John Hossack: Abolitionist, Underground Railway Railroad Conductor and Station Master, Canal Builder, Merchant, Fugitive Slave Law Violator, Spark for the Civil War.


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John Hossack of Ottawa, Illinois.  Abolitionist, Underground Railway Conductor, Canal Builder.  Grain and Lumber Merchant.  Crusader for Human Rights and Liberty.  Man of God.  He feared God and loved his Fellow Man.



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bulletJay W. Preston Visit to Ottawa, 1994 

This is a letter Jay W. Preston wrote to his cousins retelling research and discovery of ancestral graves in Ottawa. Having already had airline tickets one can imagine taking the not too long trip from Chicago to Ottawa to do such poignant research. In addition to there being a very compelling draw for Mr. Preston, there is a great deal of history to learn from the area. Read on:

JOHN HOSSACK, LINCOLN DOUGLAS DEBATE,OTTAWA,ILLINOIS,1858Letter to known cousins of August 29, 1994 (the "term paper"):

Dear Cousins:

A business trip brought me to Chicago on Friday August 26, 1994. When I finished, I rented a car and drove to Ottawa to see what I could learn about the Hossack family seat in the U.S.A.  As it turned out Ottawa had hosted a reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates only the weekend before. This was even televised nationwide on C-SPAN. Hence, history was on a lot of minds.

I stopped off at the Ottawa Avenue Cemetery, the visitors Bureau, the Library, and the various sites which figure in the Hossack saga. I took photos of the house, the plot, and several other historical sites. I talked by phone with Ms. J.C. (Carol) Hossack (back to her maiden name). She is a niece of George H (D) and a descendant of the same line as William R (D) and William John of CA. I also talked by phone with Tom Godfrey, whose grandfather Philip bought and occupied the Hossack house until his death. Philip Godfrey’s widow recently passed away, and the next occupant is in question. Mr. Godfrey says that he is trying to entice one of his relatives to return.

Mr. Godfrey dropped a suggestion that I might want to inhabit the ancestral manse. He assured me that while winters in Ottawa are "hard," one need not be worried about all the snow removal equipment in parking lots around town. The threatening signs about "snow emergency" routes are no big deal. besides, the Illinois River never freezes solid anymore. The heavy icebreaking barge traffic keeps it open all year round.

He didn’t mention the Fox River. Anyway, I like my Rivers paved with concrete and dry for all but two weeks each year. Besides, for this California-raised kid, everything in Ottawa is entirely too green for August. I need a good brush fire from time to time. An earthquake is good, too.

A very interesting part of my trip was the family plot at the cemetery. It gave me considerable insight about John Hossack himself. I was expecting a significant monument in this very expansive cemetery on the north bluff of the Illinois river to the southwest of Ottawa. During my first time through, late on Friday, I missed the plot. Early on Saturday, I was able to find it, more by chance, than design. It has a three-foot high stone granite block monument with "HOSSACK" on the west side and "MOORE" on the east side. There are four matching limestone headstones on a low plinth in a row. These are John Hossack (centered in front of the monument and to the west), his wife, Martha Lens Hossack, her mother Ann Lens, and Henry Lens (NOT John and Martha's son because headstone dates were 10/13/1824 to 9/22/1851. JH had a brother Henry who died at age 8 in 1832 but with that birthdate). Brother Henry was the "baby" of the JH siblings, and this might account for the burial at the side of Ann (Gilley) Lens. In virtually every long source, the boast is included of "there was not a death in the family for 54 years." This is repeated in the "History" by Frederick Newton Hossack, the best source I have. That 54 year span would be enclosed by the death dates of JH baby brother, Henry Lens and granddaughter Belle. Mother-in-Law Ann Lens must not count. Neither does George, another JH brother cited by FNH as passing in 1849 at the age of 20.

It was rather moving to stand on the final resting place of so many ancestors, including my great-great and great-great-great grandmothers. Yet, I am faced with still another mystery to unravel. I estimate other sites in the cemetery where relatives probably lie with spouses and the extended families as being Scott, Porter, Strawn, Jennings, Calkins, and Pope.

Of the Hossack children, Henry Lens Hossack and his family stuck around in Ottawa. He wound up operating the family business and ultimately getting involved with beverage bottling, contracting, and real estate. Henry’s biography says he shipped as much as one half million bushels of wheat annually. He was a local big-wig in the Grand Army of the Republic having raised a volunteer company in 1864 (said to have done guard duty in Kansas and Missouri). He is also said to have been on the City Council. A puff piece in the 1908 commemorative Republican Times (reprinted for the Lincoln-Douglas Debate reenactment) says that his paving of the streets in East Ottawa was unsurpassed in quality.

In the back row of the plot was a line of five more headstones that differed from the other four, being of granite. From right to left; Belle (daughter of HLH who died at 17 years), Medora Tuttle H. (Wife of HLH), Harry Jr. (Son of HLH). The resting place of HLH is likely with his second wife, Alice Jennings. I didn't look for it. I thought his was the Henry Lens in the front row until I checked the dates.

The five stones in the rear were a bit more ornamental and matched the central monument. The other two of the five were Emma Delight (Daughter of HLH), and her husband John Moore.

John Hossack's stone was plain and businesslike. this matches the man whose claim to fame is that he was one of 17 dignitaries who were on the dais for the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 and a conductor on the underground railway. The incident that brought him mention in three books on history of Ottawa and LaSalle County and his own memorial book was his arrest with four others for violating the fugitive slave act and helping one Jim Grey escape to Canada. At this point in history, violators of the Act were treated and feted as heroes by Chicagoans.

According to the Scott genealogy that I saw in the "Illinois Room" of the Reddick Library, John Hossack was actually nominated as the abolitionist candidate for Illinois governor. This is at odds with the account that the governorship was only talked about, according to the history by FNH. I could find reference to JH in indexes of only a few of the general history books on hand. This out of perhaps 150 feet of bookshelf space. The JH memorial book was there, as were many copies of the Scott genealogy.

The issue of the John Hossack candidacy ought to be easily verified from contemporary news accounts. It should be noted that I could not find a reference to JH in any of the Lincoln books that I checked. Hookers and Hunters, but no Hossacks. I was looking for Hossacks not Abe, so I didn't go through all of them.

Another bit gleaned from the Scott book is that an effigy of Martha Lens Hossack models her period costume of black lace at the Illinois History Museum in Springfield (this was circa 1956).

Siebert's The Underground Railway mentioned John Hossack on one page. Drury's Old Illinois Houses has two pages and a Photo. William Wirt Calkins (Husband of Louise, child #6 of JH who raised the four daughters [including my grandmother, Alta] of Florence Isabelle H Putney after giving birth to twins who also died in 1892) wrote an 1895 book, The History of the 104th Infantry of Illinois.

The Scott genealogy said that all the John Hossack children were encouraged to work in the stores to learn the value of productive labor. With eleven of them, it was probably an economic necessity as well. the Ottawa city directory of 1878-79 lists the following Hossacks: Archibald R (painter), Alexander M (engineer), Belle (clerk), Francis Louise (clerk), Frederick N (Bookkeeper for Scott Bros.), Isabella F (clerk, likely my great grandmother), Jacob P (clerk), John (JH, grain dealer), Mary S, and William R (likely cousin of JH).

The Ottawa directory 1869-70 shows only Alex (engineer) John (grain merchant), and Lawrence (of firm of Allen and Hossack). Of this group, I believe Alexander (different wife and birthdate), the engineer, to be the brother of JH. I haven't got a clue as to Lawrence.

The Visitors Bureau has two good prints of etchings of Ottawa circa 1880. These show the John Hossack house in the foreground. The house itself has lost one of its wings, since then, and is quite obscured by dense forest growth. Only the northwestern corner peeks through the trees. the Visitor's Bureau Office is at 619 LaSalle Street, and the prints can be had for $5.00 each. The tinted one has more class.

The lateral canal where the Hossack granary stood has been filled in next to Canal Street. The site is now an elementary school. The original Hossack bridge at the end of LaSalle Street has been replaced at least twice. It was the first of these that allowed JH to develop the real estate on the south bluff "away from the dust and noise of the city" of Ottawa. The springs at the base of the bluffs were the center of Henry Lens Hossack’s bottling efforts, but they and the bridge were eliminated when dams on the Illinois River raised the water level some 35 feet above what it had been. The rising water also reduced much of the utility of the Illinois and Michigan Canal which had made Ottawa a major gateway trading center.

Ottawa was set to become the biggest city in Illinois. Then the railroads came in and everything changed. Ottawa is now something of a backwater and becoming an exurb for Chicago. According to the Visitors Bureau, Ottawa had the choice of either the University of Illinois or the appellate court. Ottawa chose the court; Urbana got UI. Ottawa is the archetypal midwestern town with many churches, union halls, and fraternal organizations. It is very proud of its historical ties. It is very well maintained, and the downtown area seems busy, but there are a number of storefronts boarded up. The city is virtually free of the graffiti that plagues California. However, many of the local kids are dressed in the same manner as CA gang members.

OTTAWA, ILLINOIS SANBORN MAP OF 1880The "Illinois Room" in the library had old Sanborn (1:600 fire maps) maps of old Ottawa showing the way it was with the canals and locks. One of the problems I encountered was that no copies of materials are permitted without prior authorization.

To locate the John Hossack cemetery plot, take LaSalle Street south. Turn right on Main Street to W.D. Boyce (Founder of the Boy Scouts of America) Memorial Highway and turn left. Continue across Ottawa Avenue, past the Illinois Centennial Monument on the left, into the cemetery. Turn left on the last road before the brick chapel-looking building. Turn right at the next access road. The plot is on the east side of the access road, just southeast of the chapel building.

I hope you have learned as much as I did from my excursion. I had limited time. I had to have the car back to O'Hare, so I left Ottawa at 1:30 PM. I am still digesting the fruits of my labor and reviewing the photos I took.

Your cousin and roving historian,

Jay W. Preston


This website is produced by Jay W. Preston to honor John Hossack, the Abolitionist of Ottawa, Illinois.  The father dedicates this to his son, Yujin Jay Preston (1979-1999), daughter Elika, and daughter Yuli, great great great grandchildren of John Hossack. Permission to reprint this material is granted when this notice is included in full.  2000 - 2010 Jay W. Preston.  For information, comments or contributions of time, money, information, materials, or manpower to this site: E-mail Copyrights of works cited, quoted, or excerpted remain with the respective owners, if not in public domain.