1878 Early Settlement

A little over a half century ago the territory now embraced within the limits of Knox county was in a state of nature. Scarcely a white man, except hunters and traders, had ever crossed its fertile prairies. It was a wild region and uninhabited save by the wild beasts of forest and prairie, and roving bands of Indians, whose trails were found here and there over prairie and through timber, from village to village, of wigwams. Herds of deer, packs of wolves and other wild animals roamed at will. The buffalo had been driven by the Indians farther west, although their bones were found here and there scattered over the prairie. Since then wonderful and unparalleled have been the changes that have taken place.
Fifty years have passed since Daniel and Alexander Robertson, Richard Mathews, Jacob Gum and his sons, John B., James and Zephaniah, Riggs Pennington, Stephen Osborn, Eaton and Robert Nance, Benjamin Coy, Alexander Frakes, Robert Greenwell, Thomas Sheldon, Nicholas Voiles, Mrs. Jennie Vaughn, and John, her son, Jesse D. Gum, James Reynolds, Andrew and Alexander Osborn, M.D. Coy and Thomas McKee came to this country to found homes, all of them settling in Henderson township. Of this number but two are living in the county at the present time; and as there were no written records kept, as a natural consequence, a great many early incidents of local importance at the time of their happening are lost to the memory of the oldest surviving settlers; or, if not entirely lost have become so confused with the multiplicity of accumulating cares, that to extricate an accurate account of them from time's rubbish and preserve them in printed pages, so they may be seen now as they were then, will require a most critical exercise of mind and pen. As near as is possible ever to obtain, we give a correct sketch, taking great care properly to secure names, dates and locations, and we believe the early history of the county is as full and complete as could have been compiled.
Daniel and Alexander Robertson, and their brother-in-law, Richard Mathews, were the first to locate in the county of Knox. The two former were single men, but remained so but a short time, as we find the first marriage license issued, by the Clerk of the county, was to Daniel Robertson. Alexander was married shortly afterward, and in 1848 died. His daughter is the wife of John Junk, and has resided all her life on the farm where her father settled and died and where she was born. Richard Mathews remained here but a short time, and then returned to Morgan county, settling near Urnsville, where in 1876 he died.
The Robertson brothers first settled on the northeast quarter of section 15, Henderson township, where the soil of Knox county was first cultivated by a white man. At present Daniel lives on the southwest quarter of section 11 of the same township. He was unable to get legal possession of the land originally settled upon, and was compelled to remove. In the early settlement of the Military Tract great annoyance was experienced by the pioneers from parties having tax titles, grants, patents, etc., of the land. Thus it was with the piece of land Mr. Robertson first located. A man by the name of Baker, whose wife's father had an interest in or a claim upon this land, came along one evening and asked to stay over night. This privilege was cheerfully granted him. On the following morning, he asserted his right to the land. He refused to leave the house. In an altercation which Daniel Robertson had with him over this land Baker shot at Robertson, but fortunately missed him. Robertson ran to the house after his gun, but his wife, fearing something fatal, kept it from him. It would seem that with such vast expanse of wild land there would be no difficulty in regard to a small field.
Daniel Robertson, the first settler of the county, and who at present is hale and stout, and does considerable work on his farm, was born in Scotland, June 12, 1804. He was brought by his parents to the United States when only four weeks old. They settled near Lake George, New York. In 1820 his father came to the newly organized State of Illinois, settling in Madison county. In 1821 he went to Morgan county, from whence in a few years his two sons Daniel and Alexander went into Schuyler county, where they followed the business of raising hogs. The Galena trail went through Schuyler and Knox counties, and travelers were passing to and fro much of the time. Some of them told the Robertsons of the fine country in this county. They reported it as the best through which the trail passed. Time has since verified the assertion of these early miners. The winter of 1827—8, acting upon the advice of strangers, they concluded to remove here. After some preparations they set out, in the latter part of February, 1858, for the unsettled country, with two yoke of oxen to their "prairie schooner" wagon, and with 80 head of hogs. Arriving after a weary journey, they pitched their tent and commenced farming. Among the few rude implements they brought with them was a plow, the first to turn the soil of Knox county so far as known, except the still more rude implements of the Indians, who had cultivated little fields here and there over the county. This plow is still in the possession of Mr. Daniel Robertson, in a good state of preservation, and a relic worthy of more than a passing notice. How different is this antique implement from those in use at the present time! It was made after the most improved pattern, and at the time was a model worthy of imitation. It is what is known as the "Barshare" plow, and in construction consumed a great amount of timber. The beam is 8 1/2 feet long and 16 inches in circumference. The wooden mold-board is 3 feet 4 inches long, about 10 inches wide and 4 inches thick, and is made of oak. The wrought-iron share, about the only piece of iron about it, is 4 feet, 4 inches long, although cutting but a 16-inch furrow. To make it more unique it is only from 14 to 16 inches high. With this ancient plow they prepared a few acres of ground and planted corn, which yielded forty bushels to the acre, thus enabling them to supply the immigrants as they came, and to "give the hogs a taste now and then," as Mr. Robertson remarked to us.
These animals subsisted mostly upon acorns and other nuts found in the timber. Considerable trouble was at first experienced with the Indian dogs, which would kill the pigs and make the hogs "homesick." These dogs were similar in many respects to the wolf, and were quite as mischievous and troublesome.
Of the pioneers of 1828 Daniel Robertson and Thomas McKee are the only two now residents of Knox county. Almost all the others have finished their earthly career, and their names and deeds deserve much honor from each citizen of the county, for they each and all as early settlers endured the trials and hardships of a new and wild country, to lay the foundation for future greatness and make a more beautiful, cultivated county. Their memories should be perpetuated and handed down to posterity, who, when the country's age is told by centuries and its population by hundreds of thousands, will read with greater interest of those that opened the way for them to advance in learning, culture, wealth and other ways. Future generations should fully know and appreciate those who began the work of settling and changing a wild, unsettled and uncultivated county as Knox once was, to what it now is.
Jacob Gum and his sons settled upon sections 32 and 33. Jacob was a minister of the gospel, and seldom failed to preach on Sunday; and although we may know his congregation was not large, nor did they assemble in a beautifully frescoed auditorium with cushion pews and floor richly carpeted, yet the truth was just as earnestly preached and as gratefully received as to-day, for Elder Gum was an earnest worker and in his day wielded much influence for good. He was a member of the Regular Baptist Church, but finally united with the Christian Church, in which denomination he remained a devoted member and an earnest, zealous laborer in his Master's cause, until called to dwell with Him on the shores of eternity, his death occurring many years ago in this county.
His sons Jesse and Zephaniah died in Missouri; John died in California; but James is living in that State at the present time. Riggs Pennington settled on section 10, from which place he moved to section 27, from thence to Texas in 1836, where he died. Stephen Osborn settled on section 23. He died at Henderson. Alexander Frakes and the Nance brothers settled on section 9. Frakes afterward moved to Oregon, where he died. Eaton Nance is living in Missouri, but his brother Robert died in Cass county, Illinois. Benjamin Coy settled on section 31, and died in this county. M. D. Coy died in Iowa. Robert Greenwell settled on section 15, but afterward removed to Missouri, where he died. Nicholas Voiles settled on section 22, but moved to Texas, where he died about 1852. Mrs. Vaughn, familiarly known as "Aunt Jennie," lived on section 33 and died in this county. John, her son, is still living, having no permanent home. James Reynolds died in this county. Alexander Osborn is still living, with his wife, whom he married in 1829, -- theirs being the first marriage in Knox county. They are now residing in Kansas. Andrew Osborn also resides in the same State.
Thomas Sheldon resided in this county but one winter, when he went to Rock Island, where he died in June, 1829. He left a widow and four small children. In a wild, uncultivated country, where physical labor is required, a woman with a family of small children would undergo much suffering. The settlers of Knox soon heard of the death of Mr. Sheldon, and immediately two of their number went to ascertain the condition of the family. In September they concluded to bring his widow to their own settlement at Henderson that they might care for her, and accordingly sent Thomas McKee with two yoke of oxen to bring her and her effects. The few settlers of Rock Island had been very kind to the widow, and had provided with provisions for the winter, -- among which was a barrel of flour and a barrel of meat. Thomas McKee was at the time but nineteen years of age, but was a hardy frontier boy, and scarcely knew what hardships were; but he certainly experienced many on this trip of four days. He came to Rock river on his return, and there being no bridges or ferries, it must be forded. This he did, which without guide was a dangerous task. He came on to Mill creek, crossing it safely, but a little this side his wagon sunk so deep in the mud that his oxen in a desperate attempt to pull it out broke the neck-yoke. This was very discouraging, but young McKee immediately started back for Rock Island afoot for another yoke. This he obtained, and soon returned, reaching his wagon about dark. They wee obliged to remain there all night, when a heavy rain fell and the water rose up nearly to the bed of the wagon. The following morning he unloaded his wagon and “pulled out.” He says, to-day, it is a great wonder to him how he ever managed to load the barrel of meat, as the lady was in a condition which unfitted her for lending any assistance in lifting. They came on farther and stalled again, and again unloaded every article. At Edwards river he stuck again, the oxen being unable to get up the rather steep embankment. He again unloaded every article, and then had to carry and roll each up the bank to the wagon. Coming on into Rio township, this country, about dark, he came to a slough, where he remained over night.
He finally arrived home, after a most laborious journey of four days. We speak of this trip in detail, to illustrate the manner and mode of traveling in the time of the early settlement of the county. Without road or guide the pioneers roamed the prairies and timber with their slow but faithful oxen. At this time there was but one traveled road in the county, the one running from Peoria to Galena, through Victoria and Walnut Grove townships. This was the old “Galena trail” or “State road,” by which terms it was familiarly known.
Mrs. Sheldon and family returned to Kentucky the following year. Thomas McKee is a resident of Galesburg, where he holds the offices of Justice of the Peace and Supervisor; and although a strong Democrat and the recognized leader of that party in this country, his personal popularity is so great that even in the Republican stronghold of Galesburg he scarcely finds opposition. There is perhaps no citizen of the county so well and favorably known as he, and but few if any whose acquaintance is so extensive.
In 1829 but few additions were made to the spare settlement at Henderson. Now and then a new-comer would be welcomed. Among the number were Dr. Charles Hansford and John G. Sanburn. The former was the first physician in the county, and for many years perhaps the most popular man of the county; and the latter opened the first stock of general merchandise, and also came James and William McMurtry, Jonathan Reed, William Lewis, Solomon Davis and Thomas Maxwell; all of whom prominently figured in the early history of the country, and one of whom afterward received the greatest official honors ever conferred upon a citizen of Knox county.
Mrs. Elizabeth Owen, a widow lady, with her son Parnach, and two daughters, came in the fall of this year, 1829, and settled in Haw Creek township. These were the first settlers to locate outside of Henderson, save a rather singular genius named Palmer, who stopped south east of Maquon in 1828. It cannot be claimed for Palmer that he was really a settler, for he did not expect to remain, and he never fenced or made any effort to improve the land. He was a professional bee-hunter, and as such traveled in advance of civilization. He lived at the place referred to but a short time, when he went farther west; but while near Maquon he cultivated the hills made by the Indians the year previous on the bottom lands of Spoon river.
It may seem strange that a widow lady should be the first to locate in a large region of country where the foot of white man had scarcely trod. It was the strong attachment she had for her son that led her to the western wilds of Knox county. He was determined to seek a home in the new country, and rather than see him go alone she joined him and located here. She died in Knoxville in 1839. Her two daughters are still living – one the widow of the late John G. Sanburn, residing in Knoxville, the other the wife of Dr. E. D. Rice of Lewistown. Parnach Owen took an active part in the early history of the county. He did the first local surveying, and was one of the contractors for the construction of the first court-house. He went from this to McDonough country, thence to Iowa, and he died in Allamakee county in that State in 1845.
In 1830 the population increased rapidly. Fraker, Owen and Fitch settled in Lynn township, in the edge of a beautiful grove which since has been known as Fraker’s Grove. These were the first settlers in the northeastern part of the county. Mr. Fraker had purchased several quarter sections before coming to the country, upon a portion of which he discovered an Indian town. His coming naturally aroused the Indians, and a great controversy arose between them concerning the possession of the land, the Indians claiming that their title came directly from God Almighty, while Mr. Fraker based his claim on patents he held from the Government. The Indians, however, after much parleying, concluded to leave. They moved to Indian Creek, some seven miles east, and built another village. They remained quite friendly with Mr. Fraker, and often came over to visit him, who was always glad to see even an Indian. Soon the Indians adopted the habit of coming to the grove in the spring to make sugar and raise their squaw corn and vegetables, and then would return west in the fall to new hunting-grounds.
Some travelers passed by Mr. Fraker’s, going northwest through Walnut Grove, where they saw Jones and DeHart, two settlers who came here shortly after the Frakers settled in Lynn. They were informed by the travelers of the settlers at Fraker’s Grove, who were not aware of having neighbors nearer than Henderson; and the Frakers, Fitches and Frasiers were greatly surprised on the following Sunday morning upon seeing Mr. DeHart, his wife and two children drive up in their two-wheeled cart, with a dry-goods box on, and drawn by oxen. These were the first while visitors except travelers that ever called at the settlement. Mrs. Fraker had not seen a white woman, except those of their own company, after coming to the grove.

Contributed by Pat White and Charlotte Babicki, extracted from the 1878 History of Knox County, Illinois, published by Charles C. Chapman & Co., Chicago, pages 100-106.

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