Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Meet Me in Heaven: Confronting Death along the Galena Trail Frontier 1825 - 1855

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Meet Me in Heaven: Confronting Death along the Galena Trail Frontier 1825 - 1855

Article excerpt

Frontier literature abounds with stories told by old settlers recalling their early days in the West. They recalled hardships and triumphs, making light of their failures, and describing themselves as "the young, the enterprising and the go-ahead poor, who found the East too strait for them, and they [had] pushed boldly to the West."1 Although few of the old settlers seemed to want to return to that "golden age" in anything other than their fond memories, the picture that they painted of the frontier was usually heart-warming and encouraging. The picture, however, became golden only with the passage of time and circumstance, allowing the fortunate survivors of Illinois' malarial swamps to bask in their survival and in their material accomplishments. Frontier reality was much bleaker.

The old settlers were among thousands of immigrants who flooded into north central and northwestern Illinois between 1825 and 1855. A great many of them followed the Galena Trail and Coach Roads leading from Peoria north to Galena and the Lead Mine Region of northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin. The old Indian and fur trade trail was opened to Anglo-Americans in 1825 at the beginning of the lead rush. Taverns, camping areas, and ferries were quickly established both by Anglo-Americans and French/Indian Métis. After the Black Hawk War of 1832, the trail was surveyed and partially realigned, and the Peoria-Galena Coach Road became the first state road in northern Illinois.2 It remained an important part of north-central and northwestern Illinois travel until after railroads covered the state in the early 1850s.

"They came here with their families and left their tracks of civilization for you to follow."

George D. Read, President, Old Settler's Society of Buffalo Grove, Ogle County, 1881

American settlement along the trail began dramatically when a band of 126 Virginians came to Peoria in 1797 and quickly died there. The would-be settlers arrived after a "grueling journey through the woods, prairie and swamp only to be virtually annihilated by a putrid and malignant fever (probably diphtheria) that fell upon them in the overcrowded cabins that had been opened hospitably for their reception and comfort [by Peoria's French Métis fur traders]."3 Twenty-one years later, permanent Anglo-Americans settlement began with the arrival of Abner Eads and others who came to Fort Clark/Peoria in 1819. Settlement north of Peoria was slow, and by 1830 most of the trail between Peoria and Galena was still largely empty of Anglo-Americans.4 Land grants in the Military Tract south of the Indian Boundary Line (that had separated Federal from Indian lands since the Treaty of St. Louis in 18165) were dedicated to veterans of the War of 1812, who usually sold their grants to land speculators in the East rather than settle here themselves.6 The land held by speculators was slow to come onto the market and sell and remained largely empty until the late 1830s. Public land north of the Indian Boundary Line became available for American settlement after the Black Hawk War of 1832. The first land sales for this northern region were registered at Galena and Chicago in 1835.7

Anglos settled along the trail in two phases. The first settlers were predominately from southern Illinois, Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, North Carolina, and the Ohio River Valley8 They were the back-country "border people" as described by David Hackett Fischer in his acclaimed study, Albion's Seed, Four British Folkways in America.''' They were a distinct Anglo-American cultural group that differed in language and customs from the Yankees from New England and other northern states settlers who followed them in the second wave of immigration. Most of the Yankees settled along the trail after the Black Hawk War. They came prepared to purchase improved claims or land patents from the speculators, who then moved on to new and more challenging frontiers. …

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