By Iris Nelson, Quincy Public Library and Kim Bunner, Parlin-Ingersoll Library
While many of the women featured on this web site were pioneers in other ways, this section is dedicated to those women who settled the wild lands of Illinois.
Emigrants traveled west hungry for new land and full of hope. During the 1800’s the population of Illinois grew rapidly: 1820–55,000 ; 1830–160,000 ; 1840–480,000 ; and 1850–850,000. Most of the influx in the early 1800s were from the southern states, primarily Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. By the 1830s settlers were coming from New England states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
This section on women pioneers features entries by women in diverse circumstances. While these accounts are unique and often dramatic, these women all give us a reflection of their times, their strengths, and their fortitude in settling the frontier. Their stories vary from women who remember their childhood years coming across the prairie and their difficult self-sufficient lives on farms, to reflections from the perspective of a refined, educated New England woman of means but yet encountering the same bleakness of frontier existence. We also get a glimpse of women settling in a more urban environment and the struggles of woman and child traveling via a single horse and carriage from Pennsylvania to Peoria.
The story of women crossing the thresholds of the wild frontier country cannot adequately be told since written accounts are sadly rare. The accounts presented here add to the accessibility of documentation and awareness of the triumph of spirit and dedication women bore as quiet heroes of their time.
RAMBLIN’ THRU SPOON RIVER COUNTRY
The following accounts are excerpted from the book, Ramblin’ thru Spoon River Country via The Rambler’s Notes, produced by the Publication Committee of the Spoon River Scenic Drive Associates, 1970. James K. P. White, “The Rambler,” gathered these accounts, which were published in the local newspaper, Canton Weekly Register, during the years 1904-1910.
We [Parlin-Ingersoll Library, Canton, IL, USA] have received permission to reprint excerpts from these accounts for this grant to give a feel for life during the mid to late 1800s. Portions of four women’s accounts of their early years on the prairie are included below. We attempted to juxtapose sketches or photos from the time period to further convey the time period.
- Map of Fulton County [Picture]
- Mahala Blout Mills [Text]
- Log Cabins [Pictures]
- Harriett McKinzie Turner [Text]
- Early Travel [Picture]
- Jeanette Pigsley Mitchell [Text]
- “Aunt Kate” (Owens) Perry [Text]
1. Map of Fulton County noting locations relevant to text
2. Mahala Blout Mills (as told in 1906)
“I was born in Franklin County, Ohio, June 12, 1828, and am about two years older than my brother, B. B. Blout, of Prairie City. My father had determined upon seeking a new home in Illinois as early as 1836, but was deterred by wild reports of Indian troubles in the state.”
“In the fall of 1837 we left the old Ohio home on the Little Darby Creek and started overland with ox teams for Fulton County, Illinois. I well remember the long and tedious journey. We brought one horse through with us, which was ridden by different members of the family alternately. We were four weeks making the journey from Ohio to Fulton County, but we finally reached our destination and settled temporarily among the Cattrons, Markleys, Weavers, Edmonsons, Athearns, Reeveses and others.”
“Yes, I went to school some in Ohio and have some recollection of my early school life on the Little Darby. My first teacher’s name was Relief Hagar. I was never punished in school in my life, but some of the oldtime teachers used the rod pretty freely. The Little Darby was a clear sparkling, pretty stream, and we children would often loiter on its banks and gather wild flowers during play hours. I recall vividly this beautiful creek or river, and looking back through the long vista of years, can see as plainly as I see you the cattle lazily grazing or resting under the branches of the great trees along its banks. The scenes of our childhood are never forgotten and always remain the dearest spots to us on earth.”
“I recall one incident of our journey from Ohio to Illinois. Somewhere in Indiana we sought shelter in the cabin of a settler, from a rainstorm, and obtained permission to stay over night. About dark some relatives and friends of our host came in and we were crowded out into the darkness and wild storm. It was a terrible night, but we were finally taken in by a neighbor and cared for; but wet, cold and hungry we traveled for several miles before finding a stopping place.”
“A man residing in Delavan, Tazewell County, owned a quarter section of ‘congress’ land, favorably located, and Father traveled there on foot with the purchase money ($200) in silver and bought it. This was the old Blout homestead, and is the southwest quarter of section three in Deerfield township….”
“I was reared on the farm amid pioneer influences and what education I have was secured in log school houses and on the subscription or pay-school plan. I began my school life in Ohio and ended it in Illinois….The attendance of pioneer children at the subscription schools was generally about three months in the year. The chief ability of some of the old time schoolmasters lay in drinking whiskey which was used at that time by almost every family. The old master or teacher, would sit on a splint bottom chair while the little urchins stood before him to answer questions, with the expectation of having the big hickory cudgel come down over their shoulders if an error was made.”
“I omitted to state that the first school I ever attended in the county, was taught by the late Hezekiah Cattron of Young Hickory township. The school house was located just south of his old homestead and we had to walk a distance of 2 1/2 miles, over a rough, dreary road, to reach it. It was a primitive pioneer school and was taught by a pioneer. It is now called the Markley district, but the present school building does not stand where the old one did. The late Nathaniel Aylesworth also taught in this old time school house. But my old teachers are all dead and few, but very few of my old schoolmates are left.”
“We children were supplied with homespun clothing through the efforts of our devoted parents-especially our mother, who, like many another pioneer woman, bore a large share in the burdens with which life here in an early day abounded.”
“We lived in a cabin built of round logs, neither sawed timber nor nails, if I remember rightly, being used in its construction. The floor was made of puncheon and the boards that covered the roof was rived by hand and held in position by weight poles. Deer, wild turkey and other game were plentiful but bread stuffs were scarce. However, we lived near Ellisville and generally had bread at every meal. Ellisville, at the time of which I speak, was quite a trade center, and we did our trading there. It had its quota of live businessmen and it was predicted that in time it would become a city. But like many of the pioneer towns of the county it has seen its best days.”
“My parents were very closely identified with the pioneer history of Deerfield township. We raised flax and sheep and both my mother and myself could spin, weave, knit and cut and make garments, and we were comfortably clad in homespun. Wolves were numerous and we were compelled to keep sheep in a pen at night, near the house, to protect them from the ravages of these animals. Father was a good shot and was fond of hunting and we often had wild meat on the table. One time he killed a deer upon Cedar Creek and having no knife with him he skinned and dressed it with a sharp-pointed nail.”
“During my early life here we depended on Spoon River for milling after they came to use water power, and we sometimes went to the old Phillip Aylesworth mill, at Babylon. Fairview at one time had an ox-tread mill managed and operated by “Bill” Suydam for grist-and Vanderbilt Van Doren for wool-carding, etc.”
“Oh, yes my father brought down many deer, turkeys, foxes, wildcats and wolves with his tryst rifle.”
“With happy hearts and the cheerful laughter of children we used to venture forth in the woods to gather wild flowers, pick blackberries, plums and other wild fruits, and I can never forget those old, old days in Fulton County. I have seen and experienced much pioneer life and know something about the toils and privations of the early settlers of the county-but do you know that the history of pioneer life generally presents only the dark side of the picture? We had our seasons of relaxation-our seasons of fun and enjoyment. We contrived to do something to break the monotony of our everyday life. We had our quilting bees, cornhuskings, houseraisings and logrollings. At night we had our parties and a general good time. The recreation afforded to the young people on the recurrence of these festive occasions was as highly enjoyed, and quite as innocent, as the amusements of the present boasted age of refinement and culture.”
“The furniture of the pioneer cabin was as primitive as its occupants. The first settlers of Fulton County were a plain, simple, hospitable people, and the latchstring was always hanging out. We were all poor and dependent and were all on an equal footing. Sometimes whole families would be sick at one time and the neighbors would go in and take care of them. The chills and fever seemed to be the worst disease with which we had to contend, and quinine and boneset tea were used in every family. It was a terrible disease and was one of the greatest obstacles to the early settlement of the county.”
“Spinning was one of the common household duties of the women and the loom was not less necessary in the cabin home than the wheel, and many women did their own weaving.”
“There were no matches in those days and we often had to borrow fire from a neighbor-and we sometimes had to fight fire too, for the prairie fires each fall were something to be dreaded. Fires would visit the great grassy plains every autumn and we had to take great precautions to prevent our crops and buildings from being destroyed. These fires would spread very rapidly and words cannot convey the faintest idea of the splendor and grandeur of one of these conflagrations at night.”
“I am one of the few, the very few, of the early settlers of the county still lingering on the shores of time, and I am old and feeble and have passed far down the western declivity of life. I often view with dim eyes the scenes around me and think of the trials and misfortunes, the hardships and adventures, of the noble men and women, the pioneers who helped to open up and develop the country from its primitive condition-the noble men and women who left good homes and kindred in the older states and settled in the wilderness, unmindful of perils, self-sacrifices and dangers. They were a grand class of people, and we should never forget them. I have only done what I could in a woman’s way, but others have done more, and we owe them a debt of gratitude which we can never repay.”
3. Log Cabins
4. Harriett McKinzie Turner (June 11, 1908)
Mrs. Harriett Turner was born in Baltimore, January 27, 1832, and came to Fulton County at the age of three.
“I have grown from childhood to womanhood to old age right here in Fulton Co., have witnessed the many changes that have taken place on every hand and have helped to change the wild lands into fertile fields. And Oh how great the transformation-a transformation brought about by the aggregated labor of many tired hands and anxious hearts, by the incessant toil of the pioneers, the early settlers of the County, the noble men and women who would make our country great. Instead of the howl of the wolf, the scream of the panther, the whoop of the red man, and the clear ring of the woodman’s ax and the hunter’s rifle, are now the lowing and bleating of domestic animals, the shrill crow of the rooster, and the engines and rumbling trains of cars. As I think of the changes that have been made and view the scenes around me, I sometimes become bewildered and can scarcely realize that not many years ago this country was a wilderness, was a primitive state, and that the vast and beautiful prairies and the great forests had not been touched by the hand of man.”
“The settlers in the early days were not only hospitable but also philanthropic and never neglected an opportunity to aid a neighbor. House raisings were the special delight and a cabin was soon built for each newcomer. The women were as willing to aid a sick or needy neighbor as the men, and all of our amusements were hospitable and kindly and generally if not always connected with some helpful act for needy or dependent neighbors.”
“Wolves were abundant in that day and were troublesome to everybody. Deer, wild turkeys, and smaller game were found, both in the timber and on the prairies. Stock of all kinds were permitted to run at large and in consequence of this, every man was compelled to fence his entire farm to protect his crops from wandering herds. The law required stock to be fenced out instead of in. People were required to work on the roads to pay their poll tax then as now.”
“My first teacher, I think, was Jacob H. Bass. Harriett Armstrong and Miss Watson were also pioneer teachers in these neighborhoods. The schoolhouses which I can first remember were all constructed of logs… In the schools in those days we were taught spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Murray’s grammar was introduced in the schools about the time I reached womanhood.”
5. Early Travel
6. Jeanette Pigsley Mitchell (January 4, 1906)
Mrs. Jeanette Pigsley Mitchell was born in Jefferson County, New York near Sackett’s harbor, March 22, 1832. The family traveled to Fulton County circa 1836.
“We drove through from New York to Lake Michigan, and crossed the lake on a schooner. From Chicago we came overland to Fulton County. We were about six weeks making the trip. When we reached Fulton County we stopped with settlers who had preceded us to the land which was said to ‘flow with milk and honey,’ until our cabin was erected.”
“The first thing after a new settler arrived was to find a suitable location and to set about building a cabin. Our cabin was a rude structure with one room. Trees of uniform size were selected for the new cabin, the logs were cut the desired length, each end being ‘saddled,’ or notched, so as to bring them as near together as possible. The cracks were ‘chinked’ or ‘daubed’ to keep the wind from whistling through. This ‘daubing’ had to be renewed every fall before cold weather set in. The building was covered with clapboards held in place by weight poles. A wide fireplace was cut out of one end of the cabin and the mud-and-stick chimney was built on the outside. A doorway was also cut through one of the walls and the door was made of spliced clapboards and hung on wooden hinges. This was opened by pulling a leather latchstring. This latchstring was always ‘hanging out’ as a welcome to all. The fireplace was large and would hold enough wood to supply an ordinary stove a week. Beds, splint-bottomed chairs, a pine table, a rude cupboard, and a large and small spinning wheel and few other articles constituted the furniture of the cabin homes of the early settlers of Fulton County. On either side of the big fireplace were poles and kettles and over all a mantle on which was placed a tallow dip. The mantle was sort of ‘Catch-all’ for the family and was generally loaded. To witness the various processes of cooking in those days would alike surprise and amuse those who have grown up since cooking stoves and ranges came into use. Kettles were hung over the large fire suspended on trammels which were held by strong poles. A long handled pan was used for cooking meat. It was held on the fire by hand. This pan was also used for baking shortcake. The best thing for baking bread was the flat bottomed bake kettle, with a closely fitting lid and commonly known as a ‘dutch oven.’ With hot coals over and under it bread with bake quickly and nicely.”
“The loom was not less necessary than the wheel. Not every cabin however, in which spinning was done, had a loom. But there were always some in each settlement who, besides doing their own weaving did some for others. Nearly all the clothes worn by men and women were home made. We had no ‘boughten’ clothes in the earlier days of the county. Wheat bread did not become a common article of food for some years after we came to the county. Among the more general forms of amusements were the quilting bee, wool picking, log-rolling, house-raising, and later the apple and peach paring. There used to be plenty of apples and peaches, too, in Fulton County.”
“Father had six girls, and only one boy, and much depended on us girls in assisting to clear his land and carry on his farming. Father was a farmer, teacher and preacher, and also did the shoemaking for the family. We girls helped to improve the old homestead and did much of the outdoor work… I have seen many a pack of wolves running across the field. They killed a pet lamb once, belonging to my sister Lavina, and she took a good cry over it. After we had been here awhile we girls had one calico dress for Sunday but we wore homespun gowns for every day and we made our own clothes, too. The country was thinly settled, our circumstances were limited, we were compelled to work early and late for our sustenance.”
7. “Aunt Kate” (Owens) Perry (January 11, 1906)
Kate Perry was born in Indiana, Sept. 1, 1830, and came to Illinois with her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Coons, in 1835.
“The overland journey from Indiana to Illinois was made in company with James Watson and family. We had two wagons and teams and drove four head of cows through from the old home in Indiana. When we arrived at Havana, we crossed the Illinois River in a flatboat. One of the cows became frightened and jumped overboard into the river but swam after the boat and reached the Fulton County shore as soon as we did.”
“James Watson and family located near Smithfield and there are some of their descendants, I think, living near that place yet. Grandfather Coons settled on Spoon River bottom, in Bernadotte township. Here he erected a cabin on a wild tract of land. He sent $300 to the land office at Quincy to pay for the land, by a man named Sharp. Sharp absconded with the money but later Grandfather rode to Quincy and entered the land himself. The cabin was built of round logs and the cracks were ‘chinked’ and ‘daubed’ and we soon had a comfortable home. The building was covered with clapboards, but there was not a nail or spike in the whole structure. Even the door was made of clapboards, pegged together, and was hung on wooden hinges. Light was admitted into the room through a greased-paper window. The chimney was built up about halfway with stone but the top of it was constructed of sticks and mud. From under the big hill back of the cabin, there ran the year ’round,’ a stream of pure, sparkling, clear water-nature’s drink for man and beast. Say the saloons of today are a curse to the country! I suppose that the courts and juries are necessary, and that cases should not be decided by public prejudice and clamor, but if I had my way I would hang every saloon man in the county. The saloon where so many of our young men are started to the penitentiary or death, is a disgrace to our christianity and our boasted modern civilization. And we have them right here in Lewistown, too.”
“Grandfather and his son, Dan, cleared a field in the wilderness. There were plenty of wild hogs and game of all kinds and we did not lack for meat. There were many wild bees here in an early day and one of the prevailing customs of the pioneers was bee hunting. Grandfather traveled many miles into the wild country in search of the sweet-flavored honey of the wild bee. The bee always took a ‘bee line’ to his home and the little insect would be carefully watched as he flew, heavily laden with the richest extracts of the flowers that were purely native and unknown to the present generation.”
“We raised flax and grandmother spun, wove and made our own clothing. The flax, when separated from the tow was used for the finer fabrics, such as dresses, sheets, pillow-cases, bedspreads and men’s shirts. The tow was made into towels, bedticks, etc.”
“We had a sugar camp and made our sugar and syrup. We kept sheep and our home made winter clothing was made from the wool that came from their backs. The little wheel was the ‘flax wheel’ and the big wheel was used for spinning yarn. The cotton chain we had to buy.”
“We worked hard, had good appetites, plenty to eat, good health and were happy and contented. Grandfather and myself would often sit on a big rock that jutted out over Spoon River, and catch in a little while all the fish we could carry home. Oh, how I would like to see that rock once more.”
“Grandmother Coons did all the ‘doctoring’ for the neighborhood. She knew the names of all the herbs that grew in the woods and would gather them and dry them and make them into different kinds of medicine. She believed that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, and always administered the medicine before we got sick. And I want to say right here that we were always healthy and never had a doctor in the family except Grandmother. We lived like the Indians and they were a healthy race of people. People now enter into the mad rush to wrench a fortune from the hand of fate and do not study human nature, the proper mode of living, and eat their meals on the run. The pioneers of Fulton County did not try to accumulate wealth. They ate good wholesome food, dressed comfortably, smoked home grown tobacco and knew much of true joy and happiness.”
Publication Committee. Spoon River Scenic Drive Associates. Ramblin’ thru Spoon River Country Via The Rambler’s Notes. Canton and Morton, Illinois : Canton Daily Ledger, 1970.
Joan Johnson, Publicity Director, and other members of the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive Associates
Christiana Holmes Tillson (1798-1872)
[Photo from an oil painting owned by the Quincy and Adams County Historical Society]
Christiana Holmes Tillson in her book, A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois, left a rare and rich narrative of her family’s early years in Illinois. Her commentary has unintentionally left us with a significant historical document that reflects a microcosm of Illinois in 1822-1827. As a well- educated New England woman, born in Massachusetts on October 11, 1798, she married John Tillson in October, 1822, and immediately set out with him for her new life in the small log cabin he had built in Montgomery County located in southern Illinois.
The focus of her writing is in detailing her trip to the frontier and the first few years of her life here. She wrote her memoirs late in life (1870) to depict for her daughter the dramatic changes in society since her pioneer experiences. The manuscript she left provides a unique glimpse into her struggles as a pioneer housewife. Abundant anecdotal stories enliven the portrayal of life as she encountered it and enrich the reader with another dimension of frontier history from a woman’s viewpoint. Our author left us a priceless perspective into her 19th Century world on the frontier landscape.
Originally published in 1872 (or 1873) as Reminiscences of Early Life in Illinois, by Our Mother, it was rescued from obscurity by Milo Milton Quaife and the R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company of Chicago, who printed it in 1919 as part of the Lakeside Classics. Although the 1919 edition is rather scarce, we are fortunate that Southern Illinois University Press in Carbondale has reprinted her book, with a new introduction by Kay J. Carr.
The Tillson family (children Charles, John, Robert H. and Christiana) moved to Quincy in west-central Illinois in 1843 where the children grew to adulthood. John Tillson, Jr. (1825-1892) became a very prominent citizen of Quincy. He served in the Civil War and became Brigadier General of the Tenth lllinois Infantry. General John Tillson wrote an important early history of Quincy entitled, History of the City of Quincy, Illinois. As the son-in-law of Governor John Wood he inherited a vast knowledge of the early settlement of Quincy.
Christiana Tillson died on May 29, 1872 in New York City. Her funeral was held at the John Wood Mansion at 12th and State Street in Quincy on June 2nd at 3 p.m. She is buried in the Tillson family plot on the south ridge of Woodland Cemetery in Quincy.
- Tillson, Christiana Holmes. A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois 1919. Ed. Milo Milton Quaife, with a new introduction by Kay J. Carr. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, c1995.
- Hughes, Linda Ann. Unintentional Historians.[n.p.], 1977.
Mother Slough, One of Peoria’s Pioneers
Advertisement for Union House
Mrs. Jacob Slough’s Vegetable and Antibilious Pills
In the Spring of 1832, a woman came to Peoria [Illinois] who deserves a niche in Peoria’s Hall of Fame. That woman was Mrs. Anna Elizabeth Slough, the wife of Jacob Slough, more familiarly known as “Mother Slough”.
With the youngest of her several children, she drove a single horse, and came by carriage from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania across the Allegheny Mountains via Cincinnati and St. Louis. She then had her horse and carriage placed on a boat and came by the Illinois River to Peoria.
She was as energetic as she was fearless. She bought a two story block house at what is now 210 South Washington where the Newman & Ullman building now stands. The building however, faced the River. She also laid a claim for Nine Hundred Acres of ground near Big Hollow. Mother Slough, the following Spring, returned to her Pennsylvania home for Jacob, her husband and the other children. In 1834, she and Jacob converted the block building into what they named the Union Hotel. For the next ten years, many a traveler, particularly the German Emigrants, found lodging under their hospitable roof. Mrs. Slough died in 1878 and is buried in Springdale Cemetery.
(Inf. from Rev. Bess History.)
Bateman’s history of Peoria County describes the Slough establishment:
It was by far the most pretentious house in town, having four rooms up stairs, exclusively sleeping rooms, and a bar-room by itself; but we are unable to learn any particulars in regard to its management. In 1834 Mr. Eads sold out to Jacob Slough–and the house was then called “Slough’s Tavern”. Mr Slough was blessed with a buxom, good-looking wife, of rare executive ability, who gave every detail of the business, out of doors as well as in, her personal supervision, and left “Jakey” as Mr. Slough was familiarly called, but little to do except to entertain guests and attend the bar.”
- Bateman. History of Peoria County. 1901 V.2 p.298
- Oakford. History of Peoria p. 596