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Immigrant and Native
The Literature of Early Illinois

Mary McKillip
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

The year 1818 was not one of great literary achievements in Illinois. The state population included mostly frontiersmen from Kentucky and Tennessee, many of whom were illiterate. Anti-intellectualism was common during this time. Education was associated with physical weakness. Because there was no audience, Illinois literature did not begin to flourish until the 1830s. However, there is some literature of importance from 1818. There are weekly newspapers that survive from the early Illinois period, along with the writings of Morris Birkbeck and Black Hawk. This literature is valuable because it contains nonfiction accounts of the people of early Illinois.

Two newspapers were printed in Illinois in 1818. One was the Illinois Intelligencer, printed in Kaskaskia. The other was the Illinois Emigrant in Shawneetown. These papers were usually filled with presidential writings. On almost every page, articles by President Monroe informed Illinoisans of national happenings. Other items that filled the newspapers were notices that set up a basic "lost and found." People would notify others of a wallet they were missing, or perhaps a runaway slave they wanted returned. In one instance, a man wrote to alert others that his wife had run away and he wanted her back. He warned others not to shelter her or feed her. These newspaper articles give small glimpses into the lives and experiences of the people of Illinois.

Morris Birkbeck was an English settler who kept notes and wrote letters in his journey to Illinois and his stay in Illinois. He came to Illinois in 1817 and cofounded an English settlement near the Wabash River. Birkbeck "stands at the head of the Illinois literary tradition," John Hallwas has written, because of his descriptions of life in Illinois. He was the first man of letters to consider himself an Illinoisan. He wrote about Illinois in Notes on a journey in America, and Letters from Illinois. These publications told of the conditions of the Illinois frontier, and the reasons for Birkbeck's emigration to Illinois. In Letters from Illinois, Birkbeck explained why his "new country" of Illinois suited him better than England ever could:

What is country? the soil? Of this I was only an occupant. The government? I abhorred its deeds and its principles. The church? I did not believe in its doctrine. The army? No. The law? We have the same law here. The People? yes; but not the fund-holders .... not the consumers, nor the creators of taxes. My family and friends I love; I have almost as many, and as strong ties of that sort, . . . soon I hope to have more, and then this will be my country.

Along with his depiction of Illinois, Birkbeck wrote anti-slavery essays in newspapers under the pseudonym of Jonathan Freeman. He believed in equality and freedom in Illinois and fought against the proslavery Illinois Senate. This "first Illinois author of any significance," as Robert Bray terms Birkbeck, exposed Illinois as it was in 1818.

Black Hawk, known to his people as Makataimeshekiakiak, was the "only important Indian author from Illinois," states Hallwas. This Native American was an outstanding orator and wrote the first Native American autobiography. Black Hawk was born in Rock Island in 1767. He later became war chief of his Sac (Sauk) tribes. In 1832 Black Hawk led his people against the white men in a war that was later known as the Black Hawk War. At the close of this war he made a speech, mourning the fate of his people:

We called a great council and built a great fire. The spirit of our fathers rose and told us to avenge our wrongs or die .... Black Hawk's heart swelled in his chest as he led his braves to war. He is content .... He has done what he had to do .... Black Hawk is a true Indian .... He cares about his people. They will suffer. He pities their fate.

While in captivity in 1833, Black Hawk dictated his autobiography to Antoine LeClair. It is now considered a classic of midwestern literature. His view of Illinois in 1818 is not only important as literature, but also as historical record. It is filled with vivid portraits of tribal life in Illinois and his reactions to the white settlers taking over the land of his people. For example. Black Hawk writes of the Sac's hardships:

At this time, we had very little intercourse with white men .... Our village was healthy, and there was no place in the country better than those we had in possession .... But how different our situation is now from what it was in those happy days. Then were we as happy as the buffalo on the plains, but now, we are as miserable as the hungry wolf on the prairie .... If a prophet had come to our village in those days and told us what was to come .... none of us would have believed him. What! to be driven from our village, and our hunting grounds and not even be permitted to visit the graves of our forefathers and relatives and our friends?

Black Hawk's superb speeches and powerful book make him a significant contributor to Illinois literature.

Although not as celebrated as later Illinois literature, the literature of early statehood has an important place in today's literary world. Newspapers give a general view of the Illinois state. Morris Birkbeck and Black Hawk show their own views of the pioneer state—one through a white settler's eyes, one


through a Native American's eyes. These two authors were notable writers because of their description and interpretation of Illinois and its inhabitants. Without these two books and the newspapers, we would not know as much about early Illinoisans. Birkbeck and Black Hawk are historical figures who preserved their lives and the state's early history in Illinois literature.—[From Morris Birkbeck, Letters from Illinois; Morris Birkbeck, Notes on a journey in America, from the coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois; Black Hawk and John Barton Patterson, eds., Autobiography of Makataimeshekiakiak; Robert Bray, A Reader's Guide to Illinois Literature; John E. Hallwas, Illinois Literature; Illinois Intelligencer, May through December 1818.]

In 1818, there was little demand for literature and printed documents since
very few early settlers could read. By the 1830s, though, newspapers were
common in towns and villages across the state.

Alton Observer


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