Many pioneers came to Lake County in 1834, 1835 and 1836, made claims on the best land to be found, erected cabins and commenced raising crops. Truly they were "squatters" on government land.
Sharp speculators also appeared, prepared to purchase the homes of the squatters as soon as the land was thrown into market. The government price was $1.25 per acre. After a farm had been cultivated, improved and fenced, the speculators would try to outbid the early settler at the land sale, hoping to receive a choice bit of Lake County.
At a meeting at the home of pioneer Solon Robinson at Crown Point on July 4, 1836, the "Squatters Union of Lake County" was formed. They felt there was an urgent necessity to unite and support each other, guarding against any speculation on their rights.
Finally, in March 1839, the Sale of United States Land took place at LaPorte, and the squatters of Lake County were gathered in large force.
Weston Goodspeed had this to say in 1884 of the occasion: "The hardy pioneers, accustomed to frontier life and to depend on their strong arms and trusty rifles; the New Englanders and the Yorkers, almost direct from those centers of culture, and possessing their share of the intelligence and energy of those regions; and the firm, sturdy, solid Germans who had just left the despotisms of the Old World and had received their lessons of freedom in the New, amid the widest of untrodden Western prairies, all were there, determined that no speculator should bid upon their lands."
The United States Land Sale passed quietly, and the settlers of Lake County returned peacefully to their homes. It seems no speculators had the nerve to outbid 500 armed "squatters!"
The speculators then changed their tactics and made a profit and gained some land by loaning money to the pioneers at a high rate of interest, sometimes more than 30%.
Some of the greatest land frauds in history involved Indiana politicians, including both local and state officials, during the states' first effort to drain the Kankakee swamps, namely, "The Swamp Act of 1852."
The United States donated to the State of Indiana certain portions of government lands within its borders, which took the name of Swamp Lands.
In Lake County, such swamp lands consisted of 180 sections, which were to be drained, reclaimed and sold. Any portion of the amount of the sale not used for expenses connected with draining these wet lands was to become part of the common School Fund of the State of Indiana.
The Auditor and the Treasurer of the County were authorized to be the agents for the State for selling these lands. A Commission of Swamp Lands was appointed by the Governor and the Commissioner employed an Engineer.
The State Legislature soon heard that the funds from the sale of these lands were being improperly used. A Swamp Land Committee of Investigation was appointed.
Two thousand copies of their investigation report were printed, but as one historian wrote, "the copies sent to Lake County disappeared." Part of the report said: "The different laws in relation to the expenditures of the swamp land funds are very imperfect, giving many opportunities for dishonest men to prey upon the fund with impunity."
In regards to two Swamp Land Commissioners, J.P. Smith and Henry Wells, the report said, "There is no evidence to raise a doubt as to the correctness of their administration." Not so for some of the other Commissioners. But not a single grafter was indicted, nor was any of the money turned over to the State of Indiana.
Thus started the long years of draining the swamp land along the greater Kankakee Marsh.
The idea of draining the Kankakee swamp lands probably first occurred to the pioneer because of the lack of access to the river. The river could be reached only at far away landings, or during the very dry or very cold seasons.
Then came the land speculators, with their dream of the reclamation of thousands of acres of good soil, more productive than the soft prairie lands and clay hills. For many years, there were arguments for and against the draining of the swampland, with petitions and remonstrances bearing names on both sides.
The first important drainage ditch was dug about 1858, with the large land speculator lobbying to secure legislation action for the benefit of his thousands of acres. But the little upland farmer had little chance to fight the tax attached to his land for the purpose of digging the ditches, even though his land was miles from the river.
In 1884, after a meeting in South Bend, plans were made for more drainage ditches. Later in that year, steam dredge boats dug a series of lateral ditches. George W. Cass and William F. Singleton each operated a dredge in this county in 1884.
In 1910, Luce and Gidley, a firm from Hebron, Ind., was working on the levy ditch. Other ditches finished before the river was dredged were: Tully, Brown, Singleton, Griesel, in addition to many smaller ditches named after the owners of the land, some dug with teams of horses.
The fate of the Kankakee was at stake, but very little was done to stop the drainage project from being shoved through.
There was also a scheme, more like a fantasy, for using part of the river as a canal connecting Lake Erie with Lake Michigan, using its course from the Yellow River to the Illinois River and then into the drainage canal to Lake Michigan. The idea was never considered practical, and the canal dream did not become a reality.
Eventually, the Kankakee Marsh was drained almost dry and conservation groups in Northwest Indiana began to investigate. Their investigations and protests did little good, and in 1917 the dredging of the Kankakee river began, the final blow to a great natural game preserve.
According to one concerned citizen, "all Northwest Indiana began reaping the harvest of its folly in the destruction of this natural wonderland through the reclamation projects ill-conceived drainage and deforestation."
But many acres of good land were uncovered and fine crops resulted, though many sections of the sandy land lie unproductive.
The conservation groups did not forget the Kankakee Marsh, for their dream of restoring some of the marshlands came true when places like Jasper-Pulaski Game Preserve, LaSalle State Game Preserve, and the new Grand Kankakee Marsh of the Lake County Park System came into being.
The dredging of the Kankakee River was completed about 1922, shortening the length by many miles. Some of the men who worked on the dredge were Millard Hall, John Hack, John Cox, Orin Tilton, Ike Tuttle, Fred Cox, Slim Hurlene, Archie Riggs and Charles Harlow.
This writer remembers the "old" River and how disappointed his father was when he found out the straightened river no longer meandered in front of his river cabin.
Next month's column will be about "places" along the Kankakee.
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