For some Illinois pioneers, unexplained illnesses were terrifying signs of a witch’s power to spread affliction.
Disease was an ever-present threat on the nineteenth century American frontier. Smallpox, diphtheria, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, food poisoning, and milk sickness were common, and their causes were not well known. Germ theory was still in its infancy. In this hostile environment, Illinois pioneers fell back on folk wisdom and superstitions passed down by their ancestors.
Milk sickness in particular plagued the Midwestern frontier, made even more frightening because its origins appeared so mysterious. It was caused by drinking milk or eating the meat of cattle that had consumed white snakeroot plant, which grows in the woods along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Symptoms included abdominal pain, severe thirst, vomiting, constipation, tremors, delirium, coma, and sudden death.
According to historian Walter J. Daly, “Ordinary settlers and their doctors found it unpredictable, untreatable, and highly fatal. Milk sickness killed many, frightened more, and caused local economic crises. Villages and farms were abandoned; livestock died; entire families were killed.”
Little by little, pioneers like Anna Pierce Hobbs of Hardin County, Illinois, learned the cause of the illness, but their knowledge and experience went unrecognized by the broader medical community. Most people could not make the connection between the milk they drank and this illness, because cattle often showed no symptoms of the disease. Pioneers turned to folk cures and dubious “medicine men” who also doubled as witch doctors. Witch doctors were needed because, according to popular belief, maleficium, and not germs, viruses, or poisoned vegetation, caused these mysterious illnesses.Continue reading “Beware a Witch’s Gift”
Monument to Frances M. Pearce (1835-1854) and her infant daughter in Rosehill Cemetery, 5800 N Ravenswood Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. Frances, only 18 years old, died in childbirth and her daughter followed a few months later. Her husband, Horatio O. Stone, commissioned this sculpture in their honor, to sleep under a thick layer of glass for all eternity.
How political opposition to the American Civil War led to a bloody confrontation at the Coles County courthouse.
The year was 1864, and the month of March was just coming to a close. The watershed battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg had long passed, and it seemed as though the American Civil War would never end. The presidential election was still over seven months away. On March 28, 1864, tensions between soldiers on leave from the 54th Illinois Volunteer Regiment and antiwar Democrats erupted in what became known as the Charleston Riot. When the smoke cleared, eight men lay dead and twelve writhed in agony.
Why did animosities erupt in central Illinois that fateful spring of 1864? One historian theorized that antiwar Democrats (copperheads) who fought Union soldiers around the Coles County courthouse in March believed they were exercising their “inalienable right of revolution,” and that, in his words, “when the normal remedies of the ballot box and the courts failed, a few were willing to emulate the founders of the Republic and take up arms to protect their rights.”
Did radical Republicans and Unionists, as Robert Sampson suggested, push Democrats into violence? The answer, of course, is complicated.
After seven Southern states seceded in the winter of 1860-61, newspaper editors and politicians in southern Illinois reacted strongly against President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a volunteer army to put down the rebellion. Early in the war, the Cairo City Gazette declared, “we are opposed to our Legislature voting one cent to aid in equipping troops to be sent out of the state for the purpose of prosecuting the unnecessary war inaugurated by the present administration.”Continue reading “Only Patriots―Or Traitors”
Today, Illinois is considered the “Land of Lincoln”, but prior to the Civil War, it straddled the line between slave state and free.
That Illinois would help elect the “Great Emancipator” was not a foregone conclusion. For much of its early history, Illinois had a close relationship with slavery and was openly hostile to abolitionism. Yet, by 1860, enough voters embraced the Republican Party to elect Abraham Lincoln president, a change that was hugely consequential for African American freedom, and the nation as a whole.
Populated by immigrants from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Illinois entered the Union in 1818 with strict black codes on the books. The Illinois Constitution prohibited the introduction of slavery, but permitted residents already holding slaves to keep their property. As historian Suzanne Guasco explained, Illinois was “the only state created out of the Old Northwest Territory that failed to abolish slavery outright during its constitutional convention.”
Missouri, bordering Illinois to the west, came into the Union as a slave state in 1821. Kentucky, Illinois’ neighbor to the south, was also a slave state. The Mississippi River connected Illinois economically with other slave holding states to the south, and the bottom third of Illinois lay below the cultural Mason-Dixon Line. It’s a little-known fact that slave labor was used in at least one southern Illinois industry.
Though Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in Illinois, as did the Illinois Constitution of 1818, an exception was made for the Gallatin County salt mines. By 1819, the Gallatin County salines produced nearly 300,000 bushels of salt. Approximately 1,000 black slaves worked the mines and processed the salt.Continue reading “Slavery and the Land of Lincoln”