Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Early Lake County Travels

(from the Nov. 29, 1989, Lowell Tribune, page 8)

Pioneer James H. Luther wrote a journal concerning his exciting travels along the beach of Lake Michigan. He wrote: "The northern extremity of Lake County had a history before the central and southern portions were hardly known."

The early travelers sailed on the waters of Lake Michigan and used the sandy beaches for the pioneer trails. Even though Ft. Dearborn at Chicago was built in 1803-04, it was not until 1831 that a rough trail was cut to Detroit. It was a rude, wild, rough, dangerous and uncertain pathway, where soldiers carried the mail in their back packs between the two cities until stagecoaches were able to make it through the wilderness in 1833.

Stories of the early travelers follow:

Jeremiah Church, from New York, explored the Lake Michigan shores from 1820 to 1840, and wrote about his travels in 1845. In 1831 Church and his brother finished laying out town lots in Ottawa, Ill., and hired a man with a wagon and a yoke of black oxen to take them to Chicago.

They claim to have made the 80 mile trip in less than three days. Upon reaching Chicago, they saw only six houses and many wigwams and had an enjoyable time visiting with the French trappers and the Indians.

They then took passage in a wagon going to Michigan through the Indian county via the beach, camped one night, slept on a bed of sand, and then arrived at an 'old Frenchman's' house the next morning.

Jeremiah's brother wanted to stay at the Bailly settlement, for he almost fell in love with a half-Indian daughter of Joseph Bailly, 1822 pioneer of Porter County and the only white settler there for almost 10 years. Bailly had married an Indian maiden of the Ottawa tribe, and they had four daughters. Their home is now a part of the Indiana Dunes Lakeshore National Park in Westchester Twp.

Finally, the brother decided that the Indian life was not for him, so on they went through the Potawatomi Nation and tried to buy land at Door Prairie for the purpose of laying out a village. A clear title was not available, so they went back on that rugged trail to Detroit, which they described as a "very beautiful place."

In a few months, Jeremiah returned to the Bailly Homestead without his brother and enjoyed the life there for three days, resting and hunting.

Making a new start for Chicago, he said that it was about 50 miles from there to the mouth of the Calumet River. They had to camp one night and they slept in a broken canoe.

Next day, they reached the mouth of the river, where a man and his Indian wife were in charge of a ferry. When told there was no food, Jeremiah shot a blackbird, which was served for breakfast with some coffee offered by the Indian.

His next trip to Chicago was in a peddler's wagon: "We struck the lake where Michigan City now stands, ours being the first carriage of any kind that had been there, and there was not a white man living within twelve miles of the place at that time."

In 1834 he returned again to Chicago to find that a large town had been built in three years. He was a peddler, trader, speculator, showman, and a founder of towns and cities.

* * *

Pioneer James H. Luther had this to say about his travels in 1834: "I, in company with the Cutler boys of LaPorte County, traveled with ox teams upon the beach where afterwards Indiana City* was built, to Chicago and on to Fox River, Ill."

[* The site of Indiana City, said to be only planned but never completed, is in the Dunes Park.]

He was 19 years of age, and his aim was to secure claims and farmland. They returned in the spring of 1835, and when the grass was long enough for the cattle, they started back with an elderly gentleman from Virginia, by the name of Gillilan, who had a large family, three horses and a schooner wagon filled full.

Their first night they camped on the beach with good grass for the oxen nearby. In the morning one ox was missing, but they found him mired in the swamp. After much tugging and pushing, they rolled him over so he could stand.

Reaching the ferry at the mouth of the Calumet, they decided to go around in the lake on the sand bar and soon succeeded in getting the oxen teams over by leading them with one of the horses.

The Virginian had never seen such a large body of water and his family was frightened and screamed loudly when they stalled in the lake with the second wagon. The oxen were then brought back and the wagon made it to the other side.

Luther wrote: "I drove teams between Chicago and LaPorte up to the fall of 1836, but did not know of any other way but via the beach." He said that one of his greatest fears was crossing the pole bridge over the Calumet River at the mouth of Salt Creek. That dangerous structure was nearly a quarter of a mile long, and crossing it was an unforgettable experience.

The early stages soon used two other routes between Michigan City and Chicago. One of those passed not far from the present community of Hessville in Hammond, while the other ran south of the Little Calumet River, through Liverpool along the ridge where Highland and Munster are situated now, and along U.S. 6, Ridge Road. The present U.S. 20 follows closely the old trail to Detroit.

* * *

In January 1837, during the Patriot's War in Canada, Pioneer James Adams was sent on a trip to Chicago as a special messenger by Gov. Mason and General Brady to obtain soldiers from Ft. Dearborn to aid in the defense of Detroit. (The stage route had been firmly established by 1837.)

Dressed warmly, and with good sleighing weather, he left Detroit at four p.m. with a good horse, stopping for only a few moments every 12 or 15 miles to change horses and then dashing on. He arrived in Chicago the next day at 8 p.m., making the distance in 28 hours, a record time for the 284 miles in the snow.

His experience as a regular stage driver on that route was a great help. He delivered his instructions to Captain Jamison, who chartered the stagecoaches and sent the soldiers immediately to Detroit.

Many of our south county pioneers traveled those same old trails, for many went to Chicago before turning south to Lake County. Both James Luther and James Adams became well known citizens of Lake County. Luther was Lake County Auditor from 1861 to 1869.


Last updated on December 14, 2004.

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