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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

Galesburg Grows Amidst the Jackson Panic


With sawmill and timber close at hand, and the site of Galesburg three miles away, the more enterprising built houses at Log City, and in the spring moved these prefabricated structures to their permanent locations on rollers of tree trunks with ox teams as traction, accompanied by much shouting and hurrah. Some temporary sojourn at Log City a bit of a lark, nor yet the ordered comforts and conveniences of modern towns up to the standard of those they had left in the East. They rested from their labor: only for prayer meetings and the services which filled the entire Sabbath.

Everything must go ahead at the same time; one thing was as important as another. But soon a grist mill and a saw mill saved the long trips to supply food and lumber, and a blacksmith shop, a cabinet maker, and a general store furnished other necessities, and life began to fall into its appointed groove, and leave time to consider the mission which had brought them there.

But in the meantime, to add to their difficulties, the year 1837 marked the beginning of the Jackson Panic, when the whole country plunged into a depression as severe relatively as that which followed the World War. Money depreciated, banks failed, unemployment reached unprecedented heights. On top of this, Illinois had its own depression as a result of the ill-advised Internal Improvements Act, an orgy of railroad building, with land speculation, public and private, which left the state so deeply in debt repudiation was talked of, and was averted only by the firmness of Governor Ford.

Still a country-wide panic affected this little self-contained isolated community surprisingly little. It was not yet hitched up to the national economic machinery, and its problems were peculiarly its own. There was no unemployment. Every one was busy with his own construction job, which could still go on without check. They did not miss money; they had little in any case. There was no bank, no circulating medium, most of what they needed was produced among themselves, and an ingenious system of barter took care of exchange of goods for services. They reverted for the time being to an even more primitive state of society, such as must have existed before money was invented.

Indeed Galesburg might not have known there was a depression but for two circumstances. The outside market for their corn and hogs disappeared. At best this market was not very profitable. Shipping points were distant, and for a greater part of the year inaccessible, and the expense of moving stock on foot, or hauling grain a hundred or so miles in wagons often resulted in a loss. In fact, they were not yet ready for outside markets until better means of transportation should arrive. In the second and more serious instance, the college which should have got off to a flying start met with a set-back that delayed it for years.

The Galesburg colonists had sold their farms East on time, and when the notes fell due the purchasers were unable to pay them; some had to take their farms back, and the colonists in turn were unable to pay the college for their lands, and the college was forced to grant more time or take the lands back, neither of which brought in any revenue, so that it was unable to proceed with its building program.

But in spite of all this the colonists lived, and lived well as far as food was concerned, and went on building their city, for which they already had material, while the labor was their own. Thus they were busy, while more than half the population of the East was idle. Their credit was good at Colton's store for what supplies they must have. Money was needed only for postage and taxes, but there were nearly always two bits in the town when a letter arrived, and taxes were to some extent a local matter. Thus their very isolation, their detachment from the outside world, proved a blessing at this early crisis in their economic history.


Extracted from They Broke the Prairie: being some account of the settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley by religious and educational pioneers, told in terms of one city, Galesburg, and of one college, Knox. By Calkins, Earnest Elmo, 1868-1964. New York: Scribner's, © 1937.