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The Cumberland Road: Individual Rights and Civilization's Advance


F. Delaine Donaldson with Charles Titus

The Cumberland Road, America's first interstate highway, looked simple enough on paper. Created by a law in 1803, fifteen years before Illinois became a state, Congress agreed in the 1820s to extend the Cumberland's proposed route to Vandalia, the future state capital. The area along the proposed road in Illinois was a frontier, thinly populated with about 6,600 whites and a few Native Americans who lived mostly along the waterways and sought refuge ahead of the advancing line of settlers.

Congress wanted the Cumberland Road to civilize the interior. As a transportation route, the road was intended to lure immigrants westward and to unify the nation economically, socially, and politically.

Despite the simplicity of the plan, major conflicts quickly arose. Some focused on constitutional issues, such as whether or not the federal government had the right to construct highways that cross state boundaries. Others related to the growing problem of sectionalism. States not directly affected by the construction of the road did not want to fund the project. Even within Illinois regional conflicts arose, such as where to cross the Mississippi River. Those political matters became the subject of endless debates, pitting some of the era's most respected politicians against one another.

Travelling through the woods

Another conflict, however, was less evident. It involved what might be called social control in a democratic society, how the ideal of personal liberty can be implemented when the abuse of that liberty leads to lawlessness. This issue was, and still is, a constant point of tension in any democratic society. The construction of the Cumberland Road brought the problem squarely to the citizens of Illinois.

Following a survey, contracts were awarded for clearing the roadway from Terre Haute to Vandalia. Axemen began to cut trees through what eventually became a four-county area. Those four counties-Clark, Cumberland, Effingham, and Fayette—were, in the early-nineteenth century, a wilderness occupied by large numbers of deer, wolves, panthers, wild hogs, a few bears, and even fewer people.

The call for workers to build the road brought in a motley crew. Some, like John Hix, a former regimental commander of an army group known as "Hell's Scrapings," were veterans of frontier warfare. Included were opportunists looking for any kind of profit that could be made along the route. Still others were simply looking for jobs. Once settlements began to develop along the road, assorted characters, some looking to profit from the wages paid to the workers, became part of the social milieu. A variety of social problems evolved. Quite soon, it became evident that civilization is frail and - easily threatened.


Central to the problem was the unsavory nature of men in several villages along the road who caroused on Sunday, frequented taverns, drank heavily, and gambled extensively, especially on horse racing. The stores in the towns were stocked with few groceries and lots of whiskey. Rowdyism frightened travelers who saw the groups gathered in the streets of the towns through which the road passed.

Outlawry and banditry, which later characterized the Wild West


of the post-Civil War era, was also common. In Cumberland County, for example, a gang known as the Springpoint Outlaws wanted a share of the earnings of local farmers. The outlaws worked out an effective system for stealing. A gang lookout would visit a tavern frequented by farmers and listen to conversations to determine who had sold livestock. Such a sale usually meant the seller had a sizeable sum of money. Since there were no reputable banks, people took their money home with them. That created an ideal situation for the desperados. When the farmer left the tavern, the gang's lookout followed him at a distance, making special note of where he lived. The lookout would the contact the rest of the gang who, in turn, planned a robbery for late in the night. About two or three hours after the farmer had gone to bed, a masked bandit would visit the farmer's home, pound on the door, and demand the money. Frequently, the bandit would disappear from the country for a while, living in a place called "The Bend," a hideout area on the Embarrass River between Newton and Saint Marie, in Jasper County. When the legal authorities suspected who the robber was, friends from the hideout testified on behalf of the accused in order to prevent his imprisonment. When a neighbor found out too much regarding the outlaws' activities, he was killed.

Similar problems existed in Effingham County near Altamont. A hideout close to the Cumberland Road served as a place where horse thieves stayed until night when the road was used to move their stolen horses.

The scope of the lawlessness showed that a conflict had arisen; advancing civilization had to cope with the lack of social control. Among the remedies were vigilante action, police state, or self control. Somehow, the social norms of respect for human life and personal property had to be instilled in those who lived in the four-county region through which the Cumberland Road passed.

In Teutopolis, citizens used vigilante action to solve the problem. A group of farmers set a trap for the Springpoint Outlaws. One of the German residents boasted about his good fortune resulting from the sale of livestock. He spoke loudly so that the outlaw scout was enticed to rob him that night. The villain appeared as expected, but this time a group of nearly fifteen armed farmers waited and killed the robber.

But vigilantism presents a potential problem. When the legal system is sidestepped, well-meaning people become terrorists who themselves threaten the social order. Democracy's success depends on the establishment of cultural values that encourage a social climate providing personal safety. Civilization otherwise degenerates into chaos.

One intent of the Constitution is to leave as little as possible up to the discretion of those in power. The democratic ideal is that public authority should be limited. Therefore, when conflicts concerning control arise, society often resolves the problem by turning to non-governmental groups for answers. Two basic social institutions, the family and the church, working in conjunction with each other, have often provided the values needed for reducing the lawless spirit threatening life and property.


The family came naturally to the area. The Cumberland Road meant employment opportunities, which encouraged family-oriented workers to move into the area along the Cumberland Road. The church required more effort to establish. History shows that there is sometimes a tendency for the state to act as conscience when people are compelled to submit to authorities. In a society characterized by separation of church and state, however, self control is often instilled through free religious institutions.

Frontier churches helped to maintain order in the new communities, but the character of early society along the Cumberland Road was not conducive to extended church influence. Ministering required more than caring for relocated communities; rather it involved the conversion of countless persons who did not belong to any church and who gave little evidence that they wanted to belong. Thus, the work of the frontier preacher was arduous.

Traveling ministers preached almost every day in any available spot—private homes, barrooms, barns, and under trees. Camp meetings started in 1830. Itinerant preachers frequently focused their sermons on wicked lifestyles and confronted the frontiersmen with simple alternatives such as doubt or faith, sin or righteousness, hell or heaven.

By 1840 several religious meeting places


Men fighting

had been established. Worshipers built simple log structures or used already existing log school buildings. Methodist circuit riders visited their churches once a month, encouraging lay preachers to conduct services in their absence.

Once the churches were established, congregations meted out discipline for drinking, fighting, harmful gossip, lying, stealing, immoral sexual relations, gambling, and horse racing. Anything that seemed potentially destructive of the frontier's social fabric became the subject of a sermon directed at establishing a moral code that permitted civilization to advance without invoking government restraints.

A police state was not needed. Chaos was avoided once the basic social institutions were entrenched. In effect the conflict between the ideal of personal liberty and its potential abuse through lawless behavior was eventually lessened by a society encouraging family and religious values. The compromise was not formal, yet its effects were just as longlasting and important as those reached in legislative chambers where debates about the Cumberland Road occurred.

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