In 1845, Kendall County voters decided to move the county seat from Yorkville to Oswego. It was a significant (if ultimately temporary) change for county residents. At the same time, it is a change never sufficiently studied by local historians.
Kendall County was created by the Illinois General Assembly in February 1841, taking six townships from La Salle County (Fox, Kendall, NaAuSay, Seward, Big Grove, and Lisbon) and three townships (Little Rock, Bristol and Oswego) of Kane County. A three-man commission appointed by the General Assembly set the county seat at Yorkville, the most central settlement within the new county’s boundaries.
Yorkville made geographical sense, but over time it apparently didn’t make as much economic sense. Yorkville, located on the south bank of the Fox River, was not at a major ford. No main road crossed the river at this point. In fact, its sister village, Bristol, just across the river on the north bank, was a larger settlement at that time.
Bristol was located on a main route, running from Ottawa north along the west bank of the river to Oswego. There it crossed the eastern shore before heading further north to the growing settlement called Geneva, or LaFox, depending on who you spoke to. Bristol also had a post office, which Yorkville did not. Although the Post Office Act of 1814 required all new county seats to be provided with post offices, Yorkville still had no mail delivery four years after Kendall County was established, likely due to relative isolation of the city in relation to the main road network and the small population of the area. The western branch of the artery from Chicago to Ottawa passed nearly a mile south of Yorkville, and the main branch of the road (the High Prairie Trail) lay nearly 10 miles southeast across the meadow.
So while it was centrally located in the county (a major asset in an age of long journeys by foot, horse-drawn cart or horseback), Yorkville was not at all convenient for lawyers, judges and others who had to travel the judicial circuit from other county seats.
Perhaps this is why some county residents began working to have the county seat moved so soon after the county was established. In this 1845 referendum, Oswego received the majority of votes as the new county seat. Later, disgruntled residents in the south and west of the county grumbled that Oswego officials had imported Irish from Kane County to vote for Oswego in the referendum – and offered them free whiskey in return. Like so many historical accounts, there is no real proof that this is what happened, but there is undoubtedly some truth to the accusations.
Oswego’s qualifications were most likely based on the city’s location on three major roads. Since trade in northern Illinois moved by road during these years, road connections to other areas were likely important considerations when choosing a new county seat. The east-west route from Joliet to Dixon, which eventually extended to Galena, crossed the river at Oswego. The west branch of the Chicago-Ottawa artery passed through Oswego. And, finally, the Fox River Trail from Ottawa north to Geneva also crossed the river at Oswego. This meant that Oswego had more or less direct connections to Chicago, Naperville, Aurora, Ottawa, Joliet and Galena, as well as intermediate points, from a very early date. No other Fox Valley community has boasted so many direct road connections to other major regional economic centers.
In the 1830s and 1840s, road links also meant postal service since mail was carried by stagecoach. In addition to mail, passengers were transported by the same coaches that delivered letters, newspapers and periodicals.
Oswego got a post office in 1837. Bristol (we are still talking about the north side of modern Yorkville) got its post office two years later in July 1839. Other early post offices were established at Holderman’s Grove in 1834 (moved to Lisbon in the fall of 1836), Little Rock in March 1837, Newark in August 1837, and Penfield (located on present-day River Road near the mouth of Rob Roy Creek) in 1839. All of these communities were on the region’s main road network.
The extension of railroad lines west of Chicago in the early 1850s changed all previous transportation calculations. Mail could be transported faster, more reliably and much cheaper by rail (first class postage dropped by 80%). With the railroad crossing the Fox River at Aurora, the old stage roads were gradually replaced as the new rail lines pushed west. As a result, the fledgling communities of Plano and Bristol Station (now Bristol) received post offices in 1853 and 1854, respectively. And in 1859, Kendall County voters decided to move the county seat to Yorkville. It was probably the most important signal that the previously vital road network had lost its importance. In the new calculations, Oswego and Yorkville were nearly equidistant from the railroad running from Chicago west to Galesburg. And that meant there was no real reason to force everyone in the county to go to its northeast corner to do their official business. In June 1864, the county seat was physically moved to Yorkville from Oswego. In anticipation, the county built a new courthouse on the bluff overlooking the river, and Yorkville finally got its first post office the previous April.
We often think that transport problems are new in our time. However, when you look at it, it becomes clear that the modern map of the Midwest was literally drawn by the availability of transportation. Communities with adequate access have grown; those who had none. This is a lesson that still needs to be heeded.
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