August 16, 2022

Reflections: Early roads had big impact on Kendall County-area history

In 1845, Kendall County voters decided to move the county seat from Yorkville to Oswego. It was an important (if eventually temporary) change for county residents. At the same time, it’s a change never adequately studied by local historians.

Kendall County was established by the Illinois General Assembly in February 1841, taking six townships from La Salle County (Fox, Kendall, NaAuSay, Seward, Big Grove and Lisbon) and three townships (Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego) from Kane County. A three-man commission appointed by the General Assembly fixed the county seat at Yorkville, the most centrally located settlement in the new county’s boundaries.

Yorkville made geographic sense, but as time passed, it apparently didn’t make as much economic sense. Yorkville, situated on the south bank of the Fox River, was not at a major river ford. No major road crossed the river there at all. In fact, its sister village, Bristol, just across the river on the north bank, was a larger settlement at that time.

Bristol was situated on a major road, running from Ottawa north along the westerly bank of the river to Oswego. There it crossed to the east bank before heading farther north to the growing settlement called Geneva, or LaFox, depending on who you talked to. Bristol also had a post office, which Yorkville did not. Although the Post Office Act of 1814 required all new county seats to receive post offices, Yorkville still did not have mail delivery four years after Kendall County was established, probably due to the town’s relative isolation from the area’s major road net and tiny population. The western branch of the thoroughfare from Chicago to Ottawa passed almost a mile to the south of Yorkville, and the main branch of the road (the High Prairie Trail) was almost 10 miles to the southeast across the prairie.

So while it was centrally located in the county (a major asset in the era of time-consuming travel on foot, in horse-drawn wagon or on horseback), Yorkville was not at all convenient for the lawyers, judges and others who had to travel the judicial circuit there from other county seats.

That may have been why some county residents began working to have the county seat moved so soon after the county was established. In that 1845 referendum, Oswego received a majority of the votes as the new county seat. In later years, disgruntled residents of the southern and western parts of the county grumbled that Oswego officials imported Irishmen from Kane County to vote for Oswego in the referendum – and offered them free whiskey in return. Like so many historical tales, there’s no real proof that’s what happened, but there’s undoubtedly some truth to the charges.

Oswego’s qualifications most likely were based on the town’s location on three major roads. Given that northern Illinois’ commerce traveled by road during those years, road links with other areas likely were important considerations when it came time to choose a new county seat. The east-west Joliet to Dixon road, which eventually extended all the way to Galena, crossed the river at Oswego. The western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa thoroughfare passed through Oswego. And, finally, the Fox River Trail from Ottawa north to Geneva also crossed the river at Oswego. That meant Oswego had more or less direct links to Chicago, Naperville, Aurora, Ottawa, Joliet and Galena, plus points in between, at a very early date. No other community in the Fox Valley boasted so many direct road links with other major regional economic centers.

In the 1830s and 1840s, road links also meant postal service, since the mails were delivered by stagecoach. In addition to the mail, passengers were carried by the same coaches that delivered letters, newspapers and periodicals.

Oswego was granted a post office in 1837. Bristol (we’re still talking about the north side of modern Yorkville) got its post office two years later in July 1839. Other early post offices were established at Holderman’s Grove in 1834 (moved to Lisbon in fall 1836), Little Rock in March 1837, Newark in August 1837 and Penfield (located on today’s River Road near the mouth of Rob Roy Creek) in 1839. All those communities were on the region’s major road network.

The extension of rail lines west of Chicago in the early 1850s changed all previous transportation calculations. Mail could be carried faster, more dependably and much more cheaply by train (first-class postage costs dropped by 80%). With the railroad crossing the Fox River at Aurora, the old stage routes were gradually superseded as the new rail lines pushed westward. As a result, the brand-new communities of Plano and Bristol Station (today’s Bristol) were awarded post offices in 1853 and 1854, respectively. And in 1859, Kendall County voters decided to move the county seat back to Yorkville. That was probably the most important signal the previously vital road net had lost some of its importance. In the new calculations, Oswego and Yorkville were almost equidistant from the rail line running from Chicago west to Galesburg. And that meant there was no real reason to force everyone in the county to travel to its far northeast corner to do their official business. In June 1864, the county seat was physically moved back to Yorkville from Oswego. In anticipation, the county built a new courthouse on the bluff overlooking the river, and Yorkville finally was granted its first post office the preceding April.

We often think transportation concerns are new to our era. However, when you look at it, it becomes clear the modern map of the Midwest was literally drawn by the availability of transportation. Communities with adequate access grew; those without did not. It’s a lesson to which attention still needs to be paid.

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