Hunter Brown (1992-2017) wrote this account of locating and then traveling to the site of Cherry Grove, Illinois. Cherry Grove was the town the Denny/Boren family left behind in April 1851 when they set off on the westward journey that eventually resulted in the foundation of Seattle.
Finding Cherry Grove
My first foray into historical research came when my 7th Grade Social Studies teacher gave me an assignment. It was the end of 7th grade, and he was asking his students if they were going to any exotic locations during summer vacation. I had already planned to travel to Illinois to visit my Aunt and Uncle in Champaign-Urbana, but the assignment the teacher gave me gave the trip a new purpose: find information on the Denny party in Illinois. The Denny party, a group of pioneers from the small town of Cherry Grove, Illinois, founded Seattle, the city where I live. To help me with this project, my teacher gave me information on the Dennys and on early Seattle. My mother, a historian herself, compiled a folder of information on Illinois to help me in my research. When the time came to leave for Illinois, I was prepared.
I traveled to Illinois by plane, the first time I had ever flown alone. My aunt and uncle picked me up from Chicago airport and drove me to their home in Champaign-Urbana. The main focus of the trip was recreation rather than research, so I did not immediately begin doing research upon my arrival. On the third day of my trip, I decided to drive to the Urbana Public Library.
The archive librarian was very helpful, and I quickly compiled a plethora of information on the Dennys. The librarian gave me the telephone number of a woman named Marie Olinger, one of few people who live in the area where the members of the Denny party once resided. I looked at census records and a cemetery register for Cherry Grove. However, the most valuable information came in the form of a township directory. With it, I discovered that the town of Cherry Grove was now called Cedar. Using this information and a township map, I found the exact location of Cedar. It was located in Knox County, south of Galesburg near Abingdon and Knoxville. I could not go to the town during that trip because it was a substantial distance from Champaign-Urbana, but I planned to visit later.
That night, I called my history teacher to tell him what I had found. He was surprised and excited at the news, and he proposed that I use the Denny party and their town as the subject of the culminating project I would present at the end of the next school year. I agreed, and upon my return to Seattle, my parents and I made a plan. I would fly to Illinois again, but this time I would visit the site of the town where Seattle's founders originated.
In February 2005, I flew again to Illinois, this time with my father. We stayed with a family friend in Chicago for a day and then traveled by car to Champaign-Urbana, where my Aunt and Uncle live. We ate breakfast and walked around the town for the remainder of the day. The next day, we drove to Galesburg. I was very excited to be near to the place where the Denny family had lived.
We found a library and spoke to the archive librarian about my project. She was happy to give us information on the family, and we obtained many useful records from the archive. After we finished there, I spoke on the telephone to Marie Olinger, the woman whose number had been given to me by an archive librarian on my previous trip. I arranged to meet with her at her home the next day.
The next morning, I drove up with my father to Mrs. Olinger's residence. There was no actual town remaining, only farm land. The Olinger's land is about one mile north of Abingdon. It felt strange to be approaching the site of a town that had now been gone for decades. The landscape was flat, very different from Seattle's hilly, forested terrain. Fields extended out on either side of the road, empty due to the season. We arrived at her house, a small white structure beside the road.
I introduced my father and myself again to Mrs. Olinger. She explained that she had become interested in the Denny party when her daughter wrote a book report on Four Wagons West, a book detailing the party's journey.
I explained what I was researching in greater detail, and she showed me a treasure trove of historical information and land records. They showed the transactions in which members of the Denny family had purchased land in the area and then sold it when they left the state. I was surprised to learn that Sarah Latimer Boren (later Sarah Latimer Boren Denny), a member of the Denny party, once owned the very land on which Mrs. Olinger and her husband live. Sarah was one of the earliest Cherry Grove settlers. She was a widow with three small children at the time. She came to the area from Tennessee with her parents and other family members in 1831 and bought the land on which the Olingers now live for $75 in September 1837.
On September 2, 1848, she deeded the land to John Denny, and eight days later, on September 10, 1848, she married him. John Denny was the father of her daughter Mary Ann's husband Arthur Denny and of David Denny, the man her daughter Louisa Boren would eventually marry. Mr. Olinger still farms the land.
In place of a signature, the typed copy of the deed Mrs. Olinger showed me read "Sally Boren, her mark, x." This might imply that Sarah (Sally) was illiterate.
After about two hours of talking to Mrs. Olinger about the town of Cherry Grove, we decided to drive out with Mr. Olinger to the Dunlap homestead, the land where Parmelia Dunlap had once lived. Parmelia's home is noteworthy because it is where the events of the Sweetbriar legend took place. According to the legend, recounted in Four Wagons West by Louisa's great-niece, Roberta Frye Watt, Louisa Boren was anxious about leaving Cherry Grove. She visited her best friend Parmelia Dunlap on the day that the Denny party left the town. Before she left, Parmelia gave Louisa seeds of the sweetbriar (a type of wild rose) that grew in her garden. Louisa kept the seeds safe during the party's long journey and planted them at her new home in the Pacific Northwest. I was interested to see whether the roses still grew on the land. I did not see any sweetbriar growing on the Dunlap land, but Mrs. Olinger told me that it grew around the area.
All that exists at the site to show that it has ever been anything other than a large field are two objects. The first is modern, a plaque placed there by modern members of the Dunlap family. It is a stone engraved with the words "Dunlap Homestead, est. 1837." The other object is less obvious. It stands in the middle of what could have been the nineteenth-century Dunlap family's back yard. It is a rusted pump, a pump that was almost certainly used by the Dunlap family in the time of the Denny and Boren families. This was one of the most amazing parts of the journey for me: a piece of hard proof that there had once been people living there.
After photographing the pump and the stone, we drove back to Mrs. Olinger's house. We thanked her for all of her help and left, but planned to meet with her again later that day so that she could show us a cemetery containing residents of Cedar township, including members of the Denny family. In the mean time, we drove to Cherry Grove Cemetery, a cemetery that we had already known about and planned to visit before the trip.
We walked around the cemetery as fast as we could, desperate to get out of the biting cold. We saw and photographed the graves of many people I had read about in my research, including Joseph Latimer and his family, members of the Dunlap family, and members of the Kays family. Carson Boren's wife, whom he married in Cherry Grove in 1849, was Mary Ann Kays. Many stones, however, were illegibly worn away, making it difficult to know if we had missed an important grave. We hurried back to our car and drove back to Galesburg to get lunch.
Afterwards, we drove back out to Marie Olinger's house, where she was waiting with a friend of hers. We piled into our cars and Mrs. Olinger and her friend led the way to another cemetery called McCallister, near the town of Gilson. We stopped at a place where the road split off and extended under a gate and into a forest. Mrs. Olinger told us that the cemetery was at the end of the forest road. We all walked down the path, carefully opening the old wooden gate. I was expecting a very small cemetery with only a few graves, but I was surprised to find a moderately large one with about a third of the graves of Cherry Grove cemetery. We trudged through the secluded area, photographing important gravestones. We found the grave of Sally Wilson Denny, John Denny's first wife and the mother of his sons. She died March 25, 1841.
After taking all the photos we needed, we walked out of the cemetery, up through the forest, and back into the road. We thanked Mrs. Olinger again, and, finally parting ways with her and her friend, drove back to Galesburg. We had two more places to go: Knox College, a college in Galesburg with a good archive that we thought might have information on the Dennys, and the Knox County Courthouse, where we wanted to obtain legal records.
Knox College did not herald any useful information, so we walked to the courthouse and asked them for marriage and land records of members of the Denny party. Once we had obtained the records (including marriage licenses for Mary Anne Boren and Arthur Denny and for Sarah Latimer Boren and John Denny), we left, saying goodbye to the owners of our bed-and-breakfast and driving back to the Chicago airport. I was extremely satisfied with the journey and excited about the information I had found. It was difficult, but tremendously useful to travel to the place I had been trying to envision for the whole of my time researching the project. Now I had enough hard information to begin writing my paper. As I boarded the plane at the airport, I knew that this trip had been completely worthwhile.