The Prairie Bandits – Illinois as the Wild West

Most people would not put roving gangs of lawless criminals and frontier Illinois together. However, in the 1830s and 1840s, Illinois saw the rise and fall of gangs preying on travelers heading west, or in the case of Ogle County, people moving north. To end the banditti of the prairie, the local citizenry fought back with gangs of their own called Regulators.

In 1830, Illinois was 12 years old as a state. Vandalia just became the capital. Illinois sat on the northwest edge of the United States. To its west lay Missouri and the Louisiana Territory. The population was located in the southern and central part of the state. The west was reserved for veterans of the War of 1812 and northern Illinois still contained Indians. The 1830s would change Illinois drastically.

The Black Hawk War first changed Illinois by maintaining the northern part of the state for settlement. The railroad would be soon be built across the central parts of the state rather than the populated south. A canal would be built linking the Illinois River and Lake Michigan. But John Deere’s Plow would turn the prairie dirt into the breadbasket of the young nation within a few years.

All the while, where there would be money, there would be criminals.The Bandits, as a whole, were not in communication with each other throughout the northern part of the state. However, the bandits shared many common crimes:
1. Robbing Houses
2. Cattle Thievery
3. Horse Thievery
4. Stage Coach Robberies
5. Highway Robberies

Life on the northern prairie was hard enough with thieves bandying about in the dark of night. With new lead mines opening up in Galena, more and more people began to flood to the northern part of the state. The bandits had long-held reign over the travelers. In addition, many of the local law enforcement were actually former members of the banditti. By 1840, the denizens of northern Illinois had enough. If the government was not going to stop this lawlessness then the citizens would.

In Lee and Ogle County, vigilante groups calling themselves Regulators began to organize. Some in the press questioned this version of Vigilante justice.

“… If two or three hundred citizens are to assume the administration of lynch law … we shall soon have a fearful state of things, and where, we ask, will it end…? …[I]t will be argued … that we have in this new country no means or proper places for securing offenders … to which we answer, then build them.”

The most famous incident involving the Regulators and the bandits occurred in 1840-41. The John Driscoll family of Killbuck Creek in northeastern Ogle County and his son David of South Grove in nearby DeKalb County garnered the ire of the Regulators. Historian Herbert Channick detailed the account of the Driscolls:

Their leader was a tall, sturdy, old migrant from Ohio named John Driscoll who had come to Ogle in 1835 and settled on Killbuck Creek in the northeastern part of the county. He had four grown sons: William, David, Pierce, and Taylor. Both John and Taylor had been convicted of arson in Ohio, and the other three sons were equally dubious citizens. William, who was about forty-five years old and who lived at South Grove in DeKalb County, was regarded as the worst of a thoroughly bad lot.

Shortly after the Regulators carried out their first two whippings, a grist mill owned by W.S. Wellington, the first Captain of the Regulators, was destroyed by fire. Wellington’s horse, too, was killed in a particularly cruel manner: its front legs were broken and the creature was left to perish in agony.

Fearing for himself and his family, Wellington resigned and John Campbell, like the elder Driscoll a resident of White Rock Township, was elected to replace him.

William Driscoll greeted Campbell’s accession to office with a letter offering to kill him.

In response, Campbell assembled a band of nearly 200 Regulators and marched on William’s place where a much smaller band of outlaws had gathered. Seeing they were seriously outnumbered, the outlaws fled only to return several hours later with the Sheriff of DeKalb County and several other local figures of consequence in tow presumably to protest the extra-legal nature of the vigilante band. But when the Sheriff and his companions heard a detailed account of the misdeeds of the Driscolls and their associates, they agreed that the Regulators’ demands were entirely justified. The Driscolls promised that they would be gone in twenty days.

They didn’t mean it. Instead, meeting at the farm of William Bridge in Washington Grove, the gang members concluded that Campbell and Phineas Chaney, another prominent Regulator, had to go. On June 25th, there was a failed attempt on Chaney’s life. Two days later, on Sunday, June 27, at about sundown, David and Taylor Driscoll ambushed Campbell at his farm and David killed him with a single shot. While Campbell’s wife ran to her dying husband, their thirteen-year-old son, Martin, fired at the Driscolls with a double-barreled shotgun but the weapon failed to go off.

The local communities fought back against the bandits. A group of 500 men showed up and encircled the Driscolls. When a trial broke out, 111 men served on the jury. The Driscolls that were found guilty (not all were) were shot by a firing squad of 56! Later, the jury was tried for the murder of the Driscolls. Not a one was found guilty. In fact, the jury never left the jury box to discuss the verdict.

The resulting actions of the Regulators did not end the banditti. The activity of the bandits moved out of Ogle County to other areas. Throughout the 1840s, the thievery continued. Piracy on the rivers grew as commerce increased in the region.

To reel this all in, the Driscoll affair was a sordid tale that shows several things. First, long before the west was wild, Illinois certainly was. The 1840s saw Illinois go from the edge of the frontier to becoming one of the leading economic powerhouses in the country. That wealth was too good to pass up. As some criminals came to Illinois for a fresh start, others came to start anew.

Second, democracy is not pretty. While lynching the Driscolls was not an example of democracy, it was something out of John Locke. If government is broke, it is the people’s job to fix it. However, I doubt if Jefferson or Locke envisioned the rule of the mob. The mob was what the Kings and Queens of Europe along with others in the ruling class feared. For to be a mob, is to tread on the rights of the individual. In the case of the Prairie Bandits, the distinctions between good and evil are blurred on both sides. At times, it more like two shades of the same color.

As a result of the mob actions in Ogle County, and later with the Mormons in Western Illinois, Illinois would hold a constitutional Convention in 1847 to give those in power more authority to deal with not only the criminal element in the state, but also the mobs. For a time, Illinois was the Wild West.

As Abraham Lincoln once said – There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law

Sources:
Three Days of Violence, the Regulators of the Rock River Valley
Robert Huhn Jones
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984)
Vol. 59, No. 2 (Summer, 1966), pp. 131-142

and

The Regulators and the Prairie Bandits:
Vigilante Justice in the Rock River Valley
Herbert S. Channick

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4 comments

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