Biography of William Elder Armstrong

The name of no man living or dead is so intimately connected with and interwoven in the early history of Grundy county and the city of Morris as that of William E. Armstrong, from its inception, birth and christening to the time of his death. He was the third son of Joseph and Elsie (nee Strawn) Armstrong, and was born upon the farm of his parents in Licking county, Ohio, October 25, 1814, and died while visiting his mother at her farm home, in the town of Deer Park, LaSalle county, Illinois, November 2, 1850. He was a man of untiring energy and indomitable will power, and though slightly above medium size he was a giant in physical strength and intellect. While educated in the broader sense of the word, his school days were few and confined to the neighborhood log schoolhouse, where the entire course of studies was embraced in the boy’s “three R’s” – “Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic.’’ His labor was confined to the farm and the raising and caring for stock. He was a famous speller and attended every spelling-school of the vicinity, and was always first choice.

He came to Illinois with his mother and six brothers, in April, 1831, and located first near where Lacon, Illinois, now stands, and in August of that year they located in what is now the town of Deer Park, in LaSalle county, where he remained until reaching his majority. When volunteers were called for to defend the women and children of the pioneers from the bloody tomahawk of the merciless savage in the Black Hawk war of 1832, he was among the first to respond, though but seventeen years old, and was accepted and mustered into service in Captain McFadden’s company, and performed much dangerous scouting duty and remained in the service until that war was over.

In the month of November, 1835, by the assistance of his mother, he and his younger brother, Joel W., purchased a stock of dry goods located in South Ottawa and converted it into a general store. As the country was rapidly filling up, the demand for, and sale of, such goods became very good and the venture was a grand financial success. He was united in marriage with Miss Sarah Ann, a daughter of the late Judge Joel Strawn, on the 6th day of February, 1836, and immediately commenced housekeeping in South Ottawa. To them were born two daughters: Jemima E., now the wife of James S. Doolittle, of Chatsworth, Illinois; and Emma D., now the wife of George Hardy, of Goodland, Indiana. His wife died in 1847 and was buried in the family lot in the Ottawa cemetery and by her side sleeps the remains of her husband. She was a most estimable woman as wife, mother, neighbor and friend.

The business of the Armstrong firm soon increased to such a degree that a larger store room must be had, hence they erected a large wooden building near the Sulphur Spring in South Ottawa, which was then the principal part of that town, using a part for their store and the balance for a hotel; and Mr. Armstrong obtained a charter from the legislature to run a ferry across the Illinois river at that place; and as their freight bills were heavy—for they bought nearly all their goods in St. Louis—they built a steamboat, which they christened “The Ottawa.” It was a stern-wheeler of light draft and proved a failure; it was run aground near Starved Rock and never raised. Thus Captain Armstrong lost his boat and title of captain, for he was too much of a man to carry the name “Captain.” He seldom spoke of his steamboat adventure after leaving it sunk in the river, but turned his attention from steamboating to canal-building and became the contractor for the construction of several miles of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, at the letting of contracts, in the spring of 1837. His contracts were scattered from Utica in LaSalle county to Morris in Grundy county. Having finished up his canal contracts at Ottawa, Buffalo Rock and Utica, he turned his attention to his two sections at or near where Morris now stands.

But the distance from Ottawa to the north and east lines of LaSalle county impressed him strongly of the desirability of a division of the then enormously large county of LaSalle; and upon conferring with the late Jacob Claypool and other leading men he learned that several efforts had been made in that direction, all of which had failed for want of definiteness. He thereupon determined to petition the state legislature for two new counties, one to be taken from the east side of LaSalle county, to be called Grundy, in honor of the late Felix Grundy, of Tennessee, and the other to be taken from the north side of the county, to be called Kendall, in honor of Amos Kendall, late postmaster-general. Having prepared such a petition in the fall of 1840, he was ably assisted in their circulation by his elder brother, Hon. George W. Armstrong, and the late L. W. Claypool and others. Having obtained the signatures of nearly every legal voter in the districts to be affected, he personally took them to Springfield when the legislature convened that winter and presented them to that body, which granted the prayer of the petition by the passage of the act creating these two counties; and the act became a law on the 17th of February, 1841. This enactment provided for the holding of an election at the house of Columbus Pinney on section 7, township 33, range 7, better known as “Castle Dangerous,” on the fourth Monday in May, 1841, for county officers.

Mr. Armstrong moved his family from Ottawa to where Morris now stands in March of that year, and occupied a double log cabin standing where the gas works now are, and begun active work on his canal contracts here. He became a candidate for sheriff at that election but was defeated by the late Isaac Hoge, who declined to qualify; and at a special election held for that office in the following November Mr. Armstrong was elected to that position and re-elected several times thereafter, practically without opposition. The shrievalty was by far the best county office, for he was ex-officio collector of all the taxes.

Under the act creating Grundy county the seat of justice was required to be located upon canal land and upon the line of said canal, and Messrs. W. B. Burnett (chief engineer of the canal), Rufus S. Duryea, of Yorkville, and Mr. Armstrong were appointed commissioners to act in conjunction with the then three canal commissioners to locate such seat of justice. These commissioners met soon after their appointment and upon examination found but two points eligible—sections 7 and 9, township 33, range 7. Section 9 is centrally located, while section 7 is two miles west of the center of the county from east to west. But a small portion of section 9 lies on the canal line or north of the Illinois river, while section 7 is nearly all north of the river. Hence the canal commissioners voted for section 7, while the other three voted for section 9. In point of elevation and adjoining country, section 9 is vastly superior to section 7. Thus the commissioners were in a deadlock until General Thornton was succeeded by Hon. Isaac N. Morris, who after viewing the two places voted in favor of section 9, which settled the question and the county seat; and upon motion of Mr. Armstrong it was named Morris, in honor of his vote. The final decision was not reached until April 12, 1842. Thus from the fourth Monday in May, 1841, to the 12th of April, 1842, Grundy county was without a seat of justice. In the meantime court was held at Mr. Armstrong’s cabin home, and all the county officers located their offices there, and Mr. Armstrong established and ran a ferry across the river at that point. He also erected at his own private cost a wooden building for a court-house, and a fairly good-sized building for a hotel, which he named Grundy Hotel. This he occupied and operated himself. This hotel furnished food and lodging to many of the leading men of Illinois of that period, among whom were Lincoln, Douglas, Ford, Reynolds, Wentworth and Judges Young, Smith, Henderson, Caton, David Davis, etc. Upon his last canal contracts Mr. Armstrong lost nearly everything, on, account of the depreciation in value of what was known as canal scrip, which he was compelled to take at their face value for the work he did. This scrip declined in commercial value as low as twenty-eight cents to the dollar!

They were printed on the back of the defunct State Bank of Illinois’ bills after cutting off the names of the president and cashier. The following is a literal copy of one of these due bills or canal scrip:

“V         CANAL INDEBTEDNESS.           5.
No. 28.

“Due from the Board of Commissioners of the Illinois and Michigan
“Canal for work done on said canal, Five Dollars, which they promise to
“pay the bearer of this when funds are provided for that purpose.

“Lockport, Feby. 1st, 1842.
“J. Manning, Secretary. Jacob Fry, Act. Com.”

No funds were provided to pay these state obligations until long after Mr. Armstrong’s death, notwithstanding the state was legally bound to redeem every dollar of their pledges with interest from and after their presentation. Trusting and relying upon the fulfillment of these promises, he prosecuted his contract to completion, taking the canal scrip at par for his work and paying his men in good money for their labor, thus losing over seventy cents upon every dollar he received! In this way was he robbed without redress, save through legislative enactment, which he sought in vain. He was forced to dispose of his canal scrip as best he could for the money to pay his labor, etc. He finally brought suit against the state, but the case was continued time and time again. Sick of the law’s delay, and broken down with vexation, the end came as before stated.

Taken all in all, he was the finest specimen of physical and mental manhood we ever knew. Quick to perceive and prompt to act, he could devise ways and means to accomplish the most stupendous results when other men would yield in despair. Whatever he attempted to do, he did, if within the power of mortal man to do it, yet he was so kindly-hearted and of such a loving disposition that every child who knew him would clamber all over him. He was a born leader of men and his influence was so great among the people of his county that he was known far and near as the “Emperor of Grundy.”1

Armstrong, William Elder, third son of Joseph and Elsie (Strawn) Armstrong, was born in Licking County, Ohio, October 25, 1814, and died while visiting his mother at Deer Park, La Salle County, Ill., November 2, 1850. In 1831 he came to Illinois, and to Grundy County in 1837, being attracted here by the letting of contracts for the erection of the canal, securing contracts for two sections near the present site of Morris, as well as others outside Grundy County. Mr., or as he was familiarly known, Captain, Armstrong served Grundy County as its first Sheriff, and also collected the taxes of the county. When the county was created, Captain Armstrong was made one of the commissioners to select the county seat, and while this question was being settled, court was held in his cabin. Captain Armstrong also owned and operated a ferry across the river. He erected at his own expense a wooden building to serve as a court house, and a hotel which he named the Grundy Hotel. In it he entertained such men as Lincoln, Douglas, Ford, Reynolds, Wentworth and Judges Young, Smith, Henderson, Caton and David Davis. In spite of all he did for Morris and Grundy County, he lost all that he had on account of the depreciation in value of canal script, which he was compelled to take in payment for the work he did on the canal. He had paid his men in real money for their work, and the State not meeting its obligation to him, as it had no funds for that purpose, he died a poor man. On February 6, 1836, he married Miss Sarah Ann Strawn, and they had two daughters, namely: Jemima E., and Emma D.2


  1. Source: Biographical and Genealogical Record of La Salle and Grundy County, Illinois, Volume II, Chicago, 1900, p. 440-443. 

  2. Source: History of Grundy County, Illinois. Chicago, IL, USA: Munsell Publishing, 1914, p. 756. 

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