The Humanitarian Legacy of Fullersburg's Founders
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
A journal documenting the mid-nineteenth century meetings of the Brush Hill Debate Club was recently acquired by the Fullersburg Historic Foundation. While Brush Hill was recognized for its emphasis on childhood education, the journal demonstrates that many adults also expanded their intellectual horizons through weekly meetings during the winter months. The journal covers 1857-1860, or right before the Civil War (1861-65), and it includes the club's discussions about diverse subjects such as religion, nature, the character of man, and politically sensitive matters such as capital punishment.
On 2/11/1857, the debate topic was whether or not the Indian (Native American) had more cause of complaint against the white man than the Negro (African American). The choice of this question and the wording "cause of complaint" demonstrates the humanitarian empathy that the Brush Hill/Fullersburg settlers had for both oppressed groups. The Fuller family, in particular, had a long and friendly relationship with the Potawatomie that resided in the area; Benjamin Fuller taught them how to shoe horses, and in turn, Ben's young son John was given a pony named Ninoldi. The leader of the debate in Brush Hill on this particular date was John Fuller (1835-1924), who undoubtedly knew about his gift from the local Potawatomie. Local primary sources also tell of the children of white settlers and Potawatomie playing together and of the entertaining pow-wows near the Old Plank Road (which became Ogden Ave).
Fullersburg settlers also exhibited compassion for their fellow man through their participation in the Underground Railroad, a secret system of transportation that enabled escaped slaves to seek freedom in Canada. Frederick Graue, a resolute abolitionist, purchased the mill on Salt Creek in 1850, which was used as a rest station for those seeking freedom. An underground tunnel connected the Fuller Inn and Fullersburg Tavern, and it also was used for the quiet movement of escaped slaves. (See The Hinsdale Doings, 4/18/1929.) The Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850 mandated strict penalties for those who aided escaped slaves, yet several citizens of Fullersburg took part in assisting the escapees in their quest for freedom, including John Coe, who was married to Harriet Fuller.
What information did the members of the Brush Hill Debate Club have to help them formulate their positions for the meeting on 2/11/1857? In regard to the plight of the Native Americans, they had common local knowledge to draw upon. The brief Black Hawk War in 1832 caused great alarm in the countryside surrounding Chicago; however, the wise Potawatomie chief Shabbona resisted the attempt of Black Hawk (Sac) to unite the various tribes in a wider war against the white settlers, and Shabbona frantically warned the settlers about the impending uprising, for which they were very grateful. Many settlers passed through Brush Hill on their way to Fort Dearborn, where they sought refuge. The subsequent Treaty of Chicago of 1833 greatly benefitted early pioneers in Illinois, including those who established Brush Hill (which became Fullersburg); land that had long belonged to the Native Americans was able to be purchased at low prices from the government as the various tribes were relocated west of the Mississippi River.
The debate club members' concern for African Americans (who in nineteenth century America were likely to be slaves) probably arose from their personal beliefs and religious teachings. The letters of the Torode family, who sold their mill to Frederick Graue in 1850, often refer to faith and morality. The 1852 publishing of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe significantly raised the level of consciousness of many nineteenth-century Americans about the plight of slaves in Confederate states. Documents at the Graue Mill Museum indicate that Graue Mill was used as a "station" of the Underground Railroad before this book was published, however, so compassion for slaves already existed in Brush Hill/Fullersburg before the impact of the Stowe phenomenon.
How do you think that the debate question by John Fuller was resolved on 2/11/1857? The officers and directors of the Fullersburg Historic Foundation are impressed by the debate subjects, and we believe that the founders of this settlement deserve respect. We also feel that the historic structures in this district should remain intact. Currently, the existence of the landmark Graue Mill Dam is being threatened, and a plan is being formulated to narrow the stream and move the current channel of Salt Creek away from the mill. We feel that this minimizes the contribution of this area's early settlers and fails to recognize the importance of burial grounds of the Native Americans who also resided here. Please send us your comments and questions about both the dam and the Brush Hill Debate Club.
Sue Devick, M.A.