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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

Nehemiah West Leads the Settlers West

Thereupon began the epic movement west. The subscribers sold their farms in New York, packed their household goods, hitched their work horses to the farm wagons, and got ready for the toilsome journey to Illinois. Some made a round of farewell visits to relatives they never expected to see again, going miles out of their way to spend a night with parents who shook their heads at so wild an adventure, as age ever does at youth.

Every few months for a period of two years a train of covered wagons left the Mohawk Valley and settled down to a steady plod-plod of twenty miles a day over roads that were bad and became worse as they got farther west. Provisions for the journey, clothes, and some of the less bulky household goods were loaded on the wagons—not the picturesque Conestoga prairie schooners with their rake outboard seen in old prints, but the more sedate Yankee wagons with perpendicular sides, transformed into veritable covered wagons by canvas stretched over hoops. Heavier belongings were sent by water, by sailing vessels to New Orleans and steamboats up the Mississippi to Oquawka, the nearest point on the river, to their destinations. There they would wait until wagons could be sent for them.

Relatives or neighbors handed together to make up a train. The parties must needs be small so as not to overtax the indoor accommodations they hoped to find for at least part of the way, but it was desirable to have enough horses in a train to pull wagons out of mudholes. These "slues" or sloughs were one of the hazards of the prairies, horses and even wagons sometimes disappearing altogether. During the years 1836 and 1837 seven companies averaging twenty to forty persons each, men, women and children, set out from New York and Vermont. The journey was hard, but not especially dangerous, except to health. Two children were buried by the wayside, one woman died, and three men succumbed to the malaria that lurked in the low lands along the western rivers.

As long as their routes lay among the comparatively settled districts of the East, they stopped at taverns. As these became fewer, they looked for settlers' cabins, where the women and children at least could sleep under a roof, and the use of a cook stove be secured to prepare the evening meal. It was also necessary to be on the watch for opportunities to buy food and forage for their horses. Some had cows tied to the tailboard, or drove a small herd ahead of their wagons. Each family looked after its own supplies. There was no common larder. Game was plentiful, and in each wagon was a long rifle. At the stops, the children picked wild fruit and berries. It was for them a perpetual holiday, and most of them, as well as the men and women, walked the entire distance.

None of these pious pilgrims would travel on Sunday, no matter what their necessities. They were taking their uncompromising creed to the rowdy and riotous West, and their every act along the way was mute witness of their disapproval of the morals of the less scrupulous whose trains passed their encampments, desecrating the Lord's day. They boasted in their diaries that they always overtook these Sabbath-breakers before the week was out, proving that God was on their side. Once in Indiana an innkeeper, so fed up with righteousness as to forget his own interest, told a party the Wabash was on the rise, and that they must cross that day if at all, which they did, but mourned to have listened to a son of Belial.

The tide of emigration was setting toward the upper valley of the Mississippi, at an unprecedented rate. In the 1830's the roads leading west were white with covered wagons. From all eastern towns up and down the Atlantic seaboard, and from ships discharging immigrants from Europe at New York, Charleston and New Orleans, by ones, by twos, by families, by colonies, they were pouring into the prairies. It was one of the greatest hegiras in history. And it was determining for all time to come the character of the civilization that was to rise in that land.

Until the opening of the Erie Canal, the high tide of emigration had flowed along the Cumberland Road from Baltimore—the first macadamized highway in the country. At Pittsburgh or Wheeling the emigrants loaded their families and goods on flatboats and floated them down the Ohio. Northern traffic could also reach the Ohio by way of the Ohio canal from Cleveland to Portsmouth, and thus that river remained the most used highway until better facilities in the North, together with growing interest of its people in the West, changed the character of the emigrants in the nick of time to save Illinois from becoming a slave state.

The covered wagons now streamed along the Genesee Road in New York, laden with New Yorkers and New Englanders bent on establishing religion and agriculture in the promised land; canal boats and the palatial lake steamers were thronged with emigrants. The Galesburg colony was a wave in this tide. Its different parties did not follow identical roads. There were at least four routes by which such pilgrims could find their way from northeastern New York to western Illinois, and each was followed by at least one of the wagon trains: (1) by land all the way, to Buffalo over the Great Western Turnpike, then south of Lake Erie through Ohio and Indiana into Illinois; (2) by land all the way, crossing Niagara River at Queenston, traversing Canada to Detroit, and thence through Michigan and Indiana; (3) by land and water, loading their wagons on a steamboat at Buffalo, and unloading at Detroit; (4) by water all the way, the Erie Canal to Buffalo, lake steamboat to Cleveland, Ohio Canal to Portsmouth, down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi to Oquawka—or to Copperas Creek on the Illinois River, ten miles farther from their destination than Oquawka. A few of the more prosperous emigrants, Gale, Ferris perhaps, traveled [sic] Chicago by steamboats from Buffalo, the most expeditious as well as the most comfortable means then available. The journey could thus be made in about two weeks.

Monument to Isaac Brocks
First monument to Isaac Brock, atop Queenston Heights, in Queenston, Ontario, as seen by travelers from 1824-1840, when it was destroyed by a saboteur. Painting by Philip John Bainbrigge.

Those of the wagon trains who made the perilous crossing of Niagara at Lewiston got something of a thrill. The ferry was but five miles below the falls, where the river runs swiftly between high bluffs, with many eddies. The roads down to the water and up the opposite bank are steep and difficult. From the landing on the Lewiston side you can see on Queenston heights the tall monument to General Isaac Brock, a gallant British officer who fell at that spot, pierced by a Yankee bullet, in one of the engagements of the War of 1812. The crossing was made by horse-power ferry, which could carry but one wagon at a time. The start was well above the landing to allow for the current, but even then it seemed as if the boat must overshoot the mark and bring up against inaccessible cliffs. The water boiled green and angry around the clumsy craft, but at the critical moment the backwash of the eddy seized it and slowly moved it back. One by one each wagon made the precarious trip, watched anxiously by those waiting for their turn or safely over.

The first of the wagon trains bound for the Gale colony to leave the East was that led by Nehemiah West. It had been arranged he should be on the ground to get things ready, welcome and bestow the later arrivals and set up the machinery of living. He was to be for some years the major domo, the chief factotum of the colony. Gale furnished the idea, Ferris the business head, and West the indispensable working out of a multitude of details. He better than any knew what lay before him. Already he had twice made the difficult trip to Illinois and back; he knew the hardships and discomforts his family and fellow pilgrims must face; what it meant to subdue virgin prairie never before occupied by white men, and provide the means of existing in a country so remote from civilization. But no man, not even Gale, had more faith in the project, a greater conviction of the divine sanctity of their mission. He was of the simple, unquestioning spirit of the first disciples called by Christ.

He set out from Cayuga, New York, in the spring of 1836, as early as roads were passable. There were twenty-one persons in the party, twelve of them children, some of them infants. The route followed was one he knew from his previous trips. The wagons were taken aboard ship at Buffalo, unloaded at Detroit, and from there the Chicago road led them to Illinois. The farther west they fared, the more difficult it was to find lodgings. Even in Chicago there was no place to sleep, until a friend found them accommodations in a house being moved, standing on rollers in the middle of the street. Such sights were common in western towns, the simple structures being mobile, the habits of the settlers restless, and the cheapness of land encouraging change. The men engaged in moving the house were unaware of its temporary occupancy, and when operations started in the morning the heads at the windows were greeted with vigorous profanity. The lodgers for the night were obliged to vacate without preparing breakfast.

They traveled [sic] over the prairies of Illinois, "beautiful in the freshness of their May robes," crossed Fox River, went through the village at Peru, saw to their left the famous Starved Rock, "over whose legend as told by their father, the children shed tears." They were now in open, almost empty country, and securing supplies became difficult. Their food was exhausted, and they looked in vain for some settlement. Late at the end of a long day they came to Fraker's Grove, the settlement of a family of southerners, and had their first taste of Hoosier hospitality.

Old Mother Fraker was in one of her moods of hostility to the Yankees who were invading the state in such numbers. She told them sullenly she had neither room nor food—the last undoubtedly true, for the Hoosiers were notoriously poor providers. But Old Man Fraker took pity on them, gave them a rude cabin with a fireplace, directed them to a neighbor a mile distant where they could buy milk, and took corn from his crib and ground it in a primitive mill. A kettle was hung over the fire, and the company dined on mush and milk. Next morning the mothers of the party made hoe-cake for breakfast. The remnants were carefully gathered and carried with them, and their first meal in their new home was cold hoe-cake eaten off a puncheon slab.

Fraker's was but a short distance from the site Nehemiah had selected, bought and staked for the future city. They went immediately to the "improved farms" on the extreme north of their tract, close to the woods known as Henderson Grove. Here there was also a Hoosier settlement, relations with which took on the same mixed character of natural hospitality and sullen suspicion they had already met at the Frakers, a conflict of old established habits and ideals which was to enliven the history of their new town for years to come.

Settling his family in the cabin he had hired from a Hoosier family, West busied himself in installing others in the buildings on the improved farms now belonging to the colony. It was part of the plan to establish a foothold here from which to build their city on the neighboring prairie, for it had been agreed no log cabins would be tolerated in Galesburg. Their town was unique among pioneer settlements in that respect.

Log City circa 1837
Log City, Illinois in 1837 as remembered by Mrs. John G. West. The arrow points to number 5, the home of Aaron Noble and Clarissa Root Phelps and her brother, Riley Root.

In time a group of seventeen log cabins grew up on the edge of Henderson Grove, and was christened Log City. "Grove" was the Illinois word for the patches of timber scattered over the prairie, but Henderson Grove was actually a bit of primeval forest, twelve miles long and six wide. Scattered through it were the settlements of the Hoosiers, for those shivering southerners feared the prairies and sought the protection of the trees from the severe winter winds. They had a large village at Henderson, the first in Knox County, and they took it as evidence of the queerness of the Yankees that they planned to live on the open prairie.

It was in this setting that West and his party dug themselves in, and started the rhythmic round of work, sleep and worship, that was to be the lot of the colony for many years, and prepared to welcome the next arriving train, and initiate it into the life of Log City.

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.