The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln

By Robert Mazrim | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
At Home, 1800–1840

While Illinois was known for its prairies, they were not particularly attractive to farmers arriving in the region before 1840. The beauty of the prairies impressed all visitors and new arrivals, but most understood that the beauty was deceptive. For the American farmer, these were hostile places. The head-high grasses were difficult to navigate, and offered no cover from the sun. They were host to biting flies and snakes, and low wet areas that could bog a horse down to its knees. Below, the root systems of the prairie grasses were ancient and remarkably durable, and would not be effectively broken by the plow for years to come.

The seasonal prairie fires were a source of wonder for newcomers, and many marveled at their beauty as well as their hazard. Settlers in the American Bottom would climb to the peaks of ancient burial mounds to watch the fires burn on the horizon. Gershom Flagg observed that the fires could burn across the landscape as fast as a horse could run. It was also the annual fires that burned away new tree growth, and kept the timberline along the creeks and rivers stable for centuries. Visitors also remarked on the barren landscape left behind after a fire: “I can conceive nothing more desolate than the appearance of that boundless plain. The fires had traversed it in the autumn as far as the eye could reach … the black and charred surface was all that met our vision.”1

Unlike the French and Native Americans before them, the Americans also avoided low areas, believing standing water to be the source of bad air (or “miasmas”) thought to cause common illnesses such as bilious

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