Almost the only living individual among those earliest settlers who came to Rock Island County in the thirties and forties, when the present City of Rock Island was a small village, known as Stephenson, is Sylvester Washington McMaster, a man whom nearly every man, woman and child throughout Rock Island County knows, either personally or by reputation.
He was born October 8, 1811, near Watertown, in Herkimer County, New York, and died January 22, 1908, at the age of ninety-six years. His early life was spent upon a farm and he received such education as he could in the country schools of that time. At the age of nineteen years he himself was a school teacher, having charge of the same school which he had formerly attended as a pupil.
Mr. McMaster came West in 1833, traveling by water from the City of Buffalo in his native State. The canal at that time was completed from Cleveland, Ohio, to Portsmouth, in the same state, and connecting with the Ohio River. Coming first to Cairo, Illinois, Mr. McMaster proceeded to St. Louis, and from thence to Galena, Illinois, on the Mississippi.
At that early day there were but few houses in the village of Stephenson, and but one in what is now Davenport, that of Antoine LeClaire. Mr. McMaster spent two years (1833 and 1834) at Galena and then returned to St. Louis, where he spent about two years, from there coming to Stephenson again, and here he made his home until 1841. During this time he was engaged in the mercantile business. He also served one term as assessor. The store building occupied by the firm of McMaster & Andrews still stands, it being what is now known as the Roessler building, directly east from the Court House.
In 1840 Mr. McMaster was united in marriage to Miss Jannette Brooks, who died August 17, 1908, at the age of eighty-four years, whose parents had come to Stephenson in 1835 and dwelt in a log house near the spot where the home of the Honorable Ben T. Cable is now located. Mr. and Mrs. McMaster continued to make their home in Stephenson until 1841, when they removed once more to Galena, where Mr. McMaster was engaged in various enterprises of a mercantile nature. Galena was at that time the metropolis of the Northern part of Illinois. The lead mines were at their zenith and the town was very prosperous. In Galena Mr. McMaster was actively engaged in the management of some of the largest and costliest flour mills at that time in the West, and he was also a large stock-holder in the old Northern Line steamers. At this time steamboating upon the Mississippi was in the full flower of its glory, and the railroad was not a factor in the transportation.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Mr. McMaster served as a conscript officer. He was not engaged in active service, being at that time beyond the age limit at which volunteers were received for active, military service.
Mr. and Mrs. McMaster continued to make their home in Galena until 1866, when, with their family, they returned to Rock Island, and here Mr. McMaster has lived a retired life since that time. He served a number of years as president of the board of education, and was also president of the library board. In the work of the public schools he has always taken the keenest interest, and until very recently was one of the most frequent of visitors throughout the various school buildings of Rock Island.
On May 17, 1906, Mr. and Mrs. McMaster celebrated the sixty-sixth anniversary of their marriage. Their union has been blessed with three children: Mrs. Mary Blackburn, of Rock Island; Mrs. Jannette Bansemer, of Torreon, Mexico; and George McMaster, secretary of the Mutual Wheel Company, at Moline, Illinois.
In religious faith Mr. McMaster was a Universalist, but finding that the church of his choice had no house of worship in Rock Island he became an attendant of the Broad-way Presbyterian Church.
In politics he was originally a Whig, but joined the Republican party upon its formation, and has been a staunch advocate of its principles since 1856.
He is the author of a book entitled “Sixty Years on the Upper Mississippi,” and is one of the very few men who have seen Rock Island grow from a primitive backwoods settlement to what it is to-day, and his book is full of reminiscences of those early days and of the adventures and experiences of himself and his acquaintances.