Aurora, the state's second largest city, is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.
The city dates its birthday to March 1837, when a post office was established and the settlement was named Aurora. The small settlement was actually 3 years old at the time.
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About this seriesIn honor of Aurora's 175th birthday, this is the first in a series of historical columns by John Jaros, executive director of the Aurora Historical Society. The society, founded in 1906, is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the collection and preservation of Aurora's heritage.
It was in April 1834 that 24-year-old Joseph McCarty, a millwright from Elmira, N.Y., arrived at the future site of Aurora, accompanied by his apprentice and a hired hand. McCarty was out to make his fortune in "the west," as Illinois was considered at the time.
Seeking a water site suitable for the building of a dam and a mill, he arrived at a spot on the Fox River, near an island, at what is today the center of Aurora. The area was then known as the foot of the "Big Woods" for the tract of timber that stretched from there to Batavia on the east side of the river.
The area also was known as "The Potawatomi Reserve," lands granted to Potawatomi Chief Waubonsie, whose village was located there. A later description by an early pioneer stated, "The old chief, Waubonsie, was a large and powerful man, six feet, four inches, weighing about two hundred pounds … most of their village was composed of movable or temporary wigwams … and contained from three to five hundred Indians, and we had many visits from them."
The local Indians were friendly and peaceful -- they, like all of the remaining Native American tribes in Illinois, had signed the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, at the conclusion of the 1832 Black Hawk War. They had agreed to give up their lands and move to reservation land west of the Mississippi within three years (they did this in 1835).
McCarty laid claim to land on both sides of the river, built a cabin on each side, and commenced to build a sawmill on the east bank of the river adjacent the island. The mill was put in operation in June 1835.
In the meantime, McCarty's younger brother, Samuel, 22, had joined him in November 1834 -- after a "rapid" three-week journey from Elmira.
The McCartys laid out the first plat of the town (east side) in 1835-36 and began selling lots. In those years, there was quite an influx of new residents to the settlement, which came to be called McCarty's Mill.
As the settlers had to travel 40 miles to Ottawa to grind their grains into flour, the McCartys undertook to build a grist mill. It was completed in February 1837.
In those early days, the stagecoach from Chicago traveled the Chicago to Galena Road, which went through Montgomery, completely bypassing McCarty's Mill. Late in 1836, Samuel McCarty proceeded to "steal" the stage route.
He staked out a new road from Naperville through Aurora and induced the stage company to use the route by offering to board its drivers and horses free for a month.
Then, residents of McCarty's Mill petitioned to establish a U.S. post office at the settlement. The nearest post office was Naperville, and up until that time, Samuel McCarty had acted as a type of deputy postmaster, picking up and distributing the settlement's mail.
When the movement for an actual post office began, a name had to be chosen. The favorite was "Waubonsie," in honor of the old chief. To the settlers' dismay, they were informed there was already a post office by that name in Illinois. They would have to use another name.
Aurora -- the name of the Roman goddess of the Dawn -- was chosen. Some say it is a transplanted place name from New York state: Many early settlers in this area were from that state, and other Fox River communities have such transplanted names -- including Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles.
Others say it is a translation of Waubonsie's name, which means "break of day" or "early dawn."
The Aurora post office was made official by the appointment of Burr Winton as postmaster on March 2, 1837 -- the date Aurora celebrates as its birthday.