It might seem that upon a program so laudably ambitious as the one offered at the present meeting of your society,treating with serious dignity of momentous steps in the unfolding of our State life, small room should be given to tales of love and marriage, which the sedate affect to view with mild indulgence or harsh disdain. Yet a famous soldier, senator and man of affairs said of such narratives, they are the only true history. Any account of social or political movements which ignores the woman in the case is incomplete. The settlement and appropriation of the new world without her cooperation is unthinkable. The ranger of the wood, who chased or trapped forest game; the hunter, who like the aboriginal savage, pursued wild herds over virgin prairies, left shallow footprints, soon to be effaced and forgotten. He was a mere intruder; he forsook a lordless region, as he found it, unsubdued. But the pale-face, who came with his wife, took the significant name of settler. He became the builder of habitations, the founder of homes, thereby, masterfully establishing his right to possess the land. Not until some brave woman placed her hand within her husband's and they twain faced toward the west could history trumpet abroad that the procession for the conquest of the great wilderness had actually begun its march.
Much or little of this thought may have occurred to the two principal figures in our story, as each unconscious of the other, they set out adventurously, by separate ways, the one from Connecticut, the other from New York, for the distant western frontier, to meet at last and plight their vows as man and wife in the heart of far-away Illinois; and so to be the first bridal pair of the Caucasian race to wed within these borders which later outlined the county of Sangamon.
The year 1818 that witnessed the admission of our imperial State into the American union, witnessed also other incidents of less importance. It found, for example, Abigail Stillman, a widow, living with her thriving family at Canandaigua, N.Y. she and her husband, Benjamin Stillman, had met and married in Boston, Mass, but later moved to Ontario county, N.Y. settling in the village of East Bloomfield. Here Stillman died and bequeathed to the worthy Abigail the care of four lusty sons and as many high-spirited daughters, one of the latter being a lass named Martha, with who this narrative chiefly has to do.
To the task of fitly rearing her orphaned progeny Mrs. Stillman addressed herself with Puritanical gravity. Imbued with the Yankee notion that good schooling is the prime birthright of every child she took up her residence in Canadaigua, the county seat, the better to educate her children. The sons were instructed at the best available schools, one of them being qualified for the practice of medicine and surgery; the daughters had the advantages of ladies seminaries at Juniun and Aurora. Our Martha was given a finishing course at the latter institution.
And now the eight children have arrived at man's and woman's estate , a son and a daughter are married, six remain fairly equipped to encounter the real problems of life, but wanting opportunity. Through roving spirits from the west, rumors reached Canadaigua of a marvelously rich and beautiful tract, near the center of Illinois territory where broad prairies spread their green carpets under the wide sky and the most fertile of lands may be had for the asking.
It is therefore, resolved that the family shall set out for the distant, but inviting valley, of the Sangamon. The home and the immovables are disposed of; wagons are provided, covered with canvass stretched upon high arching hoops, after the fashion of similar vehicles, which in other times upon trans-Mississippi trails, received the name of prairie schooners. Into these wagons was loaded all portable property; lastly the precious humanfreight was stowed away in the their capacious holds and the long weary journey was begun.
The summer of 1819 finds our wayfarers loitering at Morganfield, Union county, Ky., from whose borders they can look across the Ohio into Illinois. They have been advised to tarry and raise a crop of vegetables and corn for their first year's consumption at their destined home in the wilderness. This they are assured may be done with much greater ease upon the cultivated lands of Kentucky than upon the raw sod of the Sangamon prairies. The following spring they pushed on over the Ohio, up from Shawneetown to the Sangamon river. Crossing this stream they decided to rest near the edge of a fine natural grove, upon a tract designated by government survey as section 8, town 17 north, range 4 west of the third principal meridian, now in Williams township, Sangamon county.
Here a roomy log cabin was constructed as speedily as might be what furniture had been conveyed from New York was disposed about the rude mansion with such taste and skill as graduates from the seminaries at Juniun and Aurora, under the circumstances, might display, and things were made as comfortable as possible, but the rest was so pitifully disappointing, that mother Stillman sat upon the side of her bed, hid her face in her hands, and allowed her tears to fall unrestrained. Her children began to realize the life of a pioneer of near a century age.
During the sojourn of the Stillmans at Morganfield, several young gentlemen of their party attended the secret communications of the Freemasons' lodge. At one of these Dr. Stillman met a brother of the mystic tie by the name of Philo Beers.
Young Beers was a native of Woodbury, Conn., a son of Zechariah Beers, who enlisted four four times in the Connecticut militia during the Revolution, the first time at sixteen years of age. Subsequently he acquired local celebrity as a poet; specimens of his verses are preserved in Cothren's History of Ancient Woodbury. Zechariah was blessed with a large family. Philo, the sixth child, upon attaining the stature of manhood, resolved to see some of the world for himself. After a varied experience, including a brief service in the American militia in the war of 1812, he went west. At the date of this narrative he had been prospecting in western Kentucky, southern Illinois and parts of Missouri. He had contracted for the purchase of a large tract of land in the vicinity of St. Louis, which place he described by letter to a friend in the east as "nearly as large as Poughkeepsie," and shrewdly prophesied that within a short time it would be "a place of great consequence." In this letter, dated April 10, 1819, the writer enlarges upon the advantages offered by the territories, and urges his friends not to be daunted by the seemingly impassable distance, assuring them that when Pittsburg was once reached "one may say his journey is in a manner over."
Dr. Stillman was so pleased with his new friend that he invited the stranger to his abode, proposing an introduction to his mother and sisters. The proposal was promptly accepted, and Mr. Beers often was heard to say that from the moment his eye fell upon Martha Stillman at Morganfield he determined to win her for his wife.
Doubtless our prospective groom pressed his suit with becoming diligence for within eight months after the Stillmans had located north of the Sangamon he presented himself at their homestead with parson and license, and found an expectant bride all ready for the nuptial ceremony.
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