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Thursday, June 24, 2004 04:29 am

Hero or hellion?

The life and times of Robert Pulliam, patriarch of Sangamon County

Cover illustration BY kevin atterberry (with apologies to Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons” and “Life in Hell”)

Some heroes have great talent. Others do great deeds and overcome enormous odds. Robert Pulliam was such a man, but what he is remembered for most is that he was the first Anglo settler of Sangamon County. The early city fathers admired Pulliam so much that they erected a marker near the site of his first cabin and placed a bronze plaque in downtown Springfield to honor him.

Illinois Gov. John Reynolds (1830-1834), who had once been Pulliam's neighbor, described him as a "man of fine proportions and perfect physical development" whose life circumstances "prevented his obtaining an education from books, to any considerable extent, but his natural good sense and opportunities for studying men enabled him to hold a front rank of business men of that time."

But Pulliam was no Lincoln. At best he was an uncommon criminal with an extraordinary ability to circumvent the law. In court records recently uncovered in St. Clair and Madison counties, where Pulliam lived before moving to Sangamon County, his name appears more than 80 times as both a defendant and plaintiff, and the charges against him range from assault and battery to the harboring of slaves, counterfeiting, attempted rape, and theft. In all likelihood, his move to the Sangamo Country in 1817 was an effort to stay a step ahead of the law and his creditors. In later years, Pulliam's illegal activities curtailed sharply and his reputation as a pioneer entrepreneur grew. And thanks to his powerful friends, in death he might even have stolen the title of first settler from another man, whose name is all but forgotten in the annals of Springfield history.

"The hero has a thousand faces," wrote the late socioanthropologist Joseph Campbell. To be a hero in Sangamon County, Robert Pulliam needed just two.

Pulliam's finest hour

At the first Old Settlers Day celebration, in 1859, the citizens of Sangamon County paraded out to the site of Robert Pulliam's cabin, which even at that early date had all but disappeared from the local landscape. According to The History of Sangamon County, in which was recorded the celebration:

"The spot pointed out on which the Pulliam cabin stood is in an immense grove of ash, oak, and sugar trees, a number of which have since fallen and their trunks cumber the ground. The cabin was about sixteen feet square, and fronted east, with the chimney on the south side. The ground slopes off towards the northeast and draining into Sugar creek, which is but a short distance from it. No trace was remaining of the house except a small mound, showing where the chimney stood, and a little hollow showing where there was a cellar."

There gathered the crowd, including a band, which played "Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue," as Springfield's James H. Matheny, the orator of the day, portrayed Pulliam as a hero, a man of action and faith whose "unswerving trust in His Providence" brought him to this land. Matheny was no historian, and his pastoral prose for the occasion was prefaced with these revealing remarks:

"It is not my purpose to deal in historical facts connected with the early settlement of this county. These are now being gathered by other hands, and will, in due time, be given to the world. To one event I am permitted to allude, and that one is the fact that we this day commemorate the building of the first log cabin in the county of Sangamon."

Those who knew and remembered the real Robert Pulliam surely bit their tongues that afternoon.

A pattern emerges

Robert Pulliam was born on April 12, 1776, the first of nine children, to John and Margaret Pulliam. The family, then living in Henry County, Virginia, emigrated to Kentucky and, later, to the Illinois Territory, settling in 1796 in New Design, in what was then part of St. Clair (but now Monroe) County. They crossed the Mississippi soon after, settling in the Spanish territory west of St. Louis, but moved back to Illinois in 1799.

At the age of 26, Pulliam set out on his own, and he first made an appearance in court records in 1802. He was arrested and charged with breaking into a mill owned by John Singleton and stealing three-and-a-half bushels of wheat. Pulliam's scheme was to steal others' harvests and fill his own bags. When a witness confronted Pulliam and asked how his bags had become full overnight, Pulliam said that he got the extra bushels from brother-in-law William Lot Whiteside or from his own stores. Whiteside posted Pulliam's bond, but the court didn't buy the story. In his first case, People v. Pulliam, Pulliam was found guilty and fined $1.75.

In 1806, Pulliam appeared in court six times, five times as a defendant. Five of the cases were civil actions; one was criminal. In St. Clair County People v. Pulliam, the hero of Sangamon County was charged with passing counterfeit money and later found guilty of perjury. In this case, Pulliam was accused of passing the bogus currency during his call to muster in the local militia. The civil cases involved Pulliam's debts, which were growing. Merchants in Cahokia and St. Louis sued him for failing to pay his bills. They would not be the last to do so.

Pulliam married Nancy Stoutin 1804, and soon after, daughter Nancy, the first of their six children, was born. She was followed by Martin, who spoke at the first Old Settlers Day festivities; Mary; Margaret; George Washington; and another child, who presumably died at birth. Pulliam's growing family compelled him to go into "business" in earnest. In 1807, Pulliam was again in court, twice as a defendant. In one case he was charged with assault and battery for attacking one Louis Duval with a "stick of wood." Duval had been traveling the road near Pulliam's home. Duval sought refuge in the home of Pulliam's neighbor Jamie Stockton, but Pulliam followed the hapless traveler inside, took him by the neck, and severely beat him. The other three cases that year involved debts Pulliam owed or was suing to recover.

In 1808, Pulliam was arrested for stealing a hog. That same year he injured his leg in an accident. Infection set in, and the leg had to be amputated. Pulliam asked for a continuance in this case because of his health. He recovered, and the court found him guilty as charged.

Gov. Reynolds' sympathy and respect for Pulliam seem to date from this time. In The History of Sangamon County, Reynolds recounts the injury and the grisly amputation:

"I resided with my father in the neighborhood of Mr. Pulliam, and knew the circumstances of the amputation. The patient possessed such courage that he held his body as firm as a rock, without assistance, during the operation. I presume this was the first amputation of a limb that occurred in Illinois, and at the time was considered a surgical operation almost superhuman." Reynolds' memory of the lost leg certainly surpassed any memory of the lost pig, to which Reynolds never alludes, or any of Pulliam's other encounters with the law.

Now sporting a wooden leg, Pulliam won the heart of the federal land office, which that year gave him permission to use 320 acres of federal land. The injury seems to have kept Pulliam out of the courts, too, for his name does not appear again in the dockets until 1810, when he was sued again for not paying his debts.

In 1811, Pulliam was charged with operating a new illegal enterprise: harboring slaves. Slavery was illegal in the Illinois Territory except under limited circumstances, but violators were seldom vigorously prosecuted. Pulliam was known to have slaves and to offer their labor to his friends. Conveniently, when authorities called on Pulliam to answer the charges, the slaves had disappeared. Still, the warrant was served and Pulliam was taken by a constable before a judge, who was at the residence of Pulliam's neighbors John and Elizabeth Huitt. According to court documents, Pulliam was incensed at his neighbors, who may have turned him in. At some point after his arrival, Pulliam attacked Elizabeth Huitt. In the court deposition, it is noted that Pulliam allegedly rushed at Mrs. Huitt and did "violently holt her in anger and did choke and scratch and pushed her to the ground." Pulliam was charged with assault and battery and ordered to appear before the general court at Cahokia. The charge of harboring slaves, however, was subsequently dropped.

Shortly after this affair, Pulliam and his family left their home in Goshen Township and moved deeper into the frontier, to the little settlement of Wood River in Madison County. Here Pulliam established a farm. In 1812, Pulliam went to court to sue his old neighbor John Huitt and another man, Josiah Vaughn, for $122. Huitt may have been disinclined to pay Pulliam after the vicious attack on his wife. That same year, Pulliam was again charged with assault, this time for battering the local constable, Michael Dodd. In this case he was found not guilty.

The hero of Sangamon County had moved away from his neighbors, but he soon became acquainted with the authorities of Madison County. In 1813, he was arrested and charged with "keeping a disorderly house," a euphemism for what some believe was a house of prostitution, among other vices. The charges were descriptive. Pulliam's establishment was described as a place where evil people would come together at unlawful times "to remain drinking, tippling, gaming, and misbehaving." Pulliam was found guilty of selling liquor without a license after mistakenly serving whiskey to Michael Dodd, the same constable he was accused of assaulting the previous year.

Despite his trouble with the law, Pulliam seems to have prospered. In 1814 he bought 480 acres of land in Wood River Township from the government land office in Edwardsville. That same year, Pottawatomie Indians, angered by the encroaching settlers, massacred several families at Wood River. This may have been what induced Pulliam to sell his land and move again in 1816, this time back to St. Clair County, near his relatives. Proximity to his family didn't keep him out of court, however. That year, in what may have been his most audacious act, he was charged with attempted rape, accused of forcing open the door of Hubbard Short's cabin in the owner's absence and "striving for carnal knowledge of Sarah Short." Sarah was able to avoid her attacker only with the aide of a "wagon hammer." The outcome of this case is unknown because the verdict is not on file in St. Clair County records.

The Sangamo Country

Pulliam was to be plagued by his debts in 1817. He was before the St. Clair County Court twice that year, as defendant and plaintiff. Down on his luck, Pulliam sought relief from the newly established (1809) Illinois General Assembly in Kaskaskia. A bill (sponsored by Pulliam's politically powerful friends) was passed for the relief of Pulliam's debts in the House of Representatives. But Pulliam did not get the relief he sought -- the bill was tabled by the Legislative Council (precursor to the Senate), where his reputation may have caught up with him.

To escape his creditors, Pulliam moved again, this time squatting on Kickapoo lands in central Illinois, where he and five others had built a cabin in a grove of sugar maples near Sugar Creek. Here they wintered, fed their livestock, and made maple syrup, after which they returned to St. Clair County -- where, in 1818, Pulliam found himself again in court on nine separate occasions. In Morrison v. Robert Pulliam, Pulliam was sued for $24. The plaintiff accused Pulliam of taking his three steers to the Sangamo Country to fatten up on "luxurious grasses" but bringing them back to their owner looking much the worse for wear.

Fed up with the courts, unfriendly neighbors, and his debts, Pulliam sold two lots in downtown Belleville for $1,000 and followed the Edwards Trace back to Sangamon County. According to historical accounts, Pulliam found someone else living in his cabin along Sugar Creek and persuaded (history doesn't record how) the new tenant to leave. At last Pulliam had room to breathe and the ability to operate outside the law, which he did for the next several years. He opened a tavern (without a license) and did a brisk trade along the Edwards Trace. When pressured to get a license for his tavern, he did so, but not until 1821. By then, the patriarch of Sangamon County had found religion, first in the Baptist church and then in the Methodist. But faith did not keep Robert Pulliam out of trouble.

In 1823, Pulliam purchased his claim along Sugar Creek and, four days later, used his land as collateral to borrow $500. This new debt would plague Pulliam until his death.

The patriarch of Sangamon County

In 1824, Pulliam was named the executor of the will of one George Smith, a Sangamon County neighbor. When Smith died, Pulliam went to his late neighbor's home and loaded up his assets into his wagon for his own use instead of selling them to pay Smith's debts, which were several. Pulliam was sued by Hedleigh Smith, a relative of the deceased. In the deposition of a man named James Bloyd, Pulliam explained his actions, saying that "[George] Smith owed him one hundred bushels of corn and that he might as well have his pay as anyone else."

Two years later, Hedleigh Smith took Pulliam to court again, for the original debt had still not been settled. In response, Pulliam attacked a witness in this case, Abner Smith, and was charged with assault and battery. Pulliam was a plaintiff that year, too, suing Hedleigh Smith's attorney for $8.12. Pulliam may have won this case, for he sued Hedleigh Smith in 1829 for court costs.

In 1830, in People of Sangamon County v. Robert Pulliam, the 54-year-old Pulliam was arrested again for assault, this time for threatening to shoot Henry Clark, whose father's cattle had mistakenly wandered onto Pulliam's property. Pulliam was found guilty and fined $30.50. But by then, Pulliam had made a new friend, Gov. Ninian Edwards (1826-1830), who pardoned the patriarch of Sangamon County.

In 1832, Pulliam discovered another way to avoid paying his debts. He loaded up his belongings and moved to Perry County, Ala., leaving his creditors behind. There he accrued more debt, while back in Sangamon County his former friends petitioned the circuit court to have liens put on Pulliam's property. The courts ruled in favor of the creditors, and thus Pulliam lost forever his "Sugar Shack" in Sangamon County.

Though living in Alabama in 1832, Pulliam was taken to court 11 times in Springfield. Eight of the cases were appeals. Pulliam, whose career had given him plenty of knowledge of the court system, had worked out his own system to avoid paying bills. When a debt came due, Pulliam would avoid payment for as long as possible, and the matter would eventually go before the justice of the peace. The justice would inevitably rule in favor of the plaintiff, whereupon Pulliam would appeal the decision to a higher court. The appeals process would take months, if not years, and Pulliam was not required to make restitution while a case remained open.

In one case, Pulliam was sued for a dead horse. He bought the horse from one Thomas Morgan on a note. Some time later, the horse fell ill and died. Three years later, Pulliam still had not paid the note, so Morgan took Pulliam before the justice of the peace, who ruled in Morgan's favor. Pulliam, who failed to appear in court because of an outbreak of Asiatic cholera in Springfield, later claimed that his sole witness in the case had left the state for the Arkansas Territory. The judge didn't buy it. Pulliam appealed but eventually lost his case and was ordered to pay the court.

Despite his checkered past, Pulliam held influence in Sangamon County into his last years. Toward the end of his life he hired John T. Stuart, Lincoln's onetime law partner and one of the most influential lawyers in the region, to represent him in a debt case.

Pulliam died on July 31, 1838, at his son's house in rural Sangamon County, after a short illness. An appeals-court case in which Pulliam was the plaintiff was on file at the time of his death. He died forestalling his creditors to the last. Four years later, Pulliam's estate was finally settled. Thirty-four creditors claimed $4,518.23 in unpaid debts, including the doctor who cared for Pulliam in his last days.

Hero or humbug?

To be fair, Pulliam's 19th-century supporters in Sangamon County had little knowledge of Pulliam's affairs in St. Clair and Madison counties. Few newspapers were published then, and what news they contained focused on larger issues -- the Black Hawk War, national elections, and the politics of the day. If Pulliam shared anything with his neighbors, it was his successes and ambitions, not his failures and financial troubles. And those who thought highly of Pulliam were willing to forgive him any and all trespasses.

Gov. Reynolds, whom President John Quincy Adams once characterized as "untruthful, vulgar, and knavish," was especially kind, considering Pulliam an entrepreneur of the first order. "Mr. Pulliam," Reynolds wrote, "understood the advantages of improved machinery, and endeavored to introduce it into the settlement whenever it was practical. He was one of the earliest to build a mill in this county. It was run by tread-wheel, and the motive power was either horses or oxen. All the early settlers raised cotton quite extensively, and he was one of the first, if not the first, to introduce a cotton gin into the settlement."

Unfortunately, Reynolds could not erase the past. Robert Pulliam left a considerable paper trail, much of which can be found in the Illinois State Archives and the Illinois Regional Archives Depositories, located in Springfield and Carbondale. During research for this story, Pulliam's name showed up in the court record 89 times, and this total does not include the number of occasions on which he appeared before a justice of the peace. His criminal career covered three counties and lasted 36 years. Not every document survived. In some cases, all that remained in the record was a warrant or deposition. Some cases were incomplete, and others were dismissed for lack of evidence. But the sheer number of cases involving Pulliam is the best witness against him.

Pulliam was not the only member of his extended family to appear regularly in early court records. His in-laws, the Whitesides, who posted Pulliam's bail in the first known criminal case against him, also had numerous run-ins with the law in St. Clair and Madison counties. But none matched the record for mischief held by Pulliam.

Perhaps the greatest swindle Pulliam pulled was carried out after his death. At the time of the 1859 Old Settlers Day, the family of Henry Funderburk asserted that their ancestor was living in the Sangamo Country near Brush and Horse creeks and growing corn here when Robert Pulliam arrived in October 1817. The city fathers, however, gave the title of first settler to Pulliam.

Rest in peace

Did Robert Pulliam come to Sangamon County simply to escape justice and operate outside the law? What did he do with all of his money, which at various times in his life was substantial? His reputation as a gambler, especially on horseracing, was well known. Why did people continue to lend him money, knowing that he was a poor risk? Was he simply a good con man, or was his disposition such that his neighbors in Sangamon County were willing to overlook his vices to satisfy their own illusions of the American dream?

"Historians," wrote 20th-century chronicler Eric Hobsbawm, are "professional remembrancers of what their fellow citizens would rather forget." It is not an occupation for gadflies such as James H. Matheny, or for politicians who masquerade as historians, as did Gov. John Reynolds. History, for them, had an agenda, not an obligation to truth. Robert Pulliam, the first white settler of Sangamon County, was not a hero for his time or any other.

May he rest in peace.

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