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The father of Henry Ker, a leading farmer in the neighborhood of Prairie du Rocher, was a man than whom few have seen more varied vicissitudes or left lives of more remarkable adventure. His name, like that of the subject of our biography, was Henry Ker, and he was born at Boston, Massachusetts, the son of English parents, who were temporarily residing at that place. He lived but a short time in Massachusetts. The family moved back to London where Henry received his education. He seems to have been born with an adventurous disposition, and habits of personal courage and daring.
He left London in April, 1808, for Charleston, South Carolina, and thus began a series of travels which extended over eight years. He traveled through the Carolinas westward to the sources of the French Broad river, and followed its current down to the Holston to the Tennessee, and then by the waters of that river and the Ohio and Mississippi, stopping at various places along the banks to learn something of the nature of the localities and the habits of the people, he at last reached New Orleans. In the summer of 1809 a visit was made to some of the West Indian Islands, particularly Jamaica. Leaving the West Indies, the vessel on which he took passage to Savannah was shipwrecked, and he was compelled to return to Kingston. He next found his way to New Orleans, from which he ascended to the sources of the Red river, and spent some time among the different Indian tribes. Among his other adventures he killed a snake thirty-eight feet in length. He also discovered a mine of platina, but fell under the suspicion of the Indians and was sentenced to be killed. He was suddenly rescued by the chief’s daughter, much after the manner in which Pocahontas interfered in behalf of the life of Captain John Smith.
He then traveled south, and passing through the province of Tula, arrived at the City of Mexico. In February, 1814, he bethought himself of returning to the United States, but before getting out of the country was captured by a band of banditti. His faithful Negro servant, Edom, his companion through many days of toil and danger, was killed, but Ker himself gained the friendship of the leader of the band by his skill in medicine, and was permitted to escape. He immediately started for the United States, and traveled extensively through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and up the Atlantic coast to New York. He published a book at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, in 1816, which describes at length his “travels through the western interior of the United States, with a particular description of a great part of Mexico, or New Spain, and accounts of thirteen different tribes of Indians.”1
Such was the father of Henry Ker. He came to Randolph County in 1816, and located at Prairie du Rocher as a physician, and at the same time opened a store for dry goods and general merchandise. This was in the year 1816. Soon after coming to Prairie du Rocher he married Felicite Fascair, who was born and raised in Prairie du Rocher. She was a member of one of the early French families. Henry Ker died on the eighth of June 1828, having spent his life since 1816 in Prairie du Rocher, with the exception of three or four years, during which he resided at Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. His life had been eventful. He was a man of fine natural talents, and good education, as is shown in the volume he left behind him. His wife Felicite lived till February 1846.
Henry Ker had four children, Ambrose, John, William, and Henry, of whom all are dead except the youngest, Henry, the subject of this biography. He was the posthumous child of his father, born on the twenty-second of January, 1829, while his father had died in June, seven months preceding. The village of Prairie du Rocher was his birthplace, where also he was raised and went to school, going two years to a French school, and nineteen months to an English teacher. This was all the schooling he enjoyed. French was the language of his mother and the family, and he was unable to speak English till seventeen. His mother remarried a farmer, Antoine Langlois, and Mr. Ker worked on a farm from the time he was able to be of any use. He drove a horse-mill at Rocher, two miles below Prairie du Rocher,at that time, the only mill of the kind in the country.
He remained at home till seventeen years of age, and then began life for himself by hiring out to work on a farm at six dollars a month. He worked about three years in this way. In 1849 he was working for Mr. Brickey, of Prairie du Rocher, for ten dollars a month, when a party was organized to visit California, the discovery of gold having recently been made in that country. Beside Mr. Ker, Antoine Blais, Dr. McDonald, Dr. Smith, Captain Whiteside, of Waterloo and several others were numbered among the members of the expedition. Starting in April, 1849, the party reached California by the overland route the succeeding October. Mr. Ker at once went to work at mining gold, and continued pretty closely at it during the time he remained in California. He succeeded in accumulating about two-thousand dollars. The party kept together as much as possible. Among their adventures was a skirmish with the Indians. In October, 1850, Mr. Ker sailed from San Francisco, and reached New Orleans by way of the Isthmus of Panama, whence he proceeded up the Mississippi to his home in Randolph County.
In the spring of 1851, that following his return home, he rented land and settled down once more as a farmer. The prospects were favorable for a good crop, when the high water of that year swept everything away, and left him without resources with which to begin again. In May of the same year he was married to Mary Brown, who died in childbirth the following February 1852. The year following the disaster by the overflow Mr. Ker again began as best he could, and rented land on till 1856. His second marriage occurred two years after the death of his first wife, in February, 1854 to Mary Phegley, the daughter of Jacob Phegley. Miss Phegley was born in Ohio County; Kentucky, August eight, 1823, and was about twenty-two years old when she first came permanently to Illinois. She was a sister of William Phegley, who had been Mr. Ker‘s companion and partner during his life in California. He has had two children by his present wife, Mary and William H. The daughter is the wife of Frank Cirnino, who lives in the neighborhood of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois.
In 1856, Mr. Ker bought the property on which he now resides. He purchased about two hundred and ten acres, one hundred and forty at two dollars and fifty cents an acre, and seventy at six dollars. In 1861 he bought an additional seventy for thirteen dollars. None of this land was in cultivation at the time of coming into Mr. Ker‘s hands. The spot now occupied by his buildings, was a dense growth of brush and forest, where now is a richly cultivated and productive tract of land. His farm is composed of three hundred and twenty-eight acres, and is one of the richest and most fertile in the bottom. His neat and substantial residence was erected in the fall of 1870.
Mr. Ker, like a large number of the most successful and substantial members of Randolph County, had no resources with which to begin his career. Even after he had made a start everything he was worth, in 1851, was swallowed up in the overflow of that year. Mr. Ker stands well as a man of honesty and integrity, and has won a good reputation as a prosperous and substantial farmer of enterprise and good management. He has made his way by industry and economy, and in carving a farm out of the wilderness growth with which its site was covered, he added not only to his own material prosperity, but given an example, which if it were more generally followed, would add greatly to the resources and wealth of the County.