Archive for June, 2013

I had a truly amazing experience as a 2012 University Honors Scholar. With the assistance and guidance of a talented faculty mentor, I was able to conduct meaningful research in my area of interest. I learned how to extract information from various scholarly sources, analyze and organize my information into a formal Honors Capstone paper, and present my major findings to a small group of students and a large, public audience. This experience helped me to develop a unique set of skills. On the one hand, I learned how to condense my information into a five-minute presentation, conveying only the most critical points of my research. On the other hand, I learned how to stay enthusiastic, motivated, and intellectually attentive during my formal University Honors Scholar research presentation that lasted for 30 minutes.

Additionally, I had an opportunity to present my project at NIU’s fourth annual Undergraduate Research & Artistry Day. My participation in this highly competitive event helped me prepare for the subsequent University Honors Scholars presentation, which occurred a few days later. This event also gave me a chance to meet other bright and motivated students from all disciplines, who were eager to enhance their learning experience through different academic opportunities offered by the University Honors Program.

Kolsai mountain lakeI felt highly privileged to hold the title “University Honors Summer Scholar” and the prestigious title “University Honors Scholar” during my senior year. The project was a challenge, but it was a challenge worth taking! The time dedicated to my summer research and my effort in writing the Honors Capstone during the spring semester has helped me develop time management skills and define my substantive ideas and professional interests.  This project also helped me discover and develop abilities that will allow me to make future contributions to a global society.

“There’s No Valley So Sweet”

Market Development in the Lower Fox Valley River Region, 1833-1852

By Wayne Duerkes

In 1834, Joseph Ebersol purchased land on Covel Creek in LaSalle County, Illinois.  Ebersol, his wife Elizabeth, and their six children, including twelve year old son Amos, moved from Pennsylvania in hopes of making a living as farmers on the Illinois prairie.  Ebersol selected acreage a few miles southeast of the growing hamlet of Ottawa which was located at the confluence of the Fox and the Illinois rivers.   The surrounding countryside, dotted with plentiful timber and crisscrossed with streams and creeks, was an ideal setting for agricultural pursuits.  With fertile soils, a navigable river system, and overland trade routes established by French trappers and Native Americans, the lower Fox Valley River region, encompassing present-day southern DeKalb and northern LaSalle counties, appeared to be providentially made for settlement.  Young Amos Ebersol declared of his new home that “in all the wide world there’s no valley so sweet.”

Ebersol, and many others like him, were an integral link in the development of northern Illinois, but the more engaged the research became with the participants, the more questions I found that needed attention. Not just with the people, but with all the elements of the region including the market, local commerce and the “who, want, how and why” of regional business decisions which affected everyone.  And then how these issues fit into the larger context of the historiography that exists and ultimately, where does the region fit into the larger historical debates of the period.  Did settlers to the northern Illinois prairie come with a purely capitalistic intent in the 1830s and 40s?

Lower-Fox-bluffsTherefore, my research examines the development of the market economy from 1833 to 1852 in the lower Fox Valley River region.  The focus starts in 1833, after the Native American population was removed as a result of the Black Hawk War and ends in 1852 with the rail system economically tying the rural state to Chicago.  The lower Fox Valley River region’s market, originally thought to have preferential economic ties to St. Louis during the pre-railroad era, was actually an economic battleground for commercial trade between Chicago and St. Louis.    This competition was caused by the region’s geographic location, the diversity of the people inhabiting the area, and the diversity and complexity of the local market.  These driving forces, singularly and collectively, provide the local inhabitants with opportunities unlike those available to other areas within the state.

The study also demonstrates how the region was not the start of new financial processes but rather more of a re-introduction of the economic situation many immigrants had left in their eastern origins.  The debate on the transition to capitalism is, of course, relative to time and place.  By the mid-1830s, any remnant of a solitary or subsistence culture within Illinois had disappeared, but, by in large, the transformation to a full engagement with capitalism in the region would not be complete until the 1870s and after.  The early settlers attempted to break free from the economic constraints they had come to know on the east coast only to find themselves engaged in the same commercial ventures they had left behind but with themselves vying for the position of the power player.  Regional records shows evidence of; product and/or work exchange, credit, and cash transactions all happening daily just like their east coast counterparts.  Ebersol mentions on several occasions of a variety of commercial exchange methods occurring in one day just for his own needs.  Ebersol’s desire to be in control of his own economic destiny, which was representative of a growing portion of the population, is recounted throughout his diary when he remarks, “I wish I had as some folks do—plenty of money and nothing to do.”  This is evidence that a portion of the region was in transition.

The Illinois prairies, or what historian William Cronon has referred to as the “hinterlands,” have consistently been relegated to a supporting role in the history of the state with most of the focus centered on Chicago and Springfield.  On a few occasions, smaller locations such as Galena, Alton, or New Salem, make the historic headlines primarily based on either a specific event that occurred there or the recognition of being the “home of” some famous person.  Regretfully, from many sources, it would seem that the history of Illinois started with the state’s involvement in the Civil War.  In fact, many of the county histories published in the late nineteenth century devote little attention to the antebellum period at all.  Any discussion of topics concerning social, cultural, or economic history of the pre-Civil War era in the Illinois hinterlands have been left for present-day historians to piece together.  The opportunity to discuss the hinterlands in regards to its contributions to issues like economic growth and development allows us to have a better understanding of the complexity of the state as a whole during the epoch.  The period is rife with limitations in regards to sources; therefore I had to utilize a variety of methods to approach the research.

DiaryMy first approach was to explore any diaries, journals, and correspondence to convey the personal stories that are crucial in understanding what individuals had to cope with during their lives.  The Ebersol diaries proved essential and became central in providing that human aspect of the story.  Amos Ebersol was a perpetual writer who had a penchant for logging meticulous details of daily life.  Several other individuals also contributed supplemental stories to the personal narrative that proved congruent to Ebersol.

In addition to the individual or family stories of life, work, and society, the research relied heavily on the businesses of the region.  Although agriculture was a major means of employment in 1850, with 82 percent of the population in DeKalb County engaged in farming, there was only 53 percent engaged in the same profession in LaSalle County.  This left thousands of other citizens engaged in many other occupations and businesses.  Fortunately for us, a portion of these businesses sought the assistance of investors to expand their operations.  To garner this help, the R. G. Dun Company was a source in linking small, local entrepreneurs across the nation to large east coast investors.  The Dun Company employed associates to monitor future and existing, local, commercial enterprises and report back regularly on those small business’s operations as well as the owners and operators.  That reporting, today, provides a valuable resource for understanding the intricacies of individual businesses ranging from apothecaries to wheelwrights.  The Dun Collection proved to be a critical component in telling the market story of the lower Fox Valley River region.  The records also helped demonstrate the business networks that were established with both the St. Louis market, which the historiography had indicated already existed, but also revealed a deep and growing connection with the Chicago market which previously had been more closely associated with the introduction of the railroad system in Illinois in 1852.

My last approach was to research government documents from the period.  Land sale records were used to establish migration and settlement patterns.  But Census data, from both the population and agricultural schedules, proved the most helpful.  The census data helped identify; occupations within the region, volumes of crops, livestock, and household manufacturing, and also to identify extra ordinary economic outputs from the county.  For example, by 1850, Green’s Mill in Dayton Township in LaSalle County employed a full third of the state’s woolen manufacturers yet the township recorded no sheep or local wool production in the census.  This is indicative of substantial wool importation.  The fact that the region imported raw materials to manufacture finished products is not in the present historiography.  Other products manufactured locally like shoes and wagons also supported a large workforce which further exhibits the economic diversity of the region.  Also the output of finished agricultural products such as cheese, wine, and syrup also help signify the complexity of the market beyond the grains and hogs that north central Illinois has become famous for over the years.

In employing the various methods together, I have been able to begin to tell the story of the lower Fox Valley River region’s market growth in the pre-railroad era.  To accomplish the research, I have had to travel to archives all over the state as well as across the country.  I would not been able to accomplish this feat without the generous help of many people here at NIU.  I have received both academic guidance and financial support that has offered me the opportunity to explore my research on a level that has exceeded my original expectations.  I would like to take this moment to thank a few of them, for without their support, I would not be sitting in front of you today.

First I’d like to thank,

Dr. Jim Schmidt, my senior thesis advisor and Dr. Bradley Bond, my Research Rookies mentor

Additionally, I’d like to thank,

Dr. Eric Mogren and Dr. Andrea Smalley, who both allowed me to work on components of my project in classes I took with them.

I’d also like to thank the rest of the NIU History Department for their continued support.  Outside of the history field, I have two very important people and their respective departments to thank, first,

Dr. Julia Spears and the OSEEL department for their continued support with Research Rookies program and with USOAR funding that allowed me to go to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts to access the Dun Collection.

And to, Dr. Christopher Jones and the Honors department for selecting me for the University Honors Summer Scholar Program which provided funding to visit several archives across the state and time to properly research over the summer AND they provided an EYE grant which allowed me several follow up visits to The Newberry Library in Chicago.

Finally a huge thank you to all my friends here at NIU, especially those in the History Club, who supplied endless support, numerous peer reviews, and all of whom had to put up with a year of me talking about my research continually.

If I have forgotten anyone, please accept my apologizes and THANK YOU TO ALL.