THE FIRST TWO COUNTIES OF ILLINOIS
AND THEIR PEOPLE
Hon. Fred J. Kern.
©Illinois Trails History and
The two oldest counties in our State, St. Clair and Randolph, and their people, have been assigned to me for discussion to-night. I am a native and resident of the former and thoroughly know every square foot of its ground and many of its people. I have traveled over Randolph County and once had the honor to represent its people in the Congress of the United States. I also know many of them. Some are my intimate friends. The two counties were the cradle of the history of Illinois. Their story reads like a romance and there are people now living who listened spell-bound to the recital of the charming traditions and thrilling adventures as told by the original settlers and their immediate descendants. I myself have received and learned much of the history of St. Clair County, and our State, not from musty books, but by word of mouth, directly from those who helped make it and as it is handed from generation to generation, sitting in the semi-circle around -the family fire-side, at the wayside inn, or at more pretentious and conventional social centers.
These two counties were in the truest sense of the word an integral part of the famous melting-pot of our composite American civilization which we hear so much about in these days. The phrase that it takes all kinds of people to make a world, was never and nowhere more strikingly exemplified than in the early history of these counties. When Louis Joliet and Father Marquette first landed on the site which was destined to become St. Clair County, they not only found the friendly Illini Indians inhabiting the hospitable primeval forests, but unmistakable fopt-prints of vanished races that had left behind them evidence of industry and sacrifice and activity which challenged admiration and respect. Almost within the range of a rifle shot of the Cahokia Mission, which they founded and established, there rose from the even and unbroken flat surface of the river bottom, a stupendous mound, built by the hand and labor and skill of man which is a more wonderful relic of antiquity, and greater in magnitude and extent than the largest pyramid of ancient Egypt, surrounded by a hundred smaller but no less wonderful and symmetrical structures, equally curious, suggestive and mysterious. Across the river where the metropolitan city of St. Louis now stands, were similar pre-historic remains. There could be no doubt of the fact that they were on a section of the earth where millions of human beings had lived their lives and played their part thousands of years ago, and where an ancient civilization had flourished. All they found in the way of living people was a motley aggregation of untutored and superstitious, half-naked, not overly cleanly, brownskinned savages and barbarians, living a nomadic life and roving through the trackless forests and camping in rude, illy-kept villages in the woods. The vast empires of the past had decayed and been. deserted and left their melancholy ruins behind them, the only record by which the imaginations of the intruders and invaders and adventures could even guess and conjecture at their achievements and speculate on their departed. glory. The French discoverers founded the Mission of Cahokia in St. Clair County and of Kaskaskia in Randolph County. They laid the foundation for a new and greater civilization under a new religion and a new faith for the new world. They brought with them the benign teachings of the lowly Nazarene and erected sanctuaries in His name, with their own hands, in the mellow shadow of the spreading boughs of gigantic sycamores and oaks and hickories and elms and cotton-woods and walnuts and pecans, within hearing distance of the murmuring music of the eternal Father of Waters..Both holy Missions were established on ground located in the low bottoms of the Mississippi River. Cahokia, the first permanent white settlement in Illinois, founded in 1700, still stands a quaint little village of several hundred population, nestling in a veritable garden spot of the earth and showing unmistakable traces of its remote and early origin and historical significance. A frame church building surmounted with a plain wooden cross, attracts the attention of the tourist, as does also the old cemetery near by. Both se'rve to awaken memories of long ago. They show you in the village of Cahokia the spot where Pontiac, the great Indian chief and warrior and orator and statesman, was foully murdered, after having been basely betrayed through British treachery and perfidy. They show you where the courthouse stood when Cahokia was the county seat of St. Clair County. They show you where the people used to dance and make merry. Many of the direct descendants of the first settlers are still there, and while speaking the English language as fluently and as correctly as any of us, they cultivate and retain in addition the ability to speak French and to read and write that language. The ancient taverns remain in their pristine glory, and are patronized and sustained largely by St. Louis people, particularly on the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday. They are from Missouri and have to be shown-often the way to go home.
The Cahokia common fields remain on the map, and extend in narrow parallel strips back to the Bluffs, which at.this point form a steep, perpendicular, limestone wall, rising into the sky a hundred feet and more, from the rich alluvial soil of the fertile lowlands. At Falling Springs is a fascinating waterfall, and, on both sides of the cataract, the rock-bound Bluffs are perforated with dark and ominous-looking caves, *penetrating deep into the interior of the earth and leading into dark caverns adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. Such was the background and a part of the natural playground of the ancient village of Cahokia. Kaskaskia was founded only a year later than Cahokia. It was the first capital of Illinois, as Cahokia was the first and original county seat of St. Clair County. Kaskaskia is situated in Randolph County. Almost adjacent to it is Prairie du Rocher, near which Fort Chartres was located. The city'of Kaskaskia was doomed to a sad and tragic fate. In one of those fantastic freaks of the Mississippi River, which the great and famecrowned Mark Twain so charmingly and graphically describes in his classic book on the Father of Waters, the restless and wayward stream sought a new bed and course for itself and the ancient city of Kaskaskia, with its wealth of poetic tradition and historic memory obstructed the track of the waters and impeded its right of way. The irresistible force could not be stemmed, nor by human power or agency diverted back. into the old or some other and less disastrous channel. Thousands of acres of the richest and most desirable land in Illinois were swept into innocuous desuetude by this fierce cataclysm and their soil washed into the Gulf of Mexico, and old Kaskaskia including the old Statehouse with it.
The Mississippi River joined the Kaskaskia River, further up stream, and an island of large area was detached from the mainland on which was established the new Mission and village of Kaskaskia, to which the refugees of Old Kaskaskia fled, to build new homes, a new church and a new schoolhouse for themselves and their children and to begin life anew. Not a remnant of old Kaskaskia remains. Every house in it and every street and the entire area of the city's limits was swallowed up by the waters of the raging river. New Kaskaskia provides the paradox of being located west of the Mississilppi River, but still in Illinois. The city of Chester is the county seat of Randolph County. It is located on the high bluffs of the Mississippi River. It is a beautiful and historic city. Two of the State's great public institutions are located near that city, viz.: the Southern Illinois Penitentiary, one of the world's famous prisons, and also Chester State Hospital, the asylum for the criminal insane in Illinois.
No city in America has a more picturesque location than Chester, no city offers finer scenery or commands a grander and more imposing view. I was in Chester a few days ago and visited the grave of Shadrach Bond, the first Governor of Illinois. It is located in the Chester City Cemetery, marked by a beautiful granite monument built by the State. I also visited the archives at the courthouse and the Randolph County Historical Museum which is located in a specially built fire-proof building. The historical records are kept in this building. Many of them are in the French language. I visited the parochial schools at Prairie du Rocher in Randolph County some years ago. I saw many colored children attending the Roman Catholic parochial school on equal terms with the white children and without the slightest sign of segregation. They spoke the French language as fluently as they spoke the English, just as the negroes, and those of native American stock and even the Irish in St. Clair County speak German. It must not be gathered from the above that the majority of the people of Randolph County are of French descent, for they are not.
There are many native Americans in Randolph County whose ancestors came from Virginia and Kentucky, the same sturdy and superior element which joined the French in St. Clair County, and soon outstripped and outnumbered them as they themselves were later superseded and outnumbered by the efficient, the patient, the plodding, the thoughtful, frugal and hard-working Germans. There are many Scotch people in some parts of Randolph County, just as there are many Irish and Polish people in the East St. Louis end of St. Clair County.
The city of Belleville is the county seat of St. Clair County. It celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of its existence as the county. seat of the first county in Illinois, two years ago, with appropriate ceremony and much solemnity. St. Clair County is now the second county in the State in point of population and material wealth, ranking next to Cook. The city of Belleville has played a leading role in the development of the history of Illinois. It furnished three of the Governors of the State, two of the Lieutenant Governors and two United States Senators, and-two State Superintendents of Public Instruction. Governor Ninian Edwards, Governor John Reynolds and Governor Win. H. Bissell were from Belleville. So were Wm. Kinney and Gustavus Koerner, Lieutenant Governors; and James Shields and Lyman Trumbull, United States Senators; and James P. Slade and Henry Raab, State Superintendents of Public Instruction. The remains of Governor John Reynolds are buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery in Boelleville, where his home still stands in a perfect state of preservation, as does that of Governor Ninian Edwards, only a little more than one block away from the Reynolds' mansion. John Reynolds was not only Governor but also a Supreme Justice, a member of the Legislature, a Speaker of the House, a member of Congress, a Foreign Diplomat and the State's leading historian. He reached the topmost round of the ladder of fame in each of the three departments or branches of our State Government, viz., the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Governor Ninian Edwards died in Belleville during the cholera epidemic, in working to help those who could not help themselves and who were down with the dread disease and in helping to bury. the dead. His remains were buried in one of the old abandoned cemeteries in Belleville. The very location of his grave is lost.
Governor Wm. H. Bissell died while he was Governor of the State and his remains repose near those of the immortal Lincoln, whose intrepid champion and devoted friend and follower he was, in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. The statue of Senator Shields adorns a pedestal in the hall of fame in the city of Washington. He achieved the distinction of having been the only man who ever enjoyed the honor of representing three separate ajid distinct states in the upper house of Congress. Lyman Trumbull was stricken with his last and fatal illness while delivering an eloquent eulogy at the open grave of his intimate friend and former law partner, Gustavus Koerner at Walnut Hill Cemetery in Belleville. I was an eye witness to this sad tragedy. Lyman Trumbull was the greatest and most illustrious of the United States Senators of the Civil War period. He distinguished himself by his activity in the upper house of Congress during the Rebellion and during the wildly exciting reconstruction days. "On Fame's eternal camping ground, There silent tents are spread, And glory guards with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead." Strangely conflicting and antagonistic social forces met and clashed in the original settlement and development of the counties of Randolph and St. Clair, particularly the latter. The original American settlers hailed largely from Kentucky, Virgniia and Pennsylvania. Most of them were of Cavalier stock. They had little in common with the descendants of the Puritans who came from Massachusetts and settled mostly in the northern part of the State. They were less religiously inclined. They were fond of sports including horse-racing, hunting and fishing. They had no use for township organization. There were no abolitionists among them. They had no scruples against the institution of slavery, either from moral or economic considerations, believed that the negroes were born to servitude, preferred Douglas to Lincoln, and some of the most conspicuous leaders preferred Jeff Davis himself. Opposed to them, in their ideals, tendencies and convictions on this question, and hated and looked down upon by them, were the stolid Germans who came in the thirties, and in the forties and in the fifties, particularly after the Revolution of 1848 in Germany, led by Koerner, by Hecker, by Hilgard and by Scheel, who in turn received their inspiration from Schurz and Pretorious. The Germans were practically all abolitionists, openly and defiantly or at heart. They had left the Fatherland to escape tyranny and oppression. They came to America to realize their dreams of liberty and equality. They could not understand the institution of slavery and despised and condemned and denounced it as robbery and injustice. They were opposed to the economic system of which it was the cornerstone and believed human slavery made a lie and a cheat and a fraud out of the Declaration of Independence. They were in favor of freeing the slaves, everywhere, without condition and without compensation to the owners.
Many of them were free thinkers. All of the forty-eighters belonged to this class and type of men. All of them favored the liberty of man,.woman and child. They were for free men and equal rights. They voted for Abraham Lincoln and rallied around the flag of the Union after the first bullet pierced the folds of Old Glory over the sombre walls of Fort Sumpter. Then came the matchless Douglas to the front, the peerless patriot, loyal and true, and rallied his followers to the standards of the Union and to'the cause of Lincoln and much of the hatred and the old antagonism and the old class consciousness and the old group separation and isolation was forever obliterated and effectively wiped out. It made us one people, gave us higher and better ideals and a uniform purpose in life. The war gave the blacks liberty and the whites economic independence and equality of opportunity. The best friends of the Union and the staunchest and most uncompromising friends of liberty had come from a foreign land and were immigrants within the.borders of our State and country. The irreconcilables became the southern sympathizers, the copperheads, the Knights of the Golden Circle, who secretly or openly aided and abetted and sanctioned the rebellion, believing slavery a divine institution, involuntary servitude the only thing the niggers were good for anyhow, which should be left intact and not abolished, and these men denounced Douglas for his loyalty to the Union and branded him as a renegade, a deserter, a turn-coat and an apostate. It is well to consider how very little history there is after all. The men who ought to have written the story of their experience and cpvered their time, went to their graves without having performed that service. That certain men were elected to the offices and filled out their allotted. terms and that certain wars came and that certain battles were fought and that certain shifts of boundary lines were made is certain. That we know. That history tells us about. But it does not tell us much nore. It only furnishes the anatomy and the frame-work to go by, the skeleton as it were. The flesh and the blood and the fair skin and the other details of the organism which round it out and render it beautiful are gone and lost and can never be re-supplied. I have spoken for the generals and for the leaders. I wish to pay my respects to the humble privates now. I wish to throw the searchlight on the every-day man, the everyday life and the every-day family. I bow in humble reverence to the sacred memory of the old settlers of our State and country. They were the chosen people of God. They were the salt of the earth. They were all pioneers and frontiersmen. They were bold, brave, adventurous, intrepid people. I adminire them for their superb courage, their great fortitude, their devotion, their patience, their endurance and their pluck, and I pay them now the tribute of my sincere respect. They were not afraid to stand alone and to walk alone and to face adversity, hardship and danger. Looking bankruptcy, ruin, starvation, pestilence and war in the face, they still remained steadfast and never shirked and never blenched. They preferred the wilderness, peopled by savage men and infested with wild beasts, where they would be free, free to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, free to live their own lives in their own way, to Europe, provided with the comforts and conveniences of civilized life, but ruled by kings and cursed by the system of caste and class. They wanted to be free. They wanted to see their children born in an atmosphere of liberty and in a land that was free. They believed that the Indians and the panthers and the wolves of the new world would be kinder to them and give them and their children a better chance for the future, than the tyrants and despots, the usurpers and drones and grafters of monarchial and militaristic Europe. But they did more than that. They believed in hard work and hard knocks and practiced both. They worked long hours, out of doors, in God's sunlight, in God's pure air, in the little clearings, on the broad prairie, out in the woods. The women could handle the ax, the plough and the rifle as well as the men. There was no race suicide and no divorce. There were few scandals in domestic life. The pioneers practiced self denial and self control. Though free as nature itself, free as the birds, free as the air, and liberated from all conventionalities and social and other artificial restraints, they remained stoically and stubbornly virtuous and pure as the driven snow, pure as the rays of the stars reflected in perfumed dew drops. These hardy people lived in humble homes, lived the simple life, lived in Spartan simplicity, had frw books, no luxuries, no fineries, no dainties, and yet they were usually satisfied, contented and happy. The rude huts which they inhabited were built of logs and built by themselves. They were frequently without wooden floors. The floors were made of leveled yellow clay. The roofs were made of clap-boards, the fences of rail or split paling. The roofs on the outbuildings were of straw. The houses were furnished with home-made and hand-made furniture. There were few dishes and no surplus of linen or clothing. The women could spin at the wheel and knit and the men knew the art of basket making and carpentry and cabinet making. They had no large store of household goods, but they had hope and imagination and ambition and looked forward to a better and a brighter day. They had poor schools and poor churches, ignorant teachers and miserable preachers, and practically no newspapers and yet they were educated, they were lithe, they were healthy, they were active, they were virile, they were educated in nature's school, they were firm in temperament, strongly marked in personality and gifted with initiativp and originality which after all is culture and can be but little augmented and improved in schools, in colleges and in the highest universities and never supplied, when wanting in the original makeup.
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