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Reflections: Take Will County namesake's legacy with a grain of salt

Roger Matile
Roger Matile

As Illinois gets a start on its third century of official existence, it’s a good time to meet some of the historical figures behind the names of the counties round about our home here in Kendall County.

Will County is as good a place as any to start. Dr. Conrad Will was one of the many Pennsylvania Germans – called the Pennsylvania Dutch – who came to Illinois in its earliest days and then became active in both local commerce and government.

But Will was also known for something a lot less savory than typical Pennsylvania Dutchmen were. He was not only a business owner, but also a slave owner right here in Illinois.

Will was born near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 3, 1779. After he studied medicine for a while, he moved west, probably arriving in Illinois via the Virginia-Tennessee migration route. He reportedly arrived at Kaskaskia in 1814, and the next year he moved to land along the Big Muddy River in what is now Jackson County.

In 1816 or thereabouts, he obtained a government lease on one of three profitable salines the U.S. government deeded to the Illinois Territory.

Salines, or salt springs, were valuable natural resources on the frontier. The water from the springs was evaporated, using a relatively elaborate process, and the salt that remained was then sold.

On the frontier, salt was used for everything from seasoning food to preserving meat and hides. In inland areas away from the coast, salt springs like those that bubbled to the surface in Saline County or in the Illinois Territory’s Randolph County were prime sources for the indispensable material.

The federal leases required the holders to produce a set amount of salt each year or pay a penalty.

In the spring of 1816, the year Jackson County was formed from a portion of Randolph County, Will traveled back to Pittsburgh to buy a batch of giant, cast-iron evaporating kettles. Each of the big kettles could hold about 60 gallons, and they weighed about 400 pounds each. The kettles were floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi on a flatboat, then transported up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Big Muddy River, and from there up to Will’s saline operation.

He deepened the saline spring and installed a horse-powered pump to raise the salt water into a basin. From there it ran via wooden pipes to the kettles, which were lined up side-by-side resting on a long brick firebox.

The first kettle was filled with salt water, a fire lit under it, and the evaporation process began. In turn, the increasingly salty water was ladled into each kettle, where it was further evaporated until only the paste-like salt remained. It was then dug out of the last kettle and allowed to dry. After it dried, it was crushed, shoveled into sacks, and shipped down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, St. Louis, and beyond.

As you might imagine, the labor to manufacture the salt was grueling, something with which the federal government assisted by allowing slaves to be imported into Illinois for the purpose of making it.

Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River, special territorial laws and constitutional provisions permitted exceptions at the salines.

Illinois’ first constitution, approved by Congress in 1818, continued to allow slaves to be leased for use in the state’s salt works, and it also allowed a form of indentured servitude that was virtually indistinguishable from slavery.

So with slaves and government lease in hand, Will continued his operation. Generally, one bushel of salt could be extracted for every 2.5 to 5.5 gallons of water from the saline. Sufficient salt water to evaporate wasn’t the problem – fuel to keep the evaporation process going was. At first, wood fires were used. As the nearby supply of wood was exhausted, the evaporation operation was moved farther and farther away from the saline spring.

Ever-lengthening spans of wooden pipe, made by splitting logs in half length-wise, hollowing out the interior, and then strapping them back together, were used to keep the salt water flowing into the evaporation kettles.

As Jacob Myers wrote of the saline operation in Gallatin County in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society: “The problem of securing fuel was a great one, because of the distance it had to be hauled. As the timber was cleared away, the furnaces were moved back farther and farther from the wells and the brine was piped by means of hollow logs or pipes made by boring four-inch holes through the log lengthwise. These were joined end to end, but the joints were not always tight and there was much loss from leakage. It has been estimated that over one hundred miles of such piping was laid from 1800 to 1873.”

The salt business was a hard one, and Will apparently decided politics might be a better way to make money. He was one of Illinois’ first state senators when the state was established in 1818, and in 1820 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in office on June 11, 1835.

With their colleague’s death probably still fresh in their minds, when a brand new county was formed by partitioning Cook, Iroquois and Vermilion counties in January 1836, the General Assembly voted to name it after Conrad Will.

Will was just one of a group of salt manufacturers who imported slaves into Illinois, and who later imported even more slaves while calling them “indentured servants.” This form of slavery was not completely banned in Illinois until 15 years before the Civil War began.

Today, we remember Conrad Will as a politician and namesake for Will County. But like many historical characters, it turns out he’s carrying a lot more baggage under the surface than he appears to be.

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