Opinion

Reflections: Why Kendall County lost population for a time

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Norwegian homesteaders in front of their North Dakota home – a sod hut – in 1898.

We’re used to fairly constant growth around these parts, but Kendall County wasn’t always a sure bet for an increasing population. In the decades after the Civil War, the county’s population saw a slow, steady decline before it finally started to recover in the 1920s. But it didn’t reach its pre-Civil War high until the mid-1950s as post-World War II growth began to kick in.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Kendall County’s population stood at 13,074, nearly double the 7,730 recorded in 1850.

During the war, Kendall contributed about 1,300 soldiers, sailors and Marines (an astonishing 10 percent of the county’s total population) to the war effort, nearly 300 of whom were killed, or died of wounds or sickness.

After the war, veterans trickled back to the county as their units were demobilized. Also arriving were a number of former slaves and black veterans of U.S. Army military units who arrived to start farming in Oswego and Kendall townships.

But when the next Illinois state census was taken in 1865, the county’s population had taken a fairly serious hit, dropping by 445 residents. Part of that was accounted for by those soldiers who died as a result of the war. But when the 1870 U.S. Census was taken, it was found the county had lost another 230 residents in the previous five-year period.

A brief growth spurt of 684 residents was recorded in the 1880 census, but from then on it was a steady decline until growth began inching up in the 1920s. Between 1860 and 1920, the county’s population declined by 3,000 residents, a surprising 23 percent.

What was going on in those post-Civil War years?

First, the veterans who returned from Civil War service were, for the most part, young, ambitious men who had seen more of the country than any preceding generation. They’d traveled south deep into the Confederacy all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. They’d marched west of the Mississippi, campaigning through Missouri and Arkansas, all the way to the Texas-Mexico border, where the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry spent a while staring down French troops on the other side of the Rio Grande. Other Kendall County residents had fought through campaigns in the Southeast on Sherman’s famed March to the Sea and with Grant all the way to Appomattox Courthouse.

Having seen so many new places, I suspect it was hard for many of those veterans to simply return home and take up where they’d left off because they’d also changed in so many ways, often profoundly.

Second, in an effort to promote construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the government had given millions of acres in land grants to the railroad companies working on the project. The idea was that the railroads would sell the land as a way of financing the gigantic construction project, putting those millions of acres into play for men and women who could dream about establishing new farms and towns.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was another huge spur to western settlement that undoubtedly drew footloose county residents. Any resident of the U.S. who had not taken up arms against the government could stake a 160-acre claim on government-owned land, improve it, and obtain ownership after five years of occupancy. With the end of the war, the Homestead Act turbocharged western expansion.

The move west by county residents, as chronicled in the pages of the Kendall County Record, began early in the 1870s. Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, noted Nov. 9, 1871: “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”

That was only the start of a veritable flood of emigration, facilitated by the completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road, directly connecting the county’s towns along the Fox River with the wider world. As noted above, the Ashleys leased a rail car, loaded their goods aboard in Oswego, and weren’t required to offload them until they arrived on the shortgrass prairies of Kansas.

The flood of emigrants was helped along by frequent ads in the Record similar to this one from the Dec. 30, 1876, edition placed by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad general agent John M. Childs: “Ho for Kansas! I shall take out a small party of excursionists to Larned and Kinsley, Kan. on Tuesday, Jan. 11th, 1876. If you desire to go to any part of Kansas at excursion rates, let me know at once. I shall also send out emigrant freight and excursion trains on Feb. 15th and March 14th, 1876. Cars of freight, $95 and $100 each, from all points on C.R.I. & P. R.R.”

Not everyone went west to the plains, of course. In July 1873, a number of families loaded up their goods to try their luck in Mississippi. And in 1880, Kendall County Circuit Clerk Lyman Bennett and his family moved to Missouri. In 1881, a large party of families moved to Plymouth County, Iowa, after which Rank dryly remarked: “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”

Not everyone who left succeeded, of course. The families who tried Mississippi gradually straggled back to Kendall County, as did a number of those who tried farming on the arid plains of western Kansas and Nebraska. On Dec. 18, 1889, Rank wrote: “Frank Hoard and all of the family have returned from Dakota and moved on a farm over near the old [Oswego railroad] station. He was well pleased with the country out there but has had bad luck; first nearly losing everything by being burned out, and next being included in the district where nothing was raised the past season because of drought.”

Given Kendall County’s location nestled up against three of the six fast-growing collar counties, it’s unlikely we’ll experience population loss any time soon. But it did happen once, so it’s not impossible.

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