William Stephen (1817-1889)

Biography / Thursday, April 25th, 2019

William Stephen of Big Grove Township, Kendall County was 26 May 1817 in Aberdeenshire; Scotland to William Stephen and his wife Elizabeth Cruickshank.

As a youth William attended the local school and helped his father with the livestock on the family farm. As a student, he was especially fond of history and religion. He decided to become a minister and acquired a fair knowledge of Latin and Greek. He later abandoned his plans for the ministry when he decided that he was not sufficiently fluent to be a minister. Nonetheless, religion remained important to him throughout his life. After abandoning his plan for the ministry, he apprenticed himself to a grocer. He remained in that trade until he was 20 years old when he immigrated to America.

William emigrated due to the influence of fellow Scotsman George Smith. Smith was born about 1809 in Old Deer in Aberdeenshire and was originally a farmer. He later spent two years at Aberdeen University. Smith came to America and Chicago in 1834 with the intention of becoming a major land owner until he realized the largest profit that could be made from land in America at that time came not from owning it, but from buying and selling it. He organized the Scottish Illinois Land Investment Company in 1836. This successful company later became a respected bank.

In 1837 Smith returned to Scotland to raise capital for his company. William Stephen intended to accompany Smith when he returned to the US but, when the financial panic of 1837 struck in Chicago, Smith was hurriedly recalled to Chicago to look after his business interests. William followed shortly thereafter, departing Scotland on 24 April 1837. He immigrated by way of Nova Scotia, Canada. It is possible that he chose that route because he was related to one or more of the Nova Scotia Stephen families that lived there at that time. In 1994 there remains a large number of Stephen families in Nova Scotia. There is (or was) a Stephen Family Association which publishes a periodic newsletter on the Stephen family in Canada and the “lost” relatives in the US.

There is another possible motivation for William’s emigration. The English had been having problems with Scottish dissidents for years. One of their solutions was to deport them and Nova Scotia was the destination of many of the deportation ships that were loaded with such political undesirables. William may have been one of the deportees. Whatever the case, William could have remained in Nova Scotia only a very short time, since he arrived in New York City from Nova Scotia in June 1837.

William set out from New York for Chicago to join his friend George Smith. He arrived in Chicago on 1 July 1837 and discovered that Smith had again returned to Scotland to raise additional money to keep his company afloat during the economic crisis. William was disappointed to have missed seeing his friend, but his next move demonstrated that he was determined to make his way in America by his sweat and resourcefulness.

William had a friend in Scotland named John Gray. Gray was born on 13 July, 1805 in Old Deer, Aberdeenshire. Gray had earlier left for the US and settled in what later became known as the northeast quarter of section 20 of Nettle Creek Township in Grundy County, Illinois. Since Gray was the nearest friend that William had in America, geographically speaking, he left Chicago on the 4th of July 1837 for Nettle Creek, LaSalle County, Illinois (it became Grundy County in 1842 when LaSalle County was divided to form Grundy and Kendall Counties), about 40 miles away. William, by his own testimony to a newspaper reporter in 1886 stated that he “took a stage” and arrived there on 8 July.

Immigrating to rural Illinois in general, and what later became Grundy and Kendall Counties in particular, was an act of bravery. Only six years earlier the very first permanent settler in Kendall County, George Hollenback, barely survived an Indian attack on his farm.

This was not the last of the Indian problems. The area of Kendall County had long been a favorite hunting ground of the Fox Indian tribe. They had established their claim to the area and the most prominent river in the county was named for them. The Indians did not take kindly to the new white settlers and, in the period 6 April to 2 August 1832, Chief Black Hawk led the Sauk and Fox Indians in a major uprising against the white settlers. The Indians had previously ceded lands in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory but were fighting to reclaim them. The Indians were defeated, and the Black Hawk War became the last major Indian conflict east of the Mississippi. While most were deported to a reservation, a few continued to live in much smaller numbers in the Kendall County area. The Black Hawk War figures prominently in the Stephen family history.

The Reverend Hicks recounts in his 1877 History of Kendall County that in 1827 or 1828 that there was:

“… a man by the name of Countryman who had married an Indian wife, and lived with the Indians in the grove across the slough, three-quarters of a mile from Dougherty’s. He had a log cabin on the edge of the slough, about eighty rods from the present residence of William Stephen, and a bark wigwam in the middle of the grove.”

Hicks, History of Kendall County, 1877

Indians were not the only danger, however. During his first winter in America William was caught outside in the blizzard of 22 November 1837. Two of his toes were frozen so badly that they had to be amputated, and his biographical sketch in the Morris Daily Herald states that the ends of his fingers were so frozen that they bore scars until he died.

William obtained a job as a farm hand in Lisbon in Kendall County and worked for monthly wages. He worked for various landowners until he had saved enough to purchase what was known as a “prairie team”; six yoke of oxen. A team of this size was necessary to break the virgin prairie sod. From that point on, William worked for himself. First he contracted to break sod for others and later bought his own farm.

William purchased from the Government a farm of ¼ section in Section 20 in Nettle Creek near John Gray and across the road from William Hoge, one of the first, if not the first settler in what later became Grundy County. William lived on it for about one year. He was disappointed with the quality of the gummy soil of what was called “the Morris flats,” and left his farm for another part of LaSalle County (it later became Kendall County) to the north. This first farm is located at 8075 Pioneer Road in Nettle Creek Township. It can be identified by the two round barns on it, probably built later by one of William’s sons who farmed the land he had purchased throughout the area of Grundy and Kendall Counties.

William met Margaret Waterman, his future bride in Kendall County. Margaret was born in Eaton Township, Madison County, New York on 6 December 1825, the daughter of Isiah and Hester (Van Vranken) Waterman. William married Margaret on 27 February 1843 at Big Grove.

William was an early taxpayer in Kendall County, and his name appears on page 42 of the 1842 Personal Property Tax Assessment, listed in Big Grove Township. In 1845 he bought a second farm, also in what later became Kendall County. On page 37 of Arch. Volume No. 683, record ID #89812 is found the following information.

Date: 12/25/1845
Acres: 39.77
Price: $1.25 Type of sale: Federal sale (FD) County: La Salle [now Kendall]
Section: 3 Section Part: E2LOT2NE
Township: 36N Range: 04E
Meridian: 3:

In 1847 William purchased yet another farm in what is now Nettle Creek Township of Grundy County. This can be located today about ¼ mile north of Minooka Road in Nettle Creek Township. William also purchased this farm from the Government. It is described as being in Section Three, the SE ¼ Section of Range 6E. Today, the farm is known as the Maplehurst Farm and it is on the East side of Townhouse Road. It is about a mile from William s first farm in Grundy County, and two miles from his farm in Kendall County. The present owners, the P. A. Peterson family, have erected stone gateposts at the entry to the driveway. The gateposts have bronze plaques that contain the history of the farm. William Stephen is listed as the first owner. This farm is a Grundy County historical site.

His farm in Kendall County was south of the settlement of Big Grove. He lived on that farm, with the exception of two years, until 1869. One of the two years he lived away from Big Grove was spent in Grundy County and the other was spent in adjacent La Salle County.

William’s farm in Big Grove Township was about three miles due south of the town of Newark. At the time he settled there, Newark was named Georgetown. The name was changed to Newark in 1845. William s farm eventually grew to 649.13 acres, a very large and prosperous one for Kendall County at that time. The 1860 census valued the farm at $10,000 and William’s other property at $3,400. He built his house on the southwest corner of his farm, along White Willow Road, about a quarter mile east of Stephen Road (named after him).

By 1859, the Plat Map of Kendall County shows that William Stephens (sic) had land platted in sections 20 and 29 of Big Grove Township.

The 1870 Kendall County Plat Map shows William s large farm in Section 20 of Big Grove Township.

William had been raised in Scotland as a Presbyterian but never liked that denomination’s church government. He had numerous close associations with Methodists and apparently considered himself to be a Methodist. Margaret had been a member of the Methodist Episcopal faith since she was 15 years old and, in 1854, William became a member of that faith.

As he prospered, William donated land for a Methodist Episcopal Church and a school, both of which were built on his property. The school was initially an “unsupported school,” or one that was not supported by tax money but charged a “subscription” fee for student enrollment. The school was in District No. 69 and located in the south-central portion of the Stephen farm. This is very near the intersection of the east-west road that was known as the White Willow Road, and the north-south Stephen Road that ran north to Newark, and was about 200 yards southwest of the Stephen house. The school was built in 1845 according to the Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Kendall County published in 1914. William J. and Charles Stephen were both teachers there.

The school was nothing more than a cabin when first built, but around 1912 a new one-room school was built on the old school site. While it was not large and had only a single classroom, it also had a small library, two cloakrooms, and a wash room, and it was well lit. It was a great improvement over its predecessor. As small as it seems today, it was perfectly adequate since the average attendance was 10-12 students. The school was a nine-month school and taught from 9:30 to 3:30 daily, September through May. It was also used for a bible school as well as club and board meetinghouse.

The Methodist Episcopal church was located about a half mile east of Stephen Road and the school, along the Holderman’s Grove Road and the road running north and south between the Stephen and M. Thompson farms. It was closer to the village of Lisbon than it was to Newark. On August 4, 1886 the Plano Mirror newspaper reported a story about the early day history of both the Methodist Episcopal Church and William Stephen. The following narrative is a quote from that newspaper. All punctuation, spelling, and abbreviations are as they appear in the original article except two words inserted in brackets for clarity.

Some Lisbon Church History

An old people’s meeting was held in the M E church yesterday  morning for the purpose of hearing testimony in regard to the early history of Methodism in this section and especially to the Morris society An enjoyable meeting was the result. We present below the remarks of William Stephen, as they cover the history of the society quite fully.

‘I arrived in Chicago July 2 1837. At that time the population of  Chicago was 4099 whites and 70 colored. I was informed by Brother Beggs who stayed at my house one night, that in 1832 the Methodists had their first quarterly meeting in January of that year and they had to have their provisions brought all the way from Plainfield with an ox team, a distance of 40 miles, to furnish the necessary food at the first M. E. quarterly meeting held in Chicago.

I left Chicago July 4th and arrived in Lisbon July 7th. There was only one log house there kept by Levi Hills as hotel and post office. I stayed here but a short time. I then located in the town of Nettle Creek. At this time there was only one family living in the town, this family was Wm Hoge’s. There was one home in Morris that was near where the gas house now stands. In August 1837, I heard the Rev Mr Beggs preach at Holderman’s house, at Holderman Grove, Kendall county.

At this time, and before, there was a Methodist society at Milford, Wm Royal pastor A year of two later Bro Springer supplied the place of Brother Royal. At this time there came to Lisbon some Methodists who thought they would like to have a M E society formed, and two brethren by the names of Jarvis Moore and Solomon Wells walked to Millington, a distance of 14 miles, to get Brother E Springer to come to Lisbon to form a class. A class was formed on July 12, 1840, composed of six members, who are all dead but one. I was there at that meeting.This was the year that the Rock River conference was formed.

In ’42 and ’43 Wesley Batchelor was preacher at Lisbon and other points on the circuit. Brother Lacenby was on that work. In the fall of 1847 he got thrown from his buggy near Lisbon and was hurt so badly that he died December 22.

In 1852 there was a class formed at Holderman’s Grove, west of Lisbon, with five members. The first Sabbath school was formed in 1851 at that place. Mrs Kellogg and Wm Witting were the organizers of that Sabbath school. From 1852 to 1861 [we] worshipped in [the] school house; in 1852 a new church was built at Holderman’s Grove at a cost of $4,000. It was built by F W Williams and was plastered by Eli Johnson. In 1869 the church at Fairview (Holderman’s Grove) was abandoned and the remaining members joined at Lisbon. This was the year that I moved from Kendall County to Morris.”

On 21 June 1886 the newspaper ran another article about the organization of the church and stated that, at that time, William Stephen was the only one of the original six Methodist Society organizers of 1840 who was in attendance at an 1886 meeting. It also stated that he hauled a load of lumber from Chicago for construction of the church.

While the Bennitt and Williams 1859 Map of Kendall County Illinois clearly shows the school and its location, the 1941 Kendall County Atlas does not, and also does not show the church. From that one would infer indicates that both the school and the church had been either abandoned or torn down at that time. In fact, the school continued operation through at least the 1944-1945 school year.

The school eventually did close and, by August 1992, only a few bricks and some wooden rubble were left as evidence of where the structure had been, and corn had been planted over their plots. Where the old William Stephen house had been demolished, the rubble remained and clearly marked the location on a small rise northeast of the intersection of Stephen and Whitewillow Roads. The farm was still in the Stephen family, however. The owner of record at that time was “Virginia (Stephen) Witterhouse” (sic), daughter of Frederick Lincoln Stephen, and great grandaughter of William and Margaret (Waterman) Stephen. Virgina had married Frank Nitterhouse.

In May of 1869 William purchased another farm, about two miles northwest of Morris in Nettle Creek Township, Grundy County. It was in the northeast quarter of Section 20 near the farm of his old friend, John Gray. When he moved there, he also retained his Kendall County farm. The Grundy County atlas of 1981 shows that that farm was also owned by Virginia (Stephen) “Witterhouse.”

In December 1875 William retired from farming and moved to the city of Morris where he lived at his home on the northwest corner of Fulton and Chapin Streets. His son, Merritt lived with him there, according to Lawrence & Thompson s Grundy County Directory1877-1878.In 1882, he owned a total of 1400 acres of farms in Kendall and Grundy counties, as well as 90 lots in the suburbs of Chicago, and two homes in Morris.

Although he was a very successful farmer and landowner, William was known for other accomplishments as well. He was a Justice of the Peace for two terms, the Big Grove Township Assessor for 11 years, and an Alderman, a school director and member of the Board of Education in Morris, Superintendent of the Grundy County Poor Farm, a County Supervisor in 1878 through 1886. Possibly most important to his way of thinking, he was a class leader and superintendent of the Sunday School, and a church trustee. Politically, he was a Republican.

William’s health had been poor for several years after his retirement, and in 1887 he went to Hot Springs, Arkansas seeking relief in the thermal baths for the kidney problems that had caused him so much suffering. It did not help, and he returned to Morris.

On 18 May 1889 William died at home in Morris of “…affection of the kidneys approximating, if not really Bright’s disease.” A glowing obituary was published in the Morris Daily Globe that told of William’s character. It states, in part:

“The writer was blessed with the personal acquaintance of the deceased fully fifty years, during which time he never heard an unkind or disparaging word used against his character or conduct. Indeed if he ever had a personal enemy he was a very silent one. Among his neighbors and business associates William Stephen’s word was current as his bond and his bond was never worth less than a hundred cents to the dollar. What he promised or agreed to do, that he did. Measured by the test and standard of truthfulness which is the touchstone of true manhood, William Stephen was an honor to manhood and his race.

The funeral services were conducted by Rev. Bucks, assisted by Rev. Phillips, at the family residence on Monday at 9a.m., and the remains taken to Millington and laid to rest beside his deceased children in that beautiful cemetery on the south bank of the Fox River. As the funeral procession approached the cemetery it received large accessions, and hundreds of Kendall county’s best citizens were in waiting at the gate to pay their last tribute of affection to their departed friend.   P. A. A.”

William’s proof of death is contained in the Grundy County Probate File in case #1357. His widow and his son Charles M. Stephen filed a Petition for Letters Testamentary two days later, on 21 May 1889. The petition stated that “…in the matter of the last Will and Testament of William Stephen deceased, that the deceased left surviving him Margaret Stephen his widow and Wm. I., Merritt J., Charles M., Frederick L., Ella P., Helen I., and Hettie his children and heirs.” William’s Will was dated 27 June 1887 was recorded in the Grundy County Will Record A, page 574. It mentioned his widow and children and the executors were his widow Margaret and son Charles M. Stephen. It was recorded on 21 May 1889.

Margaret died in March 1900 and is buried next to William in the family plot in the Millington-Newark Cemetery. Their gravesite is marked with an impressive granite monument that lists William and Margaret and several of their immediate descendants by birth and death dates. Fittingly, the monument is of red granite, the traditional gravestone color and material that marks the graves of Scottish warriors in Aberdeenshire, his ancestral home.

William and Margaret had 10 children, all born on the farm at Big Grove, near Newark.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.