Human Interactions:
European Settlers

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Prairie Creek at Midewin NTP Prairie Creek in August
Midewin NTP

French exploration of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers began in the mid-1600s, and by the late 1600s they had established posts or settlements at Peoria, Crevecoeur, Le Rocher, and Cahokia. By 1700, the ‘Illinois Country’ lay within the southern portion of New France and the northern part of the province of Louisiana. More French posts and settlements such as Kaskaskia, Fort de Chartres, St. Louis, and St. Genevieve were established during the 1700s. Following a number of conflicts in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the French lost control of the territory (Franke, 1995) and land cessions by Native Americans began. By the early 1800s the area was controlled by the United States, and in 1815 immigration by American settlers began in earnest (McManis, 1964).

Slowly, settlers encroached on to the prairie, but as late as 1836 those who thought the prairie habitable were considered part of the lunatic fringe (Anderson, 1970).

Although the Illinois prairies were settled in an amazingly short time, there was considerable initial resistance by the settlers to do so. The reasons for their reluctance, as cited by historians and geographers, were both practical and spiritual.

The first American settlers in Illinois entered the state from the south. Many came from Kentucky and Tennessee (Anderson, 1970), although there were a few from the north and east, and some who had emigrated from Europe (McManis, 1964). The early immigrants came from forested environments in the south and east and generations before them had lived in the forested regions of Europe (Weaver, 1954). The forests of Southern Illinois provided these settlers with timber for housing and streams for transportation and mills. Settlement spread northward along the forested streams and rivers. When they at last ventured out onto the prairies, these early settlers chose smaller prairies with groves or savannas for wood as home sites. McClain (1997) points out that the groves were extremely popular with the settlers. They were often protected from fire by virtue of their proximity to water or other topographic features. They supplied wood for houses and fences, and were active social centers during the early 1800s.

The first settlers were accustomed to life in the forests and were daunted by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to settlement presented by the prairies. The treeless expanse of grassland, the lack of any natural feature that might offer protection from the sun, wind, rain, and snow provoked a sense of smallness and insecurity as well as awe at the power of such an unbroken, seemingly endless horizon.The prairies inspired a sense of loneliness in people such as Washington Irving.

The lack of trees on the prairie posed some very practical problems to settlement. The early settlers used timber for housing, tools, and fuel.

It will probably be some time before these vast prairies can be settled, owing to the inconvenience attending the want of timber. I know of no way, unless the plan is adopted of ditching and hedging, and the building of brick houses and substituting the stone coal for fuel. It seems as if the bountiful hand of nature, where it has withheld one gift has always furnished another; for instance, where there is a scarcity of wood, there are coal mines (Harding in Thwaites, 1966).

Furthermore, the lack of trees on the prairie was initially interpreted by the some to be the result of poor soil. In 1786, Monroe described the prairies of Illinois as:

Territory [that] is miserably poor... and that upon the Mississippi and the Illinois consists of extensive plains which have not had, from appearances, and will not have, a single bush on them for ages. The districts, therefore, within which these fall will never contain a sufficient number of inhabitants to entitle them to membership in the confederacy (Boggess, 1908).

Boggess (1908) describes a traveler of 1819, who suggested that the prairies were not suited to cultivation due to the “scarcity of wood.” He notes that the settler remarked that late in 1825 there was only one cabin “on the way from Paris to Springfield, leading across eighty miles of prairie ninety miles in length.”

Whereas the lack of trees on the prairie was considered an impediment to settlement by most pioneers, some considered it an advantage. Boggess (1908) points out that some of the settlers favored the prairie because it did not need to be cleared of timber. These settlers could raise a crop in the first year while using coal as a fuel and hedges or ditches as fencing.

The lack of navigable waterways for transportation also played a role in the delayed settlement of prairies. Southern Illinois, with its many streams and rivers, provided an inroad into the state, but the vast stretches of the prairie just north of the region were a barrier to travel and trade. Because of the extensive prairies between Illinois and Vincennes, “A communication between them and the settlements east of that river [the Wabash] can not in the common course of things, for centuries yet to come, be supported with the least benefit, or be of the least moment to either of them.” [Boggess, 1908).

The prairie was considered uninhabitable for numerous other reasons. Illinois prairies were generally flat and had many poorly drained areas. The lowlands were often filled with water for months at a time during the spring and early summer. Depressions supported a host of insects, and malaria, fever, and “ague,” were a common occurrence among the pioneers. The insects, particularly the biting flies were a constant irritation to both the people and their livestock. During the dry summer and autumn months, early settlers suffered a lack of drinking water because many were unable to dig wells deep enough to supply their needs. The autumnal fires set by the Native Americans were feared by the pioneers, as were the Native Americans themselves. Harsh winters were also a deterrent to prairie settlement. The blinding blizzards and lack of landmarks out on the prairie proved especially perilous to the travelers of the 18th and early 19th centuries (McClain, 1991).


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