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Lake County, Illinois

County History

Adapted by Marsha Wilcox from
This is Lake County by
The Illinois League of Women Voters Lake County Chapter, 1983 **
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When the glacier retreated from Lake County thousands of years ago, hills and ridges were left behind and many lakes were formed. When Lake Michigan dropped to its present level about 10,000 years ago, the glacial drift deposits of clay, sand and stone eroded into deep ravines along the "north shore," leaving the west side of the ridge unaffected.

A Jesuit missionary, Father Allouez, was rumored to be the first white man to see Lake County in 1630 and that he died near Waukegan. However, in Halsey's "History of Lake County" it is reported that the first white man known to have stood on Lake County soil was Jean Nicolet, agent for the "Company of the Hundred Associates" who ruled the basin of the St. Lawrence from Quebec.  In 1634-1635, he traveled by canoe southwest by way of Mackinac, Green Bay and the Fox River in Wisconsin, diverting his journey to visit 60 Indian villages in the lake regions of McHenry and Lake Counties.

Illinois was admitted to the Union in 1818, and in 1833 the Potawatomie Indians, who has been in the area since 1720, gave up their lands to the U. S. Government under treaty.  A great wave of settlers began pouring into the area west of the Des Plaines River.  They found the Des Plaines Valley easily accessible and the flat treeless prairie easy to farm.

The first settler was Captain Daniel Wright from Vermont, who had come to Checagou in 1833. Following the road along the Aux Plain (Des Plaines) River, he settled at Indian Creek (Half Day) in 1834 with his wife, children, 2 oxen and a cow.  He died and was buried at Half Day in December, 1873, at the age of 95.

Two other settlers came to Vernon Township in 1834: Theron Parsons, who kept a temperance house, and Hiram Kennecott, who owned a general store, grist and sawmill.  Kennecot was elected Lake County's first Justice of the Peace in 1835 -- 32 votes were cast.  In January, 1836, he officiated at the marriage of Captain Wright's daughter to William Wigham.

In August, 1836, the first post office in the county was established at Indian Creek and the village was renamed Half Day for an Indian chief called Hafta, whose village was near the mouth of Indian Creek.  (And my mother always told me it was named Half Day because it took half a day to get there from Chicago by horse and buggy! Sheesh!)  In the same year, Laura B. Sprague opened the first school in her father's log cabin at Half Day.

In 1834, a town was begun on the site of the present city of Waukegan and was named Little Fort because the ruins of a fort said to have been built by the French explorers was found nearby.  Located on an excellent harbor, the town became an important trading post and was later renamed Waukegan -- the Potawatomie word for Little Fort.

In 1834, an English settler, George Vardin, arrived in what is now Libertyville with his wife and daughter. He built a cabin in a little grove between the Des Plaines River and a lake afterwards named for Horace Butler. He stayed only a year, but the small settlement was called "Vardin's Grove" until July 4, 1836, when 10 families living there gathered to celebrate Independence Day. After erecting a liberty pole, they rechristened their settlement Independence Grove.  In this same year, the county's first church, first schoolhouse, and the village's first inn were built.  In 1837, the town's name was changed to Libertyville when a post office was established, and in 1839, the town was renamed Burlington when it was selected as the county seat, but was called Libertyville again when the county seat was moved to Waukegan in 1841.

Deerfield began in 1835 when a group of settlers arrived after following the Des Plaines River. Horace Lamb, along with Jacob Cadwell and his five sons, settled in the Deerfield area.  They were soon followed by Jesse and Lyman Wilmot. The name of the township, suggested by a former resident of Deerfield, CT, won out over Erin by a vote of 17 to 13.

In 1835, 3 families formed a community known as Mechanic's Grove on what is now the site of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein. Subsequently, the village was called Holcomb for an early settler; Rockefeller, when the Soo Line was built in 1886; and Area, which stood for Ability, Reliability, Endurance and Action.  These were the key words in the business philosophy of Arthur Sheldon who had bought several hundred acres of land on which he hoped to establish a commercial university.  This did not occur, and the land was later purchased by the Catholic Archdiscese of Chicago. The town was called Mundelein after St. Mary of the Lake Seminary was built on the site in 1924 by Cardinal Mundelein.

Other settlers arrived by way of the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes.  Lake Forest began in 1835 with the arrival of Otis Hinckley who settled on what is now the southwest corner of Deerpath and Green Bay Roads.  The following year, Thomas Atteridge settled in the same area, and William Steele and his four sons built a cabin on Telegraph Road.  The name of the town was chosen by a committee of Presbyterian ministers and laymen who traveled north on the newly completed Chicago-Northwestern Railroad in 1856 to choose the site for a new university and supportive community.  It is said that they trudged through the forest to Lake Michigan and named the town for both.

The state authority established the first public road in 1835, when the Cook County Commissioners' Court appointed three "viewers" to lay out a road from Chicago to the state line.  This road followed an old Indian trail, the Milwaukee Trace, and was later called the Milwaukee Road.  Previously, the U.S. Government had built a military road from Chicago to Green Bay, following another Indian trail near the lakeshore. That road is still known as Green Bay Road.  By 1836, a lumber wagon drawn by 4 horses operated as a stage between Chicago and Milwaukee on the Milwaukee Road.

In order to connect Lake Michigan to the navigable part of the Illinois River and thence to the Mississippi, the Illinois-Michigan Canal was started in 1836.  This opened up the rich farmlands to settlers and, when thrown out of work by the depression of 1837, many of those who had worked on the canal took land as payment.

At this time, the land had not been surveyed and title belonged to the U. S. Government.  Those who wished to obtain a tract of land made their claims by building a house or fencing the land.  Such claims were usually respected.  Soon, however, the settlers came to realize that, with the rapid growth in the area, regulations were needed to enforce their rights.  A general meeting was convened at Independence Grove in 1836, and a committee was appointed to make recommendations that came to be known as the Abingdon Compact, an association for the protection of claimants of land -- an early instance of self-government in action.

The northeast corner of Illinois was called McHenry County until March, 1839, when an Act of the State Legislature created Lake County.  Libertyville, known then as Burlington, was the first county seat.  The population of Lake County at this time was 2,634.  In 1841 the settlers voted to move the county seat to Little Fort (now Waukegan) where the commissioners had purchased a quarter section of land from the state. The first courthouse was built on part of this site, at a cost of $4,000.  The remainder was sold to pay the construction costs.

The first courthouse burned in 1875. It was suggested at that time to move the county seat back to Libertyville, or Highland Park, or some other more centrally located site. The county governing board, made up of the township supervisors, decided to rebuild in Waukegan.  The eastern half of the new courthouse was built in 1878 for $45,000.  The rest was not added until 1922.  Lake County's first jail was built in 1895.
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** This Chapter of the League of Women Voters no longer exists, but has been split into several area chapters. Any editing or re-phrasing of the text was done by me, Marsha Wilcox, for clarity and I am solely responsible for any changes.

For another fascinating look at Lake County history, see: Historic Millburn Community Association's page with chapters 1 & 2 of Bateman's "History of Lake County" 1902, on-line, under Useful Research Books.

Men of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment with Millburn Connections A roster of Civil War participants from the 96th Regiment from the Millburn area, either before the War, or after.

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Lake County (IL) Genealogical Society, 1170 N. Midlothian Rd., Mundelein, IL 60060
Updated 15 July 2003