Once Upon a Time

Ross Brothers settle in Western Illinois, founding Pike County

This undated illustration of William Ross shows him in his later years. | Illustration courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Dec. 8, 2019 12:40 am Updated: Dec. 8, 2019 1:24 am

Part one of two


Micah and Sarah Ross and their six sons and four daughters lived in a small home in Pittsfield, Mass. The family had little means to accommodate and educate their children. The Ross boys, however, inherited their father's reputation for "good living, industry and perseverance, and success in his general pursuits." The boys would become soldiers, businessmen, western pioneers and founders of the largest county in Illinois.

With the beginning of the War of 1812, two Ross brothers, Leonard, 30, and William, 20, were commissioned captain and ensign, respectively, in separate units of the 21st U.S. infantry regiment. In the spring of 1813, the brothers were reunited by an order that placed them with 400 other soldiers for the Battle of Sackett's Harbor, N.Y. The 500 Americans drove back 1,500 British soldiers to hold the harbor, but the Rosses lost one-third of their men during the battle.

After the war, William Ross returned to Pittsfield and bought a blacksmith business he operated for five years. Wanderlust beat in his chest, however, and a desire to see the bounty land he had earned as a veteran of the War of 1812 pulled him to far Western Illinois.

Ross had a remarkable power of persuasion. He encouraged three of his five brothers and three friends--and their families--to join him for the rugged 1,200-mile trip to the Illinois Military Tract, a 3.5 million-acre wedge of land between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

William, brothers Leonard, Clarendon and Henry; and friends Samuel Davis, William Sprague, and Joseph Cogswell and their families arrived in Edwardsville as autumn neared in 1820.

The area remained Madison County until Jan. 31, 1821. The Illinois General Assembly at the capital in Vandalia recognized the sizable Ross-party immigration into the Military Tract and created Pike County, naming it for soldier and explorer Zebulon Pike.

The new county was a huge municipality taking everything north and west of the Illinois River to the small village of Chicago to Galena and down the Mississippi River to today's Grafton. Eventually, about 50 Illinois counties would be carved from Pike County.

The Ross party in late summer reached Salu, a settlement that would become Alton, where it decided to leave the women and children in the care of Maj. Charles Hunter. A veteran of the War of 1812, Hunter had made his way to St. Louis after the war and operated a mercantile business. After buying property in Lower Alton, Hunter moved his family there and built the first wood-frame house in the region. His Ross party guests spent the winter in a nearby two-room log cabin.

At the mouth of the Illinois River, Ross and his companions procured two Indian canoes, to which they lashed puncheon boards between them. Their crude ferry carried them and their wagons to the north bank of the Illinois. Their horses swam alongside.

The men wandered northward, the woodlands "a revelation," according to an early settler, "of beautiful blossoms and ... flowering shrubs." As they made their way, they noticed magnolia, horse chestnut and persimmon trees, about "forty feet or more high," shingle oaks, redbuds, plums, honey locust, and coffee wood trees. It was an unsullied landscape that William Ross said had them "gazing spellbound." As he remembered, the party was "of one accord in electing this beautiful spot" at the end of its journey. According to the plat by a federal surveyor of the Military Tract, this was Section 27, Township 6 South. There were no more than five other immigrants in the territory, including John Wood of New York and Willard Keyes of Vermont, who since February 1820 had squatted on land about 1.5 miles south of where New Canton is today.

On the site they had chosen, the seven men of the Ross party built four rudimentary log cabins before winter's snow came. Early next spring, Leonard Ross remained at the settlement when the others returned to Maj. Hunter's settlement at Upper Alton to retrieve their families.

Not long afterward, other Eastern acquaintances began arriving at Atlas. Among them was James McDonald, who brought his wife and four daughters from Washington County, N.Y., in 1821. He established the first farm between Atlas and Louisiana, Mo. From Sny Island, he also operated the first ferry, where he was found dead the next spring, the apparent victim of a murder that went unsolved. His widow married another newcomer, Joseph Jackson, later active in Pike County politics.

William Ross built the first brick home in the county at Atlas in 1821. A year later, an addition would nearly double the home's size. He built a two horse-powered grist mill, a band mill, and with J.M. Seeley, planted and harvested the county's first wheat crop. From the flour of that first wheat, ground in Ross' mill, the first biscuit was baked. Ross organized the first house of worship, a Congregational church. In that year, too, Daniel Shinn of Batavia, Ohio, built the first courthouse at Atlas. Leonard's oldest son John would teach at the first school in it.

That year, 1821, was a watershed for progress. But it also was devastating to every family in town. That year, malaria tore its way through the small settlement, putting nearly half its residents in the new Atlas Cemetery just outside of town. Among the dead were William's wife, Nancy, and his brother Clarendon.

William Ross later visited New York and returned with a new wife, Edna Adams Ross. By the time of his return, a post office had been established in what was named Ross Settlement in his absence. Not fond of the honorific, the settlement's founder changed the town's name to Atlas. Ross believed it promising enough to predict that it would become "the star city in Western Illinois." Two other Pike County settlers, John Wood of Pleasant Vale and John Shaw, known as the Black Prince from Coles Grove, would soon test Ross' claim. That story is next.


Reg Ankrom is a member of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. He is a local historian, author of a prize-winning biography of U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, and a frequent speaker on Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and antebellum America.



"The 1820 Coming of the Rosses" at freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~glendasubyak/ch17.html


Reg Ankrom, "Atlas shrugged off as thriving city in Western Illinois," The Herald-Whig, April 21, 2018.


John W. Barber and Henry Howe, "All the Western States and Territories." (Cincinnati: Howe's Subscription Book Concern, 1867), p. 229.


"History of Upper Alton, Illinois -- Including Salu and Milton," at madison.illinoisgenweb.org/town_histories/upper_alton/upper_alton.html


John Livingston, "Portraits of Eminent Americans Now Living: With Biographical Memoirs of their Lives and Action," Vol 3. New York: Cornish, Lamport, & Co., 1853, p. 427.


M.D. Massie, "Past and Present of Pike County, Illinois, Together with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Prominent and Leading Citizens and Illustrious Dead." Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1906, p. 225.


"Micah Ross's Immediate Family" atgeni.com/list?focus_id=6000000002530825211&group=immediate_family


Jessie M. Thompson, "Pike County Settled 1820: 100 Years Ago," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol 13. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1920, p. 74.