Portrait & Biographical Record Winnebago & Boone Cos., IL. Chicago: Biographical Pub. Co., 1892, pp 1052-1055
The following account of the life of this gentleman was sketched by himself in fulfillment of a resolution passed by the Rockford [Winnebago County, IL] Society of Early Settlers, about the year 1878, calling for personal reminiscences of every member, to be placed in the file of the society.
"Austin COLTON was born in the town of Northampton, Hampshire County, MA, 30 Jan 1817, and is a descendant of the 6th generation from George COLTON, who came from the vicinity of Birmingham, England, about 1860. My progenitors from George COLTON bore, in the following order, the ancient Scriptural names of Isaac, Benjamin, Aaron, and Reuben, the latter being my father's name, and the list plainly denoting a patriarchal religious reverence, and why, in finding in name for me, the grand old Bible line should have been abandoned, I cannot divine, unless it was in special admiration of that unflinching champion of Calvinistic dogmas, Dr. AUSTIN, who created a current of commotion in the Christian world about that time and toward whose doctrines my parents were somewhat inclined."
"My father, Reuben, like many others when struggling against severe pecuniary pressure, was seized with the notion that he could change, if not improve, his circumstances by emigration, and so, after finding his financial affairs considerably demoralized on the proclamation of peace with Great [p 1053] Britain, following the War of 1812, took up his line of march from his home in Hartford [Hartford County], CT, to Northampton [Hampshire County], MA. This was then a long way to emigrate, and the Connecticut River Valley was the only attractive region inviting the course of the emigrant. My father being a mirror frame maker and gilder by trade, it was here that he again tried to lighten the burdens of life at his occupation, but which such a lack of proper materials and tools that I have heard my mother say he sometimes had to whittle out and joint even his best jobs with a pocket knife."
"It was in the midst of such parental privations, and during the severe winter of 1816-17, that I first drew the breath of life. After rowing against the unseen tide of success until 1830, my father, in connection with a company of his neighbors, again conceived the idea that he could better himself and famliy by a removal to a Western home, which country was then designated as OH, IN, and Southern IL (this northern part being then Indian Territory), famous for beauty and fertility. In 1830 he was sent out as an exploring agent for his neighbors. He worked his way in various modes through Northern OH and IN to St. Louis, and reported generally favorable terms of the country he had passed. On returning a little further northward through the village of Niles [Berrien County], MI, then about three years old, he was suddenly taken ill from fatigue and exposure, and there died, without being sufficiently conscious to disclose even his name or whence he came."
"The surprise and shock of this bereavement were the complete reversal of our family plans. I was then 13 years of age and the eldest of three sons by the second wife of my father. At this period, my school days ceased and I had no further instruction in that line than what was gained by private application and experience. Instead of being directed Westward for farm life, I was dispatched Eastward 50 miles to Worchester [Worcester County, MA?], as an apprentice to the printing business, in the office of the Massachusetts Spy, a weekly patriotic paper established by Isaiah THOMPSON before the Revolution. It is yet prosperously published, being consequently more than a century old, and at that time my eldest half-brother was its managing printer and partner. Thus early separated from the enjoyments of home by the necessities of a livelihood, it was the last I fully experienced of the joy and independence of that institution until lodged in one of my own creation in this delightful prairie land."
"After serving a seven year apprenticeship, during the most of the early part of which I was a mere 'hewer of wood and drawer of water' for my more elevated associates, I attained my majority and was honorably graduated. Spending about two years working as a journeyman printer in Worcester and the city of NY, being employed in the latter place for a time in Harper's book establishment, and finding my health, which had never been robust, was more and more giving way by long, steady indoor confinement, I resolved to shape my course Westward to IL for exemption from dubious Eastern prospects. Having no particular place selected as the end of my journey, I was drawn hitherward by a brother-in-law, whose glowing description of the place had aroused my eager desire to witness the beauties and resources. Mentioning my resolution to my friends, one of them, in deference to his views of its distance and possible desolation, ventured to remark that he did not suppose I 'intended to go out there to live.' To which I replied, 'Certainly, or else to die,' for in my then state of health, I considered the latter as probable as the former."
"I left friends and native state in Apr 1839, for the Far West, as this region was then called, with all my earthly effects about my person or contained in a small, square, black trunk, among which might have been found two very useful as well as portable articles for pioneer duty, a helveless axe and a hoe. I also had about $100 in cash, the accumulated savings of my eight or nine years of Eastern toil. After a quick passage of 30 days, via NY City, North River, Erie Canal by boat to Detroit, thence across the State of MI by wagon and on foot to St. Joseph, and by schooner across Lake Michigan, I reached Chicago early in May , with the very economical reduction of about 60 percent of my capital. Tarrying there for two or three weeks in a plain wooden shanty called the Tremont House, and working in [p 1054] the interval on the Chicago 'American,' under the editorship of Mr. Stewart, but afterward transformed into the present 'Journal,' I found a teamster from Rockford, named Albert SANFORD, who agreed to bring me here within the lapse of four days for $6, providing I would aid in lightening him over the measureless sloughs."
"Embarking on the doubtful voyage, I arrived here, only to find that my brother was about 14 miles down the river, nearly opposite the present town of Byron [Ogle County, IL]. That evening I started on my tramp for that point, procuring my gingerbread supper at the baking institution of our then bachelor settlers, WYMAN & HOUGHTON, located on Main Street, near the present Northwestern Railroad bridge. Between nine and ten o'clock that night, I arrived at my brother's cabin, and was charitably paddled across the river in a dugout by a settler named NORTON. It was there on the fair banks of the Rock River that I first ensconsed myself amid the bliss and beauties of practical 'squatter sovereignty' for a few weeks. So charmed was I by the attractions of the country that I resolved to settle thereabouts. By invitation of a resident, I next visited the region of the Pecatonica River, and finding in the vicinity of what is now called Elton a group of settlers of the New England stamp, I was induced to take up a claim there. I began to ply the pioneer's vocation of log building, fencing and farming, following it about four years without being burdened with excessive profits."
"At that time I received a call from the publisher of the Winnebago 'Forum' (which had been issued weekly for about six months by J. A. WIGHT) to come down to Rockford and take charge of his subscribers, numbering 200. My health had become well established and I was beginning to feel willing to cope with almost any difficulty or antagonism. At this point, I battled for nearly 11 years, laboring for the advancement of the best local interests of our charming city and county, but with what success I leave others to determine."
"I might revert to making pleasing, as well as painful, reminiscences of those differnent departments of life during those years, but they are too numerous, and perhaps inappropriate to a personal sketch. Suffice it to say that that period (1843) witnessed our now model town with but the weak and irregular outlines of infancy, yet of growing strength, while our now first-class State was dragging her financial character and rich resources in the sluggish slough of debt and despond, with rank repudiation proclaimed by partisans. Those were also the days when to avow the superiority of railroads, water wheels, and steam engines for the swiftest and surest development of the material State, over the old time notions of turnpike, plank roads, inland navigation and traffic on questionable streams, was to be esteemed little else than an impracticable theorist. Well do I remember that some years after this date, when, on such presumptions we were calmly awaiting the grave destiny of our town, some of the solid savants of its Government had undertaken to engineer a channel through the rocks forming the ford in Rock River, under where the present dam and railroad bridges now stand, at a cost of $1,500, the more rapidly to pour into our hands the mighty wealth of other lands, under which our then expected wharfs were to be burdened."
"About 1853, finding the incessant claims upon my time and strength were again beginning to tell upon my health, and foreseeing that the demands and responsibilities of my position must increase with the growth of the town and county; and also, fully realizing the thankless predicament of the dual publisher and printer, as well as pecuniarily considering that I had long enough 'written for glory and printed on trust,' I concluded to abdicate my place at the first suitable opportunity. This soon occurred, and near the close of that year I disposed of my establishment to E. W. BLAISDELL, Jr., who soon after changed into the 'Republican' the old time tried 'Forum,' which had increased from about 200 to 600 subscribers. It may not be amiss to notice that while the 'Forum' was the first successful paper published in this town, it was not the first started here, it having been preceded by attempts on the 'Express,' 'Star,' and 'Pilot,' all of which yielded after a tiral of a year or less. For a period of about two years, I rusticated and reflected, and also reached [p 1055] the second of the three eras in man's existence worth heeding, by finding and wedding, in May 1856, my better half, Harriet S. FOWLER, only daughter of Royal FOWLER, of Westfield [Hampden County], MA. From this union there are now living three cherished sons and one daughter."
"From this time, I gradually promoted myself into the useful and invigorating, if not popular, calling of a farmer, and having some wild acres lying uselessly outside the city limits, I set myself about the business of clearing the land, and for the last 20 years have humbly and obscurely yet cheerfully and healthfully followed up the pursuit until I have made or improved no less than six different farms since my residence in this county. This, if not having yielded more than the usual meagre money returns of such vocations, at least affords me the pleasurable pride of having been of some use to my fellow men, according to the declaration of another that 'He who causeth to grow two blades of grass to grow where but one grew before, is a public benefactor.'"
"And now, having passed the three score goal of life, and taking a retrospective glance over its variegated fields, fully realizing the rapid transition from that stage when myself and my now grayhaired brother settlers, were all a band of free acquaintances, strong in the impulse of youth or manhood's prime, in the noble endeavor to build up those institutions of public good now about us; when, on sight, the familiar term of greeting to me was 'How do you do, boy?' to what it is now, threading our busy streets as a comparative stranger to the jostling multitudes, with perhaps the careless, as well as valueless, salutation from the later generation, or a careless loafer, of 'How do you do, old man?' Conscious of fast nearing the most remote boundary of human life, when I reach the uttermost limit vouchsafed me, and yield my dust again to Mother Earth who gave it me, may I [poem omitted] lie down to pleasant dreams."
"Craving no sculptured shaft of marble or granite to emblazon virtues I may never have possessed, I would rather prefer a thrifty tree or shrub for my monument, as a living emblem of my love for nature when on earth; and no worthier inscription, chiselled by grateful memory on the heart's tablet of future generations when basking amid the privileges and pleasures we, as pioneers, helped to plant, than that of 'An Early Settler.'"
[The biographer added the following lines.] Mrs. COLTON, whose life has been devoted to her husband and children, and who is highly esteemed, was born and reared in Westfield [Hampden County], MA, and is a daughter of Royal FOWLER, a native of the Old Bay State [MA] who belonged to a substantial and old family of New England people. Mr. FOWLER died in Westfield, MA, when more than 80 years of age. His wife was Miss Harriet SMITH, who was descended from an old family of seafaring people in New Haven [New Haven County, CT]. Mrs. COLTON was carefully reared and educated at the Westfield (MA) Academy, and has been closely identified with the social, religious, and charitable institutions of Rockford, and is revered for the goodness of heart which has characterized her life. She is the mother of eight children, four of whom died in infancy. The living are: Albert L., who married Edith PITNEY, of Rockford, and resides on one of his father's farms; A. Lincoln, who resides at home and is engaged in the grain and feed trade; Miriam M., an amiable and accomplished young lady, who is also at home; Royal F., a practical civil engineer, formerly a student in Cornell University, and now associated with the Rockford Construction Company. Mr. COLTON is held in highest esteem for the aid he has given to the upbuilding of Rockford, and he and his family are numbered among the most prominent residents of the county.
Submitted by Cathy Kubly.