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Recollections of an Old Settler

by A. S. Vail - 1906-1907

Momence is, today, a thriving little city of about three thousand inhabitants, but I can remember very clearly the time when but a few tiny houses clustered about the bend in the Kankakee. Now when the interests of the city seem to be broadening so rapidly, I enjoy very much to look back upon those times and call to mind a few of the happenings, which, taken altogether, from the varied but interesting history of our home town.

Many years ago, I met an old man who had been a fur trader through this part of the country at the time of the Revolution. He told me, among other things; about a strange incident which happened among the Indians once while he was traveling through this part of the country. It seems that the chief of one tribe had killed a warrior in another. This caused hard feelings and on the day which he was telling about, the now hostile bands had decided to fight it out. Armed with bows, clubs, and various other weapons, they met on the prairie near where I now reside. One company of braves was drawn up in a straight line opposite the other, and as they were in a mood for fighting it looked as if a bloody battle would ensue with possible result of the annihilation of all. In the space between the two ranks of Indians stood their respective chiefs talking earnestly together and walking up and down the lines parleying with each other and their tribesmen. At last two turned back to back and stepping off for thirty paces, each suddenly turned about, simultaneously, giving their respective war whoops. At that instant the chief guilty of the crime threw up his hands and the other buried an avenging knife in the heart of his warrior's murderer. Thus the latter gave his life for those of this tribe, because if the two opposing parties had fought many would have been killed. This shows the noble spirit of the Indians who roamed these prairies in those almost forgotten years when no white man but the fur trader was seen from one moon to another.

I came here in November of 1836. Soon after, the few settlers gathered together and decided to call the little town Loraine, but a few years later the name was changed to Momence. The Indian name from which it was supposed to be taken was, however Moness. At that time for sixteen miles north of the river on Range line there was not even any bushes, only burnt prairie. Our nearest neighbors were fifty miles away at Chicago. I was the first postmaster and also built the first frame school house in Kankakee County. My sister-in-law, Loraine Beebe, was the teacher. It then cost twenty-five cents to send a letter from the East, and two cents for a newspaper.

The chief for the Pottawatomie Indians, White Pigeon, had his wigwam then a few miles up the river. When told that his excessive use of "fire-water" grieved the Great Spirit, he promptly replied in an earnest manner: "White man no make um, Indian no drink um".

About forty years ago a company of men while hunting bees in the sand-ridges south of town, discovered three men making counterfeit silver money in a small shanty in the midst of a poplar grove. The next morning the bee chasers came back to arrest them, but the shack was burned and the men has disappeared. Although it was not known at that time, the counterfeiters were supplied with food by a neighboring farmer of the name Van Rankins, and these supplies were carried back and forth by the latter's hired man. Soon after this a man and boy while going overland from the south to Chicago, took dinner with Van Rankins. The farmer admired the traveler's silver-mounted rifle very much but did not wish to pay the thirty dollars that was asked for it. But after the man had left, Van Rankins sent his hired man after the rifle with the required price in bills. But when this money was examined, it was found to be all counterfeit. The proper authorities were notified and the guilty parties were caught and brought to town. Then the hired man turned state's evidence and revealed that the counterfeiters who had been seen at work before were now on an island in Beaver Lake. A party at oncewent there and seized and brought them to Momence. As they had been engaged in this unlawful business in the state of Indiana, they were taken there, tried, found guilty and put in jail. Since that time the island in Beaver Lake has been known as Bogus Island.

About the time I came to what is now called the city of Momence, I happened to be walking down the river when I saw a log up in the fork of a large tree. It was a surprise to me how it came to be up there, so I asked Joe Barber, a half-blood Indian, who told me that an Indian lay buried in it. According to the custom of these men, a tree about six feet long was split in two, and each half hollowed out. The body was then placed in the log, and the two halves fastened together with withes and peeled bark. Then this log, of which I am speaking, was placed in a tree leaning over the banks of the Kankakee. It remained there for five or six years, when the withes began to break and finally it fell into the river.

These are but a few of the connecting links in the history of Momence which I have been fortunate enough to see forged, but space forbids that I should write further.

Source: 1906 and 1907 Momence Yearbooks