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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

Pioneer Architecture: From Log Cabins to Homes


The few log cabins that existed when Nehemiah West and his party arrived in the spring of 1836 were augmented by others built during the summer, and by the following spring the earlier arrivals were beginning to move into their new houses on the "prairie," leaving cabins for later comers. Not all arrivals settled in Log City. Some went directly to their farms. The sons of Silvanus Ferris began to erect a sawmill on the bank of Henderson Creek. A creek, in Illinois, was a stream between a brook and a river.

Log City at length comprised a row of seventeen cabins, some double, one or two with lean-tos or additions, and two log barns, a straggly row running cast to west and facing south, on the two "improved farms" which joined at the site. The land on the edge of the woods was rougher than the prairie, and the site was cut by two ravines running toward Henderson Creek about a third of a mile south. A good spring in the middle of the settlement.

Besides pork and corn, they had milk and butter from their own cows, and chickens and eggs to some extent. There was plenty of game, quail, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, an occasional deer. The rifle and powder horn hung over the door in nearly every cabin. Meat was cooked in the long-handled frying pan, or in the cast-iron spider with legs that could be set down among coals; or was "jerked," that is, hung and dried.

Knox County was rich in bee trees. As much as nine gallons of strained honey and twenty-two pounds of beeswax were taken from a single tree, and John Sanburn of Knoxville, who became trustee of the college and treasurer of the C. B. & Q., shipped honey in barrels made of hollow basswood logs sawed off and the ends stopped. The Indians taught the southern settlers to draw off the syrup from the maple trees, but the Yankees with their New England background must have been familiar with sugaring.

All food reached their kitchens—if they could be said to have had kitchens—in a state of nature. All animals, wild or tame, must be killed, cleaned and dressed. In the bigger operations, such as pig killing, the neighbors joined, and it was made a festival. They were a friendly and homogeneous lot, and such gatherings had social possibilities. There were the customary house raisings, corn huskings and paring bees. In Illinois the lucky finder of a red ear of corn was rewarded by a long pull at the whisky jug instead of the more traditional kiss.

While the Hoosiers had spinning wheels and looms, and spun and wove the wool and cotton, and even flax, all of which they raised sporadically—cotton was once grown in the Military Tract—it is not clear how far back the Galesburg settlers went into the production of cloth. They were but just come from a more advanced district, and the clothing they brought with them may have lasted until new commercial relations could be established with sources of supply, but they spun yarn for knitting, and the women made all the clothes, the men's as well as their own, not merely shirts and underwear, but suits of linsey woolsey and jeans. The manufacture of ready-made clothing had hardly begun yet, even in the East.

As far as dress was concerned, the period was one of transition. The picturesque pioneer costume of leather breeches, deerskin moccasins, and coonskin cap with tail hanging down behind, had begun to disappear, while normal clothes as worn along the Atlantic seaboard would not come until commerce had been established. Men's clothes were made of cloth, generally jeans or fullcloth, bought at the store; women had already begun to abandon the homespun, home-wove, home-dyed vivid red and blue cotton or wool dresses. But the slat-sunbonnet, that perennial symbol of the pioneer woman, was as characteristic as the liberty cap of the French revolutionists. Woman is the real hero of pioneer life. Her adaptability and her self-sacrifice made it possible; her badge was the sunbonnet, which persisted until the women's magazines carried New York fashions to the remotest hamlets of the West.

The skin from butchered animals was tanned and made into leather for shoes. The work was clone by a visiting cobbler who stayed until all the family were shod. He was probably Thomas Simmons, who came from New York on foot, who joined the purchasing committee at Detroit, and carried the chain for Nehamiah West at the first surveying of Galesburg, and had a street named for him. He was a deacon of the church and a trustee of the college, and he was also the village shoemaker.


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.