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Talks With the Old Settlers

George T. Allen, M. D.

His Reminiscences of the Early Settlement and History of Madison County

by O. L. Barler, Esq.

From the Alton Telegraph, December 31, 1874

 

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          Dr. Allen, Surgeon in the United States Marine Hospital, St. Louis, sends the following:

 

          I certainly am one of the "Old Settlers of Madison County," for my father, Rowland P. Allen, with my mother and myself, and a negro boy named Henry, aged 18 years, and a negro girl named Jane, 8 years old, both given to my mother by her father, arrived at this very town of Edwardsville on the evening or afternoon of December 23d, 1817, when Illinois was only a Territory. Had I been consulted, our arrival would have been delayed until Christmas Eve, to make it more notable. Henry, the negro boy, cried most bitterly all Christmas Eve, however, because he wasn't in Old Master's kitchen in New York, to fill himself with cider and apples and New Year's cakes and ginger bread. The older folks were, however, anxious to end a tedious journey of more than three months, from New York to Edwardsville.

 

          Who composed our party? Rowland P. Allen, wife, child, and the two servants, who had been among my grandfather's slaves in New York; my uncle, Paris Mason, wife and child, and two negro servants, Alrum and Resia, given by my grandfather to my aunt, Mrs. Mason; James Mason and family, Hail Mason and family; Elijah Ellison and family; Richard Ellison; and Theophilus W. Smith and family (an able lawyer who became an eminent judge early in the history of Illinois). There were others in the company, whose names I do not remember.  The Masons had visited the Illinois Territory a year or more before, and reported favorably of Edwardsville and its vicinity.

 

          On our journey from New York, at Pittsburgh, we purchased an immense flat-boat. We took the wheels off and lashed our wagon beds, with covers on, crosswise over the cabin, and in these beds we slept at night. We divided the cabin into kitchen, eating room and stable, by partitions. The river was very low at first and we were on a sand bar aground about half of the time. Then the rains poured down, the floods came, and the river overflowed from bluff to bluff. Then, often, running at night, we would get out of the channel and even far out of the river.

 

          Permit me to read a few extracts from my father's diary of the journey from New York City to Edwardsville. He says:

"We left New York on Friday, the 19th day of September, A. D., 1817, and arrived at Edwardsville, in the Illinois Territory, on the 23d day of December of the same year, having been three months and some days on our journey. Friday, Dec. 5th, we camped, before sunset, about six miles in Moore's Prairie, at a bushy branch, that fuel might be got to keep up fires to frighten away the wolves during the night; notwithstanding the remonstrance of a Mr. Granger, a farmer who lives near the edge of the last timber, and whose nearest neighbor is 25 miles from him. He feared the wolves would devour our horses if not ourselves, if we camped away from a house. The men kept guard during the entire night and kept up the fires in a constant glow and flame, while the women and children tried to sleep in the wagons. The wolves seemed to have assembled in thousands around us, in all directions and were only intimidated by the bright fires, constantly replenished. They certainly did howl in awful concert, from dusk until dawn, making night most hideous to the women and the younger members of the party, at least."

          I distinctly remember that night, although I was only five years old. What my father calls Moore's Prairie, was, I believe, a part of the Grand Prairie, and I fancy that the place of that night's dreadful encampment was a point of wood, even then dwindled to an elm or two here and there, very near where the pleasant town of Centralia now is, on the Illinois Central Railroad.

 

          During the journey from Shawneetown to Edwardsville, we averaged only from three to five miles per day, because of water and mud. The wheels would freeze fast at night and had to be thawed loose in the morning. Let us draw a contract: On the morning of the 10th of May 1855, being then a Representative in the Illinois Legislature from this (Madison) county, it was my duty to aid in inspecting the then completed part of the Illinois Central Railroad, extending from Cairo, in the extreme south, to Galena, in the extreme north, of this glorious State - the noblest, and naturally, agriculturally, and in many other ways the most desirable and the richest in the Union or the world. On that day we ate our breakfast at Cairo, our dinner at Centralia, our supper - an excellent one - the Lord knows where, and our breakfast the next morning at the DeSoto House in Galena. In place of the wagon tent, or rather, the wagon cover, the snow that was deep on the ground where the wolves were besieging us in 1817, and in place of the wolves and the wide waste of wilderness, uninhabited for many miles in every direction, we found an elegant hotel with all the modern improvements and appliances for comfort and convenience, at the then embryo city of Centralia, abundantly supplied for the occasion with fruits from everywhere, and especially, from the tropics of both the eastern and western continents; ices from the north; wines from Europe and Illinois; confections and oysters from the East, and venison, turkey, grouse and quail in abundance, with ample supplies of all other desired substantials, grown in the immediate vicinity. In the places of the howling wolves, we listened to eloquent extemporaneous addresses from statesmen - some of whom now "sleep the sleep that knows no waking," other, having fought for the salvation of our country during the late rebellion, either fill honored graves or stand high in the heart of the nation. Ah! how many of these now sleep the sleep of the patriot - an honored slumber, in the memory of a grateful people. The tomb of every patriot who has died a martyr to the cause of his country is in every living patriotic heart; his monument is his redeemed country, and his spirit is the daily companion of every one who loves his country. My father, in his diary, continues:

"On Monday, the 22d of December, to our astonishment, we drove seventeen and a half miles this day. Put up at night at Troy, with a Mr. Jarvis, a very fine man, where we saw the first real marks of civilization since we left Shawneetown. Previous to retiring for the night, Mr. Jarvis gathered his family and the strangers around the family altar, read a chapter from the Bible, sang a hymn and offered up to Almighty God a most feeling, excellent and appropriate prayer."

          Mr. Jarvis lived at Troy, in this county, and died there some years ago, a consistent and warm-hearted Christian, a faithful husband, father and friend - honored and lamented by all. There, I know he now has some worthy and respected descendants.

 

          How much evidence there was of civilization in Shawneetown at that early day, my good father does not say. I think that it must, however, have been very thoroughly diluted; for water was everywhere, and covered everything but one little patch of earth where we had to land our horses, our wagons, our traps and ourselves, and there wait from day to day - how long I know not - for the subsiding of the waters. The Ohio river filled all the streets, flooded every yard, surrounded every house and overwhelmed the whole vicinity, and all communication from house to house and from street to street was by boat.

"Tuesday, December 23rd," my father writes, "we arrived at Edwardsville, the land of promise to us and the place of our destination, at 2 o'clock P.M., and found a very comfortable log house provided for our reception. It is the second best house in the place. All the houses here are made of logs. This is a flourishing little town and has an abundance of good land around it in all directions, as far as I have been able to examine, and this is being taken up with great eagerness."

          I remember distinctly, that when we arrived at Edwardsville, one half of the people there then were Indians - principally Delawares, there assembled to receive their annuities. An Indian agent then resided here, and, there being an abundance of game in all the country around, these Indians, during several consecutive years, passed the winter here. Their wigwams covered much of the space from the old Court House in the middle of the town to the creek. These Indians desired to be very friendly and thought they must enter every house and shake hands with every white man, woman and child. To us, this was a dreaded ordeal; for, besides our many prejudices, and their condition of the next thing to nakedness, the most cleanly of our Indian neighbors were plainly and palpably very lousy. These Indians were expert hunters and ever ready to trade a fat, full-grown turkey or a saddle of venison, for a loaf of wheat bread.

 

          During the winter of 1817-18, sugar and coffee were worth fifty cents each, per pound; nor could we then buy corn for less than one dollar and fifty cents per bushel. There were yet but few farmers here who could raise more than enough grain of any kind for the necessities of their own families, and there was then an unusual rush of emigrants to the rich prairies of Illinois, and, especially, to this most desirable vicinity.

 

          Great changes have taken place in our social condition since 1817. Strong sectional prejudices then existed and were perpetuated many years, through jealousy and ignorance - a man then was either a damned Yankee, or a Tuckeyhoe, a Sucker, a Puke, or something else not more desirable or esteemed by his neighbors. Every man who hailed from the east of the Alleghanies was a Yankee and the eastern man had before 1817 only been known to the western in the character of the genus homo who had cheated them in dealings with wooden nutmegs, wooden clocks, wooden hams and tin ware. Under the circumstances, the western man could not be justly censured for his deep and bitter prejudices. In western parlance there were then ironically declared to be three classes in society in the democratic Territory of Illinois, viz: first, the white man (the real western) born in a slave State; second, the Negro (generally a slave); and third, the Yankee, from over the mountains! The everlasting Yankee is now better known, better located and better understood; while, from the very first, he and his sister have managed to marry the very best western man and woman that could be found. Ask my brother-in-law, John L. Ferguson, a native born Illinoisian and the son of a noted Kentucky Indian fighter, how this is.

 

          At the Old Settlers' Meeting held here about a month ago, Mr. Don Alonzo Spaulding was called out and he made some very interesting remarks; but why Mr. S. did not then state that he was about the first person who had taught a school in this town, I don't know. In education and ability to teach, Mr. S. was the superior of all our other early teachers, and, perhaps, his acquaintance with many of the other teachers of that time may explain his reticence. Mr. Spaulding did, however, teach the first school I attended in Edwardsville when I was a small boy. At that time, however, my education had been considerably advanced! for I had already enjoyed the advantages afforded by a literary institution in Marine - now long ago passed away. The conductor of this was a little, effete, old codger, whose name, if he had any faded from my memory an age ago; but his literary merits and good deeds follow him, and I intend now to embalm them for the admiration and emulation of posterity.

 

          First, the college, academy, school house, or what you please, was made of logs and consisted of two departments, separated by a log partition. The first de-partment - perhaps those not educated there would call it an a-partment - was the stable, and accommodated a class of several horses; the second was the crib, or granary, and this was the literary department of the institution! The only entrance to this classic room was through the stable, and then a climb for teacher and pupils, girls and boys, over the six feet of log partition! This old teacher was the most ignorant, illiterate creature I ever knew as a teacher of the "youthful mind." We were instructed always to call the letter "Z" "Izzard," and in spelling "Aaron," to say "big A, little a, r-o-n, Aaron!"

 

          At that early day the march of civilization had already established a whisky distillery in the woods, not more than two miles from our noted scholastic institution, and our beloved pedagogue would, some times, rest at this point, on his early morning literary peregrination to his morning duty, and imbibe too freely of hot "corn-juice," for the successful advancement of education; although, in one way or another, he did, successfully, "teach the young idea how to shoot." A true politician, however, he even then stumbled along to his tasks, his duties, and his school, with a junk bottle well filled with the spirit that "steals away the brains," to treat, fill and flatter the older boys, and thus win them to his praise!

 

          The next teacher who attempted to illuminate Marine was a Mr. Giles Churchill, the most hashful and awkward of men. He had "studied English Grammar in Webster's Spelling Book," and "'lowed he could teach it if anybody wanted to larn."

 

          My esteemed brother-in-law, John L. Ferguson, Esq., of Marine, was called to the stand, after Mr. Spaulding, and, in responding, related many interesting items of history that must soon pass away unless treasured through his instrumentality. My brother's memory reaches back to 1816; but he seems to have forgotten that my father, Rowland P. Allen, and Elijah Ellison, and their families, arrived in Edwardsville in 1817, and settled in Marine 1818, and that Capt. George C. Allen, Capt. Curtis Blakeman, Capt. James Breath, Capt. DeSelhorst, Capt. David Mead, and other seamen, with their families, and the Judd family, arrived in Marine (from New York and New England and New Jersey), and there located in 1819, and the Gillespies at Edwardsville, although he remembers they gave the name to the place.

 

          Capt. Curtis Blakeman gave John L. Ferguson a wife - as good a wife as ever God gave a man. Capt. Blakeman was a wealthy man when he came to the West, and nearly the only eastern one who was not either driven there by his poverty or to retrieve a fortune lost by commercial reverse.

 

          The Kiles were in Marine when my father and his excellent and venerated friend, Elijah Ellison, settled there; but Major Isaac Ferguson and all the older settlers, being from heavily timbered counties in Kentucky and Tennessee, all made clearings in the forest, and there built and lived. This was so general, throughout Illinois, until about 1820, and you may, this day, find the old clearings in the thick timber made by the primitive white colonists. My father, first of all men I know of, built in the prairie, but adjoining the timber, and was laughed at for his willingness to haul building material, fencing and axe wood so far (a half mile). Within two or three years, however, all the pioneers realized the wisdom of his innovation and then soon crawled out into prairie sunshine.

 

          To your gums! In the early day it cost something more than now to clothe a family, and parents then were very prolific. Fortunately then, no one was expected to wear "purple and fine linen, and to fare sumptuously every day." Yet every intelligent farmer felt a pride in having his wife and children appear well, to intelligent visitors. We had our candidates and our elections in those days as now, and the leading politicians could easily visit every family, when there were so few, and such a visit was anticipated. The household was therefore on the watch and the sudden approach of well dressed strangers often let to the maternal command: "To your gums! to your gums!! to your gums!!!" In warm weather, large boys of 12 or 14 years wore little more than a long shirt at home and in plowing and planting. I really forget how the girls were dressed. Every western farmer had his immense sycamore gums, to be finally used for ash-hoppers and to hold grain; but when empty, a full grown man could readily and easily hide in one. Hence the order to the rude children: "To your gums!"

 

          Major Isaac Ferguson, the father of our friend, J. L. F., was the first, bravest and noblest pioneer of Madison county, in my memory and regard. As brave as Julius Caesar: a man of fine native talent, he fought the Indian race out and away from here and ended his life in fighting, under General Winfield Scott, as an officer in our army, the Mexicans on the plains of that far off land.

 

          I regret to report that gambling, drinking, fighting and lawlessness prevailed almost unrestricted here in the early day. The courts were regularly held and would pass the most stringent sentences against gambling, but the noble judge and the ablest lawyers would hire a room, station a paid sentinel at the door and pass nearly the entire night in gambling with cards for money.

 

          There were many noted fighting men about in those days. Does any one remember James Henry? He was a shoemaker; but a stalwart, six-footer, who "neither feared God nor regarded man," when in his cups. Eventually he reformed and, for a time, was a leading man in the State, I have been told. Henry was a Kentuckian and a very bitter pro-slavery man. During one of his quarterly sprees, he fancied that Jarret, the slave of a lawyer named Conway, had insulted him. Henry demanded of Conway permission to punish Jarret. Conway's cowardice led him to grant the favor. Informed of this, Jarret hid away in the hay in my father's stable. I knew this and secretly fed and watered the poor negro; but a drunken hostler, yet living, and whose name I can give, accidentally found Jarret, and to flatter Jim Henry, reported the fact to the desperate son of Southern chivalry. Jim Henry then provided himself with five hickory whips, fresh from the timber, a rope, his sword, his dagger - a regular bowie knife - and a pistol. He then sought and found Jarret, tied him, brought him out, stripped him of all clothing excepting his pants, and fastened him to the end of a horse-rack, on the public street, so as to compel him to stand on his toes. Henry laid his sword and pistol on the horse-block some three feet from his victim, and with the dagger in his left hand and a hickory in his right, commenced the castigation. It was "Court week" and there seemed to me - a little boy then - five hundred men in town and all present and looking on! Henry wore out two or three, I think three , hickory gads on Jarret's bare back. With nearly every blow the blood ran. The poor negro would sometimes draw up and hang upon the rope and beg for mercy. Then Henry - the white brute - would draw the keen edge of his immense knife over the prisoner's naked abdomen and threaten to let out his bowels if he failed to stand it all, most manfully. Henry was a man of wonderful size and strength, and all knew him to be fearless and reckless. He dared any man to interfere and intimidated the Sheriff and constables and all the men present, with his sword, his dagger and his pistol. In that day and that community, little sympathy was felt for a "n****r." If the man had been white, Henry would not have struck him the second blow and lived. The negro then had no rights the white man even pretended to regard. Just when the second or third whip had been used up, my mother first heard the poor negro's cry and she went immediately to his rescue. She appealed to all the men present, but unheeded. Then she retired to her kitchen, armed herself with a formidable carving knife and immediately advanced upon the enemy. Henry did not see her until she had nearly touched the negro; when he suspended his blow, in astonishment, but with still a threatening gesture. She raised the knife, cut the rope and ordered the sufferer into her own kitchen, where she dressed his wounds most carefully, with her own hands. Henry, watching her as she retired, raised his hand with the dagger in it, as she disappeared, and, turning to the crowd, said: "A woman might tie my hands, but let a man thus try to oppose my will," swinging his dagger threateningly at the men. I may be like some of the men who were there that day, but my mother was a true heroine!

 

          I don't know how it was elsewhere in Illinois, but in Marine, in the early day, "Old Settlers" lived, as far as people could, as one family. We all turned in and united in planting the neighbor's ground who was first ready to plant, and we all united in harvesting first the field that was first ripe. If a stranger came, we all united and built him a log house in a day, and thus we did all things. During the early days in Illinois, every man's house was open and free to every visitor, night or day. There were then many hunters, who, like the Indian, lived by the gun. Such men felt free to visit you at any hour. These were all very early risers. If overtaken by night, they would lodge with you; but they would be up and awake and stir up the entire family, looking out for the "first streak of day." Then, very likely, very often, others of the same class would come in about that time and make themselves entirely at home. They thought it strange that any body in health could lay abed after the "first streak of daylight." May Sol, the great luminary, ever be permitted to rise and warm the earth before I put my presumptive foot upon it!

 

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