The Fox River Valley and Capitalism

Posted: July 24, 2012 in Wayne Duerkes

In the autumn of 1833, the vast Illinois frontier, which had been sparsely visited by Anglo-Americans, began to be occupied by settlers lured to the region by good soil and the recent removal of Native Americans.  Settlers from New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and as far away as Europe migrated to the fertile prairies of northern Illinois in hopes of establishing a new life.  They chose to leave behind organized communities with established markets for a chance to build new ones.  The settlers were beset with a multitude of challenges, but their determination and fortitude were based on a willingness to succeed.  To accomplish this goal, they also had to create a local market.  Between 1833 and the arrival of the railroads in 1852, how did the settlers create the local market, how did it grow, and what was it based on?  The creation of a local market forced settlers to develop social, economic, and labor relations with one another.  The commercial relationship with other young communities, such as Chicago and Ottawa, was also crucial to the development of the local markets forming in the region.

The land encompassing southern DeKalb County and northern LaSalle County, or the lower Fox River Valley, provides an arguably unique sub-region to study the development of local markets, as well as the relationship with the other markets.  From this specific sub-region, settlers, unlike most of northern Illinois, had a choice of two markets with direct access to navigable waters.  Which market did the settlers in this specific area choose and why?  The choice could be based on commodity values at the market, transportation, or both.  The development of transportation in this region grew not only with the market, but because of it.  What role did transportation play in the development of commerce in the study region?

Scholars have categorized the northern part of the state of Illinois, outside of Chicago and Galena, as an undifferentiated region in the mid-nineteenth century.  While similarities within the region can be seen in the joys and hardships of day-to-day lives, certain geographic locations offered some groups of settlers better access to local and more distant markets.  The specific region of study, the lower Fox River Valley, contained a representative sample of the settlers of northern Illinois that had both the Great Lakes and the Illinois River at their disposal for the distribution of crops and goods.  It was not until the railroads crisscrossed the state that Chicago could finally claim dominance over the vast hinterlands.  By examining primary sources from the region and era as well as analyzing various demographic evidence, the study will demonstrate how the settlers in this region developed their local market and made connections with more distant ones.  Finally, by reviewing these findings and comparing them with various secondary sources, the study will also determine how this region fits into the historiographical debate as to the capitalist intentions of this particular generation of settlers from this region.

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