The History of Joliet – Chapter 4

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

Posse drives off rioting canal workers

“As the residents prepared to celebrate the national holiday, word arrived that Irish workers digging the canal near Romeoville were rioting. They were supposedly killing each other and the contractors at that work site.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In local history, they called it “the First Irish War.” But those in Joliet — then Juliet — remembered it as the day of the posse comitatus.

It was July 4, 1838, one year after the city of Juliet was incorporated.

As the residents prepared that morning to celebrate the national holiday, word arrived that Irish workers digging the canal near Romeoville were rioting. They were supposedly killing each other and the contractors at that work site.

Sheriff Fenner ALDRICH issued a call for men to ride with him to the rescue of those contractors. The Juliet Guards, a militia company, responded under the command of Capt. Edmond WILSON. So did most of the men in the city.

Under the concept of a posse comitatus, the sheriff turned over command of the horsemen to Capt. Elisha FELLOWS, a lawyer who once had some military experience in New York. FELLOWS was wearing an old uniform and carrying a big sword.

“After one or two hours of hard riding we drew near Romeo,” wrote George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian, who was with the posse that day. “And soon we came in sight of the enemy, flourishing scythes, pitchforks and shellalahs.”

The posse sat on their horses, attempting to figure out what to do. WOODRUFF said some of them kept up their spirits by pouring spirits down. But no one volunteered to be in the front ranks.

Slowly the posse’s riders advanced toward the Irish workers. A flag was unfurled by one rider. The Juliet Guards were ordered to fire a volley of blanks.

“Tremendous was the effect,” WOODRUFF wrote. “The enemy could not bide the smell of powder. Forthwith they drop their weapons, break ranks, and skedaddle over the hills. Now, now, the great posse comitatus feel equal to anything. We could each one of us face the heels of a thousand paddies.”

Seeing the fleeing Irish run, the posse’s courage increased, and they chased them over the hills to their shanties and captured 40 prisoners.

“We had come out as the great Posse Comitatus of Will County, for the high and holy purpose of maintaining justice and good order,” WOODRUFF wrote.

But about this time the entire posse was feeling hunger pains. That’s when they realized no one had brought along any supplies, including water. By the time the posse returned to Juliet with the prisoners, all they could think about was eating.

But because of limited jail facilities, 26 of the 40 prisoners were turned loose. A special court proceeding was ordered for the remaining 14.

Judge John WILSON, who had been with the posse, sat in judgment. The main witness against the prisoners was the contractor.

“There is no doubt that he had been badly scared,” WOODRUFF wrote. “He told such a tale of the numbers that assaulted him, and the variety of weapons with which he had been belabored, that it would have been a miracle for any one to have come out of such a melee alive; and yet he was unhurt.”

The contractor’s story was so improbable that the judge ridiculed the event. The jury members couldn’t agree with one another, and the prosecutor decided to drop the charges.

“The memory of its (posse comitatus) heroic deeds seems to have passed entirely from the minds of men,” WOODRUFF said.

He wrote that the incident had been caused when the Irishmen weren’t paid by the contractor.

WOODRUFF said there were more Irish wars after this, and timid people lived in fear of what the Irish might do. But the Irish workers were needed to dig the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

The author said four things were needed to dig a canal: a shovel, a pick, a wheelbarrow and an Irishman. When such construction is made known, the Irish appear ready to work, he said.

WOODRUFF, who said he had lots of Irish friends, wrote that the Irish had “more human nature than any other member of the human family.” He said there was no doubt the Irish would contribute a fair share in building the city and the rest of America.

Many of those Irish workers who dug the canal saved their money and bought land in Joliet. They started businesses, built churches, got elected to public offices and were a responsible force in the new city.

As WOODRUFF summed them up, “Some of our best business young men, and some of our prettiest girls too, are the descendants of these old canalers.”

Published April 21, 2001