One hundred and eighty years ago this summer, two U.S. Army soldiers were among a contingent passing through the Fox Valley en route to northwest Illinois. The two died of cholera and were buried near the Fox River in what is now the Jon Duerr Forest Preserve near South Elgin.
The pair are among the oldest and lesser-known veterans in the area -- partly because of their out-of-the-way location. That will change -- albeit briefly -- this Memorial Day as the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association pays special tribute to the Blackhawk War and these men who were part of it. It's a program organizers say will also be dedicated to all returning veterans.
According to various sources, Blackhawk and a group of Sauk and Fox Indians returned to northern Illinois in the spring of 1832. The group had relocated across the Mississippi River from Illinois the previous year and Blackhawk had signed an agreement not to return without permission.
The Illinois governor called up the militia to deal with the matter, but regular U.S. Army troops under the direction of General Winfield Scott were later sent to help. Cholera plagued the men along their route.
By the time they reached the Fox Valley, Blackhawk had headed north to Wisconsin. The men saw no action, but their reports of the bounty of northern Illinois helped spark its settlement.
At the time of the deaths of the two soldiers, the Fox Valley area was virtually uninhabited and none of the present-day communities existed. Eventually, the area would become known as Five Islands Park -- so named for the islands caused by a large meander in the river at that point.
According to various newspaper accounts and records maintained by the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, several Elgin groups combined their efforts in 1909 to erect a commemorative marker at the site. These included the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association, the Elgin Grand Army of the Republic Post No. 49 and their sister organization, the Woman's Relief Corps No. 2. Also included were the Daughters of the American Revolution Chapter 425 and the Spanish-American War Veterans, E.A. York Camp No. 5.
The marker was carved by an Elgin firm and on display on a downtown sidewalk before the event. One source indicated it had come from a nearby field. The ceremony occurred just before Memorial Day in 1909 and brought 100 people to the area.
The program was opened with a bugle call and included the singing of "America." Gen. John S. Wilcox of Elgin, who had commanded the 52nd Illinois Infantry during the Civil War, was the featured speaker. Wilcox noted that there was no doubt that Scott's army had passed through the area, though the exact route was uncertain.
"We honor them because they were United States soldiers and ready to stand and die for their country," Wilcox said. "We gather today for these soldiers, that which we hope the rising generation will do for us."
At the time of the dedication, two men who had lived in the area of the graves for a long time reported that they had once met an older soldier who had been part of Scott's army who had returned to the Fox Valley. The man said he helped bury his comrades.
The veteran also reported a cherry tree was planted a couple of years later to mark the locations of the graves -- something reportedly that was still there in 1909. For many years, the men said the graves were "plainly marked." According to the early residents, another of Scott's soldiers also returned during the 1880s to view the graves.
In future years, the area containing the graves became known as Blackhawk Forest Preserve. Various historians felt the park was not aptly named because Blackhawk had no direct connection with the Fox Valley. In the 1990s it was renamed in honor of Jon Duerr, the former director of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.
The Blackhawk War and the service of veterans of this conflict will be the focus of the remarks made by Elgin historian Bill Briska on Memorial Day during the 11 a.m. program Monday, May 28 at Bluff City Cemetery in Elgin.
The graves at the Jon Duerr Forest Preserve, at 35W003 Route 31, South Elgin, can be seen by taking a path north from the parking lots located near the pavilions.
Currently, the Elias Kent Chapter, N.S.D.A.R. and the Kane County Forest Preserve District are working together to enhance the burial site and provide interpretive information.
Jerry Turnquist writes about Elgin area history. He welcomes comments and suggestions from readers. Email him at IBeMrT@aol.com.