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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Illinois in 1818

Solon J. Buck

in the sesquicentennial edition,
University of Illinois Press
Urbana, Chicago, and London 1967

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p93  Chapter 4
The Pioneers

Thayer's Note: When the various counties are mentioned, the boundaries of which changed constantly thruout the period covered by this book, it may be useful to you, as it was to me, to refer to Michael L. Hébert's excellent page of maps, Illinois County Boundaries 1790‑Present.

The first settlers within the limits of the present state of Illinois were Frenchmen, mainly from Canada, who, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, established themselves in a number of villages on the American bottom along the Mississippi River. During the French regime these people consisted of two classes, the habitants, ignorant and improvident, engaged largely in the fur trade as voyageurs, and the gentry, as George Rogers Clark called them, many of whom had come from the better classes in France and Canada, who had acquired considerable property, either before or after coming to Illinois, and who lived lives of refinement despite their wilderness surroundings. The disordered conditions in the Illinois country from the time of the British occupation in 1765 until about the close of the century caused nearly all the more enterprising among the French to cross the Mississippi to Spanish territory. It is doubtful if there were more than 1,500 people of French descent living in Illinois in 1818 and practically all these belonged to the habitant class. Most of them were natives of the country, for there had been very little immigration of Frenchmen after 1760. Besides those living in and about the towns of Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher, and Kaskaskia, there were a few on the eastern side of the territory, in what is now Lawrence County, who had crossed over the Wabash from the Vincennes settlement.1

A traveler from Philadelphia, who visited the villages in the  p94 American bottom in 1819, described the residents of Cahokia as "half French, half Indian, retaining part of the manners of both." To him the French in general appeared "to be a wretched set of beings. Their great-coats are made out of a blanket, with a cap or hood out of the same piece. Then moccasins and leggins complete the suit. Uncover a Frenchman's head and his friends are immediately alarmed for his health. The pig pens in Pennsylvania are generally as clean and much better built than the miserable huts occupied by these lazy people. In a state of almost starvation they hold their Gumbo balls twice a week. For nimbleness of foot and lightness of heart the French have never been surpassed." In Prairie du Rocher, the traveler found the houses of

the most antique and mean appearance, built of the barks of trees and puncheons, slabs, etc., often without doors. Their windows are without sashes, but small pieces of broken glasses of all shapes pasted ingeniously together with paper serve to admit the light upon a motley family, between white, red and black. Many of those wretched hovels are ready to tumble down on the heads of starving Indians, French and negroes, all mixed together. Negro-French is the common language of this town. Indeed, unless you can speak some French it is with much difficulty you can find any person who can understand you.

The writer was given to looking on the dark side of the picture, and in concluding his narrative, he felt it necessary to add: "When I have expressed an opinion which appears not to have been liberal, it is intended to apply to the lower class, of whom there is a large majority . . . although some of the French are rich, liberal and gentlemanly men, yet this memorandum is strictly correct when applied to the general mass."2

Governor Ford, who lived in Monroe County from 1805 on, and who was thus in a position to observe the French inhabitants, has left an excellent picture of these people as he remembered them. "The original settlers had many of them intermarried with the native Indians," he writes,

and some of the descendants of these partook of the wild, roving disposition of the savage, united to the politeness and courtesy of the  p95 Frenchman. In the year 1818, and for many years before, the crews of keel boats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were furnished from the Frenchmen of this stock. Many of them spent a great part of their time, in the spring and fall seasons, in paddling their canoes up and down the rivers and lakes in the river bottoms, on hunting excursions, in pursuit of deer, fur, and wild fowl, and generally returned home well loaded with skins, fur, and feathers, which were with them the great staples of trade. Those who stayed at home, contented themselves with cultivating a few acres of Indian corn, in their common fields, for bread, and providing a supply of prairie hay for their cattle and horses. No genuine Frenchman, in those days, ever wore a hat, cap, or coat. The heads of both men and women were covered with Madras cotton handkerchiefs, which were tied around, in the fashion of night-caps. For an uniform covering of the body the men wore a blanket garment, called a "capot," (pronounced cappo),º with a cap to it at the back of the neck, to be drawn over the head for a protection in cold weather, or in wet weather to be thrown back upon the shoulders in the fashion of a cape. Notwithstanding this people had been so long separated by an immense wilderness from civilized society, they still retained all the suavity and politeness of their race. And it is a remarkable fact, that the roughest hunter and boatman amongst them could at any time appear in a ballroom, of other polite and gay assembly, with the carriage and behavior of a well-bred gentleman. The French women were remarkable for the sprightliness of their conversation and the grace and elegance of their manners. And the whole population lived lives of alternate toil, pleasure, innocent amusement, and gaity.

Their horses and cattle, for want of proper care and food for many generations, had degenerated in size, but had acquired additional vigor and toughness; so that a French pony was a proverb for strength and endurance. These ponies were made to draw, sometimes one alone, sometimes two together, one hitched before the other, to the plough, or to carts made entirely of wood, the bodies of which held about double the contents of the body of a common large wheel-barrow. The oxen were yoked by the horns instead of the neck, and in this mode were made to draw the plough and cart. Nothing like reins were ever used in driving; the whip of the driver, with a handle about two feet, and a lash two yards long, stopped or guided the horse as effectually as the strongest reins.

The French houses were mostly built of hewn timber, set upright in the ground, or upon plates laid upon a wall, the intervals between the upright pieces being filled with stone and mortar. Scarcely any of them were more than one story high, with a porch on one or two sides, and sometimes all around, with low roofs extending with slopes of different steepness from the comb in the centre to the lowest part of the porch.  p96 These houses were generally placed in gardens, surrounded by fruit-trees of apples, pears, cherries, and peaches; and in the villages each enclosure for a house and garden occupied a whole block or square, or the greater part of one. Each village had its Catholic church and priest. The church was the great place of gay resort on Sundays and holidays, and the priest was the adviser and director and companion of all his flock.

Unlike the American settlers, most of whom lived on isolated farms, the French lived close together in their village communities, where they could enjoy the society of their fellows and the privileges of their religion. Despite the abundance of land, the common field system of agriculture had been transplanted from France, and outside each village was to be found the commons of woodland and pasture for the whole village and the common field with its long narrow strips of arable land allotted to the individual inhabitants of the village. Originally the conduct of agricultural operations had been regulated by village assemblies, held usually on Sundays before the door of the church and presided over by a syndic elected by the inhabitants. By 1818, however, the influx of Americans in some of the villages and the purchase by them of allotments had introduced an element of confusion, and legislative enactments were necessary to adjust the system to the changed conditions.3

Forming as they did so small a proportion of the population, it is not to be expected that the French would play any considerable part in the political and economic development of Illinois. The conflict between the two elements, French and American, for the control of the Illinois country had ended a generation before 1818; and the unprogressive French, who remained in the American bottom after that contest was over, understood little of American ideals and took practically no part in the successive territorial governments.​4 Only one French name is to be found in the lists of officeholders during this period,  p97 that of Pierre Menard; and he was a recent arrival from Canada. Although their influence upon the development of the state was so slight that it may be disregarded, the French continued to form for many years a picturesque element in the population of Illinois.5

The American occupation of Illinois may be said to have begun with the advent of traders and land speculators from the eastern colonies during the British regime, 1765 to 1778. The occupation of the French villages by George Rogers Clark and his troops during the Revolution introduced a new element, for a number of Virginians became permanent settlers in the country.​a It was only very slowly that emigrants drifted in from the east during the last decade of the eighteenth century; and while there was a decided increase in population from 1800 to 1810, 2,458 to 12,282, the outbreak of Indian hostilities in 1811, followed by the War of 1812, almost completely checked immigration to the whole northwestern frontier. With the advent of peace in 1815 and the opening of the land sales in 1814 and 1816, immigration received a great impetus, and Illinois experienced her first real "boom." By this time the choice locations in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky had either been filled by settlers or bought up by speculators, and consequently Illinois and Missouri became a veritable promised land for immigrants. From a population of approximately 15,000 in 1815 Illinois had by mid-summer of 1818 increased to a population of about 35,000, and by the end of the year she had almost if not quite 40,000. The Illinois of 1818 was, then, a very new community. Less than half the inhabitants had lived there three years, and not quite a third had been in the region as long as ten years. For only four years had it been possible to purchase government land in the territory and for only two years had such land been available to newcomers outside the Shawneetown district.6

Who were these people who flocked to southern Illinois in  p98 such numbers in the last years of the territorial period? Where did they come from and what manner of people were they? Why did they leave their former homes and why did they select Illinois for their new home? To none of these questions can simple definite answers be given, but some evidence can be brought to bear upon them. From the schedules of the census of 1818, supplemented by poll lists, petitions, and other reliable records, it has been possible to compile a list of the names of 6,020 people resident in Illinois in the year 1818, nearly all of whom were heads of families.​7 From county histories and all other available sources, information about the birthplace or  p99 former residence of 716, or nearly 12 per cent of those thus listed, has been secured. Generalization based upon so small a proportion cannot be altogether reliable, but it is believed that the figures throw some light on the antecedents of the people who were living in Illinois in the year in which it became a state.

Combining data as to nativity with that for earliest known residence when birthplace is unknown, it appears that 273, or 38 per cent, of those of known antecedents came from the southern states, Virginia being credited with 94, North Carolina with 84, South Carolina with 40, Georgia with 29, and Maryland with 26. Almost the same number, 267, or 37 per cent, were from the western states. One hundred and fifty, or over half of them, came from Kentucky; this is a larger number than is credited to any other state. Tennessee contributed 82, Ohio 23, Indiana 9, and Illinois 3.​8 From the middle states came 91, or 13 per cent; 47 from Pennsylvania, 36 from New York, 6 from New Jersey, and 2 from Delaware. Only 19, or 3 per cent, were from New England, Massachusetts and Vermont being credited with 6 each, Connecticut and New Hampshire with 3 each, and Rhode Island with 1. The remaining 66, or 9 per cent, were foreign born, 40 coming from England, 10 from Ireland, 5 each from Germany and Canada, 4 from France, and 2 from Scotland. Including Kentucky and Tennessee with the southern states, the totals show that 505, or 71 per cent, came from south of Mason and Dixon's line and the Ohio River, as compared with 142, or 20 per cent, who came from the north and northwest.

A study of the movements of individual immigrants discloses the fact that a surprisingly large number had made one or two other moves before coming to Illinois. If there are added to those counted above as coming from the western states those who came to Illinois from these states but are known to have been born elsewhere, the total becomes 385, or 54 per cent. Of this number only 60 are known to have been born in the west; 118 are known  p100 to have been born elsewhere: 89 in the southern states; 16 in the north; and 13 abroad. Assigning the remaining 207, whose birthplace is unknown, to the respective sections in the same proportions produces the following revised figures: from the old south, 53 per cent; from the west, 18 per cent; from the north, 18 per cent; and from abroad, 11 per cent. This may be taken as representing roughly the nativity of the 716 inhabitants of known antecedents, and therefore as an indication of the sources of the population of Illinois in 1818.

The outstanding conclusions from this investigation are: first, that about half the heads of families in Illinois in 1818 had been born in the five states of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia; and second, that about the same proportion had come to Illinois directly from the four western states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, principally from the latter two. Most of the immigrants from Kentucky and Tennessee who had been born there, moreover, were descendants of natives of the old southern states. It would probably be a safe generalization, therefore, to say that two-thirds of the people of Illinois at this time belonged to southern stock, while the numbers with New England or middle states antecedents only slightly exceeded those of foreign birth. This coincides with the impression to be gained from contemporary and reminiscent writers. Two of the correspondents to the Intelligencer during the convention campaign indicate that, in their opinion, immigration up to that time had been principally from the southern states.​9 William H. Brown states that "the early inhabitants of Illinois were composed of the French Canadians . . . and immigrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina," while Governor Ford speaks of the American inhabitants as chiefly from Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania." Reynolds states that they "were almost entirely emigrants from the Western States; Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and some from Pennsylvania and Maryland." According to Robert W. Patterson, "the families in the country, were generally of Southern origin, many of them having come originally  p101 from Virginia and the Carolinas to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, and thence to Illinois."​10 Later writers, also, have reached the same conclusion, adducing as evidence, in addition to the testimony of contemporaries, the fact that most of the political leaders during the territorial period and the early years of statehood were natives of the south.11

It is not a sufficient identification of these people, however, to say that they came from the south, for the south was far from being a homogeneous section. Westward of the tidewater and plantation area along the Atlantic coast was a region of uplands and mountain valleys stretching across state boundaries from Pennsylvania to Georgia, the population of which differed materially in origin and characteristics from the occupants of the tidewater section; it was from this stock that the bulk of the "southern" people in Illinois came. The evidence for this is to be found not only in the biographical and genealogical data available in the county histories, but also in the names of heads of families in the schedules of the census of 1818. A large proportion of these names are typically Scotch-Irish, Welsh, or German, with Scotch-Irish predominating; and thus they are indicative of the connection of the people with that stream of non-English immigrants which poured into Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century and thence up the valleys and through the gaps to the back country of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. By the time of the Revolution, the occupation of this region had been completed and the stream began to flow into Kentucky and Tennessee. In the early decades of the nineteenth century it progressed into southern Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

A striking characteristic of these people was their love of the frontier. From the time it appeared on the continent their strain had been in the vanguard of settlement. As frontier conditions  p102 passed away in one place, they packed up their few possessions and pushed farther into the interior. Few sons were born in the same locality that their fathers had been; few men died near where they had been born. Probably a majority of those in Illinois in 1818 had made at least one move before coming to the territory, and many, located near the border of settled area, had advanced from more eastern locations within the territory. These people were true pioneers; they had become experts in grappling with frontier conditions. As Morris Birkbeck wrote of them, "to struggle with privations has now become the habit of their lives, most of them having made several successive plunges into the wilderness."​12 They blazed the trail for the more permanent settlers who were to follow; always, of course, a part of them dropped out of the procession and became permanent settlers themselves. Essentially, then, these people were westerners rather than southerners.

Neglecting to make this distinction, various writers have sought for the causes of this migration from the south to the northwest in the social and economic conditions of the south. Opposition to slavery, the pressure of the plantation system on the small farms, and the desire for social equality have been assigned as causes; and doubtless these were factors which prompted many individuals. But in general the real explanation is to be found in the irresistible attraction which the wilderness exerted upon these people. They were essentially frontiersmen; they preferred life in the woods to that in the busy haunts of men; and they felt themselves cramped and crowded except the most thinly populated regions.​b Then, too, they had a reckless hope of finding something better a little farther on; they were always ready to take a sportsman's chance on the unknown. As Morris Birkbeck, the Englishman, wrote: "They are also a migrating people; and even when in prosperous circumstances, can contemplate a change of situation, which under our old establishments and fixed habits, none, but the most enterprising, would venture upon, when urged by adversity."​13 It was not  p103 so much positive dissatisfaction with conditions existing in their old communities, then, as the force of habit and the hope of bettering themselves economically, that prompted the migration.

No description of these pioneers from the south can be adequate unless it takes into account the existence of different types among them. Although possessing some characteristics in common, even these varied in degree; and statements of contemporary writers who have a particular class in mind can not be applied indiscriminately to all the pioneers. Among the best observers of pioneer settlers were some of the leaders of the English settlement, who were careful to discriminate between the different types. Fordham divided the people on the frontier into four classes, "not perfectly distinct yet easily distinguishable."​14 To the first two of these classes belonged the bulk of the element under consideration.

1st. The hunters, a daring, hardy, race of men, who live in miserable cabins, which they fortify in times of War with the Indians, whom they hate but much resemble in dress and manners. They are unpolished, but hospitable, kind to Strangers, honest and trustworthy. They raise a little Indian corn, pumpkins, hogs, and sometimes have a Cow or two, and two or three horses belonging to each family: But their rifle is their principal means of support. They are the best marksmen in the world, and such is their dexterity that they will shoot an apple off the head of a companion. Some few use the bow and arrow. I have spent 7 or 8 weeks with these men, have had opportunities of trying them, and believe they would sooner give me the last shirt off their backs, than rob me of a charge of powder. Their wars with the Indians have made them vindictive. This class cannot be called first Settlers, for they move every year or two.

2d class. First settlers; — a mixed set of hunters and farmers. They possess more property and comforts than the first class, yet they are a half barbarous race. They follow the range pretty much; selling out when the Country begins to be well settled, and their cattle cannot be entirely kept in the woods.

The description and classification of these people by George Flower is especially interesting. "These original backwoodsmen," he writes, "look upon all new-comers as obtruders on their especial manorial rights. The old hunter's rule is: when you hear  p104 the sound of a neighbor's gun, it is time to move away." He found "all of this class of men, who live in solitude and commune so much with nature, relying on their own efforts to support themselves and their families, to be calm, deliberate, and self-possessed whenever they are sober. The best breeding in society could not impart to them more self-possession or give them greater ease of manner or more dignified and courteous bearing." Flower acknowledges the services of representatives of this class to the English settlers: "Dextrous with the ax, they built all our first log-cabins, and supplied us with venison. In a year or two, they moved into less-peopled regions, or to where there were no people at all, and were entirely lost to this part of the country." These men derived their means of livelihood principally from hunting, and devoted very little attention to farming. Some, however, says Flower, "follow a different destiny. Their little corn-patch increases to a field, their first shanty to a small log-house, which, in turn, gives place to a double-cabin, in which the loom and spinning-wheel are installed. A well and a few fruit-trees after a time complete the improvement. Moderate in their aspirations, they soon arrive at the summit of their desires."15

A more systematic account of the classes of settlers in the west is given by James Flint, a Scotch economist with keen powers of observation and analysis, who traveled in the west during 1818, 1819, and 1820:

All who have paid attention to the progress of new settlements, agree in stating, that the first possession of the woods in America, was taken by a class of hunters, commonly called backwoodsmen. . . . The improvements of a backwoodsman are usually confined to building a rude log cabin, clearing and fencing a small piece of ground for raising Indian corn. A horse, a cow, a few hogs, and some poultry, comprise his livestock; and his farther operations are performed with his rifle. The formation of a settlement in his neighbourhood is hurtful to the success of his favourite pursuit, and is the signal for his removing into more remote parts of the wilderness. In the case of his owning the land on which he has settled, he is contented to sell it at a low price, and his establishment, though trifling, adds much to the comfort of his successor. The next class of settlers differ from the former in having considerably less  p105 dependence on the killing of game, in remaining in the midst of a growing population, and in devoting themselves more to agriculture. A man of this class proceeds on a small capital; he either enlarges the clearings begun in the woods by his backwoodsmen predecessor,º or establishes himself on a new site. . . . The settler of the grade under consideration, is only able to bring a small portion of his land into cultivation, his success, therefore, does not so much depend on the quantity of produce which he raises, as on the gradual increase in the value of his property. When the neighbourhood becomes more populous, he in general has it in his power to sell his property at a high price, and to remove to a new settlement, where he can purchase a more extensive tract of land, or commence farming on a larger scale than formerly. The next occupier is a capitalist, who immediately builds a larger barn than the former, and then a brick or a frame house. He either pulls down the dwelling of his predecessor, or converts it into a stable. He erects better fences, and enlarges the quantity of cultivated land; sows down pasture fields, introduces an improved stock of horses, cattle, sheep, and these probably of the Merino breed. He fattens cattle for the market, and perhaps erects a flour-mill, or a saw-mill, or a distillery. Farmers of this description are frequently partners in the banks; members of the State assembly, or of Congress, or Justices of the Peace. . . . The three conditions of settlers described, are not to be understood as uniformly distinct; for there are intermediate stages, from which individuals of one class pass, as it were, into another. The first invaders of the forest frequently become farmers of the second order; and there are examples of individuals acting their parts in all the three gradations.​16

While it is true that some of the backwoodsmen or their descendants occasionally became men of prominence and of influence in their community, as a rule the leaders in the movements for the political and economic development of the territory belonged to a different class. The majority of them were southerners also, but their antecedents went back usually to the planter class of the tidewater region. As was the case with the frontiersmen, many of them had lived in Kentucky, Tennessee, or Indiana, before locating in Illinois. A few migrated because of a dislike of the institution of slavery, many were brought in to fill appointive offices during the territorial period, others sought opportunity for political advancement and the practice of their professions in a new country, while all of them expected to make  p106 fortunes by speculating in land. A smaller number of the leaders were from the middle states and New England and their influence was slowly increasing. These men of influence were usually fairly well educated and possessed of a moderate amount of property; but, above all, they were ambitious for themselves and for the country. They formed the third group of Fordham's classification — "composed of enterprising men from Kentucky and the Atlantic States. This class consists of Young Doctors, Lawyers, Storekeepers, farmers, mechanics, &c., who found towns, trade,  p107 speculate in land, and begin the fabric of Society."​17 Most of them lived in or near one of the land office towns, Kaskaskia, Shawneetown, or Edwardsville, but a few were to be found located in the smaller settlements.

Besides the settlers of German antecedents who had come to Illinois by way of the south, there were a number of Germans who had come directly from Pennsylvania. One early writer, indeed, classified the settlers as "French, Pennsylvania Dutch and native American." As a matter of fact the French and the "Dutch" were practically all native-born Americans, but the classification is a rather significant commentary on those Germans who, by isolating themselves, kept for so long their peculiar characteristics. Even when they migrated to Illinois they manifested a tendency to keep together. The principal settlement of Pennsylvania Germans was in and near Brownsville in Jackson County, where Dr. Conrad Will, their leading representative, established himself in 1815. A number of families from Somerset County, Pennsylvania, came under the leader­ship of Singleton Kimmel in 1817; and John Ankeny, a relative of Kimmel, brought out eight or ten families early in 1818. Of these people, the writer before referred to says: "They were industrious, though not enterprising people, usually farmers of moderate means, who lived comfortably, and kept their associations mainly among themselves."​18 As for the real foreigners, there were a few scattered in all parts of the settled area. With the exception of the English, who will be considered later, they had  p108 generally been in America for some time before coming to Illinois; and being mainly Scotch-Irish and Germans, they were scarcely distinguishable from the frontiersmen already described. Robert Reynolds, for example, emigrated from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1785, moved to Tennessee in 1788, and from there to Illinois in 1800. George Barnsback came from Germany to America in 1797, and had lived in Philadelphia and in Kentucky before moving to Illinois in 1809.19

The closing years of the territorial period saw the beginning of a settlement of foreigners that was unique not only in Illinois but in the whole west — the English settlement in Edwards County.​c The men who planned this enterprise, selected the site, directed the emigration, and established the settlement were George Flower and Morris Birkbeck. Men of education and means, their purpose was partly philanthropic — to provide better opportunities for English laborers. Economic and political conditions in England following the close of the Napoleonic wars were such that emigration to the United States began to assume large proportions and these men planned to point the way for their countrymen and to assist them in establishing themselves in the new world. The reasons which led them, after a careful survey of the United States, to select the prairie land between Bon Pas Creek and the Little Wabash River for their place of settlement are of considerable interest.

When Morris Birkbeck arrived in the United States in May, 1817, he had made up his mind to locate in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois; farther north he would not go because of the climate, and the south had no attractions for him because of his abhorrence of the institution of slavery.​20 In Richmond, Virginia, Birkbeck was joined by Flower, who had been traveling in the United States for about a year; and the two men, accompanied by Birkbeck's family, started on a tour of  p109 exploration to the west.​21 The rough conditions of the frontier had no such attraction for the English emigrants as they had for the American pioneers, but the opportunity to purchase land in unlimited quantities at a low price appealed to them very much. Land owner­ship was the measure of social and political position in England; and, to Birkbeck and Flower, who although men of considerable means had in England only been tenants of their farms on long-time leases, the possibility of possessing large estates of their own had been one of the principal reasons for their coming to America. The prospects of more liberal political institutions held forth considerable attractions, especially to Birkbeck, but the leading motive in the formation of the settlement was the desire to enjoy not so much the political liberty of the United States as the liberty to be "found in its great space and small population. Good land dog-cheap everywhere, and for nothing, if you will go far enough for it."22

The part which the land situation played in inducing Flower and Birkbeck to select a site on the frontier in Illinois instead of in one of the more settled states to the eastward is explained by Birkbeck in a letter written in November, 1817, a few months after the decision had been made. "Had we remained in the state of Ohio," he wrote,

we must have paid from twenty to fifty dollars per acre for land which is technically called "improved," but is in fact deteriorated; or have purchased, at an advance of 1000 or 1500 per cent unimproved land from speculators: and in either case should have laboured under the inconvenience of settling detached from society of our own choice, and without the advantage of choice as to soil or situation. We saw many eligible sites and fine tracts of country, but these were precisely the sites and the tracts which had secured the attachment of their possessors.

It was in fact impossible to obtain for ourselves a good position, and the neighbourhood of our friends, in the state of Ohio, at a price which  p110 common prudence would justify, or indeed at any price. Having given up the Ohio, we found nothing attractive on the eastern side of Indiana; and situations to the south, on the Ohio river bounding that state, were so well culled as to be in the predicament above described; offering no room for us without great sacrifices of money and society. The western side of Indiana, on the banks of the Wabash, is liable to the same and other objections. The northern part of Indiana is still in possession of the Indians.

But a few miles farther west opened our way into a country preferable in itself to any we had seen, where we could choose for ourselves, and to which we could invite our friends; and where, in regard to communication with Europe, we could command equal facilities, and foresee greater, than in the state of Ohio, being so much nearer the grand outlet at New Orleans.​23

The amount and cheapness of available land was a motive in bringing American settlers as well as the English to Illinois; but there was another motive, more idealistic, which influenced the English much more than the Americans — the desire to locate on prairie land. George Flower was especially attracted by the prairies. When traveling in the west in 1816 he sought diligently for information about them. "I had read of them in Imlay's work,"​24 he says,

and his vivid description had struck me forcibly. All the country that I had passed through was heavily timbered. I shrank from the idea of settling in the midst of a wood of heavy timber, to hack and hew my way to a little farm, ever bounded by a wall of gloomy forest. . . . It was at Governor Shelby's house [in Kentucky] that I met the first person who confirmed me in the existence of the prairies. It was Mr. Shelby's brother. He had just come from some point on the Mississippi, across the prairies of Illinois to the Ohio River, about Shawneetown.

This was enough; I felt assured of where they were, and that, when sought for, they could be found. It was then too late in the season for me to go to explore them.​25

The following spring when Flower met Birkbeck, he led the party without hesitation or deviation toward the prairies of his vision. Romantic as it may appear, this longing of Flower's for the open  p111 prairies which he had never seen was to have a very practical effect on the development of Illinois. The American settlers had shunned the prairie partly because of their belief that the best land was to be found where the tallest timber grew and partly because of a number of real obstacles such as the lack of water, lack of wood for buildings, fences, fuel, and difficulties of transportation. These men, with their larger means, were able to overcome some of these difficulties and to demonstrate the value of prairie land for farming.

Knowing how his imagination had been stirred, one can share with Flower the adventure of his first sight of the prairies in reality. Having established the rest of the party temporarily at Princeton in Indiana, Birkbeck, Flower, and one of the former's sons "mounted again, determined to find these ever-receding prairies." Crossing the Wabash near New Harmony, they came first to "the settlement of the Big-Prairie. . . . It was being settled exclusively by small corn-farmers from the slave-states. This prairie, not more than six miles long and two broad, was level, rather pondy, and aguish. Its verdure and open space was grateful to the eye, but it did not fulfil our expectations." Inquiring "the way to the Boltenhouse Prairie, so‑called from the name of a man who had built a small cabin on its edge, near the spot where his brother had been killed by the Indians the year before," they were directed to follow a light trail through the woods, which they did

for seven mortal hours . . . in doubt and difficulty.

Bruised by the brushwood and exhausted by the extreme heat we almost despaired, when a small cabin and a low fence greeted our eyes. A few steps more, and a beautiful prairie suddenly opened to our view. At first, we only received the impressions of its general beauty. With longer gaze, all its distinctive features were revealed, lying in profound repose under the warm light of an afternoon's summer sun. Its indented and irregular outline of wood, its varied surface interspersed with clumps of oaks of centuries' growth, its tall grass, with seed stalks from six to ten feet high, like tall and slender reeds waving in a gentle breeze, the whole presenting a magnificence of park-scenery, complete from the hand of Nature, and unrivalled by the same sort of scenery by European art. For once, the reality came up to the picture of imagination. Our station was in the wood, on rising ground; from it, a descent of  p112 about a hundred yards to the valley of the prairie, about a‑quarter of a mile wide, extending to the base of the majestic slope, rising upward for a full half-mile, crowned by groves of noble oaks. A little to the left, the eye wandered up a long stretch of prairie for three miles, into which projected hills and slopes, covered with rich grass and decorated with compact clumps of full-green trees, from four to eight in each clump. From beneath the broken shade of the wood, with our arms raised above our brows, we gazed long and steadily, drinking in the beauties of the scene which had been so long the object of our search.

After spending several days exploring the prairies, they started on the return journey to Princeton. "Before leaving Illinois, night overtook us," continues Flower.

We halted by the side of a fallen log, at a point of timber that stretched into the prairie. A fire being kindled, we sat down on the grass, talked over and decided what was to be done. . . . The result of our decision was this: — After clubbing together all the money we could then command, Mr. Birkbeck was to go to Shawneetown and enter all the woodland around the Boltenhouse Prairie. We had not money enough with us to purchase the whole prairie. I was to return to England to remit him money as soon as possible, take with me and publish the manuscript of his book containing the record of our journey from Richmond to the prairies; bring out my father's family; and spread the information; point out the road to it; and facilitate emigration generally. He was on the home department to purchase more land and make the necessary preparations in building. I on the foreign mission, to bring in the people. As will be seen hereafter, he did his duty and I did mine.​26

The first purchase of land for the settlement was made at Shawneetown before Flower left for England; the tract bought consisted of about 3,000 acres. During 1817 and 1818 Birkbeck entered 41¼ sections, or 26,400 acres in all; and Flower, after his return, also made additional purchases. Not having sufficient funds available at first to enter all the land desired for the settlement, and fearing extensive purchases by speculators, which would defeat the purposes of the project, Birkbeck determined to apply to Congress for a "grant by purchase" of a large tract of land in the unsurveyed district beyond the base line, which ran only six miles north of the first purchases. His memorial, dated November 20, 1817, set forth "that a number of his Countrymen,  p113 chiefly Yeomen, Farmers, Farming labourers, and rural Mechanics are desirous of removing with their families And Capital into this Country, provided that, by having situations prepared for them, they might escape the wearisome & expensive travel in quest of a settlement which has broken the Spirits & drained the purses of many of their emigrant brethren, terminating too frequently in disappointment." No reference was made in the memorial to amount of land or terms of purchase, but it appears from correspondence between Birkbeck and Nathaniel Pope, the territorial delegate, that what was desired was the privilege of purchasing so much as might be needed for the purpose, "not exceeding twenty, thirty, or forty thousand acres," at the minimum price and with "such an extension of time of payment as might preclude embarrassment or disappointment." The proposition failed to meet with the approval of Congress, however, for it was felt that such grants would be "liable to be abused by speculators," and that it was not desirable to encourage the settlement of foreigners in distinct masses." The leaders were obliged to content themselves, therefore, with making plans for the reception of their countrymen "on a contracted scale."27

In the spring of 1818 Birkbeck moved his family from Princeton to the new home on the prairie. His Notes on a Journey had been published in Philadelphia as well as in London, and coming to the hands of a number of English people already in this country, induced them to join him. By June the colony contained, according to Fordham, "between 40 and 50 persons, besides American settlers in the neighbourhood"; and Birkbeck was having difficulty in getting cabins erected by the backwoodsmen rapidly enough to supply the demand.

Flower started his first party from England in March, 1818. It consisted of

forty-four men and one married woman. . . . The men were chiefly farm-laborers and mechanics from Surrey. Many of them had for years  p114 worked for Mr. Birkbeck, others were from his neighborhood, and were either personally acquainted or knew him by reputation. This party was under the especial care and leader­ship of Mr. Trimmer. Another party, of about equal number, composed of London mechanics, and tradesmen from various parts of England formed another party that sailed in the same ship. These were under the guidance and direction of Mr. James Lawrence, merchant tailor, of Hatton Garden, London. Neither Mr. Lawrence nor any one of his party had any personal acquaintance with either Mr. Birkbeck or myself, but received their impulse from our published expositions.

According to Flower's account these parties arrived at Shawneetown in August, but it must have been late in July for the names of both Trimmer and Lawrence appear in the schedule for the additional census of Gallatin County, which was closed July 28. Trimmer appears in the schedule as the head of a family of 50, 30 of whom were entered as men over 21. Only eight men are credited to Lawrence, which may indicate that some of the mechanics and tradesmen had remained in the east, although some of them may have been entered under their own names.

These first parties, says Flower, included only three women, but his own party of "three score and more," which sailed in April in a chartered ship, contained a number of families. All the spare room on the deck of the ship was occupied by Flower's "live-stock of cows, hogs, and sheep, of the choicest breeds of England." This was doubtless the party referred to in the following item from a New York paper: "We learn that a gentleman has lately arrived in this city from England, whose object is to settle in the Illinois territory — that his family and settlers brought over with him amount to fifty-one persons — that he has furnished himself with agricultural instruments, seeds of various kinds, some cows, sheep and hogs, for breeding, and about 100,000 pounds sterling in money."28

In October, Fordham wrote: "We have now 200 English on our Settlement. Many are discontented; but the strong-minded regret that they did not come out sooner." In August, when the first shipload arrived, "the village of Wanborough was laid off by Mr. Birkbeck in five-acre lots. On these were built cabins, rented  p115 by some, bought by others. A good ox-mill and blacksmith's-shop were soon after added to the village." Flower gives a graphic description of the development of the settlement and of the founding, in October, of a village which grew into a town:

Emigrants were continually flowing in. They first visited Mr. Birkbeck, who had but small accommodations; then came to me, who, at that time, had still less. At this stage, we were experiencing many of the inconveniences of a population in the wilderness, in advance of necessary food and shelter. Do as you will, if you are the very first in the wilderness, there are many inconveniences, privations, hardships, and sufferings that cannot be avoided. My own family, one day, were so close run for provisions, that a dish of the tenderest buds and shoots of the hazle was our only resort.

Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Trimmer, who led the first shipload, made their settlement in the Village Prairie, a beautiful and extensive prairie, so‑called from the Piankeshaw Indians, there formerly located. It was situated due north of my cabin in the Boltenhouse Prairie, about three miles, the intervening space covered by timber and underbrush, untouched by the hand of man. Emigrants kept coming in, some on foot, some on horseback, and some in wagons. Some sought employment, took up with such labor as they could find. Others struck out and made small beginnings for themselves. Some, with feelings of petulance, went farther and fared worse; others dropped back into the towns and settlements in Indiana. At first, I had as much as I could do to build a few cabins for the workmen I then employed, and in erecting a large farmyard, a hundred feet square, enclosed by log-buildings, two stories high; also in building for my father's family a house of considerable size, and appointed with somewhat more of comforts than is generally found in new settlements, to be ready for their reception on the following summer. I had as yet done nothing in erecting buildings for the public in general, as there had been no time. One evening Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Ronalds, and I think, Mr. Fordham, called at my cabin, and, after their horses were cared for and supper over, we discussed the measures that should be taken to form some village or town, as a centre for those useful arts necessary to agriculture. Every person wanted the services of a carpenter and blacksmith. But every farmer could not build workshops at his own door. Daylight ceased, darkness followed. We had no candles, nor any means of making artificial light. On a pallet, mattress, or blanket, each one took to his couch, and carried on the discussion. After much talk, we decided that what we did do should be done in order, and with view to the future settlement, as well as our present convenience. The tract of forest lying between Mr. Lawrence's settlement in the Village Prairie, on its southern border, and mine at the  p116 north of the Boltenhouse Prairie, was about three-and-a‑half miles through. Somewhere in the centre of this tract of woodland seemed to be the place. To the right of this spot, eastward, lay, about a mile distant, several prairies running north and south for many miles, and others east and west to the Bonpas Creek, from three to five miles distant. North-eastward from Mr. Lawrence's cabin, prairies of every form and size continued on indefinitely. About two miles west, and beyond Wanborough, were numerous small and fertile prairies, extending to the Little Wabash, from six to ten miles distant. On the south was my own beautiful prairie. Thus the spot for our town in a central situation was decided upon. Now for a name. We were long at fault. At last we did what almost all emigrants do, pitched on a name that had its association with the land of our birth. Albion was then and there located, built, and peopled in imagination. We dropped off, one by one, to sleep, to confirm in dreams the wanderings of our waking fancies.​29

The English settlement in 1818 was too young and too much occupied with its own problems to exert any considerable influence upon the affairs of the territory and state, but its influence was destined to be very considerable in later years. The leaders were men of superior intelligence and education and took an active share in public life. Especially in the struggle over the admission of slavery in 1823 and 1824 their influence was to be felt on the side of freedom. The settlement was destined to promote also the agricultural development of the state. The leaders were well instructed in the theory and practice of agriculture, and the farmers whom they brought over were "accustomed to continuous labor." Their capital enabled them to carry on operations on a scale hitherto unknown upon the frontier, and the blooded stock which they introduced was a valuable asset to the community. The English settlement, moreover, was to give to Illinois unlimited advertising, not only in England, but on the continent and in the United States as well.

Eleven editions in English of Birkbeck's Notes on a Journey were issued during 1817, 1818, and 1819 in Philadelphia, London, Dublin, and Cork, while a German translation was published at Jena in 1818. His Letters from Illinois were published in seven  p117 editions in English in 1818, and the following year were translated into both French and German. Birkbeck wrote a number of other pamphlets containing advice to emigrants, and several of the other members of the settlement published accounts of their experiences. Nearly all the foreign travelers who made tours of the United States during the years 1818 to 1820 visited the settlement and published accounts of it in their books. Some of these were unfavorable, and an extensive literary controversy followed in which the leading English and American reviews participated.​30 All this served to call attention not only to the settlement itself but to Illinois and the west as a whole, and undoubtedly helped to promote emigration both from abroad and from the eastern states.

The Author's Notes:

1 Alvord, Cahokia Records, xv‑xxi; Alvord, Illinois: The Origins, 9‑12, 18. The estimates of the number of French in Illinois are usually exaggerations. One reminiscent writer states that in 1818 they comprised "nearly a fourth part of the inhabitants." Brown, "Early History of Illinois," in Fergus Historical Series, no. 14:82. Daniel Pope Cook asserted in 1817, however, that they made up only a tenth of the population, which would be between 3,000 and 4,000 (Intelligencer, November 27, 1817), while Governor Ford estimates them at "some two thousand" (History of Illinois, 35).

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2 Mason, Narrative, 53‑56, 74.

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3 Brown, "Early History of Illinois," in Fergus Historical Series, no. 14:83; Thorpe, Constitutions, 2:981‑982; Laws of Illinois, 1819, p122; American State Papers, Public Lands, 3:432; Ford, History of Illinois, 36‑37.

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4 Alvord, Cahokia Records, introduction; Dunn, Indiana, 270.

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5 For a description of the French villages and their inhabitants in 1836, see Thwaites, Early Western Travels, 27:19‑121.

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6 Boggess, Settlement of Illinois, chs. 3, 4. On the land sales see above, pp53‑59.

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7 [See Margaret C. Norton (ed.), Illinois Census Returns, 1810, 1813 (Illinois State Historical Library, Collections, vol. 24. Springfield, 1935).]

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8 Obviously the proportion of 3 to 716 is too small for the native-born if the French are taken into consideration. Very few of them are included in the list, however, because specific information about individuals is lacking.

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9 "A republican," Daniel P. Cooke, in Intelligencer, April 1, 1818, and "Caution," in ibid., April 15, 1818.

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10 Brown, "An Historical Sketch of the Early Movement in Illinois for the Legalization of Slavery," in Fergus Historical Series, no. 4:9; Reynolds, My Own Times, 65; Patterson, "Early Society in Southern Illinois," in Fergus Historical Series, no. 14:105.

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11 Johns Hopkins University Studies, 1:pt. 3, p9; Illinois State Historical Society, Transactions, 1903, p75; Boggess, Settlement of Illinois, 145; Mathews, Expansion of New England, 206‑207.

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12 Birkbeck, Notes on a Journey, 121.

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13 Birkbeck, Notes on a Journey, 36.

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14 Ogg, Fordham's Personal Narrative, 125.

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15 Flower, English Settlement, 67‑72.

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16 Thwaites, Early Western Travels, 9:232‑233, 235‑236.

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17 Fordham lists a fourth class, also, not clearly distinguishable from the third: "old settlers, rich, independent, farmers, wealthy merchants, possessing a good deal of information, a knowledge of the world, and an enterprising spirit. Such are the Ohio men, Western Pennsylvanians, Kentuckians, and Tennessee men. . . . They undertake with facility, and carry on with unconquerable ardour, any business or speculation that promises great profit, and sustain the greatest losses with a firmness that resembles indifference." Ogg, Fordham's Personal Narrative, 116.

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18 Patterson, "Early Society in Southern Illinois," in Fergus Historical Series, no. 14:104; Illinois State Historical Society, Transactions, 1905, p351‑377; P. Kimmel to Pope, December 22, 1817, in United States State Department, Bureau of Indexes and Archives, Miscellaneous Letters.

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19 Reynolds, My Own Times, 6‑7, 24, 31; Illustrated Encyclopedia of Madison County, 47.

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20 Birkbeck, Notes on a Journey, 6‑7.

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21 For accounts of this tour, see Birkbeck, Notes on a Journey; Flower, English Settlement, ch. 3. Elias Pym Fordham, a cousin of Flower, joined the party at Cincinnati. Ogg, Fordham's Personal Narrative, 94‑99.

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22 Flower, English Settlement, 29. See also Birkbeck, Letters from Illinois, 46‑50; Ogg, Fordham's Personal Narrative, 122, 226; Thwaites, Early Western Travels, 9:174; 11:231.

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23 Birkbeck, Letters from Illinois, 18‑19.

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24 The first edition of Imlay's Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America was published in London in 1792.

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25 Flower, English Settlement, 36, 38.

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26 Flower, English Settlement, 60‑74.

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27 The chief authorities for the English settlement of Edwards County are Flower, English Settlement, Ogg, Fordham's Personal Narrative, Birkbeck, Letters from Illinois, and land records, auditor's office, Springfield. The memorial is in Birkbeck, Letters from Illinois, 147‑149.

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28 Flower, English Settlement, 95‑102; Niles' Weekly Register, 14:256.

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29 Ogg, Fordham's Personal Narrative, 236; Flower, English Settlement, 100, 124‑126, 130.

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30 See Buck, Travel and Description of Illinois, 58‑91 passim, for bibliographical notes on these publications.

Thayer's Notes:

a It was with the Virginian conquest by Clark that the first attempt at government came to Illinois: for Virginia's government, or lack thereof, of "Illinois County" (an ill-defined territory comprising all of today's Illinois and Indiana and parts of Ohio, Missouri, and Iowa), see Boyd, The County of Illinois (AHR 4:623‑635).

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b The classic example is that of Daniel Boone, who after spending half his life in Kentucky, had to move on; according to Edmund Flagg, The Far West: Or, A Tour Beyond the Mountains (New York, 1838):

Being asked "why he had left that dear Kentucke, which he had discovered and won from the wild Indian, for the wilderness of Missouri," his memorable reply betrays the leading feature of his character, the primum mobile of the man: "Too crowded! too crowded! I want elbow-room!"

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c Source material on the founding and early history of the English Settlement may be found online at Genealogy Trails: early settlers, first land purchases, early marriages.

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Page updated: 11 Nov 13