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Jersey County Page     Jersey County History

Early Pioneers’ Life

Notes from Oscar B. Hamilton, Ed., History of Jersey County Illinois, Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1919. Notes from the text only, not an exact transcription. There will be typographical errors.

Early Settlement

Settlements north and west of Edwardsville were prevented by Indian claims of ownership. In 1817 or 1818, Auguste Choteau and Benjamin Stephenson, as commissioners in behalf of the United States, purchased the rights of the Kickapoo Indians for 10,000,000 acres of land. This included all of Jersey and Greene counties. Soon thereafter lands opened for settlement. The first settlers were mostly poor. Money was scarce and difficult to secure for the entry of land. So many squatted on the land without any right. Others filed pre-emption claims that gave them three years to raise the money and enter the land, or sell their pre-emption rights to others who then entered the land. There was no record of these pre-emption claims or their transfers.

When the pre-emption law was passed by Congress, the security of ownership (from speculators) of this law motivated settlers to move further north of the settled part of Madison County. The part of Greene County which is now Jersey County received the majority of the settlers, since this area was on the route to what is now Greene County.

A 1821 settler stated, “My father settled on the Illinois River bottom in 1821, and after living there for several years, I had an attack of chills and fever, which persisted for two or three years, and from which I could obtain no relief. I finally concluded that the malarial atmosphere arising from the low bottom land was the cause of my diseased condition, and that I must get away from it, onto higher grounds further east. . . . conclusion we reached was that a man’s life was too short to prepare and haul lumber out onto that prairie to improve a farm, and if he did, he would freeze to death in the winter or the prairie fires would burn everything up.” But the most valuable and productive farms in the county were on the lands these settlers refused to enter. This dislike of prairie lands was general at the time and for several years after.

Pioneer Life

In this period families were large and there was inter-marriage between the settlers which led to greater unity and contentment in home relations, social enjoyments, etc. The pioneers were free-hearted, generous and hospitable people. Each man was willing to render every assistance possible to his neighbor without expecting any reward. It was common to go fifteen miles to help raise a log house of a newcomer. The settlements were bound closely together in relations.

The first dwellings were log cabins. All joined in a house raising. Men were expert woodsmen who cut, hauled, raised, and notched the logs at the corners, put on the poles for the gable roof, sawed the logs for doors and windows, and put in joists for the puncheon or plan (sic?) floors. Some of the cabins were made double, with one side open between the other. The women cooked. After evening supper, young folks had a social dance, played games, etc.

Social activities were: log rollings, chopping bees, corn huskings, apple paring, wool pickings, and quiltings, etc. There was always someone who played a fiddle. Neighbors helped those in need by chopping, hauling and preparing wood, husking corn, harvesting wheat or oats, etc. Dances were “French four,” an eight-handed reel or jig. There was no waltzing, cotillion, quadrille, or lancers, etc. What is now a saloon or coffee house was then a “doggery.”

Men cleared the land, built their houses and fences, planted crops and orchards, provided livestock, including horses (if any), cattle, sheep, hogs, poultry, wooden mould plows and wooden harrows. The harnesses for horses were woven straw collars, wooden hames, rawhide tugs and ox yokes for the oxen. No carriages, buggies or other spring vehicles were used then. Teams were mostly oxen. The modern wagon was almost unknown, used ox carts instead. Little wheat was raised, the little raised was cut with a sickle or cradle, tramped out on ground with horses in a yard prepared for the purpose, and winnowed with a sheet held by a man at each end, while another poured out the wheat from a vessel held at some distance overhead to give it a sufficient fall. There were few fan-mills at the time. Plows were called the barshare, with a wooden mould-board, and sometimes a single shovel plow was used. The implements were poor compared to today (1900s).

Hand looms, spinning wheels and crude cooking utensils were owned by all. Cooking and heating stoves were unknown. Cooking was done in a fireplace, either with the coals, or in pots and kettles hanging on a crane attached to one side of the fireplace. There were no matches. If the fire went out, people had to go to a neighbor (sometimes a mile or more away) and get live coals. Otherwise they had to rub two sticks together. If the house had powder and punk, or a flint and steel and punk, they could start a fire. Punk was a fungus growth from dead trees used much by the pioneers. A supply was kept on hand at all times.

Lamps were unheard of. A teacup was partly filled with cornmeal dough into which a stick was stuck and a rag wrapped around the stick. It was filled with coon or opossum oil or hog lard, which gave tolerably good light. In the fall a scooped out turnip was used instead of a teacup. It was more economical, many families having so few teacups that one could hardly be spared from the table.

Women cared for the cabin, made the gardens, milked cows, made butter and cheese, picked burrs from the fleece of sheep, carded the wool into rolls, spun rolls into yare and wove the yarn into cloth to make clothing for the family. They also wove blankets and other bed clothing, carpets, knit socks and stockings all by hand. They manufactured cloth from cotton, flax and wool. Their daughters were trained in all this work.

Pioneer Schools

There were no free schools. Schooling was at home or at subscription schools. In the latter neighbors joined together and employed a teacher who boarded one week with each patron and received fifty cents to one dollar a week (good wages in those days). School was taught at the homes of the patrons or in cabins built for that purpose. There were few books, only the 3 Rs were taught. The people of Lofton’s Prairie were well educated for the time, elsewhere most heads of families could not read or write.

In log school houses, on one side of the building a log was usually left out. This space was pasted over with greased paper for a window. Inside the building under the window, a large puncheon board was placed entirely across the room to serve as a writing desk. The Floor was hewed puncheon boards, only the door was made of long clapboards. The room was heated by a large wooden fireplace at one end of the room. The teachers’ life was difficult. It was common for students to turn the teacher out at Christmas to compel him to give a holiday vacation. Dilworth’s speller was the most common book used, though some had Webster’s. The New Testament was used as a reading book.


There was plenty of wild game: deer, turkey, pheasant, prairie chicken, rabbits, panthers, catamounts, wild cats, fox, coon, oppossum, groundhog, wolves, otter, beaver, muskrats and quail. In the spring and fall there were geese, brant, duck and pigeon. There were plenty of fish. Honey form wild bees was plentiful. The forest provided acorns (called mast) to feed the hogs, hickory nuts, walnut, pecans, hazelnuts, cherries, plums, grapes, persimmons, red and black haws, paw paws, blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, strawberries, crab apples and may apples.


Prairie fires were common since the land was mostly tall grasses. Settlers could only backfire – make a barrier by starting a fire before the fire reached them, and escape from the main fire over the burned area. Forest fires were also common. Whole neighborhoods of settlers would fight the fires by day and night by backfiring or burning leaves with wet sacks, etc. Woodsmen tended to be fearful of the prairies with their fires and openness to Indian attack, the difficulty of hauling wood great distances. They preferred the woods that grew by streams.


The only early mill was at Woodriver, near Upper Alton, about twenty miles from Lofton’s Prairie. It was a horse (ox) mill, a slow process. Patrons had to wait their turn, so it could take several days to make the trip, get the grist and return home. Customers had to have their own sieves to separate the bran from the flour or meal. Others punched holes in a sheet of tin, nailed it to a board and rubbed the ears over it. Some used a mortar and pestle. At this small incline mill there was no means of bolting, so the flour was coarse and dark. Settlers said, “. . . the meal was so coarse that it could be heard to rattle in the sack . . .” But even this flour couldn’t always be obtained and settlers would go without bread for weeks except for that made by flour or meal grated on a grater made of an old piece of tin bucket or a pan with holes punched it it, fastened to a board. In a pinch a stump mortar could crack corn, but only corn; formed by balancing a heavy log or beam on a stump, and the up and down motions of the log fell like a crude pestle on the corn placed in a hole scooped in another underneath the stump.


Hogs and cattle were for home use. There was no cash market for surplus. Livestock was marked with the owner’s mark and ran at large. Sheep, cows and horses were belled so each settler could find his stock by recognizing his bells’ sounds. When a settler killed an animal for meat, he kept what he could use and gave the rest to his neighbors, and they did the same. To visit relatives or friends, calves were turned out with the cows, the family loaded into a wagon or cart, the cabin door shut, and it took two or three weeks for the trip. Neighbors looked after the livestock.


There were no towns closer than Edwardsville or St. Louis. To shop, a neighbor took whatever other settlers wanted to sell at market and a list of purchases. They would take and bring back the mail. To mail letters postage had to be paid at the post office of delivery, so a letter could wait a month before the twenty-five cents was raised to pay the postal cost.


An illustration of early financial transactions: “the purchase from Philip Grimes of his original settlement by Judge Jehu Brown in 1820. Grimes had selected a very fine location near a spring, and built himself a log cabin. He then commenced working on his land. By trade he was a blacksmith, and set up a forge, and when he sold to Judge Brown, he moved to section 23 in English Township, building another forge on his new land to carry on his blacksmithing. When Brown paid him $300.00 in silver dollars for his original homestead, Grimes took it to his new home, raised the first stone on the top of his forge, and dug a hole under it, and hid the sack of silver dollars under the stone. He replace the stone, and the money remained there until the land office opened so he could enter his land, which he did in January, 1821. That hole under the stone forge was one of the first banks in Jersey County.

“Other settlers resorted to various means of secreting what moneys they had until they could put it into land. Grimes was a very industrious worker, and he operated his blacksmith shop during the day for those who called upon him for his services, and then at night he cultivated his land, did his farm work. As soon as he accumulated enough money, he entered land, and at the time of his death he owned over 2,000 acres of land, the greater part of which was in Jersey County.”

Jersey County Page     Jersey County History
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