John Dixon

Better Known As

"Father Dixon"

The story of John Dixon actually starts with the story of Joseph Ogee. The earliest known records place Joseph Ogee in the Peoria vicinity in the early 1820's. He was employed there by the American Fur Company as their agent. Ogee and his wife Madeline organized the first Methodist Church in Peoria in 1824 and helped build the first school there in 1826. John L. Bogardus decided early in 1827 to establish a ferry crossing on on the Rock River. Dixon having previously met Ogee at Ft. Clark (Peoria), they of course both knew John Bogardus and together they encouraged him to build the ferry. John Bogardus was unsuccessful building the ferry because he was unable to deal with the indians. Then in 1828 Dixon moved with his family to Boyd's Grove in Bureau County and again began to encourage Ogee to start a ferry operation where Bogardus had left off. Ogee then went and found the remains of Bogardus' cabin an continued witht he business of building the ferry. Ogee's wife was part Indian and it wasn't long before she left Joseph because of his drinking. She went to live with her people taking her children with her. At this point Ogee's life just disintegrated completely, John Dixon purchased Ogee interest and took over the Ferry in April 1830.

John Dixon was born October 9, 1784 the son of a British soldier. At 21 he moved to New York City and became successful in the clothing business. After some 15 years he left New York, along with his wife and family and his his brother-in-law Charles Boyd. They took a flatboat down the Ohio River to Shawneetown IL. From there they continued on with a Wagon on their way to Springfield IL.

In 1825 he was made Circuit Clerk of the Northwestern IL Court and moved to Ft Clark (Peoria). The Federal Government had established a mail route from Peoria to Galena, crossing the Rock River at what would some day become Dixon IL. John Dixon decided to bid for the contract to deliver the mail and was accepted.

During the Black Hawk War in 1832, John Dixon became known as a friend to the Indians. After the war, peace returned to the Valley and life proceeded forward. John Dixon set out to make his part of the Valley prosperous and inviting to the settlers constantly coming out from the east. In 1835 he laid out the town lots and established a system for streets. In 1840 Dixon traveled to Washington DC and gained approval from President Van Buren to have the land office moved from Galena to Dixon, which caused rapid development in the entire area.

John Dixon spent the second half of his life to establish and improve Dixon IL. He gave more than can ever be remembered to the town and in the process lost every cent he had. The town of Dixon will forever hold dear the man who made it all possible. "Father Dixon".

Written by Fran Swarbrick
She says it all so well

He was 46 years old and his hair was already white. He had come west for his health. A frontier ferry crossing didn't seem like a very healthy place for Easterner John Dixon. Indians had already burned the boat of a previous ferryman.

It was April 11, 1830. Dixon began unloading his covered wagon at a solitary cabin on the bank of the Rock River. The wagon contained his wife and five children and all that he owned. Dixon's welcome came in the form of a drunken Indian who rushed at him with a muskrat spear. When Dixon cooly faced him down, other Indians grasped the hot-head's arms. The Indians decided Dixon was a "white brave." They called him Nachusa, meaning white-haired.

Dixon had come to the crossing on the Rock because he held the contract to deliver mail between Peoria and Galena. And the ferry crossing was the trouble-spot. Joseph 0- gee, the previous ferryman, was apt to be drunk, leaving no one to ferry the mail stage and five to 20 wagons per day on their way to Galena lead mines. John Dixon did not seem a likely prospect to conquer the frontier. He had been a tailor and clothing store owner in New York city. In his spare time he helped found the American Bible Society.

Going west in 1820 at age 36 to try to cure his lung disease, Dixon had first built a house in the barely-settled Springfield area. There he began a pattern of involvement in public affairs. He became a grand jury foreman. This led to his appointment as circuit clerk and recorder of deeds, necessitating his moving to Ft. Clark, later to become Peoria. While Dixon was living there, the state established the Peoria to Galena mail route. Dixon successfully bid on it. Problems on the route led him to relocate in ever wilder parts of the frontier.

First it was at Boyd's Grove in Bureau County. But the Rock River ferry turned out to be the main spot that needed supervision. Dixon had first persuaded a man named Bogar- dus and later the Frenchman, Ogee, to build and run the ferry. Both had failed.

By this time, wrote an early historian, John Dixon, the city man, had become "thor- oughly acquainted with the frontier. He was strong, hearty, and vigorous."

Newly arrived at Ogee's rough cabin set among bushes and small trees on the sloping river bank, Dixon and grown-son James set about enlarging it to accomodate their family plus a small son left there by Ogee. The child was called "the little boy who never smiles."

To the l8-foot-square structure of squared logs they added another section of the same size, the new one two storeys, connecting them by a 12-foot-long hallway. The west cabin was the Dixon's living quarters, while the east one contained four beds for servants and travellers. Its second storey was a storeroom. Later the buildings were enlarged to be 90 feet long. Dixon set up a trading post in the middle hallway. There he sold traps, knives, shoes, yard goods, and tobacco to frontier characters listed in his account books with names such as Scar on the Brow and Long Yellow Man. The Indians brought furs to trade. The crossing was now Dixon's Ferry instead of Ogee's Ferry. And Dixon soon earned the reputation of being an honest man who would take in a destitute pioneer and grubstake him on credit.

A history book says that Dixon "determined to deal justly with the Indians." He learned their language and became their advocate and friend. Dahshunegra, the Indian who had tried to kill Nachusa, later begged for forgiveness. He asked Dixon what he would have done had the spear been thrown. "If you missed I should have killed you on the spot with your own spear," Dixon replied.

An early traveller described her 1831 visit to the ferry crossing while on the way to Chicago. She was Mrs. John Kinzie, later of Chicago.

"Just at sunset we reached the dark, rapid waters of the Rock River. The ferry which we had travelled so far out of our way to take advantage of proved to be merely a small board or skiff, the larger one having been swept off into the stream, and carried down in the breaking up of the ice, the week previous.

"My husband's first care was to get me across. He placed me with the saddles, packs, etc. in the boat, and as, at that late hour, no time was to be lost, he ventured, at the same time, to hold the bridles of the two most docile horses to guide them in swimming the river. "All being safely landed, a short walk brought us to the house of Mr. Dixon, although so recently come into the country, he had contrived to make everything comfortable around him; and when he ushered us into Mrs. Dixon's sitting room, and seated us by a glowing wood fire, while Mrs. Dixon busied herself in preparing us...a most savory supper of ducks and venison and their accompaniments. .

Just as the Rock River pioneers were beginning to get settled, the Blackhawk War broke out. Blackhawk's people had left their reservation in Iowa to return to their old hunting grounds in the Rock River Valley, and government troops were sent to drive them back.

Dixon sent his wife, Rebecca, and some of their children to Galena, probably by the mail stage. He himself trusted the Indians for his own safety, and his friendship with them paid off. They remembered how Rebecca had served Blackhawk and other chiefs at her own table, and they did not raid the trading post.

During the war Dixon supplied beef to the troops, many of whom were stationed at a blockhouse across the river from his cabin. Among the soldiers were Private Abraham Lincoln and Lieutenant Jefferson Davis. After the war was over Dixon was put in charge of distributing 40,000 rations of bacon and flour to the Indians as part of the settlement. At war's end Mrs. Dixon came home. But it was a sad home-coming. She had left two of their young children in graves in Galena.

A tough frontier remained to be dealt with. Many areas were terrorized by roving bandits. Since Dixon stood out as a brave man who could be trusted, people began to settle near him. By 1836 five other families were living at the ferry. Dixon converted the pole ferry to a more efficient rope ferry, operated from large posts set one on each side of the river. Ferry rates were 25 cents for a man and horse, and 75 cents for a team and wagon. Establishment of a reliable ferry greatly increased the traffic to and from Galena. The mail coaches pulled by four horses made the Ft. Clark-Galena trip three times per week. By 1837 the population around the crossing had grown to 13 families.

The Dixons did their best to make the settlement religious and law-abiding. Rebec- ca Dixon helped organize the First Reguar Baptist Church of Dixon and Buffalo Grove, later to become Polo. The Dixons gave a riverside lot to a circuit-riding Episcopai clergyman hoping he would stay. Dixon promoted temperance and diligence among the Indians. If anyone brought liquor to the Dixon home, Rebecca would say, "This is forbidden here," and quietly pour it on the ground.

The steady stream of traffic to and from the lead mines, especially in spring and fall, led Dixon and others to decide to build "a great hotel." Mrs. Dixon could no longer accomodate all the travellers in the trading post. In 1837 the entrepeneurs formed the Dixon Hotel Corp. and built a foundation. Then the national financial crisis of 1837 came along. The great hotel was not completed until several years later, and not by them. Even so, it was named the Nachusa House after John Dixon.

John Dixon conceived another idea to help the town. In 1840 he went to Washington, D. C., and secured the moving of the government land office from Galena to Dixon's Ferry. The convenience for settlers of filing land claims nearby accelerated the growth of the Rock River settlement.

There were now 40 families living at the ferry. Dixon helped organize the county and get his town declared the county seat. This required building a courthouse. Dixon gave Courthouse Square, plus 80 acres of land to be auctioned to help pay for the building. He also donated Haymarket Square and John Dixon Park to his town. When it was time to elect a mayor, he became the first one. To everyone he was "Father Dixon.

Considering all of John Dixon's projects, one would have expected him to become a wealthy man. Others were beginning to amass fortunes and build mansions. But John Dixon was not one of them. One historian says it was because "he cared more for the town's advancement than his own." About the time the ferry was beginning to make a profit, Dixon took steps to put himself out of the ferry business. He went to the state capitol in 1843 and secured a charter so that a bridge and dam could be built. He thought the improvements would benefit the town.

Then as a commissioner of public works for the state, Dixon became responsible for the construction of part of a Galena to Savanna Railroad, an ill-fated venture for all concerned. Dixon entrusted a contractor with cashing a state pay check for $11,500 at Vandalia. The contractor gambled away the money.

When Dixon heard that the contractor had won a lottery in Galena, he sent sons James and Elijah to pursue the culprit, but they recovered only a small part of the money. Dixon ended up paying back most of it himself. The railroad was never finished.

Another set-back involved the local postmaster's job. Dixon had been promised this position by Abraham Lincoln, an old friend from Blackhawk War days who had riser. to state office. But the job went to another without Lincoln's knowledge. By this time Dixon was living on a farm on the town's outskirts. His riverside cabin burned in 1845. Dixon's Ferry was spreading out now on both sides of the River. There were houses as well as cabins, and dwellings of brick and stone. Hardship was not the constant companion it once had been.

Yet death was a frequent visitor. Some families like the Dixons could count more graves in the cemetery than chairs at their tables. The Dixons had buried six of their twelve children at under six years of age. Another died at age 14. A son, Frank1in, died at age 16. His father named Franklin Creek after him, saying the creek reminded him of Franklin's sunny disposition.

Mrs. Dixon herself died in 1847 when John Dixon was 63.

It was a good thing the settlers could not foresee coming catastrophes. In the cholera epidemic of 1854, 34 residents would die. One of them was Elijah Dixon, an unmarried son, veteran of the Blackhawk War. By that time all the children born to the Dixons at the Rock River crossing had died. Remaining were James, John, and Mary, who was the wife of Isaac Boardrnan. All had offspring.

In 1850 the town was trying to put the epidemic behind it, and had grown to a population of 700. John Dixon must have frequently surveyed the settlement with satisfaction. The dam had been built, mills and a large plow factory had gone up. A railroad was coming through. Churches had raised their steeples, and mansions their cupolas. A busy road now led east to the new town of Chicago, and farmers were finding profitable markets there.

But before long John Dixon himself would be bereft of nearly everything. By the time Dixon was 69, in 1853, he had stood at the graves of his three remaining children. His only relatives near him now were grandchildren and in-laws. He went to live with James' widow and her children in a substantial, but not large, grout house at the corner of N. Jefferson and Bradshaw. In 1993 this house was still standing. A historian said Dixon was "in reduced circumstances."

Perhaps John Dixon gave too much away. Perhaps restoring to the state the immense sum stolen in the railroad fiasco had depleted his resources. And now there were no men with earning-power remaining in his family. But Dixon faced adversity with the same courage that he had faced hostile Indians.

Granddaughter Louise, who at that time lived with Father Dixon, composed a school essay in 1856 entitled "My Grandfather." She was 12 years old when she wrote: "Grandfather is now an old man, his hair is whitened with the frosts of 70 winters. Yet my grandfather is very cheerful. A party of his Indian friends came to visit him. They encamped opposite his house. They stayed nearly two weeks. Since then an Indian chief, Shabbona, has twice been to see him. Grandfather sometimes tells us of his Indian adventures. I love my grandfather very much. I often wonder whether all grandfathers are like mine.'

Finally some of Dixon's white friends, knowing of his "reduced circumstances", introduced a bill into Congress to compensate him for his Blackhawk War service. Speaking for the bill was Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who had known Dixon during the Blackhawk War and was later to become president of the Confederacy.

Davis told Congress: "I know him personally and believe him to be a very honest man. He was one of the first pioneers in the country. His house was reached by crossing a wide prairie country inhabited only by Indians. He was a great service for the first settlement of that country. He was of service to the the Black Hawk campaign. He was of service in furnishing supplies and giving information in regard to the country and afterward in taking care of the sick." Congress granted Dixon a section of western land in compensation.

Dixon's last recorded public appearance was in a parade celebrating the opening of the new Truesdell iron bridge on January 21, 1869. Since Dixon had first secured a bridge charter in 1843, nine bridges had been built and swept away by ice or high water. Now, in 1869, Dixon rode in the lead carriage over what was expected to be a more permanent span. Perhaps that was the occasion in 1869 on which citizens gave Dixon a silver chal- ice inscribed with his initials and the date of April 11, 1869. April 11 was the date he had arrived at the Rock River 39 years before.

Four years later the bridge would fall as a crowd watched a river baptism. The baptism was conducted by John Dixon's own Baptist Church. Forty-two people would die.

Dixon continued to make his home with his daughter-in-law on Dixon's north side. Neighbors described him as "kind and gentle, a great reader." They said he never wore an overcoat. When someone gave him one, he handed it over to an Indian. Friends marvelled that at age 89 John Dixon could travel to Chicago and serve on a grand jury.

Old settlers said Dixon had not changed since he came to the Rock River.

Three years after the bridge disaster, in 1876, Dixon died at age 92. He was still, acquaintances said, "possessed of his strength and all his faculties." When townspeople heard the news, they draped the courthouse John Dixon had built in black. Ten thousand people came to say farewell.

The man who had lost everything in worldly possessions was called "the foremost citizen of northern Illinois." The town council adopted a proclamation honoring him. It read: "He lived and died without an enemy. He was the noblest work of God, an honest man." Later that year Indians from Wisconsin floated down the Rock as usual to visit Nachusa. They did not learn until they arrived that he was dead.


Illinois - "Our Way"