years; age dealt kindly with him. The year previous to Father Dixon's taking possession of the ferry, a third trail had been established from Ogee's Ferry to the mines. This trail ran by the house of Isaac Chambers, in Buffalo Grove, where Mr. Chambers had erected a tavern and opened a road through the timber, about two miles distant from the Boles trail on the prairie. Some distance north of the grove, the road again intersected the Boles trail.

From 1829 to 1835 the travel crossing Rock River at the present site of Dixon was extensive. In early spring the emigration to the lead mines was one perpetual rush - like in character to the gold fever of later years. It swept over Rock River in swarms of from five to twenty teams a day through May and June; then again there was a mighty stream Southward during September and October. Among the many passing through we had of ministers: John Sinclair, John T. Mitchell, and Erastus Kent, all honored as faithful men and able ministers: Judges: Thomas Ford, afterwards Governor of Illinois, and Young; lawyers: Mills and Sheldon; and black legs whose name is legion. Accommodations were furnished the travelers as far as the beds, bedding, and table room of the "tavern" would reach. Between the two houses forming the long, one-story portion of the building was a ten or twelve foot hall with a doorway at either end, facing the north and south. Entering the hall from the south; on the west was the family sitting room, on the east was the travelers' and hired help's room - each room eighteen feet square. The furniture of the west room consisted of two beds, quite a number of chairs, and a table extending clear across the room, where the meals were taken in cold weather; in warm weather the meals were taken in the hail. The east room contained four beds, one in each corner. When driven to extend this bedroom, the "Shake-down" was resorted to, which was of common occurrence. A Buffalo robe or Bear skin spread on the soft side of the floor, with a blanket or quilt for covering, made a bed good enough for anybody. The floor was often covered in both rooms, and the hall filed to overflowing, with these hastily and easily prepared beds. Floor-room was not always of sufficient proportion to accommodate the entire party: the remainder encamped all about the premises there was room enough out doors for all. Owing to the base of supplies being so distant Peoria ninety miles, and Galena Sixty-five miles we were often driven to extremities. No weather or bad roads satisfied hunger or staved travel. Armies, feeling this gnawing, grow restless and insubordinate. Our own family and travelers gave vent to human nature without stint. Few could take in the difficulties of having the whole of a large caravan to feed. The Inlet stream was unbridged and frequently swimming, and in that direction our supplies were often crossed under water before it reached us. Our horses were taught swimming and became proficients in that callingg. I have been employed a little below the present road crossing that Inlet Creek, swimming horses and wagons across one way and back the other, for more than two hours at a time, and once safely swam a four-horse team attached to a wagon loaded with lumber, across the stream at the imminent risk of myself and team. Mail stages were three times submerged and ruined in Inlet. Northward, Apple River and both Plumb Rivers were alike difficult to cross and munch more dangerous, as the crossings were bad and the current rapid.

Father Dixon did his trading with the Indians as a matter of necessity. He had lived at Peoria and learned the character of the average trader and determined to deal more justly with the Indians than had been done. He ingratiated himself with them as their advisor and friend, strongly urging them to a civilized life and habits of sobriety, diligence and honesty. The store room in which he traded with the Indians, was in the East building, (the two-story house) where he sold powder, lead, shot, wampum, tobacco, pipes, shroudoing, (a coarse cloth) blankets, guns, beads, needles, awls, knives, spears, Muskrat and Otter traps, calicos, etc., and but one thing at a time. Why? The Indian is a thief always and everywhere, in return he had their furs, dressed deer skins, moccasins, and fancy articles made by the female portion of his traders. These found a ready market in Galena, Peoria, and St. Louis.

Directly after taking up his permanent home at Dixon's Ferry, and while coming down the river from the place of ferrying. Father Dixon heard his Indian name excitedly called out. Turning around he saw a naked savage within one hundred feet of him running towards him with a Muskrat spears and gesticulating angrily. `To defend himself unarmed was impossible; to flee cowardly. He took in the danger but his manhood refused to carry him out of danger, (The Muskrat Spear was made of a sharpened 5-8 inch, round iron rod, from two to three feet long, fastened to a wooden handle from four to six feet in length - - making a dangerous weapon.) as his fleetness would base enabled him to do. He boldly faced his adversary, but before the Indian had an opportunity to throw his spear, his arms were securely grasped by some of the Indian spectators, who interfered for Dixon's safety. After the drunken debauch was over, the Indian asked an interview with Father Dixon, which he refused him until the band to which the Indian belonged interceded for him. Much ceremony suits the Indian; the talk cornmenced, when the indian, whose name was Dah-shun-egra. acknowledged his murderous intention; "That bad whisky made bad Indian," and asked forgiveness. He asked Father Dixon what he would have done, if he had thrown the spear and missed his aim. In reply Father Dixon said: ``Had you thrown the spear and missed me, the spear would have passed by me and I should have reached it first, and should have killed you on the spot with your own spear. His coolness in the hour of danger, and this open avowal of a determined man to defend himself and repel force by force, were qualities that the savages could ful1y understand and appreciate. It established Father Dixon's character among the Indians as a White Brave.

While Father Dixon carried the United States mail from Springfield to Galena, the streams were unbridged, not even "corduroyed;", swamps undrained: roads almost impassible; houses few and far between. Snow storms were more severe and the cold more intense than in later years. In the winter of 1830 and `31, (the winter ot the deep snow) the snow averaged three feet deep from New Year's day to the 15th of March. No track was kept open from one settlement to another, and it was with great difficulty that roads were kept open even in densely settled districts. Fifteen and eighteen to twenty-seven miles was the usual distances between the homes along the route. On one of the longer routes during this memorable winter, Father Dixon and some of the stage passengers were so benumbeded with cold and nearly frozen, as to be unable to get out of the conveyance. After a good warming and hot coffee, however, all were able to resume their journey.

During the Black Hawk War, Father Dixon had the contract for supplying the army with beef for the final battle of the Bad Axe river. His place on the march was in the rear of the army, and from the time Wisconsin River was crossed until many times he was left so far behind as to be out of supporting distance. It so happened on the march, that at one time midnight was passed before he came to camp. He was hailed by the sentenel with the snap of the lock of the gun in the sentenels hands, and these words: "Who comes there." Father Dixon replied: ``Major of the Steer Batalion.'' The soldier gave the order: "Major of the Steer Batalion, march in.'' This sally of wit on both sides, was the foundation of Father Dixon's military title. Another time he had been off the trail hunting one of his beeves, and on again returning to the trail he suddenly found himself face to face with two Indians, who were as much astonished at the meeting as he was. It was no time for ceremony. All were armed: Father Dixon lowered his gun and walking about five rods, gave his hand to the nearest savage, saluting him in Winnebago. The Indian replied in Winnebago. Father Dixon and both the Indians were alike overjoyed at this unexpected good fortune - Father Dixon, that he was permitted to save his scalp for another day: the Indians that they had found some one understanding their own language, under whose influence they could safely be introduced to General Atkinson, for whom they had important dispatches. Their life was endangered to be seen by a soldier and they felt their peril an when in serious embarrasment about how to approach the army.

Father Dixons age, and experience with all classes of men, should have qualified him to safely critise and distrust humanity, but he had no apprehension of imposition, he took human nature as it fell from the hands of the infinitely Good. His estimate never tallied with the evil: never tired of being wronged and as a consequence he was often disappointed in men. Obliging to all; hospitable and kind to the needy and helpless in every condition, he often trusted strangers and travelers from whom he never received any thing in return. It was no unusual thing, when the circumstances of travelers were told Father Dixon, for him to allow his ferry and hotel bills to remain unpaid, and to give them provisions and funds necessary to complete the journey -- many dollars were given away in this manner. His unselfishness manifested itself in good will to all men: the Indian, or the child, looked to him for favors and kindness and was not turned away empty.

Mrs. Dixon was one of the few women, who could and did adorn any position in life in which she was placed. Her person was rather under size, exhibiting no marked pecularity. She was intelligent far above the age and circumstances surrounding her, and had a warm heart and ready hand for every good word and work alike. Devout and fervent in all the holy exercises of religion and morality; ardently attached to the church (Baptist) to which she belonged, she gave her hand to all who bore the name and character of that great Christian body. Her moral worth, talents, virtue, andher whole life, was one of devotion to christianity. She was Solomon's ideal of glorious womanhood before he was corrupted by the false glare and glitter of a false religion and an impure life. I record her life as the one to whom I owe more than any other, except mother and wife. As an early reminiscense of Mrs. Dixon's rare tact and knowledge of charcter, shall I venture to write that in the dead of winter, preceeding the Black Hawk War, the Prophet, from Prophets Town, black Hawk, and a chief from Rock Island, whose name I have forgotten, held a council at aDixon's Ferry, and then and there negotiated with the Potasattomies for the occupancy of the Spotted Arms' town near the present site of Rockford. Meal time came three times a day to which the chiefs at the Council fire, were invited as guests of Mrs. Dixon. She presided, as waiter, and to allay any fears of her guests, sat down and ate and drank with them. The perfect lady was reminded by Black Hawk, as spokesman, of her goodness, and he called the attention of the other chiefs to her care and politeness to them. In the early times, the settlers of Buffalo Grove Grand detour, Dad Jo's, Palestine, Inlet, Melugin's, Paw Paw, Franklin, and Gap Groves, were our nigh neighbors. When I came to the county, in May 1832, the nearest settlement north of Dixon's Ferry was at Buffalo Grove, where lived Mr. Reed, O.W. Kellogg and a Mr. Bush, and their families. They were enabled to escape the impending storm at the commencement of the the Black Hawk War, by flight, mostly under great losses and deprivations, MRs. James Dixon, (yet living, in Dixon,) was one of the fuugatives of that period. Dad Jo was also at the grove bearing his name, twenty miles south of Dixon, and was one of the good, jolly men who had made their homes along the route of the early thoroughfare between Peoria and Galena. Dad Jo had an uncommonly loud voice; it was often remarked in that day that "we knew they were alive at Dad's this morning, we heard him calling his hogs; just twenty miles away." After Indian troubles had ceased, settlers commenced to arrive, and civilization began to assert its own in the "neighborhood' of Dixon's Ferry.

In 1833, the last week of December, Zachariah Melugin, with myself as his only assistant, built the first house in Lee County, outside of Dixon, at the grove that still bears his name. There was no other settlement made in Lee County that year. The families of Gilmore and Christiance came to Melugins Grove in the spring of 1835. Mr. Melugin lived but a few years after coming to the county.

1834 opens a new era in the improvement of Northern Illinois. In April, Isaac Morgan and his sons Harvey and John, began the improvements at sugar Grove. A number of other families arrived in the fall of that year and early in 1835. Adolphus BLiss began the settlement of Inlet Grove in May or June of 1834. Ozra Wright and two or three others came that summer or fall. Benjamin Harris, with his father and brother and a large train of relatives, moved to Paw Paw Grove. Mr. Jillett and Levi Kelso, Esq., made improvements at the north side of Paw Paw grove, also of the same year. Esq. Kelso deceased at Mendota in 1880.

In the summer of 1834, Mr. Bush, a brother-in-law of Judge Logan, lately passed away in Chicago, located a farm and ferry at the termination of the river timber below Dixon, north side of the river, on the farm now owned by J.T. Lawrence.

The same summer I improved aplace on the north side of Rock River, two miles below Dixon, and was joined afterward by two of Father Dixon's sons. It afterwards was known as the Graham farm.

Autumn of this year, (1834) Mr. Hollingshead made arrangements for the erection of a log house, south-east of Grand Detour, which was built in January of 1835. Mr. Hollingshead did not like the country and soon returned to Kentucky. Esquire Chamberlain, for many years one of the County Commissioners of Ogle county, bought the place and lived there until he died at a ripe old age.

Contributed by Joan Glasgow

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