Biography of John M. Sterling

John M. Sterling was a notable figure in Nelson Township, Lee County, as a progressive farmer, dairyman, and esteemed civic official. Born on November 26, 1849, on his father’s farm in Palmyra Township, he came from a line of distinguished pioneers. His father, Maj. James Sterling, originally from Pennsylvania, was a major business figure and public servant who, after various ventures, settled in Lee County in 1847. John M. inherited his father’s business acumen and public spirit, holding local civic offices including membership on the County Board of Supervisors. He married Dora Rickey Passmore, and they had three children. Mrs. Sterling, active in the Presbyterian Church, supported her husband in maintaining their prosperous farm and welcoming home.

John M. Sterling. The name of Sterling has been connected with the rise and progress of Lee County since the early years of its settlement. Maj. Sterling figured prominently as a pioneer merchant and farmer and as a public-spirited citizen, and in later years, his son, of whom we write, has come to the front as one of the foremost men of this section. He is an enterprising and successful farmer and dairyman of Nelson Township, his farming interests and home lying on section 15, and he is one of our most valued civic officials, representing said township as a member of the County Board of Supervisors.

Our subject is a native of this county, his father’s old homestead in Palmyra Township being the place of his birth, and November 26, 1849, the date on which he first opened his eyes to its pioneer surroundings. His father, Maj. James Sterling, was born in Braintrim, Luzerne County, Pa., in May 1805, and came from an old family that had lived in America since early Colonial times, being prominent in the annals of Pennsylvania and New York, especially of the latter state, embraced in Wyoming County, in whose early history much mention is made of them, as well as of the Suttons, who were kinsmen of theirs, both families bearing a gallant part in the Indian wars of this section of the country. Maj. Sterling was a son of Daniel Sterling, who was a native of Wyoming County but became a resident of Luzerne County, Pa., where he was prominent in various capacities. He was a public man, active in business, managed a hotel, sold goods, and did farming. In his last years, he came to Illinois and a short time afterward died in Rock Island at an advanced age. He had visited the new state of Illinois soon after its admission to the Union and had seen the country when it was for the most part a literal wilderness.

Maj. Sterling passed his boyhood amid the pleasant scenes of his birth. He inherited in a remarkable degree the active temperament of his father, together with his versatile talent and business acumen. He had scarcely attained manhood when he achieved prominence in various directions, as his executive ability and genius for affairs were early recognized by his fellow-citizens who pushed him to the front. He obtained his title of Major through his being an officer of the State Militia. While a resident of Pennsylvania, he took a prominent part in public works, and he afterward became interested in the improvement of the Rock River. This was what first led him to Illinois in 1838, whither he came to attend to the letting of contracts by the State Commission, for carrying on the said improvements, which were to be conducted under what was known as the Internal Improvement System. The Major was in partnership with Smith Gilbraith for the purpose of improving the navigation of the aforementioned river, but the State failed to carry through this gigantic scheme of internal improvements, and Maj. Sterling returned to Pennsylvania and was engaged partly there and partly in the West for some years after that.

In 1847, he came here with his family to locate permanently, and for a few years had a mercantile establishment at Dixon. Later he removed to a large tract of land in Palmyra Township, which was in all its original wildness when it came into his possession, but under his supervision, it became a well-improved farm. He erected substantial buildings, drawing the lumber from Chicago for the purpose, and in other ways, he made of it a valuable place and an attractive home. Here death rounded out his life November 15, 1860, when it was scarcely past the noontide, although it was one of unusual completeness as regards what he had accomplished. This county then lost a citizen whom it held in high honor, and who had been noted for his public spirit, push, and enterprise in matters of moment that concerned the welfare of the community at large. He was a man of decided moral character who was always to be found on the side of the right in all the great questions of his day. He was a strong Whig and anti-slavery man and was ever ready to champion the cause of the weak and oppressed.

Maj. Sterling’s first wife, to whom he was married in Luzerne County, Pa., was Kezia M. Canfield. She was born and reared in Pennsylvania and died in Luzerne County in the prime of life, leaving three children — a daughter, Amanda, who died after her marriage; and Edward and Edwin, twins, the former a farmer in Huron, S. Dak.; and the latter now a resident of San Francisco, who went to California in 1849 and was a miner for some years. The Major was a second time married in Luzerne County, Pa., Miss Eliza Passmore becoming his wife. She was born in Auburn, that State, and was there reared and educated. Her father was a Rhode Island man, who spent the latter days of his life in the Keystone State. Mrs. Sterling accompanied her husband to Illinois when he came here to locate, and she helped him to make a good home, in which she reared a family of five children, of whom our subject is the youngest and is now the only survivor. The mother was a prominent member of the Methodist Episcopal Church and was a conscientious Christian to the last. She died at the home of her son, our subject, October 13, 1889, aged eighty years, she having been born August 14, 1809.

John M. Sterling received his education in the pioneer schools of this and his native county, where his entire life has been passed thus far, and he has risen to a position of prominence among his fellow-citizens, as he is progressive in his views, is sagacious and politic in council, and is discriminating and clear-sighted in his judgment of men and affairs. These traits have made him successful in business and brought him into public life. Thus, he has held civic offices with great credit to himself and to the benefit of the community. He has been Assessor for four years, and has represented Nelson Township as a member of the County Board of Supervisors for the last two terms. He has lived in Nelson Township since 1870, and he has here a good farm, which is equal in its appointments and improvements to any in its vicinity, and he devotes it to general farming and dairy purposes, having a fine, well-kept herd of milch cows on the place.

Our subject was happily married in Nelson Township to Miss Dora Rickey Passmore, who is to him all that a wife can be to her husband. She manages the affairs of her household intelligently, and so as to make its inmates contented and comfortable, and cordially seconds her husband in extending hospitality to all who enter their door. Three children complete their home circle — John, Robert, and James. Mrs. Sterling was born in Pennsylvania in 1851, and received her education in that State. She had attained womanhood when she came to Lee County. In her, the Presbyterian Church has an earnest, working member.


Biographical Publishing Company, Portrait and biographical record of Lee County, Illinois, containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens, together with biographies of all the governors of the state, and of the presidents of the United States, Chicago: Biographical Publishing Co., 1892.

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