Knox County Early History
Part I -When There Were Prairies
by Terry Hogan
Knox County was once a land of prairie seas and wooded islands. Time changes all things, often speeded up with the help of man. For Knox County, this speeding up can arguably be defined as starting in the early 1800s. This marked the period when Europeans no longer just passed through the area via the rivers, but settled to form farms and villages. Footprints were replaced with plowed prairies and wagon trails that grew to become the early roads. As one insightful person once pointed out to me - look at the roads in Knox County. If they run straight and north and south and east and west, they are new; formed by the result of surveyors and townships as part of the "Military Tract". If, on the other hand, the roads meander and cross streams at easy points, these are the roads with history. Many were first Indian trails that were followed by Europeans on horse, followed by wagons, and so it went. A good example of the meandering road is the one known locally as the "Angling Road" in northwestern Warren County.
The purpose of these articles is to meander like the early roads, taking the path of least resistance, while trying to paint an impressionist image, incomplete and probably a little inaccurate in the details, of early Knox County. This is Part I. The last part will be the one when I am done. Hopefully, I will know before the reader, when I have reached this point. With a little luck, perhaps the genealogist interested in early Knox County will find a morsel or two worth gnawing on that might yield some substance to his own family history. Thus is my goal. Thus is my beginning.
In local histories, there is always the need to address the first this and the first that. Family feuds have occurred over whose ancestors arrived before the other. Such is the danger that angels avoid. But, alas, I am no angel. I am more likely the latter of the old adage. This will be my opportunity to prove that "any fool can write a column".
Early Knox County history seems to be ambivalent on the "first pioneers". The history must have been written by an ambidextrous historian. On the one hand, Daniel and Alexander Robertson and Richard Matthews are attributed as being the first settlers. They settled near Henderson Grove in February 1828 (Bateman, 1889). But on the other hand, local history also notes that a man named Palmer, purported to be a bee hunter, came to what is now the Maquon area around 1826 or 1827 and built a house (Bateman, 1899). There is also another historical account of another group of bee hunters in 1827. These were Andy Osborn, Andrew Scott, John Slatten and Gaddial Scott from Sangamon County. They reportedly set up camp along the Knox and Warren county line (Chapman, 1878). But in any event, this is the place to begin the history. Without European settlers; without written history; without western civilization, there would have been no Knox County history to review.
But, of course, the land was there long before the European and long before the Indian/Native American (also not a native to America).
The land as it was found
Knox County was mostly prairie, with the tall grasses hiding rich soil below. The land was described as being "undulated", perhaps relating to the river and stream valleys that drained the prairies. It was in these valleys that most of the wooded land of the county was to be found. Early settlers to the county often sought a parcel of land that provided them both prairie land to till and wooded stream valley that provided both water and timber for a cabin and fence material. Wood was also used for heating, for cooking, for cooking implements, for furniture, and for wagons. Streams and rivers also provided a reliable transportation route by boat. The timbered banks also provided riparian habitat for wildlife. The wildlife, in turn, provided a source of nutrients for early settlers before livestock could fulfill much of that role. The timbered riverbanks also provided familiar ground for immigrants from the southern reaches who were more comfortable in the woods than the prairies (Davis, 1998).
Only after these fingers of water and timber were claimed, did settlers move out more into the open prairies. Even the shape of Lake Michigan encouraged early water craft to hug the southern shore of Lake Michigan to what would become Chicago. Chicago would become the interface between water and land travel, made even more important with the coming of the railroads.
In 1837, Knox County was described in the following manner:
Knox County is in the Military Bounty Tract, and nearly central between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. It is bounded north by Henry, east by Peoria and Putnam, south by Fulton, and west by Warren and Mercer counties. It is thirty miles long, and from thirty to thirty-four in breadth, containing 792 square miles. This county is watered by Spoon river and its tributaries, and also by the head streams of Henderson's and Pope's rivers. The surface is generally prairie, moderately undulating, and of first-rate quality of soil, with considerable tracts of excellent timber along the water-courses. The inhabitants amounted in 1835 to 1600. (Mitchell, 1837).
Much of what made Illinois and Knox County what it was - a relatively flat land with rich soils and well-watered, is attributable to history that began long before the 1800's. Most of Illinois, including Knox County, was shaped by glaciers that progressed south, scouring and then retreating. But in their retreat, they left flat land, deposits of rich soil, laced with limestone. Settlers in Knox County found rich soils, relatively free of the boulders and bedrock found in New England and in northern Minnesota. The melting glaciers also helped establish waterways. The glaciers also get credit for the Great Lakes, and the navigation routes of the Great Lakes helped shape Illinois' future.
Another shaper of Knox County history is the lack of mountains to the south. This allowed the weather from the Gulf of Mexico to come north unimpeded. There were no mountains to cause the dumping of moisture on the southern slopes, denying moisture to the land to the north. Illinois was blessed with sufficiently reliable rains in most years to help assure dependable crops and sufficient water for livestock. In the winter, the warming winds of the south also helped moderate winter temperatures, making prairie life more tenable. (Davis, 1998).
The presence of native timber along the riparian slopes, the existence of wetlands in the floodplains, and the capture and slow release of water by the broad expanses of prairie resulted in stream and river hydrology much different than we see today. The streams and rivers were less "flashy", i.e. less subject to flooding and draught. This helped ensure a more reliable water supply and easier rivers to navigate. Less flooding, less flotsam, fewer riffles and gravel bars were present to impede the shipment of early goods downstream.
Knox County was not favored with large rivers, however. For these, travel was required to the west to the Mississippi or to the east to the Illinois. Oquawka ("Yellow Banks") and Peoria were located on these rivers, respectively, and had high hopes for growth and success. Knox County had to make the best of the Spoon River and Cedar and Pope Creeks. Spoon River is the biggest river, as small as it might be. It drains about 4/5ths of the county and empties into the Illinois River. At one time, it was thought, or at least hoped, that it might be good for navigation, but this was never to be.
Originally, there were clear distinctions between the prairie and wooded areas. The prairie grasses were tall and had deep roots that were strongly interconnected. The deep tangle of roots and the tall grass made it difficult for any would-be tree invaders to establish root. In addition, the frequent prairie fires burned the prairie grasses which quickly reestablished themselves. Woody vegetation was not so responsive to the fires.
In time, man's use of the steel plow to till the soil and the introduction of non-native trees were to bring a big change to Illinois and Knox County. This will be discussed more later, but let it be just said here that the landscape history of Illinois changed markedly with the arrival of settlers and the establishment of the Military Tract.
The early wildlife
The earliest settlers were what one might call practical taxonomists. They often knew common (regional) names of wildlife and knew what was good for eating and how to prepare it. But such knowledge, because of the uncertainty of species names to local names, is of little use, at least to me. As such, I will rely on an 1878 history that refers to early wildlife in Knox County. The old history recalls the loss of beaver, elk, badger, panther, black wolf and black bear. It also mentions a number of species that were becoming rare, including the gray fox, "the catamount", otter, lynx and the Virginia deer. From the area of the Spoon River, it is reported that possum, raccoon, mink, muskrat, the common weasel, the small brown weasel, skunk, "woodchuck, or Maryland marmot", prairie mole, common shrew mole, meadow and deer mouse, and the gray rabbit could be found. Squirrels in the form of the "fox, chipmunk, the large, gray prairie squirrel, the striped and the spotted prairie squirrel, and the beautiful flying squirrel" were found (Chapman, 1878).
Change on the horizon
With the first settlers arriving in what was to become Knox County, they arrived bringing changes and bringing conflicts. Conflicts would be between those who came from New England and those who came from the south. Their cultures and perspectives of what life was, were fundamentally different. There were conflicts between man and nature. These early conflicts also added to the other changes brought to Knox County. Farms were established. Villages were laid out. Schools and governments that started as dreams became reality.
Bateman, Newton, et al. 1899. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Knox County. Munsell Publishing Company. Chicago. 968 pages.
Chapman, Chas. 1878. History of Knox County, Illinois. Chicago. 718 pages (reprinted version by Knox County Genealogical Society, Galesburg, IL).
Davis, James. 1998. Frontier Illinois. Indiana University Press. 515 pages.
Mitchell, A. 1837. Illinois in 1837; A sketch descriptive of the situation, boundaries, face of the country, prominent districts, prairies, rivers, minerals, animals, agricultural productions, public lands, plans of internal improvement, manufactures etc. Philadelphia. 143 pages.