A recent archaeological dig in west central Illinois has revealed a bit of early Sangamon County history.
Robert Pulliam, believed to be our area's first settler, was remembered as a rough-and-rowdy pioneer who led a band of three men and one woman into present-day Sangamon County in the fall of 1817. They grazed cattle, hunted, and made maple sugar along Sugar Creek in Ball Township. Details about Pulliam's life are recalled in the book Sugar Creek, Life on the Illinois Prairie by John Mack Faragher.
Born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, Robert came with his family to Illinois in 1796. He married Mary Stout and settled on a farm on the bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The site of this farm became the focus of an archaeological dig conducted by the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, as part of new highway construction in Madison County.
Excavations at the site revealed the bluff top that served as Pulliam's farm from 1804 to 1816 and also contained extensive prehistoric archaeological deposits. Robert Mazrim, director of the Sangamo Archaeological Center, analyzed the materials, which included evidence of what was likely an exterior crop storage pit situated near a dwelling. The pit contained artifacts predating 1820, from when Pulliam occupied the land. Originally the pit would have been used for the storage of vegetables during the fall and early winter to shelter them from frost. Mazrim notes that such pits were common on early 19th century sites in Illinois.
The pit contained fragments of refined ceramics, such as a painted teacup and an edge decorated plate made in Staffordshire, England. Other items included portions of two redware table bowls, the base of a glass bottle, and metal portions of a tin vessel and iron buckle. All of the artifacts were put into the pit when it was abandoned. This likely occurred when Pulliam and his family pulled up stakes and moved north to the Sangamo Country. In his report on the site Mazrim notes that the material found in the pit "reflects the relative paucity of goods consumed by American households prior to 1815 in the uplands surrounding the American Bottom." Early pioneer households did not have a lot of items in their cabins and carefully used those they did own. This lack of goods was due partly to disruptions or changes in trade networks in Illinois between 1770 and 1815. Shortly after Illinois attained statehood in 1818, however, such settlers began to have a wide variety of goods available to them due to the growth of the American wholesale business community in St. Louis.
Fewer than a dozen pre-1820 sites occupied for a short time have been excavated in Illinois, and the Pulliam site adds a bit more information to this body of work. The site also serves as a reminder about the transience of frontier society. Many pioneers lived in one place for only a few years before moving on to a new and perceived better location.
The life of Robert Pulliam is a prime example. After moving with his family through four states, at age 26 he started out on his own on the bluff top site but soon left it for new lands. Pulliam returned to Sangamon County in 1819 with his family and purchased several hundred acres in present-day Ball Township. Money problems forced him to move south to Macoupin County. He died in 1838 while visiting one of his sons in Sugar Creek.