By LINDA RIGGS MAYFIELD
Ursa, north of Quincy on Ill. 96, has its oldest roots in families whose descendents live in the township today. The first settlers came in 1823 and included George Campbell, William Worley, Samuel Groshong (Grosjean), and Stephen Ruddell, who built their cabins in Sections 18, 29, 30, and 31 of the Bear Creek Territory of what was then Pike County.
Campbell, the first settler, came to the area from Tennessee alone on foot. On his way he met John Wood and Willard Keyes on the site that would become Quincy. Campbell returned to Tennessee and in the spring of 1824 headed back with his livestock and necessities. He met a widower, Samuel Groshong, and his daughters, Mary and Fannie, and the four traveled north together on the Missouri side of the Mississippi. North of Palmyra, Mo., they built a raft and floated and swam people, animals, and supplies across the river and soon reached their destination.
Groshong was employed by the U.S. government as a courier and scout between Fort Edwards at Warsaw and Alton and often traveled the well-used trail that went through the Bear Creek Territory. He lived and dressed as a Native American and spoke French and four Indian languages. He settled "on the north east quarter of Section 29 near Rock Creek." Sections were one mile square, and settlers often purchased quarter sections.
In 1825 Campbell's sister and brothers came from Kentucky and settled near him. On June 29 George's brother David married Sarah Worley, the daughter of another 1823 settler. Soon, three of the first settlers' families would be joined in marriage. On Aug. 18 the pioneers demonstrated their ingenuity and propriety by returning to Quincy for the wedding of George Campbell and Mary "Polly" Groshong. The license was written on brown wrapping paper, as was the permit signed by Samuel. At 14, Polly was not of legal marrying age. Lacking a preacher or judge, Quincy co-founder Willard Keyes performed the ceremony and signed his new title below his name: "County Comm." Adams County had been organized out of Pike County on Jan. 13.
Ruddell brought a unique history when he settled in Ursa. When he was about 12, Ruddell and most of his family had been captured when British soldiers and Indians raided their Kentucky settlement. Stephen was "adopted" and raised by a Shawnee woman in Ohio who treated him well, and he spent much of his teens being trained as a warrior with a Native American named Tecumseh. Both rose to leadership among the Shawnees. Ruddell acted as an interpreter for Tecumseh when he negotiated with the government and was present at the signing of the Treaty of Greenville.
When Ruddell was nearly 30 and married, he accepted the opportunity to leave the Shawnees and return to his family. But his father did not recognize him at first, his mother had died, and his wife did not adjust to the new life and returned to her people. Still, after several moves, Ruddell returned to Kentucky. Ruddell became a Christian, acquired schooling, became a Baptist preacher, and married again. From 1805 to 1811 he preached to the Shawnees and Delawares in Ohio. He moved his family to Missouri, then in 1823 to Ursa.
In the winter of 1827 Samuel Groshong died and was buried in an unmarked grave in what is now designated the Denson Pioneer Cemetery south of Ursa. In the same year George and Mary Groshong Campbell became the parents of Andrew Jackson Campbell, the first baby boy born to settlers in Adams County. The Campbells' only close neighbors were Potawatomi Indians in two nearby encampments. Andrew grew up playing with the Indian children and became more fluent in their language than English. When George had to be away, those neighbors would move in closer to look after Mary and the family.
The Campbell farm occupied the northwest quarter of Section 31, on the west side of present Ill. 96 south of Ursa. George and his sons planted walnut trees all the way around the perimeter and across the center of what came to be called Walnut Grove Farm, and eventually the area and became known as Walnut Corners. Campbell donated land on the northeast corner of his farm for Union School. Joel Frazier arrived in 1827 and was the first teacher.
The early settlers endured the winter of 1830, afterward referred to as "the year of the deep snow" because snow depth was reported to average four feet, with drifts reaching 18 to 20 feet. Snow was on the ground from December to April, and the pioneers suffered. Food became scarce. Campbell got stranded in a snowstorm while taking corn south to Mill Creek to be ground, and his Indian neighbors went searching for him. Four days later all returned, exhausted but safe. In at least two other instances Potawatomis apparently saved George's life.
More settlers came to the area, and in addition to the farms, a community developed along the trail. The first school was built in the town and taught by Hans Patten. Ruddell organized the Bear Creek Christian Church in 1833 and served as its pastor until his death on October 12, 1845, at the age of 76. It later became the Ursa Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
In 1844 the "new Providence Church of Regular Baptists" hired David Barnett, a stonemason, to build their church on land donated by Matthias Bruen. Called the Old Stone Church, it still stands, long unused, in the New Providence Cemetery on Ill. 96 north of Ursa.
Ursa became a thriving community with shops and services, but when the railroad came after the Civil War, it crossed the Smith farm about one-half mile north of town instead of going through Ursa. Smith sold lots with railroad access, and beginning with the storeowners, all the businesses of Ursa moved north to the railroad.
Soon the original town was called "Old Ursa," and the new one "New Ursa." In a few years only New Ursa remained. Several of the early building in New Ursa and Ursa Township have been repurposed and remain in use, but few signs of Old Ursa remain except the Denson Pioneer Cemetery and a later addition to the old school that is now a barn on the Gene Shriver farm. A log cabin built by William Smith in 1848 is being restored where Old Ursa once stood, and a large stone farmhouse built southeast of the town about 1835 is still occupied.
Family histories of Ursa's earliest settlers have been maintained in oral traditions, books, and newspaper articles. George Campbell's story was related by his descendents about 1932, when Ernest Kroll, owner of the Mendon Dispatch Times, asked local citizens to share family histories for his newspaper, and many did. Although sources often differ on details, Ursa's rich history has been well-preserved.
First settlers George and Polly Campbell became the parents of 12 children with such patriotic names as George Washington, Francis Marion, Thomas Jefferson, and Louisa America. All but two married and settled near Ursa. A century later their grandson's wife commented, "I expect that a full half of the people now living in Ursa Township are related to the Campbells." Many of today's Ursa residents are descendants of several of the earliest families: those first settlers put down deep roots that survived many transitions from old to new.
Linda Riggs Mayfield is a researcher, writer, and online consultant for doctoral scholars and authors. She retired from the associate faculty of Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing, and serves on the board of the Historical Society.
Anderson, Milo D. Personal interview. Ursa, IL: July 2, 2013.
Anderson, Milo D. Ursa Township: Its People and Neighbors: A Step Back in Time. Ursa, IL: self-published, 2000.
Find a Grave Memorial. "George Campbell." Accessed July 6, 2013. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=19799887
Find a Grave Memorial. "Samuel Groshong." Accessed July 6, 2013. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=19799244
"A Pioneer Story: Major Riddle's Sons Captured and Brought Up by Indians." Research based on Draper Manuscript Collection, University of Wisconsin. Accessed July 15, 2013. www.frontierfolk.net/ramsha_research/ruddellstephen.
Ruddell, Stephen. "Reminiscences of Tecumseh's Youth." Manuscript, AJ-155. Wisconsin Historical Society's American Journeys: Eyewitness Accounts of Early American Exploration and Settlement: A Digital Library and Learning Center. Accessed July 15, 2013. www.americanjourneys.org/aj-155/
Shriver, Gene. Personal interview. Ursa, IL: July 2, 2013.
Shriver, Ted. Telephone interview. Ursa, IL: July 6, 2013.
Waite, Truman. Memories of the Past. Camp Point, IL: Taylor Publications, n.d.
Waite, Truman. "Ursa Township." In People's History of Adams County, Illinois, edited by Landry Genosky, 735-740. Quincy, IL: Jost & Kiefer Printing