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The Pioneer History of Jackson County

Maren Somers
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

Before the dawn of the nineteenth century, the small 580 square miles of virginal land, primeval forests, and pristine waterways that would eventually become Jackson County had been virtually untouched except for a prowling wolf pack or a Kaskaskia Indian on the hunt. This stretch of land with rolling hills, occasionally flooded lowlands, and sandstone cliffs experienced a relatively mild climate year-round, with an average temperature of fifty-seven degrees and an approximate rainfall of forty inches. This, in addition to its fertile wheat and clover-bearing soil and abundant navigable waterways, beckoned settlers into its midst. As pioneers migrated to the area, their homes and villages displaced the local Indians. Within a century, the land would be transformed from its virginal state to an agricultural region that farms, churches, and schools occupied.

As the French-Canadians entered the Illinois Territory from the north and the English-Americans from the east, their Indian predecessors were slowly pushed out of the area. Large groups of settlers began entering and establishing homes in Kaskaskia, the future site of the state's capital, and a small population trickled southward into what would become Jackson County. Many of these people were attracted to the abundant maple trees, which were used for the production of maple sugar.

In 1802 the first permanent settlements were established in the Jackson County wilderness. The Reed and Jones families have been credited with being the first two homesteads in Jackson County. However, these families did not stay in the area very long. According to reports, Elmsey Jones became jealous of his neighbor, Mr. Reed. Thus, the story of the first inhabitants of Jackson County also includes the record of the first murder and the first hanging in the county. Jones was found guilty for Reed's murder and was sentenced to death by those governing Kaskaskia in neighboring Randolph County. Despite these unsuccessful attempts at taming the Jackson County countryside, inevitably, more people entered the area, obviously undeterred by the Jones-Reed affair.

In 1816, as a result of the popular demand of the settlements, Jackson formally became a county, the tenth in the territory of Illinois. Two years later, with the assistance of Conrad Will and James Hall Jr. representing Jackson County, Illinois was admitted into the union after the drafting of its constitution was completed and the document had been ratified.

As the governments of the county and state were developing, the population of Jackson County continued to increase. As the population increased, so did the need for food and work. The early citizens of Jackson County looked to the arable land, abundant in their surroundings to provide for these


needs. According to a poem in the 1878 Jackson County history:

Labor still, there is need,
Pulverize the fruitful soil,
Bury the prolific seed,
Earth shall well requite your toil.

All the millions must be fed,
All dependent on the sod,
All must look to you for bread,
Faithful steward be of God.

Agriculture, thus, became the staple economic activity of the area. The majority of the land was used to cultivate wheat, although the actual net production of corn in bushels was greater than that of wheat. Other important crops included oats and hay. The clover for hay grew naturally and more abundantly than most plants, thus making it an easy crop for cultivation. The hills and fields of Jackson County also supported fruit trees.

Second to agriculture, coal mining became an important industry in Jackson County. The first coal mine in Illinois, which was excavated in 1811, was located in what eventually became Jackson County. The mine actually influenced migration to the region, and with a large supply of laborers, work systematically began in 1822. The resources produced by the mine, later dubbed Jackson County Coal Mine, led to the creation of the company's Grand Tower Ironworks. A railroad was eventually constructed between Grand Tower and Carbondale.

As industry and population increased, homesteads began to appear throughout the area. Stretches of land were cleared for the homes and their accompanying plots of cotton and corn. Though they were miles apart, neighbors often helped one another build the log houses, and barn raisings became social events. At these gatherings, women "picked" cotton to remove the seeds. Following these events, the cleaned cotton was used to produce clothing. It was said that women's only necessities consisted of cards, wheels, and a loom. In contrast, men's necessities included a rifle, flints, bullet molds, screwdriver, awl, butcher's knife, and a tomahawk. Men usually took on responsibilities such as construction and farming, while women tended gardens, preserved food supplies, sewed, and raised the family.

Conrad Will, a Jackson County resident, was one of many men who worked to see that Illinois be admitted into the union.

The labor required to build a homestead and provide food and clothing for the family left little time for entertainment. Settlers' activities were often beneficial. They developed skills such as rifle accuracy and physical fitness through events like target shooting and running competitions. Another activity, dubbed "gander pulling," was a game in which a mounted settler rode underneath an inverted goose hanging about eight feet above the ground. The motive of the game was to behead the goose, which was greased at the neck to increase the challenge.

As Jackson County grew, a community of churches, newspapers, and schools were slowly established. The most common religion was Christian, demonstrated by the appearance of multiple Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Catholic churches throughout the region. Newspapers provided information for the residents and were generally the only source of politics. Schools were also important to the development of the people as a society. The most important of the schools was the Normal School for the education of area public school teachers, which opened in 1874.

In less than a century, Jackson County was transformed from a nearly uninhabited wilderness to a countryside spotted with homesteads, farms, coal mines, churches, and schools. Despite the diverse backgrounds of its inhabitants a sense of unity prevailed. The unity stemmed from the love each shared for their productive and prosperous county. The 1878 county history incorporated this optimistic view of the local society and moving reflection on its landscape:

". . . Taking our county all in all, its rich bottom lands and lakes, its picturesque hills and grand bluffs, its fertile and far-looking ridges, its caves and mines, its waters and curiosities that nothing finer is to be found in the state. Its citizens should be proud of it. . . patriotism should glory in its history ... no spot is more favored and none is more full of promise of future growth and influence. . ."

[From History of Jackson County; Edmund Newsome, Historical Sketches of Jackson County Illinois; Janice Petterchak, A Chronology of Illinois History.]


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