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Morris Birkbeck (1764-1825)

Morris Birkbeck left his large farm in Surrey, England in order to emigrate to America in the spring of 1817, at age fifty-three. Together with his associate George Flower, he hoped to establish an agricultural settlement providing members of the English working class with new opportunities in America. The men searched Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois for a suitable site. Anti-slavery sentiments ruled out the southern United States, and an aversion to harsh winters led them away from more northerly climates. Finally, they selected the prairie between Bon Pas Creek and the Little Wabash River in Illinois as the site of their settlement.

While Birkbeck bought 26,400 acres of land in what is now southeastern Illinois with their pooled funds, Flower returned to England, where he recruited many prospective colonists and sent them to the United States. In March 1818 Flower returned to America with agricultural implements, seeds, and animals for breeding, as well as about fifty new immigrants. Birkbeck and Flower named their settlement Albion, an ancient term synonymous with England. It included what was probably the earliest library in the Illinois Territory. In 1817 and 1818 Morris Birkbeck wrote two books, Letters from Illinois, and Notes on a Journey from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory Illinois, which helped to bring public attention to the Albion settlement and attract new immigrants. (Both books are available on Lincoln/Net. Click on the titles to view the books.) Each book described the bountiful opportunities available in the American West, and became popular in the United States and Europe.

In 1819 Morris Birkbeck organized the Agricultural Society of Illinois. Albion's colonists practiced scientific agriculture, improving livestock through selective breeding and writing tracts to inform settlers of ways to improve crop yields. In about 1819 Birkbeck and Flower experienced a falling out, and subsequently transacted all business through intermediaries. Morris Birkbeck drowned on June 4, 1825, while attempting to swim his horse across the flooded Fox River.


Bibliography

Allen, John W. Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.

Buck, Solon J. Illinois in 1818. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967; originally published 1917.

Buley, Carlyle R. The Old Northwest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951.

Davis, James E. Frontier Illinois. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

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