The Courageous Women of Old Fullersburg
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Can you imagine making an overland journey in a covered wagon for over a month? Walking through heavily wooded areas with only two large dogs to protect you from the wolves? Living in a cabin next to a village of Native Americans? Being part of the Underground Railroad, assisting fugitive slaves on their way to freedom? Fighting a prairie fire for hours to save your home? Meet the pioneer women of Brush Hill, named after the hazelnut brush along the old trail west of Chicago.
After visiting the area that the native Potawatomies called Sauganakka in 1834, Benjamin Fuller persuaded his wife Olive, parents Jacob and Candace, and eleven siblings (consisting of six sisters and five brothers) to leave Broome County, New York and relocate to Brush Hill west of Chicago. Covered wagons and horses were packed with necessities for the journey, but the oldest two daughters, Catherine and Mercy, traveled by steamboat through the Great Lakes for six weeks due to constrained space in the wagons. As told by Fuller descendant George Ruchty in The Fullers of Fullersburg, the overland journey was arduous, as the family dealt with illness, storms, equipment breakdowns, and swollen waterways.
The large Fuller family reunited in Chicago and started clearing land north of present day Spring Road. A cabin with a fireplace was built, and the structure was about twenty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide. The children's sleeping quarters was above the log ceiling over the main room, and a ladder was used to enter this area through an opening. Rain and snow blew in between the shingles; pots caught the rainwater, and snow was swept below to melt on the flagstone floor. Benjamin and Olive soon built their own cabin near the "Mays Lake" site next to a friendly Potawatomi village, whose inhabitants gave their young son John a pony after Benjamin taught them how to shoe their horses.
Prairie fires were a constant threat to the early settlers. The Torode family, who also settled in Brush Hill from Ohio (but originally from the island of Guernsey), documented harrowing experiences in their family letters, including fighting off a fire that almost engulfed their home in 1836. Nicholas Torode writes to his father that a fire was only twenty yards from their house and stable, and that his wife "faught fire so much and got so frightened that she has kept her bed since... she had hard work to keep of the flames of fire from the hay stack.. ." (Torode letters are the courtesy of DuPage County Historical Museum.)
Nicholas Torode also mentioned the proliferous wolves in the area. He writes that the "wolf yelps here pretty often but one soon gets used to them." Mary Fuller, the first school teacher in the area, traveled from home to home with two large dogs, Pedro and Nero, to protect her from the wolves.
As the population grew, the settlers engaged in seasonal wolf hunts as a way to safeguard their livestock and pets.
Threats were also posed by humans during a tumultuous time in our nation's history. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act mandated that escaped slaves were to be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. Brush Hill was home to some resolute abolitionists, including Frederick Graue, who purchased and rebuilt the mill on Salt Creek. The Underground Railroad became active in this vicinity, and the mill was used as a rest station for fugitive slaves seeking freedom. A tunnel existed for this purpose beneath the Fuller Inn and the Fullersburg Tavern. Harriet Fuller Coe and her husband John also sheltered escaped slaves on their journey north to freedom.
The sons and daughters of Jacob Fuller remained in Brush Hill, which was renamed Fullersburg. (As the sons and daughters of Jacob Fuller remained in the area, a common observation was that the residents of this area were either a Fuller or married to one.) The courage and individuality of the Fullersburg women evolved with the development of the area, and is particularly characterized by Loie Fuller, who was born in 1862. She was a precocious child and poet, and became a famed dancer, known as the creator of the Serpentine dance. She traveled and performed in Europe and was friendly with European royalty. After she died in 1928, her ashes were interred in France beside those of Sarah Bernhardt.
For more information about unique history of the men and women of Fullersburg, see the Suggested Reading section of this website, which includes Village on the County Line by Hugh Dugan, The Fullers of Fullersburg (mentioned above), and the Fullersburg Chronicles.
Sue Devick, M.A.