NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links


A Review of
Frontier Illinois

by Warren D. Winston, Pittsfield

Book Cover

Frontier Illinois is a delight to read. James E. Davis "writes about early Illinois with passion, humor, social insight, and pure dedication. Expecting a pure history lesson, I was surprised that Frontier Illinois is nearly a novel. It is only missing more characters with their own story woven through tales of westward travel, Indian fights, town brawls, land speculation, land disputes, and political maneuverings. Reading the footnotes is a must. A second story often appears in the fifty-five pages of well-documented notes. New facts, events, and personalities develop in this book-within-a-book.

Only one character, Sarah Aiken, travels the trail from cover to cover. In between, the pages are filled with early Illinoisans. Professor Davis has an interesting talent for injecting social commentary. Oddly, his views of pioneer social behavior are germane in a current sense. He makes his readers think how little has transpired in human behavior from 1830 to 2000. His style is attention-grabbing as you first read the story as an 1830s observer and then re-read as a 21st century. participant. Jim Davis' own humor pops up unexpectedly. He cleverly splashes quips and anecdotes on a dissertation of treaties and dates. His many vignettes are especially enjoyable. A separate study could be written on any one of them alone. The voluminous bibliography obviously contributed to Davis' thorough treatment of a variety of Illinois' stories.

Fascinating social observations may be found among the multitude of detailed facts and well-described events. For example, Davis observed that "Sarah Aiken's letter lamented qualities of frontier life, but it also expressed hope.... This belief in the future this sense of tomorrow and desire to be anticipatory in expectations typified settlers. Hope focused the settlers' attention on tomorrow, helped them to endure present tribulations, and gave meaning to suffering. Very likely, hope was the settlers' greatest resource." Is this commentary not strikingly similar to immigrants' experiences today?

His accounting of events is consistently detailed with supporting documentation. But buried within his dialogue, paragraphs retain their simplicity. Davis' statement that "a basic factor shaping frontier Illinois consisted of outsiders" made it all seem so logical and orderly. Quoting Davis, "For example, Virginian officials sponsored George Rogers Clark, who wrestled Illinois away from Britain. American and British diplomats in Paris in 1782 ratified his conquest. British authorities in Canada stiffened Indian resistance to American westward expansion. War declared in faraway Washington, D.C., in 1812 triggered massacre in Illinois. In addition, countless ordinary outsiders...indelibly influenced frontier Illinois." Davis keeps his study wonderfully clear and organized. Once again, Professor Davis will not let the reader become immersed prohibitively in minute details. He writes with a rhythm that keeps readers moving.

His treatment of Mississippi River flooding, by comparison to the 1993 Great Flood, leaves room for examination. The demise of the first Fort de Chartres is whisked from the written scene. He simply explains, "but by 1725 flood damage necessitated a new fort, farther from the Mississippi." A careful analysis of Illinois in 1837 is warranted. Pioneer journalists described the Mississippi at flood stage backing up the Illinois River some seventy miles. In a broader context, I believe Davis should have concentrated more effort on the larger picture of the upper Mississippi floodplain. He touches on potential flooding when writing of the Deep Snow of 1830-31 writing, "they were defining moments, great divides. For decades, survivors reckoned dates...from the Deep Snow...." The impact of the Spring thaw and flooding in early 1831 is missing.

This criticism is not to detract from Davis' excellent observation of a fickle electorate at the Fort:


"Prospering, French communities in Illinois generated far more self-government than Quebec, Louisiana, or France. Unlike their habitually deferring kith and kin in Quebec and Louisiana, Illinois residents stood on their hind legs and bucked unfair, capricious maladministration.... In sum, Illinois' culture differed markedly from French societies elsewhere." To conclude French involvement in Illinois he simply writes, "Ninety years after Louis Jolliet and Father Marquette canoed the Illinois River, France's North American empire vanished."

Early in Frontier Illinois Jim Davis describes a migratory trend that enticed my own family from Yorkshire, England, around 1830. Any descendant of immigrants can attribute their coming to Davis' simplistic assertion that "chain migration lured and assisted many settlers.... personal correspondence and visits prompted most chain frontier Illinois it smoothed transitions from known, settled conditions to relatively alien, fluid situations.... Chain migration promoted certainty in chaotic times." Unknowingly, Davis could well have described my ancestors' arrival or tomorrow's immigrants from Asia or Latin America.

Davis eloquently explains the intellectual roots of Illinois, beginning with the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. Wonderfully written with the author's flair, he observes, "Not surprisingly, the ordinance reflected fundamental constitutional principles: the people are sovereign; legitimate governmental powers spring from the people; self-government is preferred; government should be limited. Both documents reflected continuing tensions between liberty and order." The other document was the Land Ordinance of 1785.

Article 6 of the Ordinance "cheered abolitionists." Davis cannot separate himself from Illinois College founded by Yale University anti-slavery theologians. And that is acceptable. In this chapter, "Firm Foundations," this IC history professor reminds us of a little recognized fact: Illinois nearly became a slave state. Davis quotes Article 6, "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory." Davis concludes, "But another provision noted the residents around Kaskaskia and Vincennes who had sworn allegiance to Virginia enjoyed different laws 'relative to descent and conveyance of property'." Davis observes, "This exemption for 'French and Canadian inhabitants and other settlers' brewed trouble." The southern element in Illinois, the county seat wars and a very close vote in the State Legislature nearly committed Illinois to adopting slavery. Professor Davis credits massive railroad construction, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, booming Chicago, and the Erie Canal to attracting Yankee or European settlers. Absent of internal improvements, southern settlers would have pushed up rivers and settled prairies dominating all of frontier Illinois with slave settlements. Davis has a firm grasp on this matter, observing that "Handfuls of northern and European settlers would have been isolated, mere inconsequential drops in the southern sea. Illinois' ties with the South would have remained firm."

True to his personality, Professor Davis refuses to let a subject get too serious. He seasons the pages with humorous comments like, "Yankees reveled in a sense of mission, a fondness for community, and a passion to perfect themselves and (especially) their neighbors." In explaining Yankee piety, Davis writes, "New Englanders and others seized moral high ground, setting much of the national agenda from it." My favorite is his description of a communal gathering, quipping that "Yankees...were grasping, scheming, smug, sanctimonious, and hypocritical, and whenever Yankees got together - which they did far too often they compounded each other's vices." Still those obnoxious Yankees changed the Illinois landscape in the 1830s.

Frontier Illinois should become a standard of reference. It certainly has a place of honor on my bookshelf.

Copies of James Davis' Frontier Illinois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) may be ordered from the Society's Book Department. The price is $39.95 in cloth and $18.95 in paperback for non-members excluding sales tax, postage, and handling. Members receive a 20% discount.

Notice Regarding Book Reviews

Editor's Note: The editor will publish book notices and critical reviews of newly published and forthcoming titles that examine topics related to the history and culture of Illinois. Guidelines regarding form, length, and style may be obtained either at the ISHS Web Site or by contacting the editorial staff. Completed reviews or material for review may be sent to: Jon Austin, Editor, Illinois Heritage Magazine, The Illinois State Historical Society, 210-1/2 South Sixth Street, Suite 200, Springfield, Illinois 62701-1503.


|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Heritage 2000|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library