DAY LIFE IN ILLINOIS NEAR THE MIDDLE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
By Charles B. Johnson,
M.D., Champaign, Ill.
©Illinois Trails History and Genealogy
*The following account was written circa 1910. I've taken a few liberties
in spelling and selecting passages to include due to some duplication in
My grandfather, Charles Johnson, became a resident of Illinois Territory
nearly one hundred years ago. He was a native of North Carolina and
in young manhood had seen service in the war of the Revolution. Very
early in the nineteenth century he crossed the mountains into Tennessee and
with his family settled in that then new state.
At an early period in his life he had been a slave owner in a small way,
but with the lapse of time he grew to be more and more dissatisfied with
and opposed to that institution. Meanwhile a large family of children
had come to his home and the thought of having them grow up surrounded by
slave influences came to be especially repugnant.
The result was that he disposed of his Tennessee possessions and in 1816
removed with his family to Illinois Territory, which it will be remembered
was part of the original Northwest Territory that by the general government
had been dedicated to freedom by the passage of the celebrated ordinance
Upon reaching Illinois Territory my grandfather in 1816 entered some government
land and founded his pioneer home in Bond County in the western edge of Shoal
Creek timber and on the eastern limits of Looking Glass Prairie. After
building his rude cabin, like all early Illinois settlers he began to chop
down the primeval forest all about him and burn this to ashes that he might
have a field on which to plant his crops. All of which chopping, log
rolling and burning was undertaken with the idea that the fertile soil and
almost boundless extent of Looking Glass Prairie all but in touch with his
cabin was unfit for any purpose save pasturage for horses, cattle and sheep.
My grandfather's pioneer home in Bond County was but a little north of the
present village of Pocahontas and some forty miles east of the then small
town St. Louis, Mo.
Pocahontas, originally called Hickory Grove post office, was on the old National
Road that ran east from St. Louis, Mo., to Terre Haute, Ind., and from thence
on east to Cumberland, Md., its starting point. About two years after
founding his pioneer home in the land of his choice, namely, 3 December 1818,
my grandfather had the satisfaction of seeing Illinois admitted in the Union
as a free State. But sad to say he was permitted to enjoy his newly
acquired free state privileges for only a short time as in the fall of 1821
he died from dysentery. All this time, however there were not a few
Illinois residents who believed slavery was a benefit and blessing instead
of a handicap and an evil. Finally, the sentiment in favor of slavery
became so aggressive that early in 1823 a movement was put under way to convert
Illinois into a Slave State and to do this it was proposed to call a public
convention. However, the calling of the convention was left to popular
vote. Perhaps no question ever excited the people of Illinois more
than did this canvas for the proposed convention in the interest of slavery.
Had my grandfather lived I can in imagination see him using such influence
as he had to prevent the blight of human slavery from falling upon the State
of his adoption. As matters turned out three of his sons were of proper
age and voted to keep Illinois from becoming a Slave State.
The election occurred 2 August 1824, after an active canvas of eighteen months
and resulted in a Free State victory. Bond County did herself proud
at this election. In all she cast 303 votes and of these 240 were against
calling the convention, and sixty for it. In other words slavery in
Bond County was voted down in a ratio of nearly four to one.
There were ten sons in my grandfather's family and upon attaining manhood
most of them settled on new farms in Bond County not far distant from the
first pioneer home. Among these ten sons was my father, James Johnson,
who was born in Tennessee in 1805 and came with his parents to Illinois Territory
when eleven years of age. My earliest recollection is of a little two
room, weather beaten, farm house surrounded by prairie and where I first
saw the light of day. With the approach of the winter of 1848-9 my
father and several of his neighbors came to realize that it was their urgent
duty to provide something in the way of school opportunities for their children.
As nothing better was at hand they finally decided to make use of a
log cabin that stood on my father's farm not far distant from his dwelling.
All went to work with a will and in due time the cabin was made ready
for its intended use. Under one of its eaves was a rude door that swung
on wooden hinges and fastened with a wooden latch, while the latch string
of course, hung invitingly on the outside. In one end was an enormous
fireplace made of sticks of wood and plastered with clay. In the opposite
end a log was sawed out and in the space thus made a row of panes of glass
were set up edge to edge and thus was made the one window in the school room.
Immediately under this rude window was a writing desk made by placing
a rough plank on strong oak pegs driven in the wall. The seats were
made from rough slabs of wood and were without backs. The floor was
rough and uneven, as was likewise the ceiling. The teacher was an Irishman
with the distinguished name of O'Conner. Like his gifted countryman,
Goldsmith, O'Conner played the flute with much taste and skill. This
school in the little log school house during the winter of 1848-9 was popular
and pupils came to it from far and wide. Among the rest were several
young men who lived on farms several miles distant, and who on stormy nights
found shelter under my father's hospitable roof. A roof that covered
but two rooms and nevertheless sheltered my father's family of seven members
and the teacher in addition. In other words in this little house of
two rooms lived my father, mother, and five children ranging in age from
a babe in arms to a daughter just budding into womanhood.
Yet full as was this small dwelling my father must have had in mind the proverbial
omnibus that always had "room for one more," for when the teacher applied
for board and shelter he was obligingly accommodated. But lest he had
not yet filled the measures of hospitality exacted sixty-three years ago
my father as we have just seen opened wide his doors upon occasions and housed
no less than twelve persons in his little prairie home of two rooms.
During the winter of 1848-9 I heard my elders talking a great deal about
the great quantity of gold that in the course of the previous twelve months
had been discovered in California. Finally I realized that a little
later my father would undertake the overland trip to that new Eldorado. As
soon as spring opened he removed his family from the farm to the nearby village
of Pocahontas and next set about making preparations for the long journey.
His immediate party consisted of three men besides himself, and the contemplated
means of conveyance was a strong, heavy wagon drawn by several yokes of oxen.
The wagon was loaded with such things as were most likely to be needed
on the long and laborious journey. Among the rest were blankets, several
suits of durable clothing, certain staple articles of diet, as coffee, sugar,
salt, bacon, etc., axes a few other tools and finally a trusty rifle for
each member of the party. Two of the younger men drove the wagon to
St. Joseph, Mo., a general rendezvous for those about to make the overland
trip, and where my father and the fourth member of the party were to meet
them a little later. One day in April my father bade his family good
by, rode on horseback to St. Louis, Mo., there boarded a steamboat for St.
Joseph where he was to meet his companions. Where likewise the wagon
would join many others while the men would organize for mutual protection
as the route was known to be infested by Indians more or less hostile. We
did not hear from my father for some little time, but finally a letter came
saying that while on the boat he had suffered from an attack of Asiatic cholera
and was yet in a very weakened condition.
Such trips as my father was starting on were in those days called "crossing
the plains," otherwise the prairies of what is today Kansas and Colorado.
After leaving St. Joseph, Mo., the opportunities for sending communications
back home were few and far between, and during the whole journey that occupied
five months we only received three or four letters. Then there was
a long interval when we heard nothing. Finally one night a little
before Christmas two of my uncles came in and as soon as my mother saw their
faces she knew something had gone wrong. In a moment it came out that
my uncle, Benjamin, had just received a letter with the sad news that my
father had died very soon after reaching Sacramento, Cal., early in the previous
October, or only a little less than three months before.
My father's three immediate companions succeeded in reaching California in
good health and all materially bettered their fortunes. Two years
later the oldest one of the three took ship to return home by water, but
was taken violently sick, died and was buried at sea. So that of this
little California party of "forty-niners" two never returned from their long
journey, and each left a wife and little ones to mourn the loss of a husband
In my childhood violent attacks of sickness with resulting death were much
more common than today. Not a little of this sickness and mortality
was from Asiatic cholera which at certain times spread through the country.
Ocean vessels would bring the disease to American seaports from thence
it would be carried by river boats to inland cities and from the latter it
would be conveyed to country districts by persons visiting the infected river
I have a dim recollection of the presidential election of 1852 when Franklin
Pierce, the successful candidate, represented the Democrats, and General
Scott was the candidate of the Whigs who were then in the field for the last
I very distinctly remember the excitement and general distrust that followed
the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in June, 1854. For this repeal
Senator Douglas of Illinois, was held responsible by all those who opposed
the further spread of slavery. By the way a little less than sixty
years ago Stephen A. Douglas was as prominent a figure in political life
as is Theodore Roosevelt today.
I recall the rapid rise and mushroom growth of the Know Nothing, or American
party, that in 1856 ran Millard Fillmore for president and then went out
I saw something of the beginning of the Republican party in 1854-5. General
Fremont, the Republican candidate for president in 1856, was by his opponents
derisively called the "wooley horse" because he wore a full beard, a fashion
that was then just coming in vogue.
Following the repeal of the Missouri compromise in 1854 the subject of slavery
became what we would today term a "live wire" issue. However, with
the lapse of time not a few grew tired of it, but like Banquo's ghost it
"would not down." The leading paper in opposition to slavery was the
New York Tribune edited by Horace Greeley then in the full flush and flower
of his great newspaper career. Through his great paper Greeley exerted
a tremendous influence and had much to do in arousing the public conscience
to the wrongs and evils of slavery.
Another burning question of that time was whether the Territory of Kansas
should come in the Union a free or a slave state. Speaking on this
subject Senator Douglas frankly avowed that he did not care whether slavery
in Kansas was voted up or down. But fortunately there was a certain
wise man in Springfield who did care; indeed, he cared so much that in the
late summer and fall of 1858 he met Senator Douglas and discussed these issues
with him in joint debate.
In this period Pocahontas could boast of a citizen who lived a double life,
a veritable Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.
About 1852 a well dressed stranger came in on the stagecoach one day and
began to look around the village, and it was not long till it was whispered
that he was immensely rich and that he expected to make his home in our community
and maybe do great things for us. Later he bought a home near the village
and became the owner of a large tract of land. He soon developed great
energy, a disposition to "do things," and seemed to be an all around man
of affairs. After a time he built a new residence, became proprietor
of one of the village stores and meanwhile stocked his farms with the latest
and most improved breeds. He was public spirited, generous and favored
everything that ws in any way for the betterment of the community. The
school district was laboring under a public debt and to pay this off he advanced
the money and thus furthered local educational interests.
He transacted much business and from time to time visited New York, Cincinnati,
New Orleans and St. Louis.
Finally there came to be whisperings that when he visited any of these cities
he drank heavily and was anything but select in the choice of his associated.
To these whisperings everything in his home life seemed to give the
lie. He was blessed with an ideal disposition, was a model father and
husband, had a devoted wife and several children whose welfare seemed the
principal object for which he lived. Furthermore he was a regular attendant
at church, was concededly the best Sabbath school superintendent the community
had ever had, and in his family he always maintained family worship. Further
than this he was at all times the steadfast friend of the poor and always
noticed and made much of children. But sad to say the vague rumors
relative to his various dissipations in time grew into plausible reports
and finally into well grounded facts. At last after he had been a resident
of the village eight or ten years it was known that when he visited distant
cities he for the time became a regular "rounder," and that here he would
drink with boon companions and even worse associates, and in addition maybe
gamble and possibly indulge in yet more objectionable vices. At the
end of two or three days he would "sober up," clean and wash himself, shave,
brush his clothes, transact any unfinished business and then start for home,
where in due time he would appear as the best groomed, best appearing and
all around best tempered, and most contented man in the community.
At that period Bond County had no railroads and the nearest railway station
was some fifteen miles from our village. Pocahontas being thus partially
isolated made it much easier for our local Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde to live
his double life. A double life, by the way, that became cognizant to
most of our citizens many years before the famous story of Dr. Jekyl and
Mr. Hyde was evolved from the fertile brain of Robert Lewis Stevenson, its
world renowned author.
It may be added that ten or twelve years after this man came to the village
he lost most of his property through business complications and a little
later sickened and died while yet in mature life, leaving behind a nice family.
And now I will briefly revert to some of the emore common everyday things
pertaining to the period which we have under consideration.
During the winter of 1849-50, and while yet a very small boy, I attended
school in the village of Pocahontas, taught like the school on my father's
prairie farm, in a log schoolhouse. The teacher was Salmon A. Phelps,
now Judge Phelps of Greenville. Bond County, where he yet lives in
comparative good health at the great age of ninety-six years.
At the period of which I write there were none but subscription schools.
With the thought of teaching in a given locality a teacher would visit
the various families and get their pledges for as many "scholars" as possible.
A "scholar" in this sense was the attendance of one pupil for the full
time the school was taught. About 1855 what was called the "free
school law" went in force and under its provisions teachers were paid from
a public fund set aside for this purpose and since that date no Illinois
pupil has been kept from the public schools because his parents or guardian
would be required to pay tuition.
In my school days very much more was made of arithmetic, grammar and spelling
than is done today. We used the old blue backed Webster's Spelling
Book with its temple of fame near the title page and the picture of the boy
stealing apples from the enraged gentlemen well along towards the end of
the book. We also used McGuffy's series of readers. Not the so
called McGuffy of today, but the genuine true, McGuffy as it was published
fifty years ago. I have heard more than one person of good literary
taste of my generation say that it was to the fine selections in these old
McGuffy readers that they owed their love for good literature. I have
often wondered who McGuffy was and not long since my curiosity was to a degree
gratified when I ran across an article that gave a few particulars concerning
Perhaps the fact that literature of all kinds was very scare fifty odd years
ago was one reason why McGuffy's readers were so much appreciated. In
many families no newspaper of any kind was taken, and up to the breaking
out of the Civil war I think but one daily paper was taken in the village
of Pocahontas. At long intervals I would see a copy of Harpers' New
Monthly Magazine, and about the time its publication began a little more
than fifty years ago, I saw the Atlantic which looked precisely as it does
today. You will notice that I said I occasionally saw the Atlantic
and Harper, but when it came to reading them that was a privilege accorded
to the fortunate few in my young days.
In the village of Pocahontas the women had an organization known as "The
Ladies' Sewing Society," the objects of which were industrial and social.
This organization accumulated a fund that about 1857 was used to purchase
books for a modest but well selected village library.
Beginning with about 1850 perhaps half the people had abandoned their log
cabins for frame houses, many of which were on room structures with a shed
or lean-to at the back of each. The more ambitious built two story
houses of six or eight rooms. When very young I recollect a new frame
house on the prairie which on account of its coat of clean white paint and
green window blinds attracted much attention.
About the time frame houses began to be common, heating and cook stoves came
into use. My people got their first cook stove in the spring of 1849.
Tallow candles were used for lighting purposes, as also were grease
lamps. I have seen a room lighted by igniting a piece of cotton cloth
that had been twisted and laid in a saucer of melted lard with of course
the burning end protruding out of the fluid and over the vessel's edge.
One evening in, I think, 1859, I attended a social gathering at the village
doctor's when we were all surprised and delighted at a very brilliant light
from a small lamp in one of the rooms. Upon inquiry we learned that
the lamp contained a new burning fluid called "rock oil," or kerosene.
In my childhood matches were by no means common and not infrequently I was
sent to the neighbors to "borrow some fire," that is to get a shovel full
of coals to start up a fire.
In my boyhood all the boys attended school during the winter months and worked
on farms in the summer time. In those days the hours were very long
and sometimes to the village lad work on the farm seemed hard and monotonous.
But it toughened his muscles and brought him in contact with nature
and he learned much of plant and animal life. During the decade between
1850 and 1860 many labor saving devices were introduced on the farms. Among
these may be noted, in much the same form that we have them today, the mower,
reaper, threshing machine, grain drill, corn planter and hay rake.
In this age of plutocracy with a millionaire in almost every neighborhood
it is hard to realize that fifty odd years ago a man in Bond County worth
ten thousand dollars was counted rich. However, most people were frugal
and careful of their expenditures. I remember in my childhood that
one family was rated extravagant because in their sitting room they burned
two lighted candles at one.
During the winter of 1860-61 when one after another of the southern states
seceded, we all wondered where it would end. Then in the spring of
1861 when Fort Sumpter was fired on we wondered all the more when and where
would be the final outcome. Following the fall of Fort Sumpter came
President Lincoln's first call for troops. Of these Bond County furnished
its full quota. During the winter of 1861-62 I taught school in a neighborhood
remote from the news centers. One day in February we heard cannon firing
that from the peculiar condition of the atmosphere reached us all the way
from St. Louis, forty-five miles away. In a day or two we learned that
it was a salute in honor of a great Union victory and that Fort Donelson
and fourteen thousand Confederate soldiers had been captured. Of the
man who brought the news I asked the name of the Union commander. In
reply he said his name was Grant. "Grant," I said, "who's Grant?" "Don't
know," he answered, "never heard of him before."
In the same remote Bond County community where I taught school during the
winter of 1861-62 I engaged in farming during the spring and early summer
of 1862. On rainy days and during noon hours I gave such attention
as I could to Latin, Geometry and some other branches. Meanwhile the
Civil war had entered upon its second year and from time to time news from
the front reached our quiet neighborhood. Finally late in July came
the startling news that McClellan had been repulsed and was retreating from
before Richmond. Upon the heels of this came President Lincoln's call
for 300,000 volunteers. A call that a little later was increased to
600,000. I now realized that my time had come and that for me the hour
had struck. WIth a number of boy friends on 7 August 1862, at Greenville,
Bond County, I enlisted in Co. F., 130the Illinois Infantry and saw service
continuously at the front till the war ended three years later.
I am convinced that the present generation is without a proper appreciation
of what the Civil war cost this country in young manhood fifty years ago.
In conclusion and by way of illustration permit me to give a relatively infinitesimal
item of this cost that came under my observation. At a farm house in
Bond County in the spring of 1861 were six stalwart young men ranging in
age from seventeen to twenty-three years, and of these I was one. In
the ensuing eighteen months all of these young men had become soldiers and
were in the enemy's country.
At the end of the war and after four years service one of them came home
shattered in health. After three years service and with the end of
the war a second came home shattered in health. At the end of the
war, likewise shattered in health, I returned home after three years in the
enemy's country. A fourth was killed at the battle of Belmont in November,
1861. A fifth was killed at the siege of Jackson, Miss., in July 1863,
and finally the sixth member of the part of boys and young men at the Bond
County farm house in the spring of 1861 was killed at the battle of Atlanta
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