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“Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie,” by John Mack Faragher, Yale University Press, 1986. This 280-page paperback tells of settling on the Illinois Prairie, this time in Sugar Creek, south of Springfield near the town of Auburn. Faragher covers from arrival of the first settlers until about 1850. A related volume, “The Heartland: An American History,” by Kristin L. Hoganson, Penguin Press, NY, 2019, picks up the story with arrival of the railroads through about World War I. It describes Champaign Co., IL, but could be seen as Volume 2 of the series.

Sugar Creek is located just west of Springfield, IL. It flows north into the Sangamon River. This is prairie grass country interlaced with wooded areas near streams. This area of Illinois was known as the San-gam-ma Country.

From ancient times the center of civilization in Central Illinois was American Bottoms, on the west bank of the Mississippi River from Alton south through Cahokia and the mound area to the Kaskaskia River. It had been occupied by Indians from about 600 AD, but was settled by the French in 1696. Archeology has found bow and arrows from the 8th Century AD. The original Indians were the Inoca or Ininiwek after whom Illinois is named. They greeted Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette in Illinois Country in 1673. Under pressure from the Iroquois who sought to dominate the fur trade early in the 17th century, the Illinois moved to the Mississippi Valley and became “trading post indians” working with the French. They all but disappeared by the end of the 18th century.

The Kickapoo also under pressure from the Iroquois, were reported near the end of Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron in 1612; in the Rock River region of Wisconsin in 1665. They were driven to Central Illinois by the Iroquios in about 1712. Pressures on the Indians increased as pioneers moved into the Northwest Territories after the Revolutionary War. Kickapoo villages were destroyed in a series of raids mostly from Kentucky. Under terms of the Treaty of Edwardsville (1818), the Kickapoo of Illinois resettled to Western Missouri on the Osage River by 1820, but swapped their land in Missouri for land in Kansas in the Treaty of Castor Hill in 1832. Other Kickapoo reservations are found in Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico.

The first settler in Sugar Creek was Robert Pulliam from Kentucky. His father John operated Pulliam’s Ferry across the Kaskaskia River near Fayetteville, IL. In October, 1817, Robert and crew drove cattle north to unoccupied Sugar Creek. They probably followed an old Indian trail, the Edwards Trace. The first year, they built a crude cabin and processed maple syrup to sugar returning to the ferry the following Spring. In 1819 he returned with his family.

The Indians made maple sugar in late February. This was also a business for Americans. With proper processing white granular sugar could be obtained.

Most early settlers were squatters. A survey was required before Federal land could be sold. The survey of Sugar Creek began only in 1821. In 1828, squatters were given first preference to buy their land and by tradition could sell their improvements. In spite of popular demand, Congress did not authorize free land for homesteaders until after land in Illinois was claimed.

Three quarters of those arriving before 1840 came from homes in Kentucky, Tennessee, or the up-country of Virginia or the Carolinas. Fewer than one in ten came from north of the Mason-Dixon line. The rest were from Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois, but had moved from south of the Ohio River only a few years before.

The prairie was swampy fostering swarms of mosquitoes and biting green-headed horseflies. Horses bolted in pain when bitten. Travel at night was preferred to cross big prairies. Prairie grass fires were common in the fall. Winter winds were especially hard on livestock. Hedges were planted as wind breaks. Point to point travel across the prairie was common. Roads were moved to the section lines in the 1850s.

The land was settled from the wooded areas because wood provided fuel, building material, furniture, and game. The allotted land extended into prairie grass, but grass land was developed slowly. Typically it was for grazing. Killing trees by girding them and planting between the stumps was easier. Anyone who improved a prairie grass site was laughed at. Dense roots made plowing the prairie with equipment of the day difficult. Well into the 1840s, farmers continued to break soil with wooden plows, harrow fields with tree limbs, and thresh wheat by driving their horses over grain strewn on the barn’s threshing floor. Heavier plows became available in the 1830s. They were followed by John Deere’s steel plows around 1850.

The initial shelter was usually a three sided structure open on one side facing a fire to provide warmth and repel animals

The first cabin was a one room enclosure of large logs piled on top of one another to a height of 10 ft and joined at the corners by a technique known as half-dovetailing. Door and windows were hacked out. The logs were chinked with clay, grass, and small wood chips. The roof was clapboards held in place with ridgepoles. A large stone fireplace provided for heat and cooking. The original dirt floor was replaced with log puncheons over a shallow root cellar. Later another cabin was built beside it connected by a covered passage producing a dogtrot. Or a rear extension might include a kitchen, store house, and sleeping quarters resulting in an ell.

In the 1850s and 60s, the more prosperous built new dwellings, replacing log cabins with two-story frame houses, usually I houses in the Greek Revival style. They became a symbol of success. Owners also built the first barns in the 1840s.

In the early days, subsistence farming was the norm. Cash was rare. Most business was by barter until the late 1840s. Even property taxes could be paid by work on public roads. Cash was used mostly to buy land. Industrious farmers sold not only field crops, but furs, fence rails, and whiskey and worked in the fields of well to do neighbors and or spent winters in the lead mines of Galena in northern Illinois to raise money to buy land.

In 1820, Robert Pulliam built a horse mill that could grind eight bushels of corn per day. Taverns and distilleries were nearby.

Bees and honey were plentiful. They had been brought from Europe, but found the trees of Sugar Creek before whites arrived. Indians considered bees as a sign of approaching whites and avoided them. In 1822, an excursion on the Sangamon River found 30 bee trees netting 50 gallons of honey and 60 lbs of beeswax.

In the 1830s, five to fifteen cattle including one or two milk cows was common. They were range cattle; no shelter was provided. In winter, they sheltered in the woods. Their stock grazed freely on the prairie. The first crops were in split rail worm fences near the log cabin that protected the kitchen garden and corn. A typical Sugar Creek farm included about 60 acres of improved farmland on which was raised 1000 bushels of corn, 100-200 bu wheat, oats, and other small grains, potatoes and garden crops. The farm frequently included an orchard, especially apples. Most farms needed a dozen hogs to feed the family although some owned as many as 50. They ran wild and were often found in the woods. They were fed some corn but mostly foraged until fall, when they were fattened for hog killing in November or December.

In the first quarter century, men hunted wild turkey, goose, duck, and prairie chicken. Rabbits and squirrels provided meat for the Illinois burgoo or stew served in nearly every cabin. Large herds of deer roamed the prairies. Elisha Kelly came to Sugar Creek in 1817. He could kill a weeks supply of game in half a day. Hunting supplemented the family diet especially in the Fall..

The prairie grass consisted of native big bluestem, Indian grass, and Canadian wild rye. It grew taller than a man. Shallow drainage encouraged standing water and bogs, where slough grass and huge wild flowers grew, and mosquitoes and hard biting horse flies bred in abundance. The woods consisted of white oaks, red oaks, sugar maples, sumac, poison ivy, and nut trees including chestnuts, hickories, and pecans. Native fruits included raspberries, mulberries, wild strawberries, blackberries, plums, persimmons, crab apples, wild cherry, and grapes. Wildlife included beaver, mink, muskrat, raccoon, weasel, bear, grey fox, squirrel, opossum, skunk, wild turkey, hawk, owl, woodpecker, cottontail, red fox, coyote, wolf, white-tailed deer and elk as well as sandhill crane, and hawk. Buffalo had been there but were hunted to extinction by 1800. Fish included catfish, carp, crappie, bass and sucker. The Great Mississippi Flyway nearby brought flocks of geese and ducks. Flocks of prairie chickens and passenger pigeons were reported.

Groups of relatives were more successful. Persistence is the percentage of settlers who remain 10 years from one census to the next. In Sugar Creek, 80% of those who persisted had relatives nearby. Without family associations, the persistence rate was one in three.

Early religions were Protestant–Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. A group of Catholic families arrived in Sugar Creek from Maryland by way of Kentucky in 1824. Nine families intermarried. They built a church in the 1840s. Construction of the railroad in 1851 brought Irish laborers to the area. Polish miners followed in the 1880s.

Corn was not profitable to ship but usually went to market as pork or whiskey. Cattle were driven down the St. Louis Road to market. Hogs were sometimes driven to market but were more often shipped as salt pork. Flatboats were floated down the Sangamon River to the Illinois River to St. Louis and sometimes to New Orleans. By the 1840s, some began to butcher and pack their own salt pork. Records of Eddin Lewis show he butchered 255 hogs, averaging 270 lb ea, and shipped 6000 lb of barreled pork and lard south on the Mississippi River in 1847 and 48.

In 1821, the Sangamon County Commissioners declared the Edwards Trace a public road. In 1822 Congress named it a post road. It began to be called the St. Louis Road. The county cared for the poor and indigent by paying stipends to farmers who took them in. A poor farm was created in 1849.

Illinois became a state in 1818. From earliest days, slavery had been forbidden in the Northwest Territory. In 1824, a referendum to allow slavery in Illinois was soundly defeated by a 5 to 1 margin.

In 1828, two thirds of Illinois farmers were squatters, who hoped to buy their land. In the period between 1840 and 1850, opportunities for squatters began to wane. Most who could not buy their land by that time were forced to sell their improvements and leave. Prairie grass lands began to be settled. Successful farmers invested their profits in more land. They became landlords to tenant farmers aka sharecroppers. A typical sharecropper rented 40 acres and planted 25 acres of corn, five to ten of wheat and oats, and the rest to hay and grazing. He had two or three draft animals, usually horses or mules, sometimes oxen, five to fifteen cattle, two or three milk cows, and a dozen hogs. He might produce 700 to 1000 bu corn, 100-200 bu wheat and oats, 10-15 tons hay.

Women’s work included the chickens, butter and eggs, the garden and canning, making soap and lard. They raised cotton, flax for linen, and sheep for wool. Women did spinning, weaving and made clothing for the family from homespun. Butter was preserved in brine and sold to local merchants who shipped it to St. Louis, Chicago, or Detroit. By 1859, homespun had been replaced by manufactured cottons and woolens. Illinois farm women continued many of these activities as late as the 1920s.

Labor was hard to come by on the prairie. Children provided manpower. Women married young, bore their first child within the first year, then typically at 26 to 30 month intervals as long as they were able. Families were large. In 1840, a woman accused of immoral conduct could be publicly chastised in front of the congregation.

Prairie living was unhealthy. The Mississippi Valley had a bad reputation. Deaths were reported from childhood diseases, intestinal disorders, pneumonia, and tuberculosis (or consumption). Epidemics of typhoid fever or brain fever–spread by manure and houseflies--struck in late summer or fall. Asiatic cholera reached Sugar Creek by late summer, 1832. The first round lasted through 1834. In an outbreak in 1849-50, 5% of Sangamon Co deaths were due to cholera, 10% typhoid, 11% lung fever or pneumonia, 11% consumption. By 1860, cholera had disappeared, but typhoid had doubled, consumption and lung fever were steady, and scarlet fever claimed 55 children.

Malaria, unknown before 1760, arrived in Illinois by 1800. For years settlers had bouts of chills and fever until the land was drained and cultivated.

Physicians were not licensed in Illinois until the 1870s. “Regular” doctors were apprenticed. Bleeding, purgatives, and vomiting were common treatments as was opium. From the 1830s, quinine was an effective treatment for malaria, but regulars did not use it. Settlers often carried the scars of frequent bleedings, as well as toothless gums, and uncontrolled drool, symptoms of mercury poisoning that came from calomel or mercurous chloride, commonly used as a purgative.

The first school began in Sugar Creek in 1820. Early schools were supported by subscription often paid in eggs and butter and sometime with boarding. Teaching was by memorization and recitation. School ran for three months beginning in November. Students were taught spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Illinois began state support for common schools in 1855. Sunday Schools, which taught students to read the Bible, are not mentioned.

George and Tamsen Donner of Sugar Creek were part of the Donner party that perished in the winter snows in the Sierra Mountains in 1846. Tamsen was a widowed teacher before she married George. They settled on his farm 15 miles north of the creek before moving to California.

Farmers were superstitious. Many practiced “moon farming.” Planting and various farming functions required the correct moon phase. Roots crops–such as potatoes, radishes, and turnips–were planted in the dark of the moon, otherwise they would go to seed. Corn was planted in a full moon for the light of the moon would spur the plants to greater growth. Girding of trees and setting of fence posts was best accomplished in the new moon of August. Seed was sown, children weaned, maidens courted by signs of the moon.

The Temperance movement attempted to prohibit the sale of alcohol in 1855. A state referendum was defeated soundly.

The Alton & Sangamon Railroad, later the Chicago & Alton, arrived on September 10, 1852. Stage lines were displaced. Manufactured farm machinery began to appear. That included horse driven corn planters, mowers, reapers and thrashing machines. Before, primitive farm implements were made locally.

In the Civil War, forty men from Sugar Creek served in Company B of the 12th Illinois Cavalry. They saw action through Missouri and Arkansas and the siege of Vicksburg. Ten were lost during the war. Additional men served in other units.

Coal was discovered in Sugar Creek in 1880. Mining began soon after. The arrival of Polish miners reactivated anti-Catholic prejudices and the Ku Klux Klan. An amusement park was built about 1900. It served Springfield residents who arrived by interurban. It survived until after World War II.

From 1861 to 1881, half of township officials were descendants of early settlers.

In 1981, descendants of 23 of the 44 persistent families before 1840 still lived on farms in the four contiguous townships and owned at least 10% of the Sugar Creek land.

This is an excellent description of life on the Illinois prairie, especially prior to 1850. Index references, maps, photos.
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