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Morris Birkbeck
Settling Illinois

Morris Birkberk, in his journal, provided a lively description of pioneer and frontier life on the prairie.
Morris Birkbeck

Lisa Krotiak
Tinley Park High School, Tinley Park "Illinois will yet, I hope, regard this man, who knew so well what ought to be, as one of her true patriarchs, the Abraham of a promised land." Margaret Fuller wrote that of Morris Birkbeck (1764-1825) in Summer on the Lakes (1843). He was the one great writer of the early nineteenth century who first grasped and expressed the symbolic importance of Illinois. It was, according to him, "a new country," a place of limitless potential.

Morris Birkbeck was involved in Illinois before statehood. He and George Flower led English emigration into Edwards County beginning in 1816. They were discontented with political and economic conditions in England. For example, Birkbeck became a tenant farmer, but since he was not a freeholder he could not vote. Morris Birkbeck hoped to create "a flourishing, public-spirited, energetic community, where the insolence of wealth, and the servility of pauperism, between which in England, there is scarcely an interval remaining, are alike unknown." For him, the United States was the fulfillment of his political ideals. Birkbeck's published letters presented the colony to the English public, and his books gave Illinois recognition in other parts of the world. Birkbeck and Flower preferred men of their own social position, wealthy tenant farmers, to live in their settlement, the English Prairie. They were even accused of founding a rich man's settlement and refusing to sell land to poorer men. However, mechanics and laborers were the first to come.

10 ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1993




picking fruit
Survival on the prairie required ample food supplies. Birkbeck worked hard to
improve agriculture and formed an agricultural society. Eventually Illinois settlers
improved farming techniques and began to plant a variety of foods.

Morris Birkbeck had some trouble accommodating the newcomers. Their food supply mostly derived from a community in Indiana the first year. Many immigrants became ill, too. Men without a lot of money missed the working class and the women servants of England. A lack of religious observance caused the settlement to be labeled as irreligious. To remedy that, services were held in newly built churches.

A feud also broke out between Birkbeck and the Flowers, George and his son, Richard. As a result, the settlement split into two groups, Birkbeck's community of Wanborough, founded in 1818, and the other centered in Albion, founded by George Flower and others. The English Prairie managed to be successful, though. By 1819 seven hundred Americans and four hundred English lived there. Good homes and farm structures had been established, and the settlers had discovered the rewards of extensive grain farming. Progress was also made in raising cattle, sheep, and pigs. Good laborers were getting land of their own, and farmers with industry were doing well.

The enterprise did a lot for Illinois. It brought recognition to the prairie. It helped establish the use of the land for grazing or for crops. It also had fostered a state leader in Morris Birkbeck.

His influence in the advancement of scientific agriculture of the time is noteworthy. In the Edwardsville Spectator of October 8, 1819, a farmer asked for the establishment of an agricultural society. At a meeting on November 10, Birkbeck was elected president of the society. The most interesting accomplishment of this society was its numerous proposals tor improved agriculture. Birkbeck had many suggestions. He stressed the importance of giving attention to grazing and dairying, insisting on the need for better grasses before fine wool could be produced and on the need for action against wolves to have successful sheep raising. In 1820 he recognized the danger of stripping the soil of vital nutrients. He then suggested successful farming devices and recommended the use of ditches for prairie farming. The society also dealt with the need to improve health by draining standing and stagnant waters.

Morris Birkbeck's Notes on a Journey in America (1818) is the journal of his trip from Virginia to southeastern Illinois in search of a place to establish his community devoted to prosperity and freedom. He recognized the potential of the area and worked hard to give it a firm base as a settlement. The young state of Illinois also benefited from the English settlement.[From John E. Hallwas, Illinois Literature; Marguerite Jenison Pease, The Story of Illinois; Theodore Calvin Pease, The Frontier State, 1818-1848; Robert P. Sutton, The Prairie State;Clyde C. Walton, An Illinois Reader.]

ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1998 11


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