Gateway to Southern Illinois
Julie Lea Wilson
Shawneetown, located on the Ohio River in Southern Illinois, is the oldest incorporated town in the state. It has been labeled by some as the "Gateway to Southern Illinois." Others have called it the "Gateway to the West." There is no doubt that it led the way to the early settlement and growth of southern Illinois.
Soldiers returning home with their families after the Revolutionary War were each given three hundred acres of land. Many settled near Shawneetown. These pioneers were from Ohio and Kentucky. Others left from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and floated down the Ohio River. They loaded all their goods onto flatboats large enough to hold a wagon, an ox, a horse, or a cow, and all the family with their belongings. Often these boats were built with log walls to protect them from Indians. A few settlers found their way across the Wabash from Indiana. Some came by roads or rivers in western Kentucky and merely crossed the Ohio to reach the state, but the main travel in the early years was by the Ohio River.
Many settlers came looking for a place to live that did not allow slavery. Others wanted to practice their professions in a new territory, but most were looking to make money through land speculation.
One of these settlers was blacksmith Michael Sprinkle. He was the first white settler of Shawneetown in 1800. He built a log cabin and set up a forge. He could supply the needs of pioneers and Indians in hardware. Sprinkle was also a gunsmith. His business was the beginning of a growing town. It was a good place for people to settle. The river provided transportation, and there was plenty of timber for building cabins. Game was plentiful, and there were also nearby salt licks.
In 1802 Alexander Wilson built a ferry and began a business of ferrying settlers across the river. Wilson charged the following prices:
In 1804 John Marshall heard of the busy port of entry town in Illinois. He brought his stock of goods and opened one of the first stores in Shawneetown. He also owned a wagon train that hauled salt from the salt licks to the river where it was shipped away by boat.
Shawneetown grew rapidly, and it was a town of many "firsts." Not only was it the first town settled by the English in Illinois, but it also had the first operating post office and the first bank. Some of the earliest churches were also founded in Shawneetown.
In 1810, eight years before Illinois became a state, a United States post office was established in Shawneetown. For a number of years Shawneetown served as a mail distribution center for a large area of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The first line of mail coaches had been established in the United States on September 7, 1785. As early as 1806 an overland mail route was established from Vincennes to Shawneetown, the oldest mail route in the Illinois Territory.
In the early days almost all goods were bartered for with animal hides, livestock, and eggs. There was very little money to be used for purchases. Later, as travelers began to come into the area with cash, a bank was needed. In 1816 John Marshall opened the Marshall Bank in his home, where he lived with his wife and seven children. The safe in the bank was a trap door that lifted over a wooden barrel in the cellar. At times the cashier slept nearby with a gun. The money issued by this bank was crude, and a wave of counterfeiting swept the country. But banking in Shawneetown continued, and the town was referred to as the financial capital of the state. A story is told by the residents of a time when several Chicago businessmen rode on horseback to Shawneetown to Marshall Bank asking for a loan of a few thousand dollars to help their struggling village of Chicago. The directors met and refused the loan saying, "Chicago is too far from Shawneetown to ever amount to anything."
Early Shawneetown had a reputation for lawlessness and not much concern for religion. However, there is documentary proof of Methodist circuit riders in the area as early as 1813. At first they met in homes but later bought a lot in town. Finally the First Methodist Church was built in 1842.
A missionary visiting in 1816 wrote that he had not found a single soul who made any pretense of religion. It was not until ten years later that the first Presbyterian Church was organized in Shawneetown.
Many famous people passed through the town in those early days. It is said that in touring
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Shawneetown today you are walking in the footsteps of several famous people who were at one time connected with the town. Some of those are Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, Marquis de Lafayette, Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, General Wilson, and many others.
The Ohio River played the most important role in the growth of Shawneetown, making it an important trading center in the west. Keelboats transported goods up and down the river. The river kept Shawneetwon in touch with the world. As a result it advanced much faster than those villages that were landlocked. Shawneetown remained one of the most prosperous and important ports until the building of the railroad. With land travel so much faster and easier, the river ports became less important. The once-busy booming town that played such an important role in the settling and growth of the area eventually became just another small town in southern Illinois.—[From Lucille M. Gray, The Story of Illinois; Lucille Lawler, "First Illinois Bank," Illinois Magazine; Lucille Lawler, Gallatin County; Edward Oliver, The Saga of Southern Illinois; Theodore Calvin Pease, The Story of Illinois.]
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