Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

A Vanishing Frontier: The Development of a Market Economy in DuPage County

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

A Vanishing Frontier: The Development of a Market Economy in DuPage County

Article excerpt

One of the great issues debated by historians is that of the transition in rural society from the sturdy, independent, self- sufficient yeoman farmer to that of the market-oriented capitalist farmer. While this process took centuries in British North America and the early United States, it proceeded at a vastly accelerated pace in the middle of the nineteenth century. This was especially true in the area surrounding the rapidly growing metropolis of Chicago, which included DuPage County. The economy rapidly changed from one focused primarily on local exchange to one focused on market relationships. That is to say, change from a focus on trading goods, produce, and labor within the local community to a focus on connecting to regional, national, and international markets based on the market demand for various commodities. The majority of DuPage County settlers, just like settlers in the rest of Illinois and the nation, desperately wanted to create certainty and permanence in their lives. Even in the frontier stage of development as they pursued a variety of ways to supplement their incomes, most people worked very hard to become commercial farmers and businessmen. They welcomed the breakthroughs connecting them to distant markets. As they worked to better their condition, these people developed a particular view of what it meant to be a citizen of the United States. This, in turn, shaped the political lens through which county residents viewed events locally, in the state, and in the nation.

Located in the northeastern corner of Illinois, DuPage was set off from Cook County in 1839, nine years after the first white settlers arrived. Economic success, if and when it occurred, took place within an agricultural economy: ninety percent of the working population of the county labored in agriculture in 1840 and most of the rest held occupations dependent on farmers and their needs. By 1880, however, the total farm work force in the county dropped to 60 percent of the working population. Continuing a trend which started in the 1850's, a growing percentage of the county's population no longer lived on farms, but in the towns and villages. New arrivals to the county found opportunities other than farming available. Every non-farming occupation in the county experienced significant increases during the 1860's as immigrants and residents alike sought employment in the towns and villages?

In spite of these changes, the county economy remained overwhelmingly oriented towards agriculture, especially commercial agriculture. The transition to a market economy occurred rapidly in DuPage, due to the proximity of Chicago. DuPage depended on Chicago as a shipping point for agricultural produce, but this dependency worked both ways. The Chicago Democrat remarked that "Chicago is completely dependent upon ... the surrounding country." The editor admitted that the countryside of course needed the city as "its depot" and as "a place of deposit for merchandize [sic] and a point for trade", but emphasized the need of the city for the countryside for "every breath of its existence."4

This interdependent development required the existence of a workable transportation system to and from the broader national markets, particularly that of the Eastern United States. The development of such a system occupied county boosters almost from the beginning of settlement. The first crucial element in this system was efficient lake transportation which brought the initial settlers as well as the vast majority of those who followed. These same ships provided the means to export the agricultural products of northern Illinois to Eastern markets. At first, however, there was little to export as settlers were concerned with establishing their homesteads. From 1836, when the first shipments left Chicago, until 1839, the value of all exports leaving Chicago amounted to about $62,000. DuPage area settlers complained that economic conditions were such that they were "very filly prepared to contribute beyond the current expenses of our families. …

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