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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

Hoosiers vs. Yankees: A Slave State or Not?

The subsequent conflicts between settlers now arriving and the southern immigrants who preceded them will be better understood if some account is given of the latter, of whom the Frakers encountered by West and his party are typical specimens.

If one examines in chronological order the early maps of Illinois, such as were produced almost yearly from the time the state was admitted to the union, it will be obvious that settlement started in the south and gradually flowed north. The lower half of the map is filled with the marks that indicate the occupancy of man while the upper half, except for dots at Chicago, Peoria and Galena, is comparatively empty. Settlements creep up the rivers, Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash, before even counties are laid out in the north.

This immigration was almost wholly southern in origin. The lower half of the state was bordered by slave-owning states. It was itself practically a pro-slavery state. If the mythical boundary between slave territory and free, Mason and Dixon's line, were extended west, it would divide Illinois in half. All of it below Springfield would be geographically in "the South." As far as the sentiment of the population was concerned, that is exactly what it was.

The earliest natural means of transportation were the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. One bordered slave territory; the other flowed through it. This accounts for the predominantly southern character of the early population of Illinois. Not until large and comparatively fast steamboats plied to and fro on the Great Lakes, not until the Erie Canal was opened in 1825, did the upper half of the state begin to fill. The birth date of a surprising number of its cities is found in the years between 1830 and 1840 and two in Missouri—not counting Catholic foundations at St. Louis, little better than heathen to these zealots—all established in the proselytising [sic] spirit of Gale's own scheme. The Yale Band had set up Illinois College at Jacksonville. The Methodists had established McKendree at Lebanon, the Baptists Shurtleff at Alton, and Bishop Chase and the Episcopalians were busy gathering money for Jubilee College at Robin's Nest near Peoria. So prevalent was this form of colonization that a sardonic observer remarked: "A settler could hardly encamp on the prairie, but a college would spring up beside his wagon." Moreover, the state was dotted with communities not so ambitious, such as Princeton and Geneseo, whose hopes did not extend to a college, but did include a church and academy, closely linked and of one faith.

These promotions were not welcomed by the southern population. They opposed the building of the Michigan and Illinois canal lest it bring more Yankees into the state. They contested the establishment of denominational colleges for fear an educated ministry would drive out the circuit riders who catered to their spiritual needs more tolerantly and understandingly. All this was more or less in the minds of the Frakers, when Nehemiah West and his party drove up to their cabin door.

Nehemiah West and his party, the first to arrive, were the first to be brought into contact with the problem of living as neighbors with people so different. At the Grove they found the Gumms, the father a Baptist elder, or itinerant preacher, with four strapping married sons. The Gumms were friendly and helpful. They rented their cabins to the newcomers, though irked by the smugness and complacency of the Yankees, by their evident determination to do them good. Friction was bound to arise. West, whose only book was the Bible, may have thought at times of that other Nehemiah, who also went into a far country and cut timbers in the forest and repaired the gates of Jerusalem, and found himself surrounded by suspicious and hostile neighbors looking for pretexts to wage war.

All the arrangements fell on his sturdy shoulders, and he was qualified. He had a practical mind, good at details. He was unambitious, had no desire to be a leader, but attended to the work at hand, and soon had matters running smoothly at the new settlement. At the end of a summer spent in felling trees, building cabins, and breaking the ground for farms, the community was shocked by the arrival of a young man so weak from malaria he could scarcely sit on his horse. He brought the disastrous tidings that a boatload of fellow colonists was in a desperate situation in the Illinois river bottom at Copperas Creek. Help was earnestly needed to get them to the settlement.

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.