Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Pursuing the Dream in Nineteeth-Century Gallatin Country

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Pursuing the Dream in Nineteeth-Century Gallatin Country

Article excerpt

In the 1820s, Chicago bankers traveled downstate to Shawneetown, on the Ohio River, to ask for a loan from the First Bank of Illinois. The Shawneetown bankers turned them down, though, explaining that they believed Chicago would never amount to anything because it was so far from a river. Apocryphal though this story may be, it encapsulates the grand dreams that prompted the settlement of Gallatin County in the early part of the nineteenth century. The contrast between those dreams and the reality of Gallatin County a hundred years later makes the story of Gallatin County the story of much of rural America in microcosm.

Gallatin County was formed from Randolph County in 1812 and originally covered most of the southeastern section of Illinois.1 Shawneetown, its seat, was the first English settlement in Illinois. Known as the "Gateway to the West," it was the port of entry for practically all immigrants into the state, as well as for those traveling overland to St. Louis and beyond. Shawneetown was also the site of the state's second land office, the distributing point for the county's lucrative salt industry, and a great wholesaling center. Other Gallatin County towns at the end of the century included Equality, the center of salt-making activity in the county; New Haven, on the Wabash River and the third oldest town in Illinois; Pond Settlement, pioneered primarily by Irish and German Catholics; Cottonwood, established in the early 1830s around a stagecoach stop; Ridgway and Omaha, laid out along the Springfield and Ohio Railroad in the early 1870s; and Junction City, established around a sawmill in the 1880s.(2)

Few reminiscences, journals, and letters have survived to tell us about the residents of nineteenth-century Gallatin County, but two county histories do exist to tell us about some of them: Goodspeed's History of Gallatin, Saline, Hamilton, Franklin and Williamson Counties, Illinois contains biographies of 80 men living in Gallatin County in 1887.(3) Memoirs of the Lower Ohio Valley: Personal and Genealogical with Portraits contains biographies of 97 men living in the county in 1905.(4) Although the men profiled in the two histories represent only a small proportion of all the men in the county, they tend to be the descendants of the earliest settlers in the county and its leading citizens.5 Goodspeed's history also contains a general history of the county.,

Neither history has a preface explaining the process used in the data collection and writing. However, most county histories were commercial enterprises finding their basis, as Solon Justus Buck put it, "in human vanity, in the desire of the average middle-class American to see his name in print and to be able to read in a book glowing accounts of himself, his family, and his neighbors, their virtues, and their achievements."7 Like most other histories of this type, no author is given on the title page, but publishers typically used prominent local residents to sell subscriptions to their histories and to compile or write major portions of the manuscripts.8

The authors of the Gallatin County histories tell us nothing about their experience in gathering information, but Andrew W. Young's experience in gathering information for the History of Wayne County, Indiana, in 1872, was perhaps typical. Young complained of having to walk hundreds of miles, traversing the county three times over. "And even in the hottest days, I have walked 8, 10, and 12 miles a day-the sweat streaming from my face. And then I have in addition, in the longest days, set up, writing for weeks at a time, every night until 11 and 12 o'clock. And to add to my grief, my subscriptions will hardly be sufficient to pay me half of what I have earned."9 Most histories must have been highly profitable, however, given the many county histories published after the Centennial and during the first part of the twentieth century.

The compilers of the biographies used the equivalent of standardized questionnaires to interview subjects. …

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