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Reflections: Indian villages dotted Fox River's banks at state's founding

Two hundred years ago this month, residents of the Illinois Territory were looking forward to becoming residents of the brand-new State of Illinois.

The issue of granting statehood for the Illinois Territory was gradually working its way through Congress. Meanwhile, more and more settlers were arriving along what was then the nation’s western frontier.

Guidebooks for emigrants were extolling the virtues of Illinois’ prairie soil, and boosters of all stripes were advertising the territory’s great benefits as the nation’s richest farmland.

A correspondent wrote to the Lynchburg Press in Lynchburg, Virginia, that “The Illinois Territory, I have no doubt, furnishes greater inducements to emigration, than any other Territory belonging to the United States, to such men as are not holders of Slaves. I have no hesitation in saying, that one hand there can make as much annually as any three in any other part with which I am acquainted. It is by far the most fertile soil in the U. States; and quantity of prairie gives it advantages over and above what it would enjoy from fertility alone. In general, the farmer has nothing to do but fence in his fields, plough his ground and plant his crop. He may then expect, from an acre, from 50 to 100 bushels of corn; and from 10 to 50 of wheat; the quality of both which articles is superior to that of any I ever saw. Moreover, much less labor than usual is requisite. A farm of any size may be gotten, free from grubs, stones, roots and every obstruction to the plough.”

Such glowing descriptions had the advantage of being anywhere from somewhat to mostly true, although the emigrants who made the trek west to the tallgrass prairies of Illinois underwent many hardships the guidebooks and boosters often soft-pedaled.

In 1818, most of the state’s settlement was concentrated in the southern half of Illinois, where there were smaller prairies and large stands of timber. But slowly settlement moved north.

On Sept. 12, 1818, Gershom Flagg wrote from the southern Illinois community of Edwardsville: “The method of Raising Corn here is to plough the ground once then furrow it both ways and plant the Corn 4 feet each way and plough between it 3 or 4 times in the Summer but never hoe it at all.” Using that method, Flagg wrote, Illinois corn will grow “from 12 to 15 feet high on an average.”

Our farmer readers will quickly note how far apart the rows of corn were planted during that era. For the uninitiated, most modern corn is planted in 30-inch rows with the seeds spaced 4 to 6 inches apart. Why so much space between plants 200 years ago? Back then, the primary farm tool was the plow. Planting corn in hills 4 feet apart allowed cultivation of a field both directions with the wooden walking plows of the era.

The population had begun to grow quickly after the War of 1812, as more and more farmers decided to try their luck on Illinois’ prairies instead of trying to hack more farms out of the forests of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. And by the summer of 1818, with statehood definitely on the horizon, the territorial government convened a convention to write a state constitution. That first constitution was finally adopted and signed by attendees Wednesday, Aug. 26, at the territorial capital of Kaskaskia.

Members of the constitutional convention, territorial officers, and members of the Illinois Militia gathered in front of the territorial capitol building and fired off a 21-gun salute, 20 of the guns for the existing 20 states and the final, 21st gun, for the new state of Illinois. From there, the political action moved to Washington, D.C., where work was proceeding on the legal admission of Illinois to the union.

And what was going on around these parts 200 years ago this month? The Three Fires Confederacy, composed of related bands of the Potawatomi, Ottawa and Chippewa tribes, still controlled the Fox Valley. Their villages and cornfields dotted the Fox River’s banks from modern Ottawa all the way north to the river’s source in southern Wisconsin. About the only American presence in the region was at Chicago, where the new Fort Dearborn stood protecting the vital Chicago Portage from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. The original Fort Dearborn was burned by British-allied Native Americans in 1812, and had only been rebuilt in 1816.

Around the mouth of the Chicago River, which the fort protected, a small settlement mostly comprising employees of the American Fur Company had grown up. No farmer-­settlers had so far arrived this far north, and about the only travelers were the annual fur trade company brigades composed of Mackinac boats hauling trade goods to the south and then furs traded with the tribes back north.

It would be another decade before white settlers started filtering into the tallgrass prairies west of the Chicago Portage to – illegally for most of them – stake out their pioneer farms. Since the land would not be surveyed for another two decades, and since the Three Fires and other tribes still legally owned the land, legal settlement was not yet possible, except on a few isolated parcels. It would take a number of treaties between the tribes and the U.S. government to extinguish the tribes’ land claims and then years more for the region to be surveyed so that land could be sold at government land offices.

In the meantime, life went on in the region’s Native American villages as it had for the past several decades, with the prospect of their removal to unfamiliar lands west of the Mississippi so white farmers and townsmen could occupy the land still two decades in the future.

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