Rock Island County, Illinois Genealogy Trails

Rock Island County Pioneers
- William Dickson -

Founder of Milan, Illinois
by Alexandra Benedict

William Dickson, also a partner in Rock Island City
People living in South Rock Island Township have long viewed the lines in their abstracts stating that Daniel Webster was once part-owner of their land with curiosity. Curiosity can become bewilderment as owners try to understand the nature of the relationship established in 1836-1837 among Daniel Webster, William Dickson, Levi Turner, George Davenport, John Coffin, Cyrus Carlton, Leander Allen, Edwards Fiske, Nathaniel Norton, Edwin Norton, Charles Spring, Hugh Dickey, John Dickey, Samuel Blackwell, and later, the sheriff as they all became owners of the same land.

Location, location, location
In 1836, current Rock Island was called Stephenson, and the intended town on Rock River was named Rock Island City. Rock Island City as platted extended to Edison Junior High School and Singing Bird Nature Center. Its modern borders are roughly equivalent to 9th Street, 39th Avenue, 15th Street, and Rock River. However, Turner and William C. Dickson also bought land which is now lower Chippianock Cemetery and part of Black Hawk State Park. Later in 1836, Turner and the Dicksons made several trips to Steubenville, Ohio, to buy the land where Milan was laid out and several other parcels below the river. William Dickson's experience as a surveyor and canal man prompted several key purchases of government land. One is where the Chicago and Rock Island railroad bridge crosses Rock River. South Rock Island Township is that portion of the city of Rock Island fronting the Rock River. Dickson wrote of it to his sons at Jefferson College in 1834 after his first inspection trip:To speak particularly of the mouth of Rock rive. It is one of the most delightful places in the west; in the forks of the Rock & Mississippi Rivers is what is called the Old Sauk Town; it has for generations been the seat of government for Nations, and the same to Indians as New York is to the whites--here was the residence of Black Hawk and his people. (Punctuation, spelling, and capitalization slightly altered.)

Dickson's early life
Dickson was born to a Cherry Valley, New York, family that had been forced from their home during the Revolutionary War. His father James made a new start near Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and the family finally settled near Waterford. The highlands of Western Pennsylvania were covered with heavy timber, and young Dickson lived in a log cabin.

Dickson had also lived a full life before his first trip to Rock Island County at age fifty-one. At twenty he had married Elizabeth Barron, and they too hewed a life out of the woods. For cash he hired out as a salt hauler. In the summers he rafted the salt to Pittsburgh and walked back to Lake Erie. In the winters he ran a loaded sleigh on the ice from Buffalo to Cleveland. It was a hard life, and Elizabeth died after their third child was born.

He married Christiana Moorhead of Harbor Creek, Pennsylvania, at the outbreak of the War of 1812. As a militia captain Dickson saw action, met Commodore Perry, and formed a friendship with Peter Sylvester Vincent Hamot in Erie, Pennsylvania. During the war the Dicksons had the first of six children. They moved and made a fine farm of 200 acres on the shores of Lake Erie near North East village in 1814.

Christiana's family owned a flourishing brickworks, and the couple built a brick house on the farm. It may have been the expense of this building that launched Dickson into a new career suggested by P.S.V. Hamot--canals. By the time he came to Rock Island County, he had been Superintendent of the controversial French Creek Feeder of the Erie Extension Canal, the final leg of Pennsylvania's mixed system of canal and rail from Philadelphia to Pittsburg to Lake Erie.

After the Black Hawk War, Dickson became enthused about the West. Christiana was reluctant to leave her home and family and move to Illinois. She was spared that parting to face another; she died of a stroke in January, 1836. Cyrus, their third son, was so devastated by the sudden loss that William removed him from college and took him west for his health when he made his second trip to Rock Island in May, 1836.

William and Cyrus met cousin William Campbell Dickson at Huntington, Indiana, as planned. The Dicksons surveyed land in Huntington County for a New York company that owned it. It is likely that the land belonged to Levi Beardsley and James Morse of Cherry Valley. Beardsley writes in Reminiscences about forming a land company, and he and Morse bought land from the government in Huntington County. It would not have been inconsistent with their strategy to have purchased land near the developing Wabash and Erie Canal.

Agents and investors
The detail about surveying land for a New York company in William Dickson's memoir highlights an important aspect of development on the frontier. It was financed by money from the East and from Europe.

Like the long list of shareholders in Rock Island City groups of Eastern men organized into joint stock companies. An agent, preferably a family member, went west to attend the auctions of government land. Wild land cost $1.25 an acre. Sometimes 'squatters' arrived before the government sales. They settled on choice locations, and sold their land at higher rates after preempting it from the government. This was often done by arrangement; the settler acted as an advance man and traded labor for land or money. Other frontiersmen were called landlookers; their work was to examine the townships and ranges coming up for auction. After the Revolution large landowners had begun to sell, rather than lease, land to smallholders. This speeded up the move west. Beardsley and Morse owned over 13,000 acres in Indiana alone, much of which they wished to sell.

William C. Dickson seems to have been a landlooker and agent. William may have been hired to evaluate proposed routes for canals and rails from the New York-Pennsylvania border to the island of Rock Island. Several of the New York men he and his cousin were working with had become stockholders in railroads in 1832. His friend Hamot was instrumental in establishing the Pennsylvania railroad route along Lake Erie. When built, it ran through the kitchen of the Dickson's old home.

It is the young lawyer and land agent from Cooperstown, Levi Turner, who moved between the practical Dicksons and the renowned Webster.

Turner was born in 1806, the year Dickson's second child was born. Turner attended Dartmouth and Union Colleges and entered the law practice of Robert Campbell in Cooperstown, New York. He also married Campbell's daughter Julia. Campbell was born to a prominent Cherry Valley family and had moved the twelve miles to Cooperstown to practice law. Robert Campbell, William Dickson, and William C. Dickson were cousins descended from original settlers. The close ties among the men conformed to normal nineteenth century business patterns.

When the Dicksons finished their surveying job in Indiana, they followed the Wabash River into Illinois. Though the country was lightly settled, acquaintances greeted them in Bloomington and Red Oak Grove.

William Dickson makes his goal clear when he says in his memoir: "My object in coming to that place was to purchase, if possible, the land on which the Black Hawk town had formerly stood, but speculators were plenty and high bids had been made for that spot."

He had probably decided to do so during his 1834 trip. While in Rock Island County, the Dicksons located the other lands they would buy. They decided the amount they could offer for Sauk-E-Nauk and followed the owner, George Davenport, to Galena where he had gone on business. Davenport accepted their offer and gave them three weeks to make the arrangements.

Dickson offered Davenport $15,000.00 for an undivided half of 608.17 acres. Davenport gave him three weeks to contact any potential partners or financiers. Davenport's reasons for remaining half-owner are not stated. He may have wanted an interest in a successful project on the Rock River. He sold his land in Davenport, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River, on the same basis in the same year, and retained an eighth.

However, a portion of former Sauk-E-Nauk had been undergoing probate since the death of Russell Farnham in 1832. Davenport and Farnham were business partners and had bought a portion of the Rock River land jointly. Farnham's death was unexpected, and he had not made a will. His wife also died. This left son Charles in the care of his grandmother in St. Louis at the family home. The Davenport land was not legally separated from the Farnham land-- a partition-- until September of 1837. This partition involved other lands in Rock Island County as well, and it appears that Davenport traded a piece of land along the Mississippi for the Farnham share of the Rock River land.

That settlement took place a year after the Rock Island City sale. Therefore, Dickson and Turner and their backers took on an added risk. They offered $20,000.00 for an undivided 3/4 interest in the upper portion of the plat and an undivided 3/4 of 1/2 of the waterfront, 608.17 acres in all. Davenport received the other 1/2 of 3/4 of the waterfront in the 1837 partition as expected.

Rock Island City was expected to be as successful an investment as Madison, Wisconsin, was proving to be. Webster held stock in both towns and was pleased to know lots in Madison were selling for $500.00. By 1837, most had been sold to settlers or speculators, and the Madison investment group was preparing to cash out.

High hopes
In August 1836, William Dickson returned home elated. His sons teased him about his success and addressed letters from college to William Dickson, Esquire. The shock of Christiana's death was subsiding, and the thrill of a new adventure reinvigorated the fifty-three year old Dickson. He met and married his third wife Mariam Davison. Though they met by accident in Freedonia, New York, her family and many of Dickson's lived in Otsego County, New York. They probably knew each other by reputation if not by acquaintance.

Cyrus and George sent a flurry of new letters to their father as they attempted to reconcile grief for their mother, distress at William's decision to move to Rock Island City, and an honest attempt to love and welcome a new step-mother.

Son James and his wife took over the old farm in North East, Pennsylvania; Cyrus and George expected to graduate and find jobs; Thomas, David, Elizabeth, and Eliza accompanied William and Mariam west. John remained in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania for several years and then moved to Camden (now called Milan, Illinois.) William Barron Dickson followed soon after his father set up in Rock Island City.

William Dickson was about to lose two of his sons and spend the rest of his life in the attempt to establish the new town.

In July, 1836, William and William C. surveyed, mapped, and recorded the town. Levi Turner took the platt map to New York and had a lithograph made which showed lots and blocks; text and insets. William's copy of this map is in the archives of The Colorado College. The United States and Europe were flooded with such maps in the mid-1830's because land and internal improvements were the 'hot stocks' of the day.

Rock Island City was to have mills powered by a state built dam across the north channel near the head of Vandruffs island. Illinois also started to dig a short canal to allow boats to go around the dam.

Turner and William C. also owned land on Rock River at the head of the proposed Mississippi and Rock River Canal. This was a privately incorporated project connecting Hampton to Rock River north of the mouth of Green River. There is no evidence indicating that the Dicksons or Turner had an interest in that company.

Other key improvements were roads chartered by Illinois. The promotional map notes roads projecting to Oquawka, Monmouth, and Peoria. Also shown is an infant Highway 5 for which William became road supervisor.

Best of all, however, were the railroad and the bridge over which it would roll. William had made a winter trip to the state capital and secured a bridge charter. It allowed Dickson, Turner, Davenport, and several others to bridge Rock River. The high capitalization allowed, $130,000.00, suggests that the toll bridge might have been intended to become a railroad bridge. The promotional map shows the Maumee Railroad coming into what is now Milan from the east.

Meanwhile, by 1836, the states of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois had chartered railroads intended to connect Toledo to Chicago. In Illinois, the Chicago and Michigan City Railroad was chartered to bring it into the state. However, the stretch extending to Rock Island, Davenport, and Iowa City on an 184- (n.d.) map in the Library of Congress Collection was not chartered in time to help Rock Island City develop.

On paper the prospects looked very good. The fact that Dickson left twenty years of work behind him and brought most of his family into the project testifies to his opinion of the possibilities.

Urban pioneer
William's responsibility was bricks and mortar, and when he moved with grown sons Thomas and David and their families, daughters Elizabeth and Eliza Ann, and wife Mariam to Illinois, he shipped mill irons from Pittsburg along with his household goods.

The family moved into an isolated house near present 11th Street and 46th Avenue. It had been built by Judge Spencer reputedly on or near the spot where Black Hawk had built his home. The land was Davenport's at the time the house was built. No record of agreements between Spencer and Davenport have been found.

William set to work building a sawmill on Mill Creek south of current Milan in section six. He helped David construct an oven in which to fire bricks and Thomas, a kiln to burn lime for mortar. Son William arrived later in 1837 to help and to farm. A relative, William P. Dixon, also brought his family to the site to help build the office and the inn required to house buyers and settlers as they responded to advertisements and personal recruiting.

Son William started a hauling operation to aid in construction of the Vandruffs Island canal and applied to the federal government for $38.00 for horses in 1838 when the state cut off funds. The elder William sawed the timber for the canal works at the Mill Creek mill.

Clouds gather
The Panic of 1837 was beginning to make itself felt in the West as the money supply contracted. In 1837, a bank in Pittsburg called a loan Dickson had made, and he answered letters from George and Cyrus requesting money for college expenses with less than he wished he could send. To make matters worse his cousin William C. had died at the end of 1836, and William had made several trips to New York state and New York City to disentangle their affairs.

In the spring of '38, tragedy struck. A raft loaded with lime mortar for constructing the canal swamped in high water. Six men drowned. Thomas Dickson and a young neighbor from Girard, Pennsylvania, were among them. Later, their bodies were laid out in the Dickson home. William, a founder of the church which became Central Presbyterian, took comfort in the hope of reunion as he had when first Elizabeth, then his mother Mary Morris Dickson, and then Christiana died. The family rallied to the support of Thomas' young wife and son Alexander. Meanwhile, the affairs of Europe, the United States, and Levi C. Turner's sales campaign were not going well.

Material for this article came in part from:
Rock Island County Historical Society
Washington and Jefferson College
Colorado College
Erie Historical Center
Rock Island County Courthouse
McCord Library of North East, Pennsylvania
New York State Historical Association
and a wide assortment of standard historical resources


Rock Island County, Illinois
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