JOHN D. CATON

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 115-118

JOHN DEAN CATON was born in Monroe, Orange County, New York, March 19, 1812.  He is the fifteenth of the sixteen children of Robert Caton, and the third child of his mother, Hannah (Dean) Caton, who was the third wife of Robert Caton.  The latter was born March 22, 1761, on a plantation owned by his father (Robert Caton) in Maryland.  He joined the Continental Army at the age of fourteen.  Though very young at the outbreak of the Revolution, he gave good service to his native land in that struggle, and after the triumph of colonial arms, settled on the Hudson River, in New York.  He died in 1815.

Robert Caton, grandfather of the subject of this biography, was born in England, of Irish descent, and served in the English army before settling in Maryland.  He was a prominent citizen of that colony long before the Revolution, and the name is a conspicuous one in Maryland society to-day.  Robert Caton, during the life of his second wife, joined the Society of Friends, and became a preacher in that denomination, his third wife being a member also.  His four children by his third wife, according to the rules of that denomination, became birthright members, and so has the subject of this sketch continued; he is now a member of the society in good standing.

When John D. Caton was four years old, his widowed mother took him to Oneida County, New York.  His advantages were few, but he received the primary training of a common school.  At the age of nine years, he was set to work with a farmer, at two and one-half dollars per month, and brought home a quarter of beef as the fruit of his first earnings.  Work was afforded only in the summer, and his winters were spent in school until he was fourteen.  It had been his father’s wish that he should be equipped for life with a trade, and he was apprenticed.   A weakness of the eyes interfered with the completion of his time, and at sixteen, he joined his mother at Utica, New York, where he was enabled to put in nine months at the academy.  He was so diligent and apt that he was thus equipped for earning by surveying and teaching school.  While teaching, he pursued the study of the classics, and also did a little work in the law by practicing in justices’ courts.  He entered the office of Beardsley & Matteson, at Utica, as a student, at the age of nineteen years.   He later studied with James H. Collins, who afterward became a leader at the Chicago Bar and was a partner in practice with Mr. Caton.

Having become well grounded in the theory of law, and having attained man’s estate, he resolved to settle in the new West and establish himself in practice.  He had a special incentive in this determination, in the fact that he was the accepted lover of one of “York State’s” fairest daughters, and was anxious to secure a permanent home.   Having reached Buffalo by canal, he took passage on the steamer “Sheldon Thompson,” which brought him to Detroit, and thence he took stage to Ann Arbor, still undetermined as to his location.  Still pushing westward, he rode in a wagon to White Pigeon, and here, by pure accident, he fell in with a cousin, whose husband, Irad Hill, was a carpenter and was employed by Dr. John T. Temple, of Chicago, to build a house for him there.   The doctor and Mr. Hill were then in White Pigeon getting lumber for this purpose.  Young Caton joined the rafting party which transported the lumber down the St. Joseph River, and took passage on the schooner which conveyed it to its destination.  This was the “Ariadne,” whose cargo of lumber and immigrants was about all she could carry.

He soon determined to locate here, and in a few days set off on horseback for Pekin, one hundred and fifty miles away, to seek admission to the Bar.  Here he met Stephen T. Logan, afterwards partner of Abraham Lincoln, and other leading attorneys of the State.  After court adjourned and supper had been taken, the young supplicant accompanied Judge Lockwood, of the Supreme Court, in a stroll on the river bank, and after being plied with questions on the theory and practice of law, was addressed in these words:  “Well, my young friend, you’ve got a good deal to learn if you ever expect to make a success as a lawyer, but if you study hard I guess you’ll do it.   I shall give you your license.”  It took but nine years for the new licensee to attain a place beside his examiner on the supreme bench of the State.

Mr. Caton’s first case was in the first lawsuit in the village of Chicago, in which he appeared as prosecutor of a culprit accused of stealing thirty-six dollars from a fellow-lodger at the tavern.  When the defendant was brought before Squire Heacock, Caton insisted that he be searched, and he was stripped to his underclothing.  Before he could replace his apparel, as directed by the court, the prosecuting attorney discovered a suspicious lump in his stocking.  Seizing hold of this lump, he turned down the stocking and disclosed the missing bills.  The case was then adjourned till next day, and a Constable watched the prisoner all night, having confined him under a carpenter’s bench.  Next morning when he was arraigned, Spring and Hamilton appeared for the defence [sic] and took a change of venue to Squire Harmon, who held court in the old tannery, on the North Side near the river forks.  The whole town was now agog with the novel spectacle of a public trial; and Harmon, in order to give all a chance to enjoy the show, adjourned to Wattle’s Tavern, on the West Side, where the case came off with much eclat; all the young attorneys “spreading themselves” in their respective speeches.  Judge Caton remembers that he dwelt particularly on the enormity of the act of this serpent who had brought crime into this young community where it had been unknown.  The thief was held for trial, but the device (then new) of “straw bail” gave him temporary liberty, which he made permanent by running away as soon as the money was recovered; and as the public had had the fun and excitement of a “lawsuit” nobody cared much what became of the author of this welcome break in the village monotony.  If he had been tried and convicted it would have been only the beginning of trouble, for there was no jail wherein to keep him.  Young Caton got ten dollars for his fee—the first money he had ever earned in Illinois by his profession—and it just paid the arrears of his board bill.—(History of Chicago, edited by Moses and Kirkland.)

Having now been launched in practice, Mr. Caton rented an office in the “Temple Building,” having his lodging in the attic of the same structure.  To “make ends meet,” he rented desk room in his office to his contemporary, Giles Spring.

Justice Caton recalls July 12, 1834, an era in his youthful experience.  It was the beginning of his judicial career; the date of his election to the office of Justice of the Peace, the only public office he ever held except those of Alderman of the city (1837-8) and Justice of the Supreme Court of the State (1843-64).  He became its Chief Justice in 1857.  The election of 1834 was a fierce contest, “bringing out every last voter in the precinct, from Clybourne to Hardscrabble and beyond, perhaps even taking in the Calumet Crossing.”  The Government piers had been built and the beginning of a channel had been cut across the immemorial sandbar, but as yet it had never been used.  On this memorable day, the schooner “Illinois” chanced to be lying at anchor, and the friends of Caton (George W. Dole and others), to the number of a hundred or more, got ropes to the schooner and dragged her by main force through the unfinished dug-way.  Then they decked her with all the bunting in the village, and, hoisting sail, sped triumphantly up the stream to the Forks—the first vessel that ever penetrated the Chicago River.  And when the votes were counted the tally showed—John Dean Caton, one hundred and eighty-two; Josiah C. Goodhue, forty-seven. (Story of Chicago, 130).

An incident in the life of the future chief justice, which saved him to the people of Illinois, is elsewhere related in the biography of Col. Julius Warren, who was ever gratefully remembered by Mr. Caton as his dearest friend.

In the spring of 1835 Squire Caton felt himself able to assume the cares of a household, and he returned to New York, where he was wedded to Miss Laura Adelaide, daughter of Jacob Sherrill, of New Hartford.  Their wedding tour was an ideal one, being a passage from Buffalo to Chicago on the brig “Queen Charlotte.”  This was one of the vessels captured in Put-in-Bay and sunk in the harbor of Erie by Commodore Perry in 1812.  After twenty years, it had been raised and refitted, and this was her first trip.

In 1836 Mr. Caton built the first dwelling on the “school section,” west of the river.  This was at the southwest corner of Clinton and Harrison Streets, and at that time it was so far from other dwellings that it was called the “prairie cottage.”  It fell before the great holocaust of 1871.  About the same time that he built this house, he entered into partnership with Norman B. Judd (who drafted the first charter of Chicago).  The financial difficulties of 1837 almost crippled the ambitious young lawyer, and to increase his troubles, his health became impaired and he was advised by his physician to return to farming.   He took up a tract of land near Plainfield, which he still owns, and removed his family thither in1839.  He continued the practice of law, and the records show that he tried the first jury cases in Will and Kane Counties, as well as Cook.

Mr. Caton was appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1842, and his united terms of service, by successive elections, amounted to twenty-two years.  During the latter portion of this time he occupied the position of Chief Justice.  The duties of his high office were completed day by day, no matter how much of the night they might consume, and the court in his day was always up with its docket.  In 1864 he left the Bench, and has since given his time to travel, literary labors and the conduct of his private affairs.  He has published several works, among which are “The Antelope and Deer of America,” “A Summer in Norway,” “Miscellanies” and “Early Bench and Bar of Illinois.”

Before 1850 Justice Caton became interested in the electric telegraph.  This was before the organization of the Western Union, and he set to work to re-organize and set in order the dilapidated and scattered lines.  They had hitherto occupied the wagon roads, and he secured the adoption of a system by the railways, where it was soon found to be an absolute necessity.  When the Western Union took hold of the business, Judge Caton and his fellow-stockholders were enabled to make most advantageous terms for the disposition of their interests.

Death first invaded the home of Judge Caton in 1891, when a daughter, her mother’s namesake, was taken away, and in 1892, Mrs. Caton went before.  For fifty-seven years, this happily-assorted couple had traveled together the journey of life, and they were, no doubt, the oldest surviving couple in Chicago at the time of Mrs. Caton’s demise.  During her last illness Judge Caton remarked to his family physician that they had lived together for more than fifty-seven years without a cross or unkind word ever passing between them.  Two children survived her, namely: Arthur J. Caton, a Chicago business man, who was admitted to the Bar, and Caroline, now the wife of the distinguished attorney, Norman Williams.

In August, 1893, Judge Caton suffered a slight stroke of paralysis.  Before this affliction, advancing years had brought on the old trouble with his eyes, which had, happily for his future career, turned his attention from a trade, but up to the beginning of 1893, he was able to read a little with the aid of strong glasses.  By the aid of a reading-secretary, he keeps up an acquaintance with literature and current events.  Even the added trial of decay in his powers of locomotion did not make him despair or become morose.   To a close friend he said:  “I do not repine.  I do not lament the advance of age and the loss of faculties; not one bit.  I enjoy my life, and thankfully recognize the numberless compensations and alleviations that are mercifully left me.  No; I am well content.”

He still survives at the age of eighty-three, and it is a little remarkable that the first lawyer in Chicago to bring a case in a court of record is still with us, with intellect unimpaired, when the bar numbers more than three thousand.

                                -- Submitted on April 9, 2000 by Sherri Hessick ( shessick@flash.net )