There are six tintype portraits of children in Susan Bear’s photograph album, all identified, all in the same period ink hand, all by anonymous photographers.
These were the children of John M. and Elizabeth Bear, emigrants from Washington County, Maryland to the Church of the Brethren-dominated “Maryland colony” in Ogle County, Illinois.
Ogle County, centered on the village of Mt. Morris, began to attract transplants from Washington County in the 1830s. Members of the Church of the Brethren, in particular, were drawn to the hilly, sparsely-settled prairie west of Chicago.
According to the laudatory Mount Morris: Past and Present, a 1900 history published locally in Mount Morris by the Kable Brothers, the earliest settlers were “so impressed by the beauty of the country and the richness of the soil,” well-watered by springs and streams, that they determined to settle there.
In 1836, two men from Washington County, Nathan Swingley and Samuel M. Hitt, brought a number of Maryland men to the area as laborers, “promising them $1.00 a day for service in building houses, splitting rails and building fence, breaking the prairie and harvesting the crops” (Mount Morris, Past and Present, 13).
The typical route was “by wagon to Wheeling, West Virginia, by boat on the Ohio, Mississippi and Illinois rivers to Peru, and the remaining distance by wagon” a trip of perhaps more than 800 miles (13).
John M. Bear (b. abt. 1822, Washington County, Md.), made his move in 1844, and while working initially for well-to-do Maryland emigrant John Coffman, took up a claim in 1849 in Pine Creek Township, some 10 or so miles south of Mount Morris village, east of the Rock River.
There John Bear and his wife, Martha Elizabeth, prospered, and six children were born to the couple between 1856 and 1865:
Isaac Martin Bear 1855, John Buchman Bear 1857, Rose Miranda 1860, Levi Rowland Bear 1861, Lily Almira 1863, and Mary Kate 1865.
Their situation began to deteriorate with their father’s death in 1878. Elizabeth continued to farm with the aid of the boys, but about 1886, she, along with Isaac, Levi and Kate, moved to Mount Morris Village, where Levi took up work as a barber.
Mount Morris: Past and Present mentions Levi several times as an up-and-coming young businessman who was entering into village life with vigor. He played violin in a small orchestra, and belonged to a fraternal order called the Modern Woodmen of America.
After their mother’s death in 1903, Levi, Lily and Mary Kate made a big decision: They left their settled lives in Mount Morris to pioneer, once again, in Williams County, North Dakota.
Levi took 160 acres on the southern edge of Tyrone Township; Kate took an adjoining 80 acres just south of the township line in Missouri Ridge Township, and Lilly another 160 adjoining Kate’s land to the south of Lily’s–460 acres in all, about 10 miles north of Williston, North Dakota.
They called their new home Four Bear Ranch, and seemed to prosper.
Mary Kate died in 1916; Lily, now in her 50s, continued to keep house for her brother.
On 9 April 1923, Levi Rowland Bear hung himself in their barn. According to his obituary in the Williams County Farmers Press, he planned his death so that two of his friends would be coming to the ranch in time to find him, in order that his sister would not discover his body alone.
“It is thought,” said the paper, “that despondency was the cause of his act.”
Isaac Bear left a note for Lily. It said “Dear Sister, you will forgive me for this for I am too crazy to live.”
He is buried in Riverview Cemetery, Williston, North Dakota. His grave is unmarked.