Hardships on the Illinois Prairie
Kara R. Guzzo
In the beginning of the nineteenth century people were coming from many different areas to settle in what was the Illinois Territory. But only a few of all those who would pass through or settle in Illinois anticipated the hardships that lay ahead.
Getting food in the early 1800s was usually not a problem. Men hunted deer, rabbit, bear, prairie chicken, and wild birds. Wild berries and nuts grew plentifully in the forests. Fish, such as trout and bass, swarmed the rivers. However, as the years went by, more people started settling in Illinois, and the supply of wild animals to hunt and wild berries and nuts to eat diminished greatly. Even fish could not be caught as easily. At that point people planted food, such as cherry, apple, pear, and peach trees. Wheat and corn made up a good part of the pioneers' food, and settlers ate a lot of cornbread and wheat bread; wheat ground into flour was used for a variety of baked goods. There was little sugar because it was expensive. Sugar was used only on special occasions or for guests. Pioneers learned to substitute wild honey for the precious sugar. Women had no choice but to grow their own vegetables, although, according to some accounts, the vegetables tasted terrible.
Cooking was a task reserved for pioneer women. Until the family had enough money to install a wood stove, women were forced to cook meals over an open fire.
Cooking was not the only thing expected of the women. Keeping house and taking care of the children was also expected. Laundry and ironing were jobs that required a full day. For washing the clothes, water had to be heated while lye soap was shaved into it. The clothes soaked in the hot soapy water, then had to be wrung out by hand and hung on a clothesline in all types of weather. Ironing was also a time-consuming task because of the many irons that had to be heated and then reheated as they cooled off.
Even though womens' chores and responsibilities were a lot of work, the men had it equally hard with the farm work. In the spring the fields had be be worked with a handheld plow pulled by horses. During the summer the crops were weeded by hand; in the fall they were harvested with a handheld reaper. Another task for the men regardless of weather was to take care of all the livestock, which included feeding, doctoring, and milking twice a day.
Poor health on the prairie was another common hardship. There were few good doctors or medicines. The most common sickness was caused by unclean water, but pioneers were not aware of the health risks. Other sicknesses that often proved to be fatal were croup, pneumonia, and the measles. A hot-garlic-and-onion-juice potion was believed to cure the croup and pneumonia. And many people believed that wearing a live spider around their neck would help chase any sickness away.
Living in Illinois in 1820 was difficult, but people tried to make the work more enjoyable. For example, if a family was going to build a barn or house, all the neighbors helped. This was fun because neighbors sometimes lived miles away and had little chance to see each other. While the men raised the barn, the ladies often would have quilting parties, and the children would play games like jump rope or leapfrog.
Houses in the early 1800s were quite different than houses now. When a family moved to Illinois in a covered wagon, the family lived in it until a house was built. The initial house would be a leanto, a sod house, or a log cabin. It was usually about twelve feet by sixteen feet. Until a larger house was built the covered wagon was still used as an extra room. A full-size house was built as soon as possible and included a kitchen and parlor on the first floor and anywhere from a loft to three or four rooms upstairs, depending on the size of the family. A cellar was dug under the house only after it was totally completed.
Education for those who wanted it was yet another problem on the frontier. There were very few good schools for children. The schools were often started by men who could not find jobs. These men often cared very little about teaching school, so education was erratic. Children did not have books even when they did get the opportunity to go to school. The books they had were brought from home and shared. The most common book they brought was the Bible. Both boys and girls attended school, but, because their help was needed during planting and harvesting seasons, the school year was often short.—[From Arthur C. Boggess, The Settlement of Illinois, 1778-1830; William L. Burton, Illinois; Ruth Franchier, Hannah Herself; Glenda Riley, Frontierswomen.]