1918 Annals - Early Settlements

By Fannie Wright Bliss

In 1827 four sturdy young men from Sangamon county made a tour through this part of Illinois in search of honey, as large trees often containing a barrel of it frequently were found by bee hunters. They pushed ahead until two well filled trees were found in the timber afterwards known as Henderson Grove of Knox County. They camped for one week on what is now the line between Knox and Warren counties, but met no other person These were the first white men to cross the prairies of our county of whom we have knowledge. Two of them, Mr. Gaddial Scott and Mr. Andrew Olson, subsequently returned here to live.
In the following year, 1828, a number of families came to this county to found homes, all settling in what became Henderson township. Daniel Robertson was the first permanent settler of the county. In this group were many family names familiar to us because of their descendants, therefore they are mentioned: Robertson, Mathews, Gumm, Pennington, Osborn, Nance, Coy, Fraker, Greenwell, Sheldon, Voiles, Vaughn, Reynolds, McKee.
During the next year, 1829, came the McMurtry brothers, and Reed, Lewis, Davis and Maxwell. In that same year a widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Owen and children settled in what became Haw Creek township, the first settlers to locate outside of Henderson. In 1830 the population increased rapidly. Fraker, Owen and Fitch settled in Lynn township in the edge of a beautiful grove, still known as Fraker's Grove, the first white settlers in the northeast part of the county. Mr Fraker found an Indian village on the land he had bought from the government. The Indians disputed his right to the land as they said theirs came direct from the Great Spirit. They finally removed to Indian Creek, seven miles east and built another village, but made friendly visits to the Frakers and acquired the habit of coming to the grove in the spring to make sugar and raise "squaw corn."
There was only one traveled road in the county, the Galena trail or State road from Galena to Peoria, through Victoria and Walnut Grove townships.
The law required three hundred and fifty legal voters to live in a county before it could be organized as such, yet there was scarcely that number of individuals within the boundaries of Knox county. When Illinois became a state in 1818, the land now comprising Knox county was a part of Madison county. In 1821 it was placed in the boundaries of Pike county, the oldest county in the Mihtary Tract. In 1826 its present boundaries were determined and it was attached to Fulton county for judicial and recording purposes In July, 1830, Knox county was formally organized as at present except that two townships were included which, when Stark County was organized in 1837, were severed from Knox and became a part of that county. The town of La Fayette is located in that section.
The first business meeting of the county and the election of county commissioners were held at the residence of John B. Gumm, Henderson township, about four miles northwest of Galesburg's present site near the south edge of Henderson Grove. This house was a one-story double log cabin, each division containing but one room. This building served as dwelling, hotel, post office, also temporary seat of justice until the log court house was later built at Knoxville. I am told that this same historic building or at least one part of it, is still used on a farm in this county in sufficiently good condition to serve as a corn crib in spite of its being nearly one hundred years old. How appropriate it would be if the county could purchase and restore it to its former condition and place it in Lincoln Park near its first location, to be furnished with mementoes of those early days, so that the descendants of the pioneers might have some idea of the way their ancestors lived!
During this same July, 1830, the county of Knox was divided into two districts for election of justices of peace and constables in each. The first, or Henderson district, included fourteen townships north of a line separating Galesburg township (as known at present) from Cedar township. The second or Spoon River township, included all south of the same line and contained eight townships.
The citizens of the county soon aspired to the erection of a court house and the building of a town. They therefore, in 1831, procured from the State Legislature an act defining the location of the county seat and authorizing commissioners to lay off the town which was on the S. W. Quarter of Section 28, Knox Township. This county seat was christened "Henderson" by the Legislature but re-named Knoxville by that same body two years later in honor of General Knox. The county bought the land on which the business and much of the residence portion of Knoxville now stand for $200, at one dollar and a quarter an acre, being government or congress land, as it was called. In the spring of 1831 lots were staked out and publicly auctioned off, seventy-nine lots being sold, varying in price from two dollars to sixty, aggregating $1,256.
That portion of Illinois known as the Military Tract includes all land between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers south of the north line of Bureau and Henry counties. It was given to the soldiers of the war of 1812 in quarter sections. When it was laid off into counties most of them were named after military heroes of the nation. Our county was named for the statesman-general, Henry Knox, Secretary of War under Washington and a warm personal friend of his
If a line be drawn from Galesburg through Vincennes, Indiana, and extended to Kentucky, it will penetrate the heart of the "Blue Grass Country." Along that line as a main channel poured the tide of emigration from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
Up to 1832, the year of the Black Hawk War, Knox county settlers came mainly from these states or from temporary homes in southern Indiana and Illinois. Emigration from the Eastern states started in full force in 1836, the year of the arrival of the Galesburg Colony at Log City. From that time southern emigration began to decline and New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio supplied the majority of the emigrants. The first considerable European accession was a Scotch settlement in the northeast part of the county, mostly in Copley township. Later influenced by Rev. Jones Hedstrom, a Methodist clergyman, who came from Sweden and then lived in Victoria, a large number left the Bishop Hill colony of Swedish settlers in Henry county and settled on farms near Victoria. Steady immigration from Sweden followed, the descendants of whom form a large and valued part of our population.
The Irish first appeared in numbers much later, in 1854, with the advent of the railroad, and now occupy large holdings in the county.
After the founding of Galesburg with its strong antislavery sentiment, the town became known as a prominent station of the "Underground Railroad," and so many colored people received help and kindness on their way farther north to freedom that when it was no longer necessary for them to cross the border into Canada to insure safety, it was not strange they came in increasing numbers, largely from Missouri, to make their homes in a neighborhood in which public sentiment had always been favorable to them. However, they have not been widely scattered through the county, evidently preferring to live near their churches in Galesburg.
But before many more years pass, Knox county can celebrate the centennial anniversary of her settlement How great have been the changes in conditions during the three generations embraced in one hundred years! It may be interesting to consider some of the prominent characteristics of pioneer life as the old settlers of this county knew it.
They universally settled in the timber or along its edge, the trees furnishing not only material for their cabins, but that protection from the driving storms which was greatly needed, as many of the homes were hastily built and not finished thoroughly at first. The timber also sheltered stock until sheds and outbuildings could be put up. Here, too, was nature's lumber yard, where the settler could find material for home-made furniture to add to the small stock he had brought with him. The fuel supply also was close at hand. And two kinds of sweetening were secured from the timber, the sap which when boiled down furnished maple syrup and sugar, and the wild honey found in the bee trees containing many gallons, sometimes a barrel or more. The same natural storehouse supplied casks for it, made from hollow basswood logs, sometimes three feet long, one end of which was plugged up, and the casks were used for years. A similar method was used in making the hand corn-mills used by many of the original settlers; these were made by boring a hole in the top of a large stump, then burning it out in the shape of a mortar Attaching a pounder to a long, bent spring-pole, they pounded their grain and corn, making unbolted meal or flour. This when mixed to a dough was placed on a smooth board or piece of iron, placed slanting towards the fire-place. When lard was abundant the well-shortened bread was called "Johnny Cake." Sometimes the dough was baked in lumps called "Corn Dodgers." If the dough was raised with yeast and baked in a "Dutch oven," it was called "Pone." Hominy, roasted corn and mush and milk were eaten commonly also.
The timber gave shelter to many wild animals which made good eating for the settlers. Wild fruits and nuts added to the family bill of fare and nuts and acorns formed no small part of the food for the hogs they raised.
There being no mills to grind the grain of the first crops those who could grind by hand power did so, while others grated corn in the ear before it became quite hard on tin graters made from old buckets or pans closely perforated and nailed on a board. Mr. Fraker, whose settling in Lynn township has been mentioned, made a hand mill for grinding grain which stood in the living room and had burrs about two feet in diameter, made from stones, which were called "hard-heads."
The women as well as the men had their share of arduous labor to perform Spinning was a common household duty. The "little wheel" was used for spinning flax, the "big wheel" for spinning yarn, while quite a number of homes had looms set up on which they did weaving for themselves and for others.
But not all the labor and privations of the early settlers were a series of unmitigated toils and sufferings. They had their times of fun and enjoyment and managed to break the monotony of their daily life with "quilting bees," "apple parings," when the fruit was pared, cored and quartered, strung like bead chains and festoonel on the walls to dry; "corn-huskings," when both sexes gathered, chose sides, husked fast and furiously to see which side finished the allotted work first, variety being furnished by the occasional finding of the coveted red ear with its osculatory reward.
Regarding the pioneers' schools it may be readily understood the accommodations were not good at first, as the homes were not, but they felt the education of their children could not wait for better buildings. A "mud-and-stick" chimney in one end of the building, with earthen-hearth fireplace, wide and deep enough to take in a four-foot backlog and smaller wood to match, served for warming the school house in winter. For windows, part of a log was cut out on either side and the hole was filled with a few small panes of glass or maybe greased paper. Writing benches were made of wide planks or else puncheons, resting on pins driven into two-inch auger holes, bored into the logs beneath the windows- Seats and flooring were also made from puncheons. Everything was plain and rude, but many of America's greatest men have gone out from just such school houses, who have become an honor to their country.
In the summer of 1833, in Section 14 of Henderson Township, the first school in that vicinity was taught and second in the county. It has some peculiar characteristics; there were no regular hours for recitations, but the teacher began school with the arrival of the first pupil, closing about sun-down. The boys "made their manners" and the girls made a "curtsy" on entering and leaving. This was known as a "loud" school, because all studied aloud. When studying arithmetic they were permitted to go into the woods, where it was more quiet, to get their lessons.
No mention of the public schools of Knox county should omit the name of Mary Allen West as being inseparably connected with them. Born in the county in 1837, truly a child of the Galesburg colony, educated entirely in the Galesburg district schools and in Knox Seminary, she was in a position to realize the deficiencies in the earlier system of public instruction and later devoted her influence as an instructor prominent among state and national educators to upbuilding and improving the system of county schools. In this work her efforts were second only to those of Professor Geo. Churchill and Dr. Newton Bateman.
Those who are seeking homes will always select those communities in which the school house and the church find a special recognition, rather than those in which they are not found. It has been said that the early establishment of religious institutions in new settlements is a prominent feature in the history of this county. With the very first settler came good old Elder Gumm, who preached almost every Sunday in some of the cabins at Henderson. The oldest religious organization in the county was known as the "Henderson Church," organized at Henderson Grove in 1830, under the Old School Predestinarian Baptists, the church building being in Rio township.
Knoxville was made an appointment on the Henderson Mission of the Methodist Episcopal church in 1831. Abingdon M. E. Church was organized in 1833, with seven members. Abingdon Cumbreland Presbyterian Church was organized at Cherry Grove in 1835. In Salem township a M. E. Church was organized in 1836. The history of the old "First Church of Christ," founded by the Galesburg colony is unique, having passed through no period of infantile growth but being strong from the time of its organization. More than thirty families were located in cabins on the south side of Henderson Grove in the fall of 1836 in what they called Log City, waiting for the following spring when they were to begin the erection of buildings on the prairie site bought and platted by them as Galesburg. Before the arrival of their regular minister one or another of the men of the company read a sermon in one of the most commodious homes each Sabbath to a crowded house, as the congregation included colonists not only, but also the earlier Southern settlers along the edge of the grove. The following spring the Galesburg colony began to build and occupy their prairie city homes and in 1837 their church was declared organized as a Presbyterian body, although it became known as a "Mother of Churches" from the number of other denominations that have become outgrowths and off-shoots from the parent body.
This brings this introductory sketch to a close, as the object of the writer has been to give a brief outline of those pioneer settlements which preceded the advent of the large Eastern colony, as after that time the "course of empire" took its way westward with rapid strides. Also as others have written more particularly of other townships of Knox county, the object of this article is to make especial mention of the early settlements of Henderson and Knox townships.

No more fitting expression of the spirit that actuated the early settlers of this county could be given than is found in the following beautiful sentiment.:

"With widening vision in the plain they stood,
And gazed with eager eyes the country o'er;
Beheld her prairies and pronounced them good,
And rested, satisfied to seek no more.

For them the sowing and the toil, the tear,
Where others reap with laughter and delight,
So cooling springs refresh the desert drear
From sources hid in some far mountain height "

(From "The Pioneers" by George Candee Gale.)

Extracted 14 Dec 2017 by Norma Hass from Annals of Knox County: Commemorating Centennial of Admission of Illinois as a State of the Union in 1818, published in 1921 by the Centennial Historical Association, Knox County, Illinois, The Board of Supervisors, pages 27-33.

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