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  • Sue Devick

The Courage of a Pioneer Woman

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Imagine the emotions of Avis Blodgett, who in May of 1832 had four children under twelve years old (and one on the way) when Potawatomi Chief Aptakisic warned the family that they must flee their home near the Naper Settlement and take refuge at Fort Dearborn in Chicago, as Sauk warrior Black Hawk was about to wage war on the white settlers in northern Illinois. Aptakisic was a trusted friend of the Blodgett family, having visited the Blodgett cabin several times during the winter of 1831-32 and smoked peace pipes with Israel Blodgett, Avis's husband. A Blodgett family memoir written by Avis Blodgett's granddaughter Julia Wygant Blodgett entitled Pioneer Recollections states that when Aptakisic arrived to warn the family, Avis "first prepared food for him and insisted on his resting, and he rolled himself in his blanket and slept on the floor." As Israel gathered the oxen and Avis packed the wagon for the day-and-a-half long journey to Chicago, the couple's oldest sons Henry, 11, and Israel, 9, were sent to the cabins of neighboring settlers to warn them of Black Hawk's intentions. The group of neighbors then traveled together to Fort Dearborn; they stopped for a rest near present-day Riverside, so they probably passed right through Brush Hill (which became Fullersburg) on the existing trail to Chicago, which was also within

Sauganakka, the largest Potawatomi village in DuPage County.

Henry later became a judge and wrote about these events in his book Autobiography of Henry W. Blodgett. He lends insight into the precarious position of the settlers at that time, as Black Hawk's war council with Potawatomi leaders (including Aptakisic) occurred near present day Aurora, quite close to the Naper Settlement. Although the Potawatomi chiefs told Black Hawk that they would not participate in this war, Henry writes that the Potawatomi braves from the area were interned at a camp near Riverside "for fear that their young men, who were ambitious to distinguish themselves in war, would sneak off and join Black Hawk parties and thus complicate the relations of the tribe with the Government, as well as reinforce the Black Hawk band." Aptakisic showed that he was aware of this danger, as he quietly rode his horse behind the Blodgetts and others traveling with them until they were in sight of the fort, then waved goodbye and disappeared.

Shortly after the Blodgetts' arrival at Fort Dearborn, they undoubtedly heard of the events at Indian Creek near Morris, where a war party of Potawatomi (with a few Sauk) ambushed a settlement led by William Davis, who had angered the local Potawatomi by beating a brave who attempted to remove a dam that Davis had constructed. When warned by Potawatomi Chief Shabbona about Black Hawk's threat, Davis refused to seek shelter in the fort at Ottawa; subsequently, the Sauk were unfairly blamed when fifteen people were killed at the Davis settlement. Sisters Rachel and Sylvia Hall were kidnapped there, ransomed, and eventually returned; however, the attack shocked the entire country and initiated a broad military response. U.S. Army soldiers led by General Winfield Scott were delayed due to a breakout of Asiatic cholera within his troops, however. Various militias led by General Atkinson pursued Black Hawk and his band during the summer of 1832 while Avis endured the later weeks of her pregnancy in cramped quarters at Fort Dearborn.

Henry shows great admiration for his mother's courage while at the fort, as she did not know "at what moment we might hear the war whoop that would imply death to her children, husband, and herself." A letter written by Caroline Strong, whose cabin was near the Blodgetts' (and whose family also fled to Chicago) describes the crowded conditions as six families with a total of twenty-two children occupied two rooms at the fort. Caroline also emphasizes the drastic change that had occurred in the settlers' lives, writing, "Two months ago we were quietly pursuing our labour, thought not of danger or interruption, especially from such a quarter. But what a contrast! What before was peace & prosperity was suddenly reversed into scenes of fear, distress & poverty." Carolyn's letter also includes descriptions of atrocities that occurred at Indian Creek and elsewhere, indicating the fear that prevailed at the fort. (Strong letter courtesy of Hugh Dugan's book Village on the County Line.)

Black Hawk was relentlessly pursued by General Atkinson and others, however, and the final battle known as the Bad Axe Massacre (in early August, 1832) demonstrated the ruthlessness of the U.S. soldiers, who also committed atrocities. The settlers who had been staying at Fort Dearborn returned to their homes, which coincided with the final days of Avis's pregnancy. Henry writes about his mother that despite the adverse conditions, "when her baby was born within two weeks after our return to our home, it was in all respects, both in body and mind, as perfect as any one of her children--all of which evidences a heroic self-control and equanimity of spirit which shows her to have been no common woman, and entitles her memory to the lasting affection of all her descendants to the remotest generation." Julia also notes in Pioneer Recollections that Avis was kind and generous to her neighbors as well as the local Native Americans, who sometimes appeared at her door asking for food.

Avis continued to demonstrate composure and courage after the family moved to nearby Downers Grove in 1835, which was closer to Chicago. Julia also writes that Potawatomi chiefs Waubonsie, Aptakisic, and Shabbona were frequent visitors at their home; a maple grove in this vicinity was also used by Waubonsie and Aptakisic for making sugar. Julia describes how the Blodgetts were surprised one Sunday after church to find a pow wow occurring outside their home. Avis was placed in charge of the braves' weapons while they danced "under the influence of the fire water." She kept her family and the weapons in one room for thirty hours as she stood guard; afterward, she was thanked and identified as "the brave little white squaw." In the fall of 1837, however, Aptakisic's band was forced by the terms of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago to move to Kansas. Henry wrote about the chief's last visit to the family in a letter, "I well remember the sad face of the old chief as he came to bid our family goodbye. ... We all shed tears of genuine sorrow." At that time, the child that was born to Avis during the turbulence of 1832 would have been five years old, and Avis probably experienced several emotions with Aptakisic's departure from their lives.

As time passed and the Settlement Era evolved into the pre--Civil War days in Illinois, the Blodgett home served as a "station" in the Underground Railroad, offering fugitive slaves a safe refuge on their path to freedom. Julia writes that Avis showed kindness to an escaped slave who had been captured and badly treated, and she was instrumental in his subsequent escape. The Fugitive Slave Act placed strict penalties on those who assisted escaped slaves at the time, demonstrating the moral strength and resolve of the Blodgett family, who sheltered up to fifteen refugees in their home at a time and clothed them for their trip to Canada. Avis and Israel were known for their willingness to sacrifice for the cause of freedom; they had six sons who survived to adulthood, and as noted on a plaque at the old Blodgett home in Downers Grove, several of their sons also became noted Civil War veterans.

The story of pioneer Avis Dodge Blodgett (1796-1882) is particularly remarkable because she deeply touched the lives of her family members, neighbors, the local Native Americans, and enslaved African Americans who were seeking their freedom. Avis lived until the age of 85 and is buried at the Main Street Cemetery in Downers Grove; her humble gravestone, near the family's larger memorial, is simply inscribed, "Mother." The introduction to Julia's memoir states, "This experience of Mother Blodgett I am telling, so that my children may know something of her courage and the hardships endured by her, as told me in one of her reminiscent moods." Fullersburg Historic Foundation recognizes the important contributions of this exceptional woman and also hopes to preserve the legacy of her extraordinary bravery and character.

Sue Devick, M.A.

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