A Little Cluster of Log Cabins
ANYONE who knows the steaming summers of central Illinois will have difficulty in realizing that there was a time when ice hundreds of feet thick covered most of the state. Yet, as geologists measure time, it was not long ago—perhaps 150,000 years—that the Illi|noisan glacier, the third of the great ice-masses which moved downward from the vicinity of Labrador and Hudson's Bay, reached its southernmost limit on the slopes of the Illinois Ozarks.
The fact is of more than casual interest. For one thing, it meant a radical change in the landscape. Rugged hills were planed off and deep valleys filled, so that when the ice receded it left behind a land of level surfaces and gentle slopes. More important, however, was the fact that it marked the first step in the formation of the state's greatest asset—soil.
Page 2For soil does not just happen. On the contrary, it is the re|sult of natural forces acting over thousands of years. When the Illinoisan glacier receded it left a deposit of boulder clay, twenty, forty, even eighty feet in thickness, the pulverized remains of the rocks which the ice had carried with it. After intervals of thousands of years two more ice caps came down from the north. Both stopped near the northern boundary of Illinois, but as they melted and receded, immense quantities of finely ground rock were carried southward and deposited in the flood plains of the rivers. Winds distributed this ma|terial more widely and more evenly. Gradually it decom|posed, vegetation grew upon it, decayed and grew again, and deep soil of wonderful fertility was formed.
Nowhere in the state was this soil richer than in the valley of the Sangamon River, the quiet stream which rises in Cham|paign County and empties into the Illinois a hundred miles above the latter's junction with the Mississippi. And no|where in the Sangamon valley was the land finer than in that part of it which the pioneers came to know as the "San|gamo country." Here, where now the counties of Sangamon, Logan, Menard, Mason and Cass1 are to be found, fine groves of forest trees lined the water courses and dotted prairies tall with grass and flowering weeds. Game abounded, and the Indians knew it as a land of plenty.
French explorers, missionaries and fur-traders, passing back and forth over Illinois since the latter part of the seven|teenth century, must more than once have crossed the San|gamo country and noted its attractiveness. Americans, slowly trickling into Illinois in the first years after the Revolutionary War, certainly visited it. By 1812, when Governor Edwards and his rangers swept through it on their way to the Indian village on Peoria Lake, its reputation was well established. Page 3 For settlement, however, it had to wait until the mass-movement of western expansion reached it.
Before the end of the Revolution settlers were crowding through the passes of the Alleghenies to the virgin lands be|yond the mountains. The danger of Indian massacre, the grinding work of clearing land and building farms, the ab|sence of all except the bare essentials of life failed to deter them. Down the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, through the Cumberland Gap, then west and northwest came a stream of settlers, to make Kentucky a state by 1792 and Tennessee another four years later. Over the mountains and down the Ohio came other homeseekers, contributing to Kentucky's population and bringing Ohio into the Union in 1803.
From the early years of the eighteenth century there had been permanent settlements in Illinois, Frenchmen living for the most part in the villages strung along the Mississippi in the "American Bottom." Here, after Clark's conquest during the Revolution, came a few Americans. Growth was slow, however. The census of 1800 showed fewer than 2,500 peo|ple in Illinois; that of 1810 enumerated only 12,282. In the same years both Kentucky and Ohio had gained 185,000 in|habitants. Even in 1818, when Illinois became a state, there is not much doubt that it lacked the 40,000 inhabitants who were supposed to be a prerequisite to statehood.
Nevertheless, settlers were coming at a rapidly increasing rate. Most of them were Kentuckians, generally by adoption, sometimes by birth, although the eastern states made sizable contributions. But regardless of origin, they came from the south. For several years Shawneetown on the Ohio River was the gateway to Illinois, with roads radiating throughout the southern tip of the state. As the country filled, the wave of settlement moved northward. By 1818, the year of state|hood, it had traversed perhaps the lowest fourth of the state.
The compact line of advance, however, was still far to the south when Robert Pulliam built the first cabin in what is now Page 4 Sangamon County. It was October, 1817, that Pulliam, ac|companied by two or three hired men and the wife of one of them, erected a shelter about twelve miles south of Spring|field and four miles southeast of Chatham. It was not meant to be a permanent habitation, but merely a covering while the men tended a herd of cattle and a few horses which they had brought up for better grazing from St. Clair County. The winter over, they went back home.
When Pulliam came back in the spring of 1819, bringing his family with him, there were others where before he had been alone. Living in the cabin which he himself had built were Zachariah Peter and his wife and family. Nearby were other cabins, occupied since the preceding spring by William Drennan and several relatives. To the north, the Kellys were building cabins where Springfield now stands. The set|tlement of the Sangamo country had, in fact, begun. Ferdi|nand Ernst, a German traveler, heard so much of its fine land that he decided to see it for himself, and found sixty farms on Sugar Creek alone when he passed along its fifteen-mile course in September, 1819. In the early summer of the same year Gershom Flagg wrote from Edwardsville that two hundred families had settled north of that town in the last year, and that some were as distant as 120 miles. All the talk, in fact, was of the marvelous fertility of the Sangamo coun|try. Hunters said that it was the finest honey country on earth, that eight or ten swarms of bees could be found in a day. Word went out that the first crop of sod corn stood fifteen feet high. Henry R. Schoolcraft, traveling up the Illinois in 1821, heard so much of its productiveness that he called it almost proverbial.
With such a reputation the population increased rapidly, and by 1821 the legislature decided that it was sufficient for a county government of its own. On January 30 of that year the county of Sangamon was created. It was a gigantic tract of land in the shape of a rough triangle, with the Illinois Page 5 River—or at least as much of it as lies between the present cities of Beardstown and Peru—forming its diagonal bound|ary. Provision was made for the election of three county commissioners whose first duty should be to select a tempo|rary county seat as near the center of population as possible. A hint was dropped a week later when it was enacted that the election of commissioners and other officers of the new county should be held "at the house of John Kelly on Spring Creek."
In due time the commissioners were elected—Zachariah Peter, William Drennan and Rivers Cormack. On April 10 Peter and Drennan met at Kelly's cabin, drove a stake into the ground and called it Springfield. Recording the transac|tion, they stated that after a full examination of the county's population they had "fixed and designated a certain point in the prairie near John Kelly's field on the water of Spring Creek at a stake marked Z D as the temporary seat of Jus|tice." John Kelly's cabin stood on what is now the northwest corner of Second and Jefferson streets, and the stake was driven close by. The name, Springfield, was doubtless sug|gested by the adjacent creek, although it is not unlikely that Peter's long residence in Washington county, Kentucky, which also has a Springfield for a county seat, had something to do with its selection.
Three years earlier a bachelor named Elisha Kelly left North Carolina to settle in Illinois. He built a cabin in Macoupin County, but since he was very fond of hunting he ranged the country for many miles in all directions. One day he wandered into a ravine in which a small, clear stream ran northward to empty into Spring Creek. Large numbers of deer passed up and down, and Kelly thought it a hunter's paradise.
The following year he induced his father, Henry, and four brothers—John, Elijah, William and George—to come with him to the spot he had discovered and settle there. All built cabins. By 1821 others had settled in the same locality. It Page 6 was, in fact, the most thickly settled spot in the whole im|mense county; the only place, it was said, where families lived closely enough to provide food and lodging for those who would attend court sessions in the new county seat.
The little settlement was attractively located. Zimri Enos, who remembered the surroundings from his boyhood, wrote of the "handsome undulating prairie nook" in which John Kelly's cabin stood—"a mile in length east and west and a half mile north and south, thoroughly drained by never|failing spring branches and bordered on the north and west by heavy timber and on the south by a number of beautiful groves of young forest trees, of pin oak, elm, cherry and hackberry, which were festooned with grape vines and fringed with plum and haw bushes, crab-apples, hazel nuts, elders and blackberries, and encircled by millions of strawberry vines."
Having located the county seat, the commissioners promptly attacked the housing problem. A contract was made with John Kelly for the erection of a court house—a log building twenty feet square and one story high, with a plank floor, good roof, door and window cut out. Kelly went at the job in leisurely fashion, so that it was not until early June that it was finished and a warrant for $47.50 issued to him for his work. The commissioners then arranged with Jesse Bre|vard for chinking the structure and furnishing it with door, window and fireplace. At the same time a contract for a jail was made with Robert Hamilton. Springfield was now ready to function as a county seat.
The town, however, was anything but securely started. Eight settlers lived within two miles of the court house, but every one of them was a mere squatter with no legal right whatever to be there. The land had not even been surveyed, and it would be at least two years before the government would put it on sale. At that time anyone might buy it over the settlers' heads and evict them. So far as an increase of population was concerned, the location of the temporary Page 7 county seat had attracted only one settler. He was Charles R. Matheny, who had been induced to locate there by the offer of all the county offices except that of sheriff. Even he was finding it difficult to live on the fees of his combined of|fices. It was at least an even chance that the little village, thus prematurely born, would live out a listless existence of a year or two, and gradually disappear.
That this did not happen was due to a twenty-five year old Kentuckian named Elijah Iles. The son of typical pio|neers, Iles had learned self-reliance at an early age. By the time he was twenty he had accumulated $600 by raising cat|tle in Bath County, Kentucky. It was then that he heard of the fine lands in Missouri, where a man could have "large, square cornfields" instead of the "little zig-zag ones" which were all that he knew. So he took his money and started for this farmers' paradise. He remained for three years, clerking in a store long enough to learn something about frontier storekeeping, exploring the country, buying and selling land, saving his money. But he failed to take root. Missouri, he thought, would remain frontier throughout his lifetime.
Early in 1821, while crossing Illinois after a visit to his family in Kentucky, he heard of the Sangamon valley and its fertile soil. Accompanied by a step-brother, he swung from his direct route to visit a part of it. He liked what he saw, so as soon as he had settled his affairs in Missouri, and got his step-brother established in a store there, he "pulled up stakes" for Illinois.
In the late spring of 1821 Iles crossed the Mississippi at Louisiana, Missouri, went southward almost to the mouth of the Illinois, swam his horse across that river and struck the trail from St. Louis to the Diamond Grove, where Jack|sonville is now located. There the Island Grove timber was pointed out to him. "I crossed the prairie without a trail," he wrote, "found no one in the grove, and kept on the west side until I struck a trail running east to where it was said a Page 8 temporary county seat was located. Following this trail I found the place, on the east side of Spring Creek timber. Charles R. Matheny had just moved to the place, and had erected a cabin of one room, in which he was residing with a large family of little children. He had been appointed clerk of the circuit and county court, judge of the probate, clerk of his own court, and county recorder, although there were no deeds yet to be recorded . . . John Kelly resided in the vicinity, and I stopped with him for the night."
The following day Iles explored the country. It more than confirmed his first impression, and he decided to stay. But what was he to do until the land should be put on sale? He re|membered his experience as a clerk in Missouri, thought of the money he had saved, and decided to open a store.
"I hunted around and found the stake that had been stuck for the beginning of a town named Springfield," he related, "and then bargained for the erection of a store house, to be set near the stake, eighteen feet square, with sheds on the sides for shelter. The house was to be of hewn logs, covered with boards, with heavy poles laid on to keep the boards from blowing off." The contract made, he set out for St. Louis to purchase a stock of goods. When he had what he wanted he chartered a boat and hired five men to tow it up the Illinois to the mouth of the Sangamon. The trip was made without serious accident, and the merchandise unloaded on the shore where Beardstown now stands. Nearby was a vacant cabin. In it Iles stored his goods, and then started for Springfield on foot. Before he had gone far he found two wagoners go|ing to the river, and since neither had full loads for the return trip, he induced them to take the first instalment of his stock. In a short time his store was open for business.
Trade was good. Wheat was ripe in the fields, and Iles had a goodly supply of the whiskey without which harvesters found it almost impossible to work. Iron castings, nails, stone|ware, salt and coffee were also in demand. Many customers Page 9 came seventy-five and eighty miles to make their purchases, for the store was the sole trading place in a territory of per|haps 10,000 square miles. Indians bought about as much as whites. Trade was mostly by barter. The Indians paid in furs, undressed deer skins and blue grass seed; the whites in home-made jeans, cotton and linen cloth, beeswax and honey. Or|dinary farm products—grain, butter, eggs—were of little use as a medium of exchange, since the cost of transporting them to the nearest market exceeded their entire value.
A profitable business established, Iles began to make plans for the future. He had come to Illinois as a prospective land-buyer, not as a storekeeper. And so, when the land was sur|veyed later in 1821, he made it known that he intended to purchase the land on which his store-house stood as a town site. He made it known also that if he succeeded in buying the land, he would give each settler the lot on which his cabin stood. A town was in the making.
Nevertheless, for the first year or two its fate was doubt|ful. Settlers—in the surrounding country as well as in Spring|field—risked the loss of every improvement they made, for no preemption system existed by which they could establish a claim prior to the land sales. In actual practice, however, it was infrequent that anyone outbid the man who lived on the land and forced his eviction—at least without paying him a fair price for his buildings and for his labor in bringing the land under cultivation.2 When the squatter himself wanted to stay, settlers were likely to deal roughly with an outsider who Page 10 was presumptuous enough to bid more than the minimum gov|ernment price of $1.25 an acre; while if he wanted to move on to less crowded regions, the possibility of being ridden on a rail usually brought a fair payment for improvements from the purchaser. Still, the possibility of eviction existed, and did something to deter settlement.
Moreover, many of those who were building cabins in the Sangamo country were not of the sort who meant to stay. Wherever there was a frontier a hardy, adventurous, half-nomadic class who lived by a combination of hunting and crude agriculture were to be found. A cabin, a few rude farm implements, a horse and perhaps a yoke of oxen, together with a small herd of half-wild hogs, made up the sum of their possessions. They cultivated a patch of corn and allowed their stock to run wild. When the population increased to a point where cattle had to be fenced in, and where it was nec|essary to buy land in order to live on it, they moved on. It was a common saying among them that when one could see the smoke of a neighbor's chimney the country was too crowded for comfort. Industry was not one of their charac|teristics. "They do the least work I believe of any people in the world," a disgusted Yankee wrote.
Naturally, a town surrounded by a population of this sort was not going to develop into a metropolis over night. Still, settlers were pouring into the surrounding country, and some of them found their way to the county seat. By the autumn of 1823, when the land was put on sale, there were perhaps thirty families living in Springfield. They resided in log houses, scattered, for the most part, along Jefferson Street Page 11 from First to Fourth streets. A small public square had been set apart for the court house at Second and Jefferson. Elijah Iles was still without a competitor, but three tavern keepers were obliged to divide the patronage of the neighborhood. A postoffice, named "Sangamon," had been established early in 1822, with Stephen Stillman as postmaster. Pascal P. Enos had opened the government land office in a two-story log cabin on the northwest corner of Third and Jefferson streets. Thomas Cox operated a horse mill and a distillery at the western edge of town. Gershom Jayne, the physician, had a double log cabin in which he kept travelers over night.
The town was still a frontier hamlet, however. Peter Cart|wright, who first saw it in 1823, said that it contained "a few smoky, hastily-built cabins, and one or two little shanties called 'stores,'" the contents of which he could have carried away on his back in a few loads. Another visitor described it as "a little cluster of log cabins." Squads of Kickapoo and Potawatomi still visited it frequently.
Nevertheless, Elijah Iles held to his plan of making the straggling settlement into a city. The land on which it stood had been surveyed in 1821. Early in the following year he laid out the streets: Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Mon|roe running east and west, with six others, unnamed, inter|secting them at right angles. Soon he found allies in John Taylor, the sheriff, Thomas Cox, the register of the land of|fice, and Daniel Pope Cook, congressman for the district, each of whom bought the settlers' claims to a quarter-section. In September, 1823, Pascal P. Enos, fifty-three years old and a Yankee by birth, came to Springfield as receiver of public moneys at the land office. He too was impressed with the possibilities of the place, and was allowed to buy a share in the venture. Together the proprietors agreed that Iles and Enos would each enter one of the two quarter-sections on which the town stood.
On November 6, 1823, the first land sales took place. The Page 12 next day Iles and Enos made their entries. To the former went the southwest quarter of Section 27, within which was included most of that part of the town which lay north of Washington Street. Enos' entry was for the northwest quarter of Section 34, adjoining Iles' purchase on the south. Both tracts were struck off without opposition for the min|imum price of $1.25 an acre. On the same day Thomas Cox entered the southeast quarter of Section 28, on which the few cabins west of First Street and north of Washington were located. Thus title to the land on which the original village of Springfield was situated passed from the United States of America to three individual "proprietors."3
The first act of the proprietors was to change the town's Page 13 name. "Colo. Cox, Mr. Enos, and Maj'r Iles has purchased Springfield," James Latham wrote to Ninian Edwards, "and have altered the name to Calhoun with the general satisfac|tion of the people." John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the statesman thus honored, was then at the peak of his popu|larity, especially in the West, where the ardent nationalism of his early career was entirely in keeping with popular senti|ment. In 1823 his name was prominently mentioned for the Presidency. "Mr. Calhoun is growing in popularity very fast here," wrote Latham.
The proprietors' next act was to have a survey made of the town. On December 5 there was recorded the plat of the Town of Calhoun. It was a rectangular tract, bounded on the north by Madison Street, on the east by Seventh, on the south by Monroe and on the west by First. Twenty-three blocks and a public square, located as now, were laid out. All the recorded plat was on the quarter sections entered by Iles and Enos.
Lot sales commenced as soon as the plat was recorded. Since the center of settlement was on Iles' property, the first conveyances were from him. Mordecai Mobley, who kept one of the taverns, was among the first purchasers, paying $50.00 for a lot on the north side of Washington Street be|tween Fourth and Fifth. Ordinarily, however, sales were for lower prices. Thus on December 8 a lot on the southwest corner of Jefferson and Third streets was sold to John Mes|sersmith of Ohio for $25.00, and within the next month or so others located no less advantageously were disposed of for as little as $15.00 and $20.00.
The truth was that the proprietors were not embarrassed by a crowd of prospective purchasers. The town's future was still a question mark. For one thing, it had drawn no great number of settlers. Besides, the county offices—the chief reason for its existence—had been located there only tem|porarily. Rival towns were being founded in the surrounding Page 14 country, and it was not unlikely that in the end the county government would be located at one of these. Sangamo Town, a small but thriving settlement near the Sangamon River seven or eight miles northwest of Springfield, was making a bid for the county seat; and William S. Hamilton 4 was working hard for the selection of a "paper town" of his own five miles north of the temporary county seat. It was high, dry, and well located, and the fact that not a single building graced its site was only a minor disadvantage.
Knowing that the General Assembly of 1824-25 would make provision for a permanent selection, the rivals gathered at Vandalia. Hamilton had already stolen a march, for in the summer of 1824 he had succeeded in getting himself elected as Sangamon County's representative in the legisla|ture. The proprietors of Springfield countered by sending Jonathan Pugh, whom Hamilton had barely defeated, to the capital to look out for their interests. Neither party won a clear victory, for the law which the legislature passed, on December 23, 1824, appointed commissioners and directed them to meet at the court house in early March and select a permanent seat of justice for Sangamon County on the basis of "the geographical situation of said county, its present and the future population and permanent interest." Actually, the outcome was a defeat for Hamilton, for at the close of the session one of Enos's friends who had been in Vandalia in|formed him "that if it had not been for Mr. Pugh's strenu|ous Page 15 & unsparing exertions . . . the county seat of Sangamon would have been removed according to Hamilton's wishes."
In accordance with the law, four of the five commis|sioners—James Mason, Rowland P. Allen, Charles Gear and John R. Sloo—appeared in Springfield about the middle of March. Being conscientious men, they were determined to in|spect all the sites in spite of the mud and water left by the spring thaws. With not a little guile Andrew Elliott, the North Carolinian who kept the Buckhorn Tavern, volun|teered to guide them. Elliott had lived in the neighborhood for six years and was a fine woodsman, but try as he might he was unable to get the commissioners to Sangamo Town without passing through eight or ten sloughs, not to mention overflowed and marshy prairies. The commissioners agreed that it was an excellent site, but most difficult of access. The latter opinion was more than confirmed by their return trip over a different route, worse if possible. They reached Spring|field entirely exhausted, thankful that their lives had been spared, and determined to take no chances by visiting the other prospective site. For Andrew Elliott—and Spring|field—it was a good day's work.
On the following day Elijah Iles and his wife accomplished all that remained—Mrs. Iles when she prepared a royal feast for the weary commissioners, and her husband when he tact|fully let it be known that he stood ready to cash their state warrants at par if they should see fit to select Springfield. (In actual value the warrants were worth about twenty-five cents on the dollar.) The result was that the commissioners lost no time in reporting that Springfield—the name Calhoun had already been dropped in popular usage—should be the per|manent seat of Sangamon County.
In the law providing for the location of the county seat the legislature had stipulated that the proprietors of the town selected should donate not less than thirty-five acres to the county, to be divided into lots and sold to defray the ex|pense Page 16 of the public buildings. Iles and Enos promptly com|plied with the requirement, and deeded to the county the pres|ent public square with the blocks immediately north and south, as well as a tract between Washington and Madison streets and extending east from Sixth to a line midway between Eighth and Ninth streets. The county court, with some irony, commissioned William S. Hamilton to make a survey of the acquisition, but Hamilton, disgusted with the day's proceed|ings, refused the job.
The county officers lost no time in making arrangements for their first lot sale. It was decided to offer thirty lots to the public on the first Monday in May, and Charles R. Math|eny, county clerk, was directed to insert a notice to that effect in the Edwardsville Spectator and the Illinois Intelligencer of Vandalia, offering a credit of three, six and nine months.
In his advertisement Matheny showed not a little familiar|ity with the arts of the publicity man. "Springfield," he wrote, "is now the permanent seat of justice of Sangamon county, situated within 4½ miles of the Sangamon river, in the heart of perhaps the most beautiful and flourishing county in the state of Illinois. The number of lots are supposed to exceed one thousand. The town site is delightfully situated on the border of a handsome prairie, and in the immediate vicinity of a large quantity of good timber. The population exceed|ing two hundred souls, furnishes an opportunity of testing its health, which has never yet been denied by the candid mind or intelligent physician. It is an object of enterprise which equally becomes the actual settler or the speculator, to become interested in purchasing property in this place."
The thirty lots offered for sale were disposed of in three days at prices ranging from $10.25, which Charles R. Math|eny paid for the northwest corner of Monroe and Seventh streets, to $40.50, given by Elijah Iles for the southeast corner of Sixth and Adams. All the lots were 80 feet front and 157 feet deep. What is now the finest business property Page [unnumbered]
Nevertheless, the lots were all sold—a fact which indi|cated that a growing number of people were convinced that the town was there, to stay. Their confidence was soon justi|fied, for in the following year its population more than doubled. When Charles R. Matheny composed a second ad|vertisement early in 1826, he was able to announce the pres|ence of 500 inhabitants "in a prosperous and thriving con|dition," and to assert, in calm confidence, that "if town prop|erty is to be valuable in any county town in the Western Country, it doubtless must be here."