“Wash” Armstrong, as he is called by all who knew him, is the second son of Joseph and Elsie Armstrong and was born upon their farm on the east fork of the Licking, in Licking county, Ohio, December 11, 1812, and came to Illinois with his mother and family in the spring of 1831 and located upon the farm where he still resides, in 1833. A part of this farm lies in Grundy county and the balance in LaSalle county, and his residence is in the latter. His father was born in the county of Fermanagh in the north of Ireland and came to the United States with his father’s family in 1789 and settled in Somerset county, Pennsylvania, when but ten years old; and his mother, whose maiden name was Strawn (she being a sister of the late Jacob Strawn, the early cattle king of the west), was of Pennsylvania Quaker stock.
This branch of the Armstrongs are of Scotch descent and crossed over the channel dividing Scotland and Ireland in the sixteenth century. The origin of the name Armstrong, according to the family tradition, sprang from the heroic and daring act of one Fairbeon, who was the armorer to one of the early kings of Scotland, whose horse was killed in battle with the British, falling upon and breaking one of the king’s legs, thus imprisoning him, when Fairbeon, seeing the imminent danger of his sovereign, cut his way through the British lines and rescued him, then passing one arm around the kings’ body under his arms, with his sword in the other hand, and the king being supplied with a second sword, they fought their way to safety. Whereupon Fairbeon was created and dubbed Knight of the Strong Arm, but subsequently changed to Armstrong; and the king conferred upon him a castle with a large territory on the south border of Scotland, with a coat-of-arms which consisted of three uplifted hands, each holding a drawn sword, emblematic of the heroism of Fairbeon. This is substantially the tradition of the origin of the “Armstrongs of the Border”, which became a powerful clan in the south of Scotland.
The subject of this sketch, though untaught, is farm from being unlettered in point of education. In the broader meaning of the word he is a master, but his mastery is self-acquired and self-taught. His school days were few indeed, but the light of the dip tallow candle and the bark of the shell-bark hickory of evenings supplied the place of the log-cabin schoolhouse of his school age. True he never studied English grammar or the higher mathematics, nor did he ever read novels or fool away his time over fiction. History, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy and political economy were his special favorites. Though not a professor of religion, he seldom if ever used profane or obscene language; nor did he ever use tobacco in any form, and was never known to play a game of cards or any other game of chance. Fond of music, yet he could never sing; and we doubt whether he could tell the difference between Auld Lang Syne and Old Hundred; and we have often heard him say that all his dancing was done under the influence of a switch – in his mother’s hand! He never had the inclination to hunt, fish, play ball, wrestle or indulge in any other boyish sports or amusements; hence he was called the “Old Man Armstrong”, even when he had not passed his ‘teens. A born mechanic, he always, from the time he was a dozen years old, could make almost anything in wood, iron or leather, and at the age of sixteen he ran the leading machinery of his father’s woolen factory; and when eighteen years old he became the general manager of the entire factory.
On the 10th of March, 1835, he was united in marriage with Miss Nancy Green, of Morgan county, Illinois, who was a helpmate in every sense of that word and ably assisted him in educating and raising his seven sons and two daughters. All of them are still living except their oldest son, John G., who was a lawyer but drifted into the newspaper business as correspondent and editor, was generally known by his non de plume “Bemus”, and died at his home in Ottawa in 1890. Their other children are William, who was a captain in the war of the Rebellion and now lives in Colorado; Rev. Julius C., who is the general superintendent of city missions of the Congregational Churches of Chicago; Joseph L., who lives on the old homestead; Marshall N., a prominent lawyer of Ottawa, Illinois; Susan I., the wife of L. B. Laughlin, of South Dakota; James E., the principal of the Englewood high school of Chicago; and Charles G., who is the state electrician and engineer and lives in Chicago, and is one of the leading electricians of the United States.
During the early settlement of northern Illinois there were no sawmills within a radius of fifty miles of Mr. Armstrong’s residence and all the lumber used was hauled overland from Chicago. This induced Mr. Armstrong to erect a sawmill on the Waupecan at the point where the present bridge now stands – at the crossing of that creek on the river road – in 1836. Immediately west of this mill-site and upon the west bank of the Waupecan, the late Augustus H. Owen and Jacob Claypool laid out a town and called it Hidalgo. Here Mr. Armstrong erected a double log cabin and occupied it as a store and a dwelling, and he also built a log cabin for the blacksmith shop. But the Waupecan proved to be a thunder-shower stream, and the name was too big for the town to carry; hence he left both to “innocuous desuetude” and went to canal-digging at Utica, Illinois, in 1837, removing his stock of dry goods and blacksmith tools, together with his family, to that place. His canal contract was rock excavation, amounting to several hundred thousand dollars. Upon the completion of this work he returned to his farm and has remained there continuously ever since. He assisted in laying out the original town of Morris, as well as Chapin’s addition to the town of Morris, and has been the owner of a large number of lots therein, as shown by the records. When the work on the Morris bridge was stopped for want of funds his individual note brought the needed money. So, too, with the old Hopkin’s house; his money built it and he was compelled to take the title as security. He was the first president of the Morris Bridge Company, as well as the Seneca Bridge Company.
His legislative service began by his election as a representative from Grundy and LaSalle counties in 1844, and he is the only survivor of that body of seventy-five members. His next experience as a lawmaker was as a delegate from said Grundy and LaSalle counties in the constitutional convention of 1847, of which body of eminent men he and Governor Palmer are the only survivors. He was again a member of the house of representatives several sessions up to 1878. A ready and forceful debater and the universally admitted best parliamentarian of the state, he was a leader of every session of the legislature of which he was a member. Though a stanch Democrat, he was quite popular with his political opponents as with his own party, because he was always courteous and eminently fair in his action upon all questions with all parties, though firm and what was deemed “a good fighter”. He represented his town of Brookfield in the board of supervisors of LaSalle county over twenty years and was the chairman thereof some sixteen years, and was the chairman of the courthouse and jail building committee, who erected the present county building in Ottawa. He was also the agent who secured the right of way for the Seneca & Kankakee Railroad and was the Democratic nominee against the late Owen Lovejoy for congress in 1858, but was defeated.
A peacemaker and general arbitrator of all neighborhood difficulties all his life, and so sympathetic for others’ wants, that he has paid out fortunes as bondsman and endorser of other men’s obligations; yet he managed to keep his farm and educate his children and still have a competence; and though in his eighty-eighth year his small, lithe body stands as erect as when but twenty-one years old. If he ever had an enemy he was a silent one, for we never heard a single word against him or his motives. His wife crossed the silent river some years ago, and, his life work being finished, he is simply waiting for the summons to follow her to the home of the silent. Meanwhile –
“Earth’s hold on him grows slighter,
And the heavy burdens lighter,
And the dawn immortal brighter,
Source: Biographical and Genealogical Record of La Salle and Grundy County, Illinois, Volume II, Chicago, 1900, p. 432-435. ↩