Chapter 14, Page 143
An unusual life, which includes
"The Rev. John Overstreet …
1785 - 1834
Strictly speaking, John Overstreet, Jr., was not a Grandfather --- he would be a 'Granduncle.' His story, however, cannot be left out of the family saga.
John was the first child of John and Nancy Dabney Overstreet, (Sr.) and was born in Bedford county, Virginia. Since John and Nancy were married in November, 1785 and their son's birth year frequently state as the same year, Nancy was either carrying John or he had been born just prior to their marriage. He may have been a son by Nancy's first marriage to Thomas Lane (1783).
However, he was always known as John Overstreet and accepted as a son of the senior Overstreet. It could well be that Nancy had been rescued from a bad situation by her second marriage. If so, this would have been in keeping with the character of John, senior.
Another clue of the possible difference of paternity is that the Rev. John Overstreet did not behave as a characteristic member of the Overstreet family. His brother Dabney, for example being content to be a family man, cabinet maker, miller and farmer.
John Jr's story assumes a firm trend by his marriage to Susan (Susannah) Roberts, 1790-1869, in Bedford county, Virginia. It was March 23, 1808. Phillip Roberts, a family member, was the Surety for the marriage.
Soon after his marriage a series of incidents occurred over a period of about five years that have been reported in a number of historical references and made the subject of romantic fiction. For the purpose of the 'Grandfathers' an account published in 1905 is used, as it appears to be the most complete record. +
'Rev. John Overstreet volunteered in the American Arms (1812), and leaving his young wife, he went to the front, to fight the battle of his country. (In this effusive account the writer comments: "the son of a Revolutionary Soldier could not well do otherwise.")
'At that time the Indians, taking advantage of the disturbed state of the country, and, perhaps incited by the British emissaries, gave great annoyance to the people of the Virginias, by frequent forays of murder, pillage and rapine.
'While in the army, he heard his wife had been murdered by the Indians - a common event of his times - and not a great while after, he was himself, made a prisoner by one of the savage allied tribes of the English.
'Soon after his capture preparations were made to burn him at the stake. As was the custom of the red demons, they began to persecute and to subject him to all the tortures their fiendish minds could invent. He knew it was death, in its most cruel form, and so when one of the "big braves" offended him by a foul indignity, Overstreet's blood boiled at the insult and collecting all his strength, he gave the heartless brave, such a crushing blow that it sent him headlong into the fire that had been kindled to torture Overstreet. This act of daring bravery, in the face of what seemed certain death, so aroused the admiration of the other Indians, that he was saved from torture, he being considered too noble a brave to die thus.
'Some time afterward he was sold to another tribe and by them taken to Canada, where after a time he by some chance fell into the hands of white men, by whom he was held, for two or three years, in kind of a semi-slavery, but was finally given his full liberty.
'Not long after this he met a woman between whom and himself there sprang up a mutual affection and they were married. In due course of time a child was born to them, but Dame Fortune seemed again to frown upon him, for soon after the child and then the mother died.'
'Once more he found himself alone in the world and for a time wandered aimlessly from place to place, until at last he was seized with a yearning desire to again visit the scenes of his earlier and happier life. So at once he began preparation for the long and weary journey from Canada to Virginia.
'After many hardships and dangers he at last arrived, footsore and weary, in the vicinity of his former home.
'A strange and compelling power led him to visit once more the cabin where he had lived for a few short months, in comfort and happiness, with the wife he loved so fondly.
'He came in sight of this old home: there stood the same rude cabin, under the shadow of the same wide-spreading trees, and from the chimney that his own hands had built, the blue smoke curled upwards and his heart filled with emotion, as memory carried him back to other and happier days.
'Aimlessly and dreamily he approached the door and rapped for entrance. In a moment footsteps were heard within, the rude door turned on its wooden hinges, and the wife of his youth stood before him. They gazed upon each other for a few moments in amazement and bewildered astonishment.
'She had heard of his capture by the Indians and his death by torture. Being a woman of refinement and beauty, she was not compelled to live long in 'widowed' loneliness, but for a long time she repelled the advances of a host of suitors, until convinced in her own mind of her husband's death, and wearying of her lonely life had married again.
'Overcome by the sudden appearance of one so long supposed to be dead, she fell to the floor, in a death-like swoon.
'Just at this time the husband appeared on the scene and after she had sufficiently revived, the three held a most solemn and painful council, at which time the two husbands solemnly agreed to leave the whole matter to the decision of the wife, both men sacredly agreeing to abide by the decision she would make and each one pledging his sacred honor that if the decision was against him that he would leave that section of the country and never annoy them in any way.
'This must have been a terrible ordeal for all concerned, especially for the wife, but, doubtless after a terrible struggle in her own breast, the smouldering fire of youthful love prevailed and she chose the long-absent husband of her youth, the rejected husband, dazed and disappointed, but true as steel to his plighted word, bade them sad adieu, walked out the door and they never heard of him after.'
Well - not many families can come up with a better 'Grandfather' story than that!
It certainly made good listenin' in the darkened cabins of those early pioneers; no doubt embellished as was done by the author of the foregoing account. The flickering from the fireplace and the dim-glow of the candles giving a touch of mystery and romance that modern TV set can produce. No wonder it is found repeated over and over again in the story of Rev. John Overstreet.
In researching the Hall - Overstreet families in Lawrence county, Ohio, the author, quite by accident made an interesting discovery. From Marriage Book I, p. 48, the following information is obtained;
Sussanah Overstreet to Solomon Adams. Marriage 15 April 1818. No. 29
Married by Thomas Templeton (J.P.)
Now for the first time in family history the name of the other man in the John Overstreet - Romance Story - is known. The finding of this marriage record lends authenticity to the War of 1812 adventure.
It is interesting to speculate if the marriage was ever officially annulled or a divorce granted. Considering the frontier conditions it is doubtful. However, since the marriage record show no date of official filing in the country records, it is possible that the matter was dropped. This may have been a reason for Rev. John Overstreet's interest in settling in another state; i.e., prompting his coming to Illinois.
Overstreet's records in Ohio are fragmentary, other than the recording of the Romance factors. His name does appear on some legal documents, principally as a witness to signatures of other family members. There is no record of property ownership in his name.
Just where and when he became a preacher in the Methodist church is not known and appears to have centered around his years at Athens Illinois. His 'preaching' did lead him into some trouble as will be related later.
Rev. John Overstreet was likely among the first three white men to enter the area of Illinois that is now known as Athens, Illinois in Menard county. These men were exploring for the purpose of settling not for hunting or trapping.
His enthusiasm for this new country and its possibilities was the key factor in getting the news back to his family in the Virginia and Ohio country. 'It appears that in the year 1819 the Rev. John Overstreet settled on the present site of the City of Athens, and that he was followed in the year 1822, by a large family group who had emigrated from Bedford county, Virginia, and who had stopped and resided for a few years in Cabell county, Va., (now West Va.) and Lawrence county, Ohio (two counties adjacent to each other but separated by the Ohio River).'
The migration of this group extended over a period of several years, from 1819 to 1827. Of great interest to the Grandfathers is that the group consisted of:
Rev. John and Sussanah (Roberts) OverstreetThere may have been some other kin in the final migration, but they are not considered in this discussion.
Now add all the children that accumulated in the Virginia and Ohio years, and it will be seen that this was a large group migration that in effect became a major founding group in the settling and founding of the present small city of Athens, Illinois.
Most significantly, is that the Southern ties of the family are completely severed, a new branch of the original families established - it was a separation that was made more complete by the Civil War two generations later.
There are some claims that Rev. John Overstreet laid out the town of Athens, a family historian, John Clark Harris, points out evidence that this is not supported by recorded facts. The actual naming and platting of the town was the work of Abner Hall (with Harry Riggins) Overstreet's brother-in-law later in 1831.
Overstreet can be best thought of a town promoter as in turn he was a merchant, miller, preacher: in general, a town builder. There is no evidence that he ever farmed. He did, however, sell lots prior to the official platting of the town.
In the year 1821 he purchased a cabin on what became the site of the town from another early settler who was moving on. He moved into this cabin and made use of a part of it for a store. To start the store, he purchased part of the stock and goods from Harry Riggin which the latter was selling at his farm residence nearby. This made Overstreet the town's first merchant. It appears to have handled general merchandise, not groceries. This was a short-lived venture as he 'became active in many other lines.
By the buying of the cabin and opening a store, he became the principal mover in laying the foundation for the town of Athens. The land he owned is what is now the Main Street and principal business district. This property was officially acquired on May 14, 1825 and totaled 80 acres. It is the first record of land ownership in Illinois for the Hall - Overstreet family. (Persons living at Athens prior to the official land opening were principally squatters.)
On September 7, 1824 Overstreet had become well enough known and established as a resident of the area to be summoned for Traverse (petit) Jury service by the Commissioners of Sangamon county, Ill at the temporary county seat in Springfield.
Since the collection of cabins was growing and a town emerging, the need for a Mill became apparent.
'Mills were scarce (in the area) and it was difficult to secure 'breadstuffs', so that the Athenians decided that they must have a mill and learned that the Estop Mill (opened in the Petersburg area) could be bought, they got up a public subscription and bought it. The subscriptions were taken for money or labor; the cash subscribers were to have certain privileges, and the subscribers of labor to have certain rights.
'The mill was bought and in 1829 it was moved and put in running with the (Rev.) John Overstreet as manager. In earlier life Mr. Overstreet had learned the trade of a millright. ++ In the arrangement, he was to run the mill, keep it in repair, charge a just and equitable toll and at the end of four years it was to belong to him.
'There was some trouble between the 'cash' subscribers and the 'labor' subscribers, but the mill 'cracked the corn' for them all alike and at the end of four years the mill belonged to Overstreet.'
While the mill operated by Overstreet smacks somewhat of a communal enterprise, it was not strictly so, and grew out of the need by the people of that pioneer community to process their grain. At this period, wheat bread was virtually unknown (to the common people), cornbread was the diet of the day. Growing the corn was the first step in the process, making the meal the next.
The first settlers had a very primitive method of grinding corn, a slow and cumbersome process, not much removed from the ways of the Indians. A large stump from a tree was selected and hollowed out, this was the mortar. A large, heavy block of hard wood was shaped at one end to fit the mortar and the remainder of the block formed into a handle. These pestles were heavy and cumbersome. Sometimes, they were suspended from a large tree limb and used sweep-fashion. The pestles could weight from 50 to 200 pounds.
A small amount of corn was placed in the stump mortar and the pestle worked up and down, crush the corn to meal. The grinding was a continuous process of pounding, taking out the crushed grain, beating and re-beating it into suitable sized meal for which to bake bread. The process was not only slow but a continuous, time-consuming job for a large family; otherwise there would be short rations.
The 1829 mill of the Rev. Overstreet was a band mill operated by horsepower and in the flat Illinois country more satisfactory than a watermill, unless on a large dammed-up stream. In fact, a small water-powered mill was at one time operated in Athens, which had two small streams that ran through the settlement to the Sangamon River - but the water flow was undependable.
The new bandmill operated by horsepower was at the time looked upon as a wonder of mechanical invention. A typical frontier rule or custom, that those who came first for the grinding should be serviced first. Persons would take a 'grist' of one or two bushels of corn to the mill, and they had to stay until it was ground.
For the Athens mill, with its 'work' or 'cash' customers, it could happen that a work signer could go early and remain all day without being able to finish grinding his grain. This was the result of the rules and regulations governing the classes of users -money signers and work signers for the purchase and construction of the mill obtained from the Petersburg area. Those who had contributed money were given the preference. For instance, in a party contributed $5.00 in work and another party had contributed $1.00 in cash, the party who had the cash contribution could take priority at the mill from the fellow using the mill who had contributed labor in its construction, whether the work contributor had finished his grinding or not.
It was very wise, no doubt, to place a preacher-miller in charge of the enterprise, for he likely had many tough decisions to make and could call on the good Lord for assistance. The whole enterprise was practical in concept as it combined the work of the ministry with the providing of a necessity for life. (Very likely, Overstreet did his preaching for free!).
The milling tradition in the family was continued by the erection in 1857 at the cost of $8500 by another John Overstreet (John R. Overstreet, a nephew), who was a partner in erecting a large steam-powered flour mill at Athens. This enterprise received wide notice through the Illinois State Journal published at Springfield. This later Overstreet also doubled as a minister, but in the Cambellite (Christian) church.
A mill, of course; modernized and more efficient, operated in Athens until the early 1900s, grinding wheat, corn and other grains. Later the giant mills of other areas ended local milling.
From the records of the Salt Creek Circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Illinois, the Rev. John Overstreet story as a pioneer preacher survives. It can be summed up as follows:
'The Rev. Mr. Overstreet, who unfortunately got drunk, like Noah was expelled, and re-licensed to preach again.'
From this episode in his life, John Overstreet, Jr., emerges as a truly strong character and luckily for us the entire incident is available for us to review and judge. It involves the most important personage in central Illinois' Methodist history, Peter Cartwright. (emphasis-author)
From the minutes of the First Quarterly Meeting of the Salt Creek Circuit held December 12, 1829; Presiding was Peter Cartwright.
"Question by the Presiding Elder. "Are they any Appeals?'
Answer, "The case of John Overstreet, a Local Preacher +++ who was suspended on the Charge of Intoxication was presented to the Conference and two Certificates in favor of the Charge Read and a communication from sd. Overstreet wherein he admits the Charges in Substance, he Declines to make any Confession to the Church. (emphasis-author's)
'Question by the P.E. "What punishment will you inflict on sd. Overstreet (?)."
On motion it was decided that sd. Overstreet is Expel (1)ed from the Methodist E. Church.
The 3rd Quarterly Meeting Conference Cal'd (and) held for Salt Creek Circuit (at) Enoch Smith's, May the 26, day 1832.
Peter Cartwright along with others present.
A recommendation from the Society at Stringfield's (home of a member) was laid before the Conference for John Overstreet to preach the Gospel - after proper Examination of his Case. Conference saw proper to grant him License to preach the Gospel.
At a Meeting July 22day, 1832.
"…the characters of David Clark and James Stringfield L.E. was (examined) and Ap(p), also the characters of William T. Crissey, Alonzo Hopkins, John Overstreet, John Shepherd, Young McLenon, Thomas Hargrass, (and) William Stallings, Preachers, Examined, Ap(p)roved Licince (s) Renewed.
Minutes of the circuit through the year 1833 shows John Overstreet present at the meetings; evidently he was fully restored to good standing. Overstreet was designated among the L. Prs. (Local Preachers) - a special brand of clergy, necessary on the frontier to aid in the church activities. ++++
It should be kept in mind that 'Methodism and Methodist preachers and Methodist people constitute a formative power in Our State (Illinois) unsurpassed by any other power or agency operating in its early history.'
To look at the credit side of the ledger as to the philanthropic and ministerial actions of Rev. John Overstreet we find in the notations of the Commissioners of Sangamon County notations of his good deeds.
On Monday, June 4, 1832, 'John Overstreet is allows six dollars for keeping Henry Milton, a public charge, twelve weeks.'
Later, on Monday September 3, 1832, the court 'ordered John Overstreet to be allowed seventy-five cents per week for keeping Harvey Haynes from last court until this term, amounting to $9.75.' On the same date the court 'authorized him, 'to keep Harvey Haynes, a pauper, until the next term of this court and that he be allowed seventy-five cents per week.'
Wednesday, March 6, 1833 the Sangamon County Court (Commissioners) 'order that John Overstreet be continued as agent for the County to take charge of Harvey Haynes, a pauper, and he is allowed $9.75 for keeping said pauper three months being from December 1832 to this date.'
From these records we learn that Rev. John Overstreet's ministry had many practical aspects. To the present-day reader, it must be pointed out that the county provided for those declared indigent by appointing responsible persons in various areas of the county to look after them. Ministers were frequently assigned this responsibility. The same records show that the famous Peter Cartwright rendered similar services for his area of the county.
To appreciate what this meant to Rev. Overstreet it should be pointed out that he had to appear at the Commissioners' Court in Springfield at least every three months to collect his money. Since he taking care of the needy in the then-called 'Athens Precint', he had at certain seasons of the year a very hard trip - made on horseback. No wonder, then, he was interested in the county roads as we shall see later on.
The Rev. was able to combine his Springfield trips with his shopping ---
From the general merchandise and sales ledges of Elijah Iles of Springfield we find entries recording the purchase of supplies and other household needs by John Overstreet, Jr. Iles was a pioneer merchant who in addition to his running a general store, engaged in a loan and personal banking business. After 1831, Iles devoted his time to real estate and was instrumental in bringing both the county seat and state capitol to Springfield.
These old and mutilated records show an entry for Overstreet dated August, 1826. The records continue until 1830, at which time it is assumed that Athens had a reliable merchandise source.
The entries show him buying sugar and coffee, a fine comb (for lice?) a cowhide whip, book-muslin, borrowing money ---but no whiskey! His father, as noted, bought generously of the drink; frequently in half-gallon and gallon quantities.
The Rev. Overstreet bought nails, two linen and green gauze. The gauze may have been for mosquito netting. Like many others, those trading with Iles, he gave notes for his purchases these of course bore interest. Eventually he paid off with cash and it is likely that in 1831 his account with Iles was clear.
Overstreet's frequent journeys to Springfield - about fifteen miles, and to other parts of the county surely aroused his interest in transportation problems. Roads in pioneer Illinois were a constant problem and occupied much time and energy of the county officers. Streams had to be forded and the roads at best muddy or dusty trails. Like others, Rev. Overstreet rode horseback on his ministerial rounds and on his trips away from Athens.
No wonder then we have another kind of evidence of the 'public interests' of this man. 'On Thursday, March 7, 1833, John Overstreet came into court and presented the following petition for a road.'
Since the landmarks he used for outlining the road have long since vanished, suffice it to say that it was a proposed route for a road between Springfield and Athens via Sangamon Town several miles northwest of Springfield and across Roll's Ford on the Sangamon River.
It was a direct route north from Sangamon Town to the village of Athens and in turn connected with what was in 1833 another important route, the Spoon River Road. This was a major pioneer trail leading across the Illinois River into northwestern Illinois and on to the lead mines at Galena. Overstreet's proposal was taken under consideration, but not accepted. The hassels over road routes were continuous in those days as every farmer, ferry owner and tavern keeper throughout the state wanted a publicly maintained road to pass by his property. (Have times changes?)
From Mrs. Anthony Sales' discussion on 'The Old Mills of Sangamon County,' there is a description of a 'gritter' band mill. It was slow, grinding only eight to ten bushels of grain in an hour. Sometimes the party who had ridden a horse to the mill with a couple of sacks of corn, would find that he had fed nearly all of it to his horse while he waited!
Later, multi-mills were developed for both lumber and grain. The mills had to be licensed and 'shades of modern times' their locations studied to ascertain the amount of damage they did to the water and the flow of water traffic had to be made and judged.
When wheat began to be milled, it was crudely bolted, not much bread was made from it, mostly biscuits. But - this was a 'sweet morsel after years of corn diet' for the pioneers. Today cornbread is the novelty bread of our diets!
From Sales' Study of Old Mills emerges another good picture of the Rev. John Overstreet and his work for community interests:
'On March 5, 1830 John Overstreet averring under oath "that John Cameron and James Rutledge have erected a mill dam on the Sangamon River which obstructs the navigation of said river," As result of Overstreet's efforts, 'Cameron and Rutledge are ordered to alter the dam as to restore "safe navigation." +++++
This is the mill that entered into the Lincoln story in 1831 and the restored mill at New Salem State Park is a replica of the Cameron-Rutledge Mill to which hundreds of tourists now annually make pilgrimages.
That John Overstreet had something else in mind, will be seen by the events that transpired in the last year of his life which are now to be related.
The mill operated by Overstreet at Athens made a 'passable' grade of flour. Soon after he acquired it, as his own, he embarked on a grander scheme of operation. The 'first exploration from Athens' was made in 1834 'when he built a small flatboat near the Sangamon River (possibly on land owned by James W. Hall - a kinsman), and loaded it with flour. He, in company with two brothers, Jesse G. and David Hurt, started to New Orleans with their cargo, down the Sangamon, to the Illinois, and down the Illinois and to the Mississippi, a journey of hundreds of miles. (It took them over two months to mill their load of flour, the mill worked so slowly.)
'The venture proved a successful one, financially, but unfortunated in that Mr. Overstreet died in New Orleans. The Hurt brothers started home, but David died near Cairo, at the mouth of the Ohio River.' *
'Jesse G. Hurt, the only survivor of the voyage, returned safely to Athens, where he lived and died. Jesse G. Hurt's wife was a niece of Overstreet, daughter of his brother, Dabney.'
This series of events occurred during the Spring of 1834, when the waters of the Sangamon permitted navigation.
In the December 27th issue of the Sangamo Journal for 1834, the following story appeared:
Mrs. Overstreet became the third wife of Mathew Rogers, 1770 - 1847, one of the outstanding figures of the Athens community, the first postmaster in the area, with a fine family and cultural background. Lincoln borrowed books from his library. **
For Sussanah, the girl of the pioneer Enoch Arden epic of the almost-forgotten Virginia days, it was her third marriage too!
+ Miller, History of Menard Co. Ill. 1905