Kane County History: James T. Wheeler’s Rolltop Desk Likely Held Secrets of The Underground Railroad
- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by St. Charles History Museum Director Lindsay Judd. All photos are courtesy of the St. Charles History Museum.
The St. Charles History Museum recently received a new donation for its collection, which currently contains more than 10,000 artifacts. This particular artifact is not only connected to one of St. Charles’ oldest families, but also in incredibly good condition and dates as far back as the 1830s.
This artifact is the James T. Wheeler drop-down desk that traveled with his family as they migrated from the east coast to Illinois in the 1840s. The desk has remained in the family until 2021, when Eric Wheeler, great-great-grandson of James T. Wheeler, donated it to the St. Charles History Museum.
James T. Wheeler was born on Sept. 20, 1808, at Fredericton in New Brunswick, Canada. In Canada, he was a teacher, but in 1834 he left his home along St. Johns River and joined a host of fellow Canadians, also known as the New Brunswick Colony, who were immigrating to the United States.
On the way to the U.S., he became romantically involved with Jerusha Young, who was traveling with her parents, Moses and Mary Young, in the same group. James and Jerusha married Jan. 15, 1835, in Warrenville. They then came to St. Charles.
In St. Charles, Wheeler claimed land on the west bank of the Fox River near what is now Ferson Creek. He built a log cabin next to a natural, fresh spring and expanded it with a frame addition as his family grew.
The Wheelers had eight children, six of whom grew to adulthood. In 1848 he built a larger, more permanent brick structure across the road from the original residence and high on a bluff to reduce the risk of flooding. A few years previous, the river had been dammed south of his property.
James T. Wheeler also has some notoriety attached to his home: a station on the Underground Railroad.
While we cannot say with 100% certainty that the Underground Railroad was active in St. Charles, the Wheeler house has long been considered part of the Underground Railroad in St. Charles. It is the character and temperament of Wheeler himself and the defining characteristics of the house that lend themselves to such activity, which has certainly supported this notion for several years.
We do know for certain that in the summer of 1842 people who were considered “friends of the oppressed” were invited to form a society in which they could openly discuss their disapproval of slavery. The organizers called themselves the Kane County Anti-Slavery Society.
Many of the members were people from St. Charles including, James T. Wheeler, Valentine Randall, Frank Ward, Cynthia Waite, Abby C. Ward, Elizabeth Finley, and Catherine Walker. They consisted of over 180 men and women who fought for the rights of African Americans on a religious, social, and political level.
All around the country at this time, radical abolitionism had gained ground in the political arena, and Kane County was no different.
The James Taylor Wheeler farmhouse is located north of St. Charles on IL Route 31. It sits along the west side of the roadway overlooking the Fox River. Through the years it has served as both a residential and businesses location.
The drop-down desk which has been donated to the St. Charles History Museum collection has no doubt seen countless correspondences and paperwork come across its smooth wooden surface, waiting for James T. Wheeler’s signature. The museum is so thankful to Eric Wheeler and his family for donating this priceless artifact to the museum. We would also like to thank local antique dealer Stephen Reid, who was kind enough to authenticate and date the desk, stating that it is of New England origin and was made between the 1830s and 1840s.
The desk is now on display inside the Jack and Kathy Brens Exhibit Hall. Although the desk is almost 200 years old, it is still in excellent condition, including the locking mechanism which still works using a tiny skeleton key.
You can visit the St. Charles History Museum from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For questions, call us at 630-584-6967 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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