Personal Stories of Pioneers
Taken From the History of La Salle County, Illinois, Baldwin, Elmer.. Chicago. Rand McNally & Co., printers. 1877.

Pages 119-129

Online Version Transcribed By Nancy Piper

Personal Narratives

The writers of history seldeom give more than the rise and fall of nations, biographies of great men, kings and princes, and but little or nothing of the common people - a matter of far more importance, and more interesting. To know the intelligence, opinions, tastes, amusements, method and means of living, routine of every day life, the hopes and fears, which swayed and controlled a people, would be far more interesting than the life of a prince socially far removed from and having no feelings in common with the masses.

So, in recording the history of the pioneer settlements, we cannot give a proper idea of the toils, privations, hopes, fears, anticipations, and misgivings, simply by recording the founding and growth of towns, cities and counties, progress of agriculture and commerce, but we must accompany the emigrant along his weary way, witness his parting with friends, difficulties of travel through unfrequented ways after reaching the frontier, beyond the pale of society, his exposures and his patient industry, the impression made upon his imagination by the scenery, so new and startling, the wild animals so rare, and the notes of strange birds which alone break the midday silence of his lonely home.

To endeavor to convey to the reader a correct idea of the sensation produced in the mind of the newcomer as he first became acquainted with the strange land he had come to occupy, several short narratives of the journey and first experience here, are inserted, not because they contain any startling facts of hair-breadth escapes from fire and flood, or Indian barbarity, but to give a correct idea of the settler as he first occupied the unigue and peculiar prairie region, as the circumstances that produced these have ceased to exist, and they can be known only by the recital of those who speak from experience.

Narrative by the Author

May 1, 1835, in company with three others, Beebe Clark, James B. Beardsley and N. W. Merwin, I left the western border of Connecticut, to explore the West; this part of Illinois being our destination. Took a steamer from Poughkeepsie to Albany, and a railroad from Albany to Schenectady, the only railroad between Connecticut and the Mississippi, and being the first every seen by us was a great curiosity. We first took seats in a small car a littler larger than a stage coach; were drawn by horse power about two miles to the foot of an inclined plane, then up the plane by a stationary engine, and from there drawn by a locomotive to Schenectady - in all, a distance of twelve miles. The rail was a flat iron bar laid on timbers, and the timbers on ties. How wonderfully that twelve miles of primitive railroad has grown and spread over all this Western world; the journey which then consumed three weeks, can now be accomplished in less than two days.

From Schenectady came by canal boat to Buffalo, and by steamer from Buffalo to Detroit; at Detroit we made a company of eight, and hired a farm wagon to take us to the mouth of St. Joseph river, by what was called the territorial road. Though a slow conveyance it gave an excellent opportunity to see the country. Detroit and its surroundings had to aspect of an old country, but we soon entered a heavy timbered region, about twenty-five miles in extent, when alternate timber and openings with most beautiful scenery, extended nearly across the territory. This scenery with the occurrence of two or three small prairies, all of it later-mediate between timber and prairie, prepared us for viewing the broad prairie further west. A most beautiful feature of Michigan scenery was the frequent occurrence of small lakes from a quarter of a mile to two or three miles across: wit water as pure as crystal, with a hard sand or gravelly beach bordered by clear lawns and scattering timber of those splendid barrens, they made a scene where the water nymphs and fairies might nightly dance together.

The last day of the trip, which consumed a week, we found ourselves a dark without supper in the dense forest of the St. Joseph, with a track for a road barely passable by daylight; when rain set in, and the wolves commenced howling. The older members of the company thought our situation somewhat unpleasant. We moved cautiously on, and finally discovered a small log cabin occupied by an Irishman and his wife, the only house for twelve or fifteen miles east of the St. Joseph river. They had no forage, or provision for man or beast. The horses were tied fasting to a tree, eight of us drank two quarts of milk just from the cow, for our supper, lay on the puncheon floor with our carpet bags for pillows, and slept soundly till morning, when we discharged our team, and our host, who also kept the ferry, took us over to the little settlement at the mouth of the river, where he procured some provisions for himself.

After waiting two days for a little schooner to load with lumber, with fifty or sixty others we took passage on her deck, as her little cabin was more than full with the dozen lady passengers. After shivering through the night, without rest, a pleasant May sun made the temperature quite comfortable, but eating accommodations, after an ineffectual attempt to set a table in the cabin, consisted of a supply of hard or sea biscuit, a pot for boiling mackerel, and a pan for frying bacon, with one coffee pot. It was nearly night before all were served, and the boldest and most unscrupulous fared the best, but hunger finally forced the modest and timid to a desperate effort to appease their appetites, and they might be seen with a hard biscuit in one hand, and a half boiled mackerel held by the tail in the other, like a pig with an ear of corn, seeking a quiet portion of the deck to take their breakfasts, at three o'clock in the afternoon.

About sunset our little craft anchored off Chicago, as no vessel could then pass over the bar into Chicago river. The passengers reached the pier by means of a small boat, and the cargo was taken over the bar in a flat boat or lighter.

Chicago was then a respectable village, and Fort Dearborn, a United States palisade fort, stood near where Michigan and Wabash avenues intersect Lake street, and was garrisoned by United States troops. The margin of Chicago river was marshy and covered with tall slough grass. To reach the river for water the people drove small piles in the mud; on these, planks were placed on which they walked beyond the grass, and the water when obtained was clear and pure as compared with that which runs in the same channel today.

The sensation in Chicago, then, was the presence of several hundred Pottawatomie Indians receiving their annuities, and preparing to remove onto a reservation west of the Mississippi.

To us these people were a subject of deep interest. They were quartered on the west side near the confluence of the North and South branches, and when we visited them, the day after our arrival, there were more than one hundred helplessly drunk, lying about in all positions, and nearly nude; while the others, with a discretion uncommon among civilized men kept entirely sober for the time, but it was said would have their turn to get gloriously drunk, so other day.

The physical development of the native Indian is probably as perfect as can be found elsewhere. The well developed athletic, and lithe form of the young braves, would be an excellent model for an ancient sculptor, while the hideous countenances of some of the old men were repulsive in the extreme. One old Indian had a large and powerful frame and an eye and countenance that impressed one with terror at first sight. He had been terribly mutilated in contest with either man or beast, his ears were nearly gone, only dangling shreds remaining, his nose was reduced to a mere stump nearly level with his face, two fingers were gone, and his face, shoulders, arms and hands nearly covered with scars; his life must have been a terribly evenful one. Some of the old squaws were nearly a match for the disfigured Indian, while some of the girls were quite comely, and a few might be called handsome - not only regular features, melting black eyes, long flowing jet black hair, but a natural grace, and ease of motion that would be difficult to find in civilized life.

These Indians were about to yield up the home of their people; the scenes of their youth, their much loved hunting grounds and the graves of their kindred, and all they held dear, were to be abandoned to the grasping power of advancing civilization. They were yielding to their destiny, the power of the white man, and the inevitable supremacy of a superior race. They were the retiring sectors from the grand stage, and we the incoming ones with a new play and a new cast of characters.

But to resume our narrative. After an ineffectual effort for two days to obtain a seat in the stage that ran from Chicago to Ottawa, we left Chicago on foot, about one o'clock pm of a very warm afternoon. There had been heavy showers for several days, and the low prairie around Chicago was more like a lake than dry land.

For seven miles before reaching Berry's Point, the water was from three to fifteen inches deep, through which we worked our weary way. When within about two miles of dry land, one of our companions gave out, and two of us, one on each side, placed our arm around and under his opposite arm, while he placed his on our shoulders and thus we bore him through. With this introduction to Illinois, I presume, if at the time we threw ourselves on the first dry land we reached, we had been placed back in old Connecticut, we should have stayed there.

The next day, we walked about forty miles to Plainfield. It gave us our first view of a rolling, Illinois prairie. We had pictured in imagination the far famed prairie, but in common with others from the East, we had no adequate conception of its character.

We strained our eyes to take in its extent, till the effort became painful. We descanted again and again upon its beauty, and richness, and wondered why such a country had remained so long in the hands of the savage. It was a wonderful country. All was new. Strange sounds greeted our ears. The piping note of the prairie squirrel as he dropped from his erect position, and sought the protection of his hole close by our path; the shrill notes of the plover, scattered in countless numbers, fitfully starting and running over the prairie; the constant roaring of the prairie cock; the mad scream of the crooked-bill curlew, as we approached its next; the distant whoop of the crane; the pump sounding note of the bittern; the lithe and graceful forms of the deer, in companies of three to five, lightly bounding over the swells of the prairie; the rude cabins of the settlers, with their ruder cribs, stables and yards - all were new and strange; it seemed a new creation that we had entered.

A virgin soil, clean and rich, inviting the plow; boundless meadows waiting for the scythe, the summer paradise of the flocks and hers that were to occupy them; a teaming richness of soil whose golden harvests should one day glut the markets of the world - all this, so new and impressive, crowding in quick succession upon the senses, could but excite the imagination to the liveliest hope, the most ardent anticipation. The day's experience was but a miniature picture of the hopes and the sufferings of pioneer life.

Several hours immersion of the feet the previous day, in the warm water of the Chicago swamps, had fittingly prepared them for the wholesale blistering this day's travel in the hot sun had produced. Yet want of dinner, which we failed to get, and pain of our blistered feet, were all forgotten in the new experiences and strange sights of the land we had entered.

It was but natural, that designing to become residents, we should look forward, and anticipate the future success, the destiny of the land of promise - the material wealth, population, social, civil, religious and educational institutions which should here arise, and bless succeeding generations, as they should follow each other down the stream of time; and however ardent our dreaming may have been, it could hardly have exceeded the realization.

The succeeding day brought us to Ottawa. We crossed from East to South Ottawa, hardly knowing there was a North Ottawa, drank at the mineral spring which after a lapse of over forty years has become so famous, and passed on to Vermillionville, our original point of destination.

Mrs. Walbridge's Statement - Then the Wife of Edward Keys

We came to LaSalle County in November, 1831. On our journey we traveled five days without seeing a house of any kind. At last we reached the hospitable cabin of Christopher Long, on Covell Creek, where we staid six weeks, when we moved on to the north bank of the Illinois river, about five miles east of Ottawa. I remember we moved from Covell Creek on Christmas eve, through a wild region and I shall never forget the bright moonlight night when we arrived at our cabin. It was a wild, dreary looking place, though I did not say anything of my feelings lest I should discourage my husband.

Our house was about twelve feet wide and sixteen feet long, one story of logs. The weather got so cold that we could build our chimney but little higher than where the mantel piece ought to be, and when the wind came from the south we had to open the door to let the smoke out.

The bottom land around us was covered with very tall grass, and our the only house on the bottom between Ottawa and Joliet, and but two or three in Ottawa. David Shaver lived about one mile north of us and Wm. Parr lived one and a quarter miles northeast.

We got through the winter very well, as the weather was quite mild. In the early spring, while I was at Mr. Long's, who had settled half a mile above us, and my husband was alone, two Indians called and took dinner with him. They told him that the ChoMokeman would come soon and kill all the pale faces. So we took the alarm, packed up our things and went to Posey County, in Indiana. This was in the spring of 1832, and we thus escaped the dangers of the Indian war.

We returned to our cabin in the spring of 1833, which we found as we left it. After putting in our crops Mr. Keves started for the East, and I stayed alone about two months. After a week after he left I was taken with the ague, and had it every other day. The days I had the chills, Mrs. Parr would come and help me. Mr. Keyes went to Connecticut and Vermont. He wished me to go to some of the neighbor's, but I thought I would stay and take care of what we had.

The winter of 1833-34 was very cold, so the mill at Dayton was frozen up, and we pounded corn for our bread. We moved on the place in 1831 and 1833, and I have lived here ever since - and I have seen the wild region which looked so forbidding on that Christmas eve, in 1831, transformed into one of the most thriving and business-like places in the West.

There is a peculiar and indescribable influence exerted over the mind by the plain, unadorned candor and simplicity of the early pioneers. When they professed a friendship for you it meant something; it came from the bottom of the heart. Style and fashion has no place on the frontier.

The narrative of Mrs. Walbridge is somewhat abridged, but enough is given in her own language to convey a true picture of the feelings that actuated the early pioneer. A woman that would stay along for two months in that wild region, with a country full of Indians and wild animals, and sick with the ague too, is made of no common stuff, and the spectacle of Mrs. Parr, leaving her own family, and cares, and going a mile and a quarter every other day to wait at the bedside of her lonely sick neighbor, is an example of self-sacrifice and kindness seldom found, except in a new country.

Narrative of Mrs. Sarah Ann Parr, Daughter of Widow Anna Pitzer

We arrived in the county of LaSalle on the 16th day of October, 1831, from Licking County, Ohio, and settled on the left bank of the Fox, about nine miles from Ottawa, on the place where the Harneys now live. We left Ohio in May previous - my mother's family, in company with Aaron Daniels, Edward Sanders, Benjamin Fleming, and Joseph Klieber, and their families.

There was but little talk about the Indians during the winter, but in May there began to be rumors that the Indians were coming soon. About the middle of April, Shabona, the Pottawatomie chief, came to our house, and told us the Indians would soon give us trouble. Soon after, we heard they had burned Hollenbeck's house. Mr. Fleming came to our house just as we were getting breakfast, and told us we must all put out for Ottawa, without a moment's delay. In great haste, we got ready and started, without our breakfast, leaving the table standing. We stayed in Ottawa, about a week, when my mother, myself, and several others, went up to Dayton, because there were only two houses in Ottawa, owned by David Walker and Joseph Cloud, and there was a small fort at Dayton, built by John Green around his house, which was supposed to make it safe, at night at least. About five days after, while we were all asleep, about eleven o'clock at night, a Frenchman brought word that Hall's, Davis, and Petigrew's families were all killed, up on the creek. In a great panic, we got ready - or set off without getting ready - to go down the river, myself with seventeen others, in a large dug-out, or perogue, as it was called. We were piloted down by Mr. Stadden and Aaron Daniels. The boat was so loaded that it dipped water several times; however, we all landed safe. The balance of the Dayton folks walked down on the bank of the river to Ottawa, where we stayed some four weeks, when my mother and myself went to Sangamon, on the Sangamon river, six miles north of Springfield, where we stayed till the war was over. My mother, Anna Pitzer, was a widow, and it was not deemed safe for her to remain, for provisions were scarce and supplies very uncertain. I was sixteen at the time, but the recollection of those scenes is as vivid as if they occurred but yesterday.

Thomas Parr's Statement

I came to Illinois in 1834, arriving about the 20th day of April. Then Illinois was a wild country. I went to Chicago to the land sales in 1835, when Chicago was a very small town. Great numbers of the settlers came in every day to enter their lands. You could see them coming with their prairie schooners, drawn by about three yoke of oxen, through the high grass, from knee-high to the top of a tall man's head, with a cloud of mosquitoes following, about the size of an ordinary swarm of bees. Chicago then resemble about as good a swamp as I ever saw. From Berry's Point to Chicago, ten miles, we waded through water all the way about knee deep. The buildings in Chicago were a kind of cabin stuck in the mud.

We got our land and came home. Pretty wild times - chasing prairie wolves, scaring droves of deer, flocks of sand-hill cranes, geese and ducks. There were a good many Indians in the country then, and we were but little better, in appearance, ourselves. There were no proud folks in the country then, although the girls were as pretty as ever I saw. I settled on the right bank of the Fox river, eight or nine miles from Ottawa, where I have lived ever since. We had the whole country to pasture, an to cut hay in, and although we could raise good crops, we could get no money to give for building railroads, and hardly enough to pay the Methodist preacher for hearing him, although we always managed to pay him for marrying us. I had George Dunnavan and John Hoxie for neighbors - the rest of the country north and west was an unbroken wilderness. The settlers had a good many slow notions; three or four yoke of oxen to turn the prairie; and going to mill or market we would hitch our oxen to the big wagon, and be gone two or three days, or a week, as the case required - rather a slow coach, but a never failing one, unless an ox strayed. The news was carried by ox telegraph. There was not so much style, nor so many big steals, as now. Those unfortunate individuals who worshiped fine horses, were kept in a perpetual state of excitement by a gang of bandits all over the Western country, who lived mostly by stealing horses.

We used to go to Chicago to do our marketing, and sell our wheat. With an ox team and wagon, I would put on a good load of wheat, and start for Chicago. By the time I reached Indian creek, two or three more teams would join, and as we proceeded others would fall in, till when we reached Chicago a hundred teams would be in the train.

We took along the old tin pot, and some ground coffee tied up in a rag, and a few cooking utensils. We would camp, light a fire, cook our grub, collect around the fire, tell a few stories, crack a few jokes, crawl under our wagons, and, if the mosquitoes would let us, go to sleep and dream of our wives and children at home.

We would get forty or fifty cents per bushel for wheat, and three cents a dozen for eggs, and if we got sixty cents for wheat we thought we were doing a land office business. Our teams found plenty of excellent pasture on the prairie wherever we stopped. Crossing the sloughs was an item of excitement, and if one got stuck, we joined teams and pulled him out. Crowding Frink and Walker's stage coaches was a favorite pastime, and they soon learned to give the hubs of a six-ox wagon a wide berth.

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