Traveling in Illinois in 1842


by Terry Hogan


Some of us probably can trace our Illinois roots back to the mid-1800s, particularly if we have Swedish, Scotch-Irish ancestry, or if our ancestors came with those hardy folks who gave birth to Galesburg and what was to become Knox College. If you've done much family research for mid-1800s Illinois immigration, you are probably familiar with the limited options of getting to Illinois. However, a journal by William Oliver, published in 1843 in England, gives an excellent insight of what travel was like getting to and in Illinois in 1842. The journal, entitled, Eight Months In Illinois with Information to Immigrants, was reprinted in 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press. It is a book worth reading to help understand the daily challenges of our Illinois ancestors.


One of the more fascinating and insightful aspects of the journal had to do with coping with the bugs of Illinois. Perhaps I was biased in my fascination, based on the exposure (no pun intended) to the exorbitant variety of bugs of the Amazon River some years ago. In any event, it may help us to appreciate not only the big battles of our ancestors, but also the day-to-day challenges of early Illinois.


William Oliver described being bugged in 1842:


Among the novel discomforts of the West, that of insects is one of no trifling character. The whole earth and air seems teeming with them, and mosquitoes, gallinippers, bugs, ticks, sand-flies, sweat-flies, house-flies, ants, cockroaches, etc., join in one continued attack against one's ease. No sooner do those who wage war during the day retire, than their place is filled with others, labouring with equal effect through the night, whilst the indefatigable mosquito, in many situations, heads the attack at all times. Half worried through the day, you are glad, when night comes, to get rid of your clothes and the crawling things you have felt on your skin. You get rid of the ants, which however, do not bite, but seem to be exploring, and they explore the very bottles by eating down through the corks; but the ticks require a more summary process, and, if they have been allowed to remain many hours, can only be got rid of piecemeal. These ticks sometimes cause a troublesome sore, and being in myriads in the long grass, there is nothing for it but a regular tick hunt every night. As some novels relate of their much-afflicted heroes, you "go to bed, but not to sleep," for, after having in vain tried to oust the mosquitoes, first by puffing and blowing, then by striking right and left, then by exposing nothing but the tip of your nose at the risk of being smothered - the thermometer at 90o - you begin to summon a little patience, and are willing to compound for some sleep, by the loss of a little blood.- This heroic resolve is scarcely formed when a combined attack of bugs from all quarters, apparently attracted to a centre of which you are the focus, settles the question, and unless you are an Indian or a Dutchman, drives you to the floor with a blanket. After a few hours of fevered rest, day and the sun's rays almost simultaneously burst through the crevices of the loghouse, and sleep is banished by a continued cackling and crowing of fowls, and stirring about of the inmates of the house. Having poured a basin of water over your neck and head, you feel somewhat refreshed, and think it possible that you may be able to take some breakfast. The old woman gives the signal, and in you go from the bars or fence surrounding the house, where you have been lounging, and trying to enjoy, in spite of a few mosquitoes, the comparative coolness and beauty of early sunrise. The house is no sooner entered that you hear a continued hum, and the room is almost darkened by myriads of house-flies, which, in Illinois, are never seen out of doors, and which, when there are sick people in bed, required the constant attention of some assistant to drive them off, otherwise, if the patient were a child, or very weak, I believe they would soon suffocate him. Molasses, sugar, preserved fruit, bread, everything on the table, is loaded with them, and the very operation of fanning them off drives numbers of them into the molasses and other things of an adhesive nature. It is not safe to open your mouth. It is evident, too, on examining the molasses, that the small red ant has been purloining it, and has left a number of his unfortunate companions enveloped in its mass; whilst ever and anon a cockroach makes a dash at the table, and in nine cases out of ten, succeeds in scampering across over meat dishes and everything that comes in the way, and that too in spite of the bitter blows aimed at him with knife and spoon, he is "so t'urnation spry." (Pages 148-150).  


It is probably safe to assume that bugs became less of a problem in Illinois when winter came, but it brought its own new set of problems for Illinois immigrants. Although when we think of log cabins, we think of thick logs, carefully chinked and fitted. This was not the case in early Illinois. As noted in the above quote on insects, the morning light shown through the crevasses of the log cabin.


William Oliver writes of being caught up in a severe winter gale in one such log cabin. He noted that all work stopped and the inhabitants sat as near as the fire as possible, without setting clothes aflame. Nevertheless, their backs were icy as the cold air drawn through the cracks in the walls, by the fire's draft, chilled their backs. They kept the fire blazing to maximize heat, but this was not without risk. Fireplaces and chimneys were generally made of wood, packed with mud. According to the journal, the fireplace and chimney would catch fire several times daily, and a bucket of water was kept near the fire, both to keep it from freezing and to keep it handy to put out the unwanted part of the fire.


During this cold spell, Oliver tried to write in his journal but later records,


I attempted to write, but, although I heated the ink which was hard frozen, and sat within as short distance of the fire as I could with the paper on my knee, I could not write one word; the ink seemed to vanish up the pen, and was frozen in an instant. (page 82).  


Despite such published reports of the hardships in rural America, immigrants came, settled, survived, and flourished. Land was cheap and opportunities not available "at home", were available in this new country where hard work could be rewarded with accumulating wealth and greater opportunity for their children. But success came at the cost of hardship and death. Children and women, particularly, inhabit unmarked graves along immigration routes and on early settled ground. It was a time before dedicated cemeteries. Graves were marked by the mound of dirt and covered either by wood or rocks, as available resources dictated, in an effort to deter the unearthing of remains by animals.

If you are interested in the day-to-day lives of early Illinois settlers, William Oliver's journal would be an excellent choice to read.



Oliver, William, 1843. Eight Months in Illinois, with Information to Immigrants. Reprinted (2002) by Southern Illinois Press, with a new forward by James Davis. 260 pages.