Teacher's Parlor

To Come to Illinois — Or Not?
Primary Document Packet

Excerpts from: Birkbeck, Morris. Notes on a Journey in America. London: Severn and Co., 1818.

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AFTER twelve months spent in the arrangement of my affairs, I have embarked in comfort with the greatest part of my family in quest of a new settlement in the western wilderness.

Having had the advantage of communicating
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with many respectable and well informed Americans during this year of preparation, I have acquired some knowledge of the United States, as well as great store of introductory letters. A kind friend also put into my hands, just before our departure, a series of Geographical Works, lately published by Mr. Melish of Philadelphia. With the information derived from these and other sources, I feel qualified to enter with the more confidence on the task before me; and I am in hopes that a journal of my proceedings may prove useful to others, under similar circumstances, by way of warning or encouragement, as the event may prove of my own experience; and that my readers may accompany me with greater satisfaction and advantage, I shall premise something about myself, my motives, and plans, which will enable them to form a more just estimate of my opinions; I hope, however, in so doing I shall not merit the imputation of egotism.

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A nation, with half its population supported by alms, or poor-rates, and one fourth of its income derived from taxes, many of which are dried up in their sources, or speedily becoming so, must teem with emigrants from one end to the other: and, for such as myself, who have had "nothing to do with the laws but to obey them," it is quite reasonable and just to secure a timely retreat from the approaching crisis — either of anarchy or despotism.

An English farmer, to which class I had the honour to belong, is in possession of the same rights and privileges with the Villeins of old time, and exhibits for the most part, a suitable political character. He has no voice in the appointment of the legislature unless he happen to possess a freehold of forty shillings a year, and he is then expected to vote in the interest of his landlord: he has no concern with public affairs excepting as a tax-payer, a parish officer, or a militia man. He has no right to appear at
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a county meeting, unless the word inhabitant should find its way into the sheriff's invitation: in this case he may shew his face among the nobility, clergy, and freeholders: — a felicity which once occurred to myself, when the inhabitants of Surrey were invited to assist the gentry in crying down the Income Tax.

Thus, having no elective franchise, an English farmer can scarcely be said to have a political existence, and political duties he has none, except such, as under existing circumstances, would inevitably consign him to the special guardianship of the Secretary of State for the home department.

In exchanging the condition of an English farmer for that of an American proprietor, I expect to suffer many inconveniences; but I am willing to make a great sacrifice of present ease, were it merely for the sake of obtaining in the decline of life, an exemption from that wearisome solicitude about pecuniary affairs, from which even the affluent find no refuge, in England; and for my children, a career of enterprise, and wholesome family connections, in a society whose institutions are favourable to virtue; at least the consolation of leaving them efficient members of a flourishing, public-spirited; energetic community, where the insolence of wealth, and the servility of pauperism, between which in England, there is scarcely an interval remaining are alike unknown.

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We have remarked, en passant, that people
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generally speak favourably of their own country, and exaggerate every objection or evil, when speaking of those to which we are going: thus it may be that the accounts we have received of the unhealthiness of this river and its vicinity, have been too deeply coloured. We are accordingly greatly relieved by the information we have received here on this subject. The Wabash has not overflowed its banks this summer, and no apprehensions are now entertained as to the sickly season of August and September.

July 18. Princeton. — We, in Great Britain, are so circumscribed in our movements that miles with us seem equal to tens in America. I believe that travellers here, will start on an expedition of three thousand miles by boats, on horseback or on foot, with as little deliberation or anxiety, as we should set out on a journey of three hundred.

Five hundred persons every summer pass down the Ohio from Cincinnati to New Orleans, as traders or boatmen, and return on foot. By water, the distance is seventeen hundred miles, and the walk back a thousand. Many go down to New Orleans from Pittsburg, which adds five hundred miles to the distance by water, and three hundred by land. The store-keepers, (country shopkeepers we should call them) of these western towns, visit the eastern ports of Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia, once
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a year, to lay in their stock of goods: an evidence it might seem of want of confidence in the merchants of those places; but the great variety of articles, and the risk attending their carriage to so great a distance, by land and water, render it necessary that the store-keepers should attend both to their purchase and conveyance.

I think the time is at hand when these periodical transmontane journeys are to give place to expeditions down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans. The vast and increasing produce of these states, in grain, flour, cotton, sugar, tobacco, peltry, timber, &c. &c. which finds a ready vent at New Orleans, will be returned, through the same channel in the manufactures of Europe and the luxuries of the east, to supply the growing demands of this western world. How rapidly this demand actually increases, it is utterly impossible to estimate; but some idea of it may be formed from a general view of the cause and manners of its growth. In round numbers there are probably half a million of inhabitants in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Immigration (if I may be allowed to borrow a new but good word,) and births, will probably double this number in about six years; and in the mean time, the prosperous circumstances of almost every family, are daily creating new wants, and awakening fresh necessities.

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July 26. Left Harmony after breakfast, and crossing the Wabash at the ferry, three miles below, we proceeded to the Big Prairie, where to our astonishment, we beheld a fertile plain of grass and arable, and some thousand acres covered with corn, more luxuriant than any we had before seen. The scene reminded us of some open, well cultivated vale in Europe, surrounded by wooded uplands; and forgetting that we were, in fact, on the very frontiers, beyond which few settlers had penetrated, we were transported in idea to the fully peopled regions we had left so far behind us.

Excerpts from: Birkbeck, Morris. Letters from Illinois. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1818.

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Had we remained in the state of Ohio, we must have paid from twenty to fifty dollars per acre for land which is technically called "improved," but is in fact deteriorated; or have purchased, at an advance of 1000 or 1500 per cent. unimproved land from speculators: and in either case should have laboured under the inconvenience of settling detached from society of our own choice, and without the advantage of choice as to soil or situation. We saw many eligible sites and fine tracts of country, but these were precisely the sites and the tracts which had secured the attachment of their possessors. It was in fact impossible to obtain for ourselves a good position, and the neighbourhood of our friends, in the state of Ohio, at a price which common prudence would justify, or indeed at any price. Having given up the Ohio, we found nothing attractive on the eastern side of Indiana; and situations to the south, on the Ohio river bounding that state, were so well culled as to be in the predicament above described; offering no room for us without great sacrifices of money and society. The western side of Indiana, on the
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banks of the Wabash, is liable to the same and other objections. The northern part of Indiana is still in possession of the Indians.

But a few miles farther west opened our way into a country preferable in itself to any we had seen, where we could choose for ourselves, and to which we could invite our friends; and where, in regard to communication with Europe, we could command equal facilities, and foresee greater, than in the state of Ohio, being so much nearer the grand outlet at New Orleans.

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After traversing the states of Ohio and Indiana, looking out for a tract suited to my own views, and those of a number of our countrymen who have signified their intentions of following our example, I have fixed on this spot in Illinois, and am the better pleased with it the more I see of it.

As to obtaining labourers. A single settler may get his labour done by the piece on moderate terms, not higher than in some parts of England; but if many families settle together, all requiring this article, and none supplying it, they must obtain it from elsewhere. Let them import English labourers, or make advantageous proposals to such as are continually arriving at the eastern ports.

Provisions are cheap, of course. Wheat three and four-pence sterling per bushel. Beef and pork two-pence per pound, groceries and
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clothing dear, building moderate, either by wood or brick. Bricks are laid by the thousand, at eight dollars, or under, including lime.

Privations I cannot enumerate. Their amount depends on the previous habits and present disposition of individuals: for myself and family, the privations already experienced, or anticipated, are of small account compared with the advantages.

Horses, 60 to 100 dollars, or upwards; cows, 10 to 20 dollars; sows, 3 to 5 dollars.

Society is made up of new-comers chiefly, and, of course, must partake of the leading characters of these. There is generally a little bias of attraction in a newly-settled neighbourhood, which brings emigrants from some particular state, or country, to that spot; and thus a tone is given to the society. Where we are settling, society is yet unborn, as it were. It will, as in other places, be made up of such as come; among whom English farmers, I presume, will form a large proportion.

Roads, as yet, are in a state of nature.

Purchases of land are best made at the
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land-offices: payments, five years, or prompt; if the latter, eight per cent. discount.

Mechanics' wages, 1 dollar to 1 1-2. Carpenters, smiths, shoemakers, brickmakers, and bricklayers, are among the first in requisition for a new settlement: others follow of course; — tanners, saddlers, tailors, hatters, tin-workers, &c. &c.

We rely on good markets for produce, through the grand navigable communication we enjoy with the ocean.

Medical aid is not of difficult attainment. The English of both sexes, and strangers in general, are liable to some bilious attacks on their first arrival: these complaints seem, however, simple, and not difficult to manage, if taken in time.

The manufactures you mention may hereafter be eligible; cotton, woollen, linen, stockings, &c. Certainly not at present. Beer, spirits, pottery, tanning, are objects of immediate attention.

The minerals of our district are not much known. We have excellent limestone; I believe we have coal: wood will, however, be the cheapest fuel for some years.

Implements are cheap till you commence with the iron. A waggon, 35 or 40 dollars,
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exclusive of tire to wheels. A strong waggon for the road, complete, will amount to 160 dollars or upwards.

The best mode of coming from England to this part of the western country is by an eastern port, thence to Pittsburg, and down the Ohio to Shawneetown. Clothing, bedding, household linen, simple medicines of the best quality, and sundry small articles of cutlery and light tools, are the best things for an emigrant to bring out.

I can hardly reply to your inquiry about the manner of traveling; it must be suited to the party. Horseback is the most pleasant and expeditious; on foot the cheapest: a light waggon is eligible in some cases: in others the stage is a necessary evil. I see I shall render you liable to double postage, but I wished to reply to each of your inquiries, as far as I could.

Excerpts from: Wright, John Stillman. Letters from the West; or a Caution to Emigrants: Being Facts and Observations Respecting the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Some Parts of New-York, Pennsylvania and Kentucky: Written in the Winter of 1818-19. Salem, N.Y.: Dodd and Stevenson, 1819.

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…wherever there is a situation favorable for water machinery; wherever there is a spot, that, from local circumstances, exhibits a prospect for a little town; or wherever there is even a tolerable fanning tract, the result, on inquiry, is still invariably the same: — they are held in the iron grasp of the insatiate land jobber; and the industrious, the needy emigrant, must submit to his terms or flee to the wilderness, far beyond the precincts, of even such society as exists here. I have, I believe, made the same or similar remarks in my former letters, but these things in a manner force themselves upon me: they meet me at every turn — the sameness of every thing throughout such an extent of country astonishes me.

On entering Illinois I beheld a vast, and almost boundless body of land, stretching before and around me: equal, or nearly so, in point of fertility, to the boasted swales of the western parts of New-York: every thing teemed to invite me to select a spot, begin my improvements, and enjoy my happy fate. But ah! like the enjoyment of forbidden pleasure, there is a sting behind. Not only is an exhorbitant price demanded, but the inhabitants, the people among whom I must spend my days; with whom my intimacies, my friendships are to be formed: to whom I must look for all those delicate attentions which spread a charm over society;
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for an interchange of all those kind and endearing offices, so indispensably necessary in the hour of trouble and sickness: the inhabitants I repeat, are sufficient to dispel the gay vision: it is impossible to dream long in a land of such palpable realities, They are a motly assemblage of Pennsylvanians, Virginians, Carolinians and Kentuckyans with a few yankies intermixed, scattered over the face of the country, at the distance of from two to eight or ten miles apart, in order, as they say, to have sufficient range for their cattle, and mast for their hogs. At this distance they wish to keep; and they look with a malicious, scowling eye, on the New-England men who settle among them, and begin a course of improvement by clearing their lands.

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The prairies of this country, so highly extolled, are nothing more or less than large tracts of untimbered land; generally level or nearly so: some are of vast extent,
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stretching before the eye until bounded by the horizon; while others are of quite diminutive size. Many different theories have been woven to account for the absence of trees, but I shall not repeat them: the only beneficial inquiry is, are they to be considered as advantageous to the country, or otherwise? On one side it may be urged, that they are ready cleared to the hand of the settler, which, to him, is an entire saving of time and labor: and that what he does not wish to enclose and cultivate, affords pasturage for as many cattle as he chooses to keep: others will say that the want of timber for building, fencing and fuel, and the want of water and shade, are disadvantages, that more than counterbalance all these benefits: all this is said, on the supposition that they are uniformly fertile; this, however, is very remote from the truth. The low prairies, are fertile indeed, but most certainly unhealthful: the high, or at least, a great proportion of them, are merely oak barrens; of a clayey or sandy soil; the grass they produce, is a tall wild kind different from that before described; it affords a nourishing luxuriant pasturage while springing up, but soon becomes so hardened that cattle cannot eat it.

Excerpts from: Faux, W. Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to United States, Principally Undertaken to Ascertain, by Positive Evidence, the Condition and Probable Prospects of British Emigrants; Including Accounts of Mr. Birkbeck's Settlement in the Illinois: and Intended to Shew Men and Things as They Are in America. W. Simkin and R. Marshall, 1823.

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Great idleness prevails in the Illinois; little or no produce is yet raised. G. Flower had contracted with the American hunters, to raise and cultivate 500 acres of corn and grain; he finding land and seed, and they all the labour of raising and getting it fit for market, at nine dollars an acre. This bargain became void.

9th. — A doctor, of little or no skill, lives twelve miles distant, and this little settlement of Sandersville has no school for the children, who remain at home pestering their parents, and retrograding into barbarism. Mrs. Ingle dreads their mixing and associating with the race of children who surround them. A schoolmaster here would be welcomed with a salary of from 400 to 500 dollars a year, although not one of the first grade, but he most be content to live in a wilderness.

I feel, every day, more and more convinced that the western country is suited only to working families, like those of J. Ingle; where Mrs. Ingle, (delicately bred) and all turn out to work, as to
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day, and the other night to put out the approaching fires.

The bears and wolves have devoured several sows while farrowing; they are then weak and defenceless, and therefore an easy prey. Never did I behold such ghostly pigs as here. Soap, candles, sugar, cotton, leather, and woollen clothes, of a good quality, are here all made from the land, but not without the most formidable, unremitting industry on the part of the females. Filth and rags, however, are often preferred. Imperious necessity alone commands extraordinary exertion. Yesterday, a settler passed our door with a bushel of corn-meal on his back, for which he had travelled twenty miles, on foot, to the nearest horse-mill, and carried it ten miles, paying 75 cents for it. This said corn is invaluable to both man and beast; black and white men both profess to think they should starve on wheat meal without corn.

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Saw a poor Englishman, who some time since broke his leg, which from want of skill in the doctor, was not properly set; he is therefore now a cripple for life. This is an evil to which all are exposed. Many are now dying at Evansville of a
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bilious disorder; the doctor employed has lost nearly all who applied.

River banks are here always unhealthy. A family from Lincolnshire, attracted by fine land, on one of the prairie creeks, where no American would live on any terms, all fell sick, one died, and the farmer and his wife both lay unable to help themselves, or get help, except from one of their little boys, who escaped the contagion. Birkbeck strongly remonstrated with them against settling there.

The farmers (Americans) indebted to the storekeepers, are now forced to sell all their corn at one dollar a barrel, and buy it again for their spring and summer use at five dollars, a fine profit for the monied merchant. Forty bushels per acre of corn pays better (says the old farmer) than wheat, with only twenty to twenty-five. The land here, though good, is not first rate, or of the most durable quality.

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