In an ideal world, history is written by consulting primary sources of material such as official documents, news accounts and the writings of the protagonists. When these sources are lacking, we must rely on what are sometimes unreliable secondary sources such as oral histories and written accounts that were submitted long after the events in question actually occurred.

Some of what we know of Stephen Forbes, Riverside’s first pioneer, is verifiable, but much relies on the recollection of family members who were retelling stories they had heard as children. I have attempted to assemble the important facts about Forbes in this article, but wish to caution the reader that much of what is known of Forbes necessarily relies on secondary sources.

Interest in Forbes apparently peaked about 70 years ago, as Riverside celebrated the centennial of pioneer settlement in what became our village. Dr. S.S. Fuller, president of the Riverside Historical Society at the time, invited the surviving members of the Forbes family to share what knowledge they had of Stephen Forbes and to attend the dedication of a monument placed on the approximate site of the Forbes homestead.

The monument, officially dedicated in 1937, sits today in a grouping of shrubbery adjacent to the rail tracks midway between the railroad station and the commuter parking lot to the west. It reads as follows:

“Site of first home built in Cook County west of Chicago by its first elected sheriff Stephen Van Rensselaer Forbes, 1831

“Only voting place of Cook County for its first colonel of the state militia Jean Baptiste Beaubien, June 7, 1834”

Stephen Van Rensselaer Forbes was born in Windham, Vermont on July 26, 1797 to John and Anna Forbes, who eventually would join him in Riverside.

Stephen grew up to become a teacher and surveyor. He was also a justice of the peace and the first elected sheriff of Cook County. In 1818, John and Anna Forbes moved to New York. Stephen remained in Vermont and married Elvira Bates, whose sister, Sophia, was married to Barney Laughton.

Laughton and his brother, David, ran a trading post and tavern south of Riverside close to the portage area (south of 47th Street and west of Harlem Avenue) and Lyons. Stephen Forbes seems to have been afflicted with wanderlust, for soon after he and Elvira moved west to Cleveland, he arrived at Fort Dearborn in 1829 with a surveying party.

Apparently liking what he saw and sensing opportunity, the following year Forbes packed up his belongings and brought Elvira back to Ft. Dearborn, arriving on horseback via Detroit. The Forbeses set up a school in a log cabin at what is now Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue just outside of the fort.

The school, divided into rooms by white sheets, served the fort families. Many of the students were of mixed Anglo-Native American heritage. Stephen Forbes was paid $200 annually and whatever tuition he could charge. Years later, Forbes’ daughter, Flavilla, recalled that “educating the untutored savage was a hard task.”

In 1831 Stephen was awarded 160 acres of land for recognition of his war service. It consisted of the area, later part of Riverside, approximately south of Forest Avenue to 39th Street including what is now Swan Pond Park and Riverside Lawn.

The log cabin that Forbes erected in 1831 was a large structure that his wife referred to as the “mansion.”

It was sited on the high ground to avoid flooding while still affording views of the river. The location also provided convenient access to the old Indian trail, which we now call Barrypoint and Longcommon roads. The family burial plot was just west of the cabin near Barrypoint Road. Human remains were excavated in this vicinity during a sewer project in the 1950’s.

Stephen Forbes planted a peach and apple orchard next to the cabin. An apple tree at 92 Scottswood Road, supposedly the last survivor of this orchard, went down in a recent storm.

The log cabin was used sporadically by Stephen and Elvira Forbes for the next 22 years. In 1832 the Blackhawk uprising forced the family to flee the area for the safety of Ft. Dearborn. The arrival of General Winfield Scott and his troops brought cholera, and the Forbeses decided to move to Laughton’s tavern, remaining with Elvira’s sister, Sophia, and her husband, Barney Laughton, until it was safe to return to Riverside. In 1834, when the Laughton brothers died within a week of each other, it would fall to Stephen Forbes to help bury them.

Also that year, the first local election was held at the Forbes cabin. Whiskey and lemon juice were mixed with spring water for refreshments as Jean Baptiste Beaubien was elected colonel of the Illinois militia. We now remember the event as responsible for giving the Bourbon Spring area in the northwest section of Swan Pond Park its name.

The year 1836 witnessed the arrival of Stephen Forbes’ parents, John and Anna, along with 22 members of the extended Forbes family. They settled nearby but eventually came to reside in the “mansion.” This is the event commemorated by the aforementioned monument.

Stephen Forbes’ daughter, Flavilla, arriving in 1836 with her grandparents, followed one of her father’s professions and became Riverside’s first schoolteacher. Daniel Webster, a lifelong friend of Stephen’s brother, Garrett, visited in 1837 and was greeted at Bourbon Spring by a delegation of Chicago citizens.

Another marker in Swan Pond Park recalls this event along with the 1834 election. The Illinois legislature gave Stephen Forbes the right in 1845 to construct a dam on the Des Plaines River, and he built a sawmill near where the present bridge into Lyons stands.

One of the nation’s seminal events, the California Gold Rush, lured Stephen Forbes west in 1849. Like so many other would-be miners, he soon was back home, where he was appointed highway commissioner of Proviso Township in 1852.

Stephen Forbes had bought and sold much real estate over the 20-odd years of his life in our area, and he finally sold the “mansion” to Dr. Egan in 1853 for $20 an acre. The old “mansion” was torn down in 1858 by another pioneer family, the Wesencrafts. Rotting timber sections of the old homestead were reportedly visible until the 1890s.

After moving back to Ohio and resuming his surveying profession, the elderly Stephen Forbes returned to Chicago in 1878 to live with his daughter and son-in-law, where he passed away peacefully on Feb. 11, 1879.

His granddaughter, Mrs. Longhurst, was present at the 1937 monument dedication and recalled the event thusly:

“He was active until a few moments before his death. I believe it was after dinner that he performed some of his usual activities, sat down in his favorite chair, and an instant later gave a deep sigh and was dead.”

She also remembered him as “a proper gentleman in a high-top silk hat, always particular about manners.”

The Chicago Tribune ran his obituary two days later. It read in part:

“Throughout nearly all his long life Mr. Forbes enjoyed remarkably good health. He was a man of integrity and endowed with a good stock of common sense, which he used in an honest practical way.”