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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 01:59 pm

History books for Christmas

Here is a short shelf of books that explore in some way the history of mid-Illinois, as I promised in "Understanding our brave new world through the old one." All are still in print or, if not, still fairly easy to track down in good used shops such as Springfield’s Prairie Archives.

 Among the anthologies aimed at the popular audience is A Springfield Reader: Historical Views of the Illinois Capital, 1818–1976, a collection of excerpts from journalism, pamphlets, and memoirs by various authors that was edited by James Krohe Jr. (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamon County Historical Society, 1976).

While Angle never essayed a full-length narrative biography of Lincoln, he did contrive to write a  biography of the city in which he lived for twenty-three years—Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln's Springfield, 1821–1865, published in Springfield 1935 by the Abraham Lincoln Association and again in 1971 by Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Bookshop.

Critic John Hallwas calls Thomas’ Lincoln’s New Salem (Springfield, Ill.: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934) a “superb achievement” and “a stylistic gem.” Hallwas adds that this extended essay blends cultural description and biog­raphy to produce a portrait in which the man and the place are melded; just as Lincoln’s life shaped the later book about the village, the village had shaped Lincoln’s life.

Another fine town biography is The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois 1825–70 by Don Harrison Doyle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), which is an academic but still readable history of that interesting city. One review spoke for many others when he called the book “a welcome addition to the slowly growing number of scholarly histories of smaller American cities.”

They Broke the Prairie by Earnest Elmo Calkins earned a placed among the best books about Illinois cities. This history of the Galesburg and of Knox College was first published in 1937, on the occasion of Knox's and Galesburg's sesquicentennial, and was reprinted in 1971. In 1989 the University of Illinois Press brought out a new edition with an introduction by Rodney O. Davis. While it is dated and marred by the prejudices of its era, it remains worth reading.

Juliet E. K. Walker investigates the rise and fall of New Philadelphia in Pike County and the career of its remarkable promoter in Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983).

A good introduction to the episode for the neutral is Robert Bruce Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), which is less about God than about town-making and politics in Illinois.

Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher by Robert Bray (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005) is the first full-length biography of this most famous of the early nineteenth-century Methodist circuit-riding preachers who also was a politician and literary figure.

Christiana Holmes Tillson was a well-educated Massachusettsan who in the 1820s joined her husband for their new life in Montgomery County. Her A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois was privately published in the 1870s. A 1919 edition was reprinted in 1995 with a new introduction by Kay J. Carr (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995). I reviewed it in Another woman’s story.

Rebecca Burlend arrived in the Military Tract in 1831 from Yorkshire with her husband and children. They set about making a farm on eighty acres worth of Newburg Township of Pike County. An account of her adventures appeared in England in 1848 and later as A True Picture of Emigration, one of the outstanding accounts of frontier life in Illinois. The edition that brought it fame featured an introduction by Milo Milton Quaife (Chicago: Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1936).

Eliza Farnham’s Life in Prairie Land (New York:  Arno Press, 1972) recalls how that woman came west to Illinois in the spring of 1836 from upstate New York, eventually to wed and begin a family in the Tazewell County village of Tremont. That part of Illinois was just emerging from its frontier phase, and the life Farnham describes—deaths of her sister and her own first-born, battles against disease and wild animals, the daunting labor of building a homestead—reminds us how inadequate is the word “settling” to describe the process of making homes on a frontier.

Carl Sandburg’s memoirs of his boyhood in Galesburg, Always the Young Strangers (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953) and Ever the Winds of Chance (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1983) are affectionate and rich; they were reprinted in 1991 by Harvest Books.

Historian John Mack Faragher examines the frontier era through an early Sangamon County settlement south of Springfield in Sugar Creek: Life On the Illinois Prairie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986). Christopher N. Breiseth of Wilkes College was not alone in finding it “an impressive social history.”

The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln by Robert Mazrim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) is an informal report of many years of archeological excavations through which the author brings to life the frontier era of the region. 

Koster: Americans in Search of Their Prehistoric Past by Stuart Struever and Felicia Antonelli Holton (Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979) recounts the discovery and exploration of that important archeological site in Greene County. The book set a new standard for popular works on anthropology.

French and Indians of the Illinois River by Nehemiah Matson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001) first appeared in 1874 and was reissued as one of the publisher’s Shawnee Classics, with a foreword by Rodney O. Davis. Davis notes  that Matson combined the attributes of a scholar with the more dubious traits of a salesman and promoter, but that his account based on his own interviews is invaluable. Many of the events he describes took places in mid-Illinois.

Judith A. Franke’s French Peoria and the Illinois Country 1673–1846 (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1995) is the authoritative account of that very interesting period. The French traders who came to Illinois looking for pelts brought with them missionaries looking for soul.

Allen G. Bogue’s From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, reprinted in 1994 by the Iowa State University Press in Ames) is justly respected as an essential work on its subject. Making the Corn Belt: A Geographical History of Middle-Western Agriculture by John C. Hudson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) persuasively explains how corn cultivation came to dominate mid-Illinois farming.

John Thompson’s study, Wetlands Drainage, River Modification, and Sectoral Conflict in the Lower Illinois Valley, 1890–1930 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002) has an unappetizing title, but it recounts an important story not previously treated by scholars, namely the drainage of wetlands along the lower Illinois River for farming that changed land and water relationships, destroyed a major riverine fishing industry, and severely damaged a renowned waterfowl hunting grounds.

Robert P. Sutton examined mid-Illinois’s nineteenth century utopian communities in the larger Midwestern context in Heartland Utopias (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).

Paul Elmen’s Wheat Flour Messiah: Eric Jansson of Bishop Hill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976) provides an excellent account of the religious vision that gave birth to that colony.

The first volume of John Bartlow Martin’s The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson, subtitled Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976) is generally honored as the definitive biography covering the Illinois years.

Mark A. Plummer’s Lincoln's Rail Splitter: Governor Richard J. Oglesby (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001) introduces readers to the man who was Illinois governor from 1865 to 1869 and again from 1885 to 1889 and who—no less significantly in the mid of the larger public—came up with the rail-splitter image for Abraham Lincoln's successful presidential campaign of 1860.

Joan Gittens recounts the pendulum swings between scandal and reform back to indifference and neglect that characterize the State of Illinois’s fitful attempts to do right by vulnerable children; her Poor Relations: The Children of the State of Illinois 1818–1990 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) spends much time discussing the important state institutions in Normal, Lincoln, and Jacksonville.

Women, Work, and Worship in Lincoln’s Country: The Dumville Family Letters (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016) presents the Dumvilles, mother and daughters, who lived in the Morgan and Macoupin counties of the mid-1800s, and in the process teach us much about life in that time and place. I reviewed it in Old letters.


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