Chapter 11, Page 97
1795 - 1843
He Platted and Named a Town
An advertisement in the Sangamo Journal
In 1836, Athens was beginning to stir. Just five years before on September 7th, 1831, Abner Hall and Harry Riggin had engaged Rueben Harrison, Sangamon County Surveyor, to lay out lots and plat the new town of Athens. While they were not the first to conceive of the town, they were the first serious developers.
One wonders how successful the 1836 newspaper ad was in selling the lots.
Athens was competing with many other central Illinois newly-founded towns planned for the ever-growing stream of migrants from southern and eastern United States who were seeking homes and fortunes in the Illinois country. Glowing terms - as in the Ad - were used to describe them. For Athens, at that time, there was a possibility that it would become a county seat. Already talk was around of carving another county from Sangamon. Motives and methods of real estate promoters in pioneer times have all the familiar signs of the same activities in the present day.
The Athens promotion proved to have one virtue. It was one of the towns created by early Illinois entrepreneurs that survived. It exists today, the oldest town in Menard county! ++ (In The Grandfathers, Vol. II, Sangamon Town another early promotion in the same general area of Illinois is discussed. It had a different result.)
Some of John Overstreet, Jr's promotional ability must have rubbed off on his brother-in-law, Abner Hall. Certainly there is nothing in the existing records to indicate that there earlier Hall family members had this zeal. But --- Abner was still a young man and the spirit of enterprise was contagious among many of the pioneers. Promoting a new town was certainly worth the effort - it might just ….
Our first record of Abner is in the Will of his father, Hezekiah, probated in 1811. In this document he was left sixty-two and one-half acres of the Back Creek land. The sale of the inherited land possibly financed the Ohio veture; the sale of the Ohio land possibly got him and his family to Illinois. By this time there was likely little left --- but the dreams still held up.
By the time he reached Illinois he was a married man of about twelve years and four of his children had been born - there were four more to come. In Illinois he was no longer to be a farmer; for the remainder of his life he was a townsman. His wife, also of Bedford county, Virginia was Jane Overstreet, daughter of Old John Overstreet, Sr. On occasion her name is recorded as 'Jenny' or 'Janey."
Thus, with his brother, Elisha, who had married Nancy Overstreet, sister of Jane, his descendants would be 'double cousins' as the old-timers said - a common enough occurrence among frontier families. Brothers frequently married sisters.
We know considerable about their years in Ohio as recorded in their various property transactions. They dealt in land and while cash was scarce, they could give promissory notes to each other and, if too hard pressed, could sell and get out - else, just left things as they were and headed West.
The tales coming out of the Illinois country back to Ohio were glowing - and the Rev. John Overstreet was the principal salesman of this New Eden to the Hall - Overstreet family members.
Reports of the land along the Sangamon River with their fertility, good timber, bountiful game and no Indian troubles make interesting reading a century and a half later. The country was painted in glowing terms and its future seemed unlimited. Soft-pedaled were the generally bad health conditions that sent many a pioneer to an early grave and the great hardships to be faced in converting the prairies and timberland into productive farms.
Transportation problems existed until the coming of the railroads about the time of the Civil War. The lure was great - cheap land, abundant water and timber and, of course a chance to get in on the ground floor of land promotion and town development. Riches were just around the corner!
Two streams of migrants pouring into central Illinois - were: (1) the southern group coming up from below the Ohio River. They were the first in the state, entering it from the bottom, so to speak. The Hall - Overstreets were of that stream. From the east across upper Ohio and Indiana was the (2) group of different background and interests, better educated and of different churches. They were entering the state from the top. These two groups were to mingle in central Illinois and to produce their own kind of citizens --- one, known as Abraham Lincoln.
The Hall-Overstreet families as previously indicated were led into the area by John Overstreet, Jr. Closely following were Abner and James Hall with their families: then Dabney Overstreet and his family. The last group was that of Elisha and Nancy Hall, with their fast-growing brood, who brought with them Old John of the Revolutionary War and his wife, Nancy.
So in a space of a little over five years, there was a good -sized family migration into what to become Athens (1831) and eventually Menard county (1839). The total of this migrant group was not less than thirty persons, including some other kin. If in 1836 the town had 200 inhabitants, then at least one of every ten in the community was a Hall. To complicate, there were other Hall families from Virginia - no kin - in the area - it must have been confusing to keep them straight! Of the Overstreets, they were the only family of that name.
If there had only been an aspiring writer in the family to tell of their journey to Illinois and of those first hard years of pioneery. There were none.
Two bits of testimony have survived.
The first comes from the story of John Overstreet, Sr., and is traditional in the family:
A good story. Exciting to them but not to us!
Note: How they traveled - probably by wagons because of small children; their route - guess; up in Ohio to the Old National Trail, then up from the Trail by one of the more generally traveled routes. How long did it take? - no one knows, guess: about a month.
There is also an account stemming from the Elisha Hall branch of the family that they traveled in wagons and on their way as they reached Sangamon county, 'they stopped on the edge of Springfield so they would not witness the hanging of the first murdered executed there.'
The first hanging in Sangamon county was in 1826 and was of 'Nathaniel Van Noy, counterfeiter and murderer, who was hanged in an open field where the state capitol now stands.
Thus, the children were protected from the scene, but the discussions of it, remained fresh in their minds and was long remembered.
What does a pioneer family do? How do they get started? At first they were 'squatters' on the land. Sangamon became a county in 1821, land records in their area probably started two years later. Who owned the land? Had it been surveyed? How ready was the government to allow claims to be pre-emted?
Well, they lived in temporary shelters or took over cabins from previous 'squatters.' As quickly as possible they built their own cabins. This did this on land that seemed to belong to no one --- later, they would establish their formal claims. The land had to be entered, as they called it, so that it could be claimed. The government surveys had to be completed.
On February 2nd, 1826 Abner Hall entered eighty acres in Sangamon county. Prior to that he had lived on what they called 'government land.' We know exactly where that land was, just east of Main street in present-day Athens and north of Washington street. The railroad slices across it today. Just ahead of him in 1825, his brother-in-law, John Overstreet, Jr., had entered 80 acres, which today is in the Old Town portion of the city map, and stretched from Jefferson to Washington Street on the west side of Main Street --- always the main business section of the town.
There was really no town in 1826, just a collection of cabins. What little farming that took place was likely in the heart of what is now called Athens. Two small streams, Creeks or Branches, meandered through the area, offering a source of water and locations for the early industries and homes. They have long since vanished although their valleys can be discerned. +++
John Overstreet, Jr., bought Harry Riggin's goods brought them to the settlement and became the first merchant. Overstreet was using a 'squatter's cabin' for his home and store. He could buy the cabin - but not the land until it was entered.
For a short time after the arrival of Elisha, he and Abner were also merchants. This short experience was evidently enough for Elisha, for the remainder of his life he was a farmer at the north edge of the town. Manufactured items were scarce and they looked around for them. There is record of the two brothers attending an estate sale in another part of the county. They gave notes for their purchases. The pioneers had plenty of everything except money!
If one could get a stock of goods, it was easy to become a merchant, Harry Riggin, 1793-1875, a contemporary of Abner Hall at Athens not only kept a store at his farm north of Athens, but also started a nursery and had many dealings with the Hall family members. Money was so scarce that they often traded their personal labor for merchandise. They swapped produce, harness and other home-produced items. Riggin rated his customers as to their reliability and he kept time records when they worked for him. (The records of his store can be found in the Illinois State Historical Library.)
In September, 1831 Harry Riggin paid 'Hall & Overstreet' (in cash mind you and in advance!) for 'rapping thread.' This indicates that for a time, at least, Abner and his brother-in-law were partners. Later, as Riggin's orchard matured, we find Hall family members buying apples for winter storage. These purchase were made each Fall and in relatively large amounts.
A great deal can be learned about the Abner Hall family from the Riggin's record.
On December 12, 1835 Abner Hall purchased 153 pounds of pork at three cents, a total purchase of $4.59 from Riggin. On the twenty-seventh of the same month, Abner was credited for fifty cents 'to 1 Clevis' - a piece of harness?
August 22, 1836 Riggin credited 'Hall' by entering in his books the notation: 'lost time made up and commens again to 28 Sept. 1836. Settled in full on October 20, 1836.' If Abner was paying for his pork bought in 1835, it took him nearly a year to get clear on the books. This was likely not the case, but does give a fragmentary record of how work was used to pay for merchandise.
One of the most interesting entries in Riggin's record was were a bill was paid by the debtor making 'a cradele' for him. It will never be known if the cradle was made in Abner Hall's cabinet shop. Riggin's records run from 1831 to 1851. He used the same 'work-pay' system over the years and it was carried down to Abner's son, Abner Banks Hall, as late as 1853. For the record, 'it was paid in full!' Riggin also kept track of his personal activities: the time he lost when he was sick or 'going to meetings.' Somewhere along the line he listed himself as raising thirty-four different kinds of apples.
Abner Hall during his merchandising career evidently had other partners, not family members. From the columns of the Sangamo Journal, May 9, 1835 we learn:
Note: before settling down to cabinet making, Abner Hall evidently tried his fortune at a number of different things. Being a 'Jack of All Trades' was good in pioneer times. While running various business, he was also acquiring more property in the town as will indicated later.
The Ad continued:
From reading this announcement and its accompanying doggerel, apparently the citizens of Athens were in the midst of one of their perennial squabbles between the 'wets' and the 'drys.'
The problem of local liquor control was to be one of the most persistent community programs for the next century.
The census of 1830, inaccurate as it was, give us meager but important information. For Abner Hall, we find that he is between 40 and 50 years of age, as is his wife. We find that seven of his eight children have been born - three have been added during the Illinois years. Using the age brackets and sex of each child we can get an approximation for their birth years. (There was no registry of births in pioneer Illinois and no church records. Even colonial Virginia was a little better on this score.)
1830 was an important date for head counting, but 1832 was even more important in the family history. On March 22nd, his daughter, Catherine was married to Joseph B. Ayers (Ayars). This gave Abner and Jane their first son-in-law and also gave Abner a partner for promoting the town. For the family it started an important branch which will be discussed later.
July 24th, 1834, A. Hall & J.B. Ayers entered a tract of 27.84 acres on the Sangamon River about two miles southwest of the village. These early developers apparently were thinking of a place where boats could be loaded and unloaded, thus ending the isolation of the community. Portions of this land, used only for farming, when flood conditions permitted, remained in the Hall family for many years. It may have been from this point that the Rev. John Overstreet launched his ill-fated flat-boat trip to New Orleans earlier the same year.
During the following year Ayers entered other tracts in the vicinity, which eventually formed the basis of other holdings in the Ayers family for years to come. Meanwhile, in December, 1835 Abner Hall entered 166.61 acres in what was to become the heart of residential Athens until recent times. It was just west of Main Street between Jefferson and Madison Streets. Again in June, 1836, two 40-acres tracts, one not in the city, were acquired. By this date he owned nearly 240 acres, much of which would become the city of Athens.
Things were on the move for Abner Hall in 1836. Land ownership, laying out the town, a daughter married - and now his oldest son, James Wesley Hall, became a married man. (Athens could have been better-name Hallstown. The Halls were multiplying rapidly.
At a little later date, Hallsville was founded in Dewitt county, Illinois, by a Hall family that originated in Bedford county, Va. Their relations to the Athens' Hall group has never been determined; although they knew each other in colonial Virginia.
For The Grandfathers this was also an important year. James Wesley Hall by his marriage to Catherine Claypool started another branch of the family - the author's. He will be discussed in another chapter.
1836 was the year in which James W. Hall became 21 years of age, making his birthyear 1815. Earlier in 1836 on January 14th, he entered two 40-acre tracts of land, one near the center of Athens and the other on the northwest corner of the mile square which the town eventually occupied. The inner tract eventually became part of the Swaringuin addition to the city and was adjacent to an addition known as the Hall-Strawbridge addition. Previously the A. Hall addition had been formed. Dabney Overstreet, a brother-in-law of Abner had entered 40 acres in the residential district. This land was later sold and Dabney moved to Robinson's Mill, now abandoned, near Oakford, Illinois but still in Menard county.
From 1825 through 1836, the Hall - Overstreets and their kin, by marriage and blood, had acquired by entering from the government, nearly a thousand acres of land in two townships covering what became known as the Athens community. These acres did not include some land held at the northern edge of Sangamon county after Menard had been sliced off in 1839. For the next century and a half these were to be the city and farm homes of the family descendants of the original pioneer group. +++++
Land for these Illinois pioneers had as much significance for them as it had for their Virginia ancestors. It was still the coin of the realm, the source of their livelihoods and an important symbol of personal advancement. It was their insurance, their source of old age income and something to hand down. The property that was in Athens or nearby never made any of them very rich, but it gave them security and a sense of pride in ownership.
Elisha was dead! The first of the three brothers, sons of Hezekiah Hall of Bedford county, Va., who had migrated by wagon and horseback across the hundreds of miles that separated them from the homestead on Back Creek.
He was only 55 years of age. He had fathered 15 children: one in Va., several in Ohio; the remainder in Illinois. At the time of his death he owned 120 acres at the north edge of Athens. Later, one of his sons would acquire adjacent farm land which was to be held in the family a century and a half. He was a framer not a townsman. (There is a fine marker for him and his immediate family in Old West Cemetery at Athens, placed there in recent times.)
Now Elisha's Nancy - Nancy Overstreet Hall, sister of Jane, was head of the family. She carried on. The Elisha Hall branch of the family was numerous, but an industries and generally an outstanding group of people. We will pick up their story later in this section of The Grandfathers.
With the entrance into the selling of town lots in 1836 with his son-in-law Joseph B. Ayers, we no longer find evidence of Abner Hall as a merchant. According to a family historian, John Clark Harris, he lived with his family in a house west of Main Street in Athens. (This would be in the A. Hall Addition.) Here he operated a cabinet shop in conjunction with a Mr. Stevenson. Presumably, he sold off a lot from time to time to augment his income. It might be assumed that as a cabinet maker, he made coffins and may be thought of as the first undertaker in Athens. He also operated a saw mill, a logical combination with cabinet making. At one time he had a fifth interest in a carding mill.
There is a single record of the business practices of the time in a matter involving Abner Hall. - 'a note for $5.00 payable by Abner Hall and another $2.50…these items to be 'paid for in scantling.' (Scantlings - small beams or timbers from the mill.
In the matter of community service, we find that Abner Hall found time to do public work for his fellow citizens. From the County Commissioners' records of Sangamon county we learn:
At home he was appointed to the 4th of July Committee to help Athens celebrate the nation's birth in 1839. One year later he is made one of the delegates to the Whig convention to be held in Springfield (March, 1840). This was done at the Athens precint meeting. Along with his brother, Elisha, he was involved in the settlement of some estates. More of this later.
By the time of the census of 1840, the area of Sangamon county in which Abner Hall lived was now Menard county. The new county was created in 1839. Athens was not chosen the county seat, although it had struggled for it. Petersburg, the town that replaced New Salem was chosen. Certainly the sale of lots was not helped by this blow. Yet, the town survived.
The 1840 census shows Abner's family now completed, but with one new feature. James Wesley Hall, his son, is now shown as a head of a family with a wife and three daughters all under the age of five years!
Nancy, the widow of Elisha, is now a family head, with only eight of her family living at home.
James, the third brother of the Hall migrants, is listed along with his family, he has only two sons and several daughters. His family record is not clear. It indicates that he lives in a different area, possibly on a farm near the Sangamon county line to the south of Athens. The early censuses - 1830 and 1840 - was principally a counting of heads, not very descriptive.
Abner Hall was not allowed to live the life he had carved for himself. He did not live to see the remainder of his family married, nor did he see any of his grandchildren beyond babyhood. He was not to know that one of his sons died in Andersonville prison a victim of war waged against the descendants of his Virginia cousins. He died in 1843 at age 48.
Again, the records of Sangamon county tell the sad story:
List of Heirs of Abner Hall, dec'd
Matilda Jane Hall      }
Now - Jane Overstreet Hall, of who have said so little thus far in the narrative about Abner Hall is the head of the family. Although her family is not as large as that of her sister, Nancy, the problems are much the same.
According to a family history published in 1938, the following statement appears: 'it is said that on his death bed he (Abner Hall) made a deed for three acres of land for burial purposes. Enlarged by gifts from other citizens of adjoining land, the place is known as the West Cemetery.' Abner Hall is buried in that cemetery, his grave is unmarked, and can only approximately be located.
This is a poor tribute to the man who laid out the town and who named it (with Harry Riggin); whose son and grandsons were to carry on the precepts of our country as had his ancestors in Virginia.
As reported by his son-in-law, Joseph B. Ayers, to the probate court of Sangamon county, Abner Hall - as had his brother Elisha - died without a Will.
This was a serious matter. It meant going through legal channels regardless of the feelings of Jane's family. The record of this procedure rests in the files of the Illinois State Historical Library, (Springfield), a document yellowed and fragile with age. An exact date cannot be given for it as none appears on it. Neither does the name of the presiding judge.
It is among the original Sangamon County Circuit Court Orders for 1840-50, item 36. Abritrarilly a date of 1845 is set for it by the author When he dismissed the case, the judge wrote across the back of it:
In this manner Hall's widow, Jane Overstreet Hall, was allowed her dower rights in the real property of her deceased husband, Abner Hall. It appears to have been a friendly suit, as noted by this failure of those opposing (in this case the adult children) to appear against her in the Court call of three times.
The spirit of family co-operation in the settlement of the estate of Abner Hall seems to be evident in an advertisement that appeared in the Sangamo Journal March 2, 1848.
Without attempting to investigate this sale too far, it appears that in order to develope the Town of Athens, Abner Hall had acquired an obligation to the School Commissioner. This may have been in lieu of the payment of taxes. In order that his obligation be met without penalizing the estate of their mother, the two sons, James W. and Abner Banks, with the consent of their wives, have agreed to sell some of their holdings. This may have furnished Athens with a site for their grade school which stood until recent times.
By the time of the census of 1850, the former Virginians have been established in Illinois about thirty years. The three brothers are dead, all dying relatively young men. Elisha, 1838; Abner, 1843; and James perhaps in 1845 - he is not living in 1850. Their wives, as widows, now head their respective families and all live in Athens.
How did Athens get its name? There are several stories as to the origin of the name, based mainly on conjecture.
From the account of John C. Harris - family historian: +*+
'Naming of Athens. My own theory is that the original town of Athens, was name by Abner Hall, who, with Harry Riggin had the town of Athens platted and named it for Athens, Ohio, where Athens University was located, which, as now, in Athens county.
It is the author's opinion that the name of Athens came from the names of two nearby communities: Antioch (known as Cantrall today and Macedonia, an early settlement not now in existence. These were cities on the missionary trail of the Christian Apostle Paul in biblical times. The city of Athens would be a logical choice on this basis. It could well be that Mathew Rogers, the only classical scholar in the area and to whom Harry Riggin was related, had a hand in the choice of name. It is doubted if Abner Hall would object to this New Testament association; The Athens, Ohio reference does not seem to be a very good one.
In a small way Abner Hall has obtained a degree of immortality. On the maps of the City of Athens, Illinois is always shown 'A. or Abner Hall's Addition.' This will stand as long as such property maps are used.
At the 150th Observance of the Founding of Athens, May, 1981 a large granite block was placed at Old West Cemetery, recognizing Abner's gift of 1843 and marking the town's founding year of 1831.
+ This is the only instance of the use of middle initial - B-for Banks. In all subsequent discussion he will be called Abner Hall to distinguish him from his son, Abner Banks Hall. Ayers was a son-in-law of Abner Hall and is discussed later in this history. Underline in Ad ---author's