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Who is Ruth?

Ruth Eliza Murray was a real girl. She truly did live in Ashtabula, Ohio with her family until they all moved with Uncle Joe out to Illinois to settle down near the DuPage River. No film crew documented the trip. There are no photographs, no diaries, no newspaper accounts. Years later, reporters interviewed the few settlers still living to record their memories, and some families have passed down old stories, but very little information exists about the founding of Naper’s Settlement.

Recreating Ruth’s story meant being a detective. Even simple facts had to be checked and rechecked. How old was Ruth is 1831? Was her birthday before or after the July trip? Is there a birth record or a gravestone to prove it? How did she look? Was she smart? Funny? Nice?

Tiny clues helped to build Ruth’s character: Her parents were Scottish and Irish, two nationalities that have the highest incidence of red hair. Ruth didn’t marry as young as her sisters did. Maybe she felt less attractive. Ruth’s older sister, Sally Ann, named a daughter after Ruth, so there must have been affection between them. Little by little, Ruth Eliza Murray came alive again.

Being a Detective

The same detective work was done for each of the people in the story, as well as for the ship they traveled on and the cities they visited. Woven around the historical facts is the imagined day-to-day life of the twelve-year-old girl who experienced this journey.

Knowing our history helps us understand our own place in it.

  • Ruth’s grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War.
  • After Ruth settled on the DuPage River, forty years would pass before Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in her little house on the prairie.
  • And when Wilder died, Disneyland had already been delighting children for years.

It’s not so far after all to reach back through the years and shake hands with a girl from 1831, when our town, Naperville, was born.

A Few Great Online Resources

Many sources provided dates, names, and other background information so Ruth by Lake and Prairie could be as historically accurate as possible. Books, newspapers, and the Internet were scoured for facts. Interviews with historians and with descendants of the original settlers were also conducted.

Here are a few of the online resources that were referred to again and again during the writing of Ruth by Lake and Prairie:

A Compendium of the Early History of Chicago to the Year 1835, when the Indians left

Maritime History of the Great Lakes

The Naper Settlement

Conner Prairie Living History Museum

Naperville’s Original Thirteen

Just as America started with Thirteen Original States, I believe Joseph Naper set out with Thirteen Original Pioneers. “Five families” is the quote most often repeated, drawn from the histories written by Rufus Blanchard and C.W. Richmond, but an unexpected Google search result prompted my hunt to identify thirteen families.

Both Richmond and Blanchard list Joseph and John Naper, John Murray, Lyman Butterfield, H.T. Wilson “and a Mr. Carpenter,” as The History of DuPage County puts it. Every account of the founding of Naperville written since the 1880’s seems to draw from these two sources. Following up on these men, I found references to other families who arrived in the area at about the same time. Could they have traveled together?

Records list only three ships anchoring at Fort Dearborn in 1831. In May, the Napoleon transported troops from the fort to Green Bay. In November, the Marengo brought supplies. And in July, the Telegraph brought Joe Naper and his associates. If a manifest exists of the Telegraph’s passengers, I was not able to find it, and set about building my list from other sources.

As part owner of an Internet company, the obvious first step was to Google the Telegraph. I found enrolment information, an advertisement from the Cleveland Weekly Herald, and a photograph of a tombstone monument in Graceland Cemetery. 

Graceland, on Clark Street in Chicago, offers beautiful landscapes, fascinating sculpture, and a wealth of history. Having visited several times since I was a kid, I was familiar with the monument in the photo, Eternal Silence by Loredo Taft, but I had never thought to look behind the statue. On the back side is a bronze plaque that reads in part:

"Erected by Henry Graves, son of Dexter Graves, one of the pioneers of Chicago. Dexter Graves brought the first colony to Chicago consisting of thirteen families arriving here July 15th 1831 from Ashtabula, Ohio on the schooner Telegraph.”

The date, the departure locale, even the ship name was familiar, but who was this Dexter Graves? In the clipping file at the Chicago Historical Society was a long article from the Sunday Chronicle of April 5, 1896. Mainly about Henry Graves, the “first great horseman in the west,” it also offered a lengthy account of how Henry’s family emigrated from Ashtabula to Chicago. 

In the Graves family story, it was Dexter who scouted out Illinois and brought the information back to the Naper brothers, and Dexter who convinced them to build a boat to transport the settlers he himself would rally. Regardless of whose tradition is closer to the truth, the Graves family did take part in the journey. The article goes on to say that nine of the thirteen families continued to the DuPage River to found a town – “the beautiful town of Naperville.” The families that stayed in Chicago were the Graves, the Bonds, and the Wilsons.

Now there were seven names, and I continued to read local histories of northern Illinois for families who were living here before 1832. Those who served in the Black Hawk War, participated in winter social events, or who ran for office in the fall were early candidates. 

Will County records state that the Sisson, Lanfear, Stevens and Boardman families “came around the lakes, in a schooner; and after a long and stormy passage, landed at an outpost called Chicago, in the latter part of July” in 1831, giving me four more families. 

Several Chicago history books confirm that P.F.W. Peck also arrived on the Telegraph. Peck was Joseph Naper’s business partner with trading posts in both Naper’s Settlement and Chicago. Fleshing out the Naper family tree revealed that Amy Naper Murray’s oldest daughter was married in Ohio to Henry C. Babbitt in 1828. Both Henry and his father David Babbitt lived in DuPage by the time of the War. Perhaps they also traveled with the Napers?

I discussed the possibilities with both Bryan Ogg, Assistant Curator at the Settlement, and Leone Schmidt, Warrenville’s City Historian, who has frequently written about DuPage history. While there are still a few question marks, I believe I have compiled a fairly accurate list of families:

  • Joseph Naper
  • John Naper
  • John Murray
  • H. T. Wilson
  • Lyman Butterfield 
  • Ira Carpenter
  • Dexter Graves 
  • Mr. Bond
  • PFW Peck
  • Harry Boardman
  • Holder Sisson
  • Henry Babbitt
  • David Babbitt
  • Selah Lanfear
  • Orrin Stevens
  • Sarah Naper
  • Robert Strong

Yes, that does add up to more than thirteen. One explanation may be Dexter’s definition of “family.” Peck and Carpenter were single men, and Bond may have been as well. (I haven’t yet determined which of the several Bonds listed in early Chicago records are likely candidates.) Grandmother Sarah Naper probably made her home with one of her children. The young Babbitts may also have been part of a larger family unit, or perhaps Henry and David joined the Naper group after the Telegraph journey but before the Black Hawk War. Finally, records say Robert Strong arrived in Chicago in July of 1831, which is suggestive, but I have not yet confirmed that he actually sailed on the Telegraph.

Adding wives and children born before 1831 gives us an approximate total of 60 people, not counting crew. I spoke with experts at the Chicago Maritime Festival and at Tall Ships Chicago who confirmed that a ship of the Telegraph’ssize could indeed carry that many passengers, as well as cargo, although not in any great comfort.

Dexter Graves’ monument has driven much of my research, a history treasure hunt that has been both thrilling and satisfying. While his version of our history wasn’t a secret, it hadn’t been looked at in the light for some time. I’m sure other resources of information are yet to be re-discovered, and I look forward to finding more details to develop the story of The Original Thirteen.


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