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When Abraham Lincoln moved to Illinois' Sangamo Country in 1831, he found a pioneer community transforming from a cluster of log houses along an ancient trail to a community of new towns and state roads. But two of the towns vanished in a matter of years, and many of the activities and lifestyles that shaped them were almost entirely forgotten. In The Sangamo Frontier, archaeologist Robert Mazrim unearths the buried history of this early American community, breathing new life into a region that still rests in Lincoln's shadow.
Named after a shallow river that cuts through the prairies of central Illinois, the Sangamo Country-an area that now encompasses the capital city of Springfield and present-day Sangamon County-was first colonized after the War of 1812. For the past fifteen years, Mazrim has conducted dozens of excavations there, digging up pieces of pioneer life, from hand-forged iron and locally made crockery to pewter spoons and Staffordshire teacups. And here, in beautifully illustrated stories of each dig, he shows how each of these small artifacts can teach us something about the lifestyles of people who lived on the frontier nearly two hundred years ago. Allowing us to see past the changed modern landscape and the clichés of pioneer history, Mazrim deftly uses his findings to portray the homes, farms, taverns, and pottery shops where Lincoln's neighbors once lived and worked.
Drawing readers into the thrill of discovery, The Sangamo Frontier inaugurates a new kind of archaeological history that both enhances and challenges our written history. It imbues today's landscape with an authentic ghostliness that will reawaken the curiosity of anyone interested in the forgotten people and places that helped shape our nation.
— Terry A. Barnhart
— Charles E. Orser, Jr.
— Mark Groover
— J. Eric Deetz
— Debra A. Reid
— Dan Monroe
They say it began with the ringing of a bell, down by the Mississippi River in a little town whose residents spoke French. It was early July, and it was probably hot. The river may have been a bit low, and the wheat would have filled the fields, waiting for rain. In the town of Kaskaskia, there were several hundred villagers whose parents and grandparents had built the little town around a mission chapel seventy-five years earlier. The mission had grown into a large, weather-worn church, inside which hung a big bell cast in France decades earlier. On the evening of July 4, 1778, it was ringing again. The Americans had arrived.
In the late winter of 1778, two years into the American Revolution, Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark (under the guidance of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson) began planning an attack on a British post in the far western Illinois Country. It was Clark's brother William who, with Meriwether Lewis, would ascend the Missouri River twenty-six years later, ultimately making the West that was Illinois in 1778 into the Midwest that it is today. From Virginia, Clark raised a company of about 175 men who were to advance toward the Illinois Country, each with the promise of a land grant of 300 acres in the far western region, upon their success of capturing the British post at the old French town of Kaskaskia.
The village of Kaskaskia was already a historic one by the time of the American Revolution, although most colonial Americans living on the eastern seaboard knew nothing about it. The French founded Kaskaskia in 1703 as a mission and fur trading post. At that time, Illinois was still considered part of Canada by the French government. The village had grown quickly into a stable colonial community, in many ways resembling villages in France built centuries earlier. The French speaking residents of the village encountered by Clark were second and third generation residents of Illinois. Most were descendants of French Canadian fur traders, many of whom had married Native American women.
Ten years prior to Clark's arrival, the population of the village had grown to about 900 (figure 1.1). In addition to those who farmed and traded furs, there were merchants, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, tailors, bakers, physicians, and many slaves living and working in a village that consisted of three principal east-west streets, and four or five small side streets. At the center of the village stood a large church, built about twenty-five years earlier, on the site of a least two others. In its bell tower hung a bell that had been cast in La Rochelle, France in 1741. The big church with its arched ceiling, white marble altar, carved reliquaries, and large painting of the Immaculate Conception was the only structure of its kind for hundreds of miles. It was also a little slice of old Europe, surrounded by a wilderness none of us can know today.
In the spring of 1778, Clark and his men descended the Ohio River from Fort Pitt (modern Pittsburgh) until they reached the Illinois shore at the site of an abandoned French fort known as Fort Massac. Here, they climbed the bluffs into the forests of southern Illinois and began a 120-mile overland march to Kaskaskia, which was situated in the Mississippi valley. The trail was a poor one, and the company was nearly lost in an open prairie on the third day of their march. The men ran out of provisions on the fourth day, and on the night of the sixth-July 4th-they descended into the Mississippi valley, on the opposite side of a small river (also called Kaskaskia) from the French village. They quietly captured a small French farmhouse and prepared to advance on the British post.
As a result of France's loss of the Seven Years War in 1763, French Illinois had fallen to British control, although the British military did not actually arrive at Kaskaskia until 1765. Aside from a new administrative presence and new uniforms at the fort, little had changed at Kaskaskia; the place was still very French in its customs, religion, language, and history. The residents of Kaskaskia and other nearby villages were not particularly loyal to their British occupiers, but they also were known to fear the Americans, whom they regarded as desperadoes.
Clark's men crossed the Kaskaskia River in the darkness, surrounded the small village, and captured the British post without firing a shot. The British governor is said to have been in bed when Clark's men entered his quarters. Thus the Americans captured the village of Kaskaskia. Clark surprised the alarmed villagers with a simple offer: in exchange for an oath of fidelity, the French residents of Illinois would receive the same freedoms and privileges enjoyed by the Americans who now occupied their village. Their land and personal property would remain theirs, and most importantly, the activities of the Catholic churches in the colony would not be disturbed. On the night of July 4, someone entered the old church in the center of Kaskaskia and rung the church bell. The sound of that bell literally signaled the beginning of the American frontier period in Illinois.
* * *
Gradually, the old village began to be populated with American families-primarily Virginians of Scotch-Irish or English descent. Kaskaskia would serve as the seat of government as Illinois became an American county, and then an American territory. The location of the village, however, was a precarious one. The town had been established on low ground situated between the Kaskaskia and the Mississippi rivers, immediately south of a bend in the Mississippi. During the mid-nineteenth century, several floods began carving a new channel behind the village, and into the mouth of the Kaskaskia. The subsequent erosion and widening of the new Mississippi River channel carried away most of the town in a matter of a few years. People moved away, some of the bodies in the old cemeteries were exhumed. The rest was left to the river, and the surviving stone, brick, and log houses tumbled into the water.
Modern Kaskaskia, relocated just downstream from the muddy beach that was once the original village, looks like most late nineteenth-century communities in rural Illinois. The brick church in the new village, however, is a direct descendant of the little mission established on the banks of the Kaskaskia in 1703. Few visitors manage to find the place, as it far from the beaten path of tourism. In a tiny museum at the edge of town rests the bell from the old church at Kaskaskia (figure 1.2). Enshrined in a little white room, the big metallic thing rests quietly, the enormity of its history almost completely muted.
While our picture of the "Old West" usually consists of gold rushes, wagon trains, and 1870s saloons beneath the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, it was the settlements along the Mississippi that defined the West for Americans following the Revolutionary War. When Lewis and Clark launched their expedition up the Missouri River in 1804, they embarked from the shores of an old French colony perched at the edge of territorial America. The Mississippi River was more than some water to cross, and was also more than a boundary removed by the Louisiana Purchase. It was the western edge of the West. As the Corps of Discovery began to push that line back, behind it swelled the frontier.
"Frontier" is one of those overused terms that tends to lose its meaning, conjuring stereotypes drawn from grade-school filmstrips and bad television. This is unfortunate, as the term refers to a remarkably complex and intriguing cultural phenomena. The frontier generally signaled a transition, when a particular society expanded its boundaries into what was considered to be a "wild" landscape. The ways in which that society began to transplant itself offer insights into its ideals, priorities, and its vision of itself and its future. Complicating matters was the fact that these landscapes were usually already occupied by another culture, which did not see the landscape as wild at all, and which had already called the place home.
From a historiographic point of view, our modern concepts of the American frontier are a little over a century old. Very near the end of the nineteenth century, Frederick Jackson Turner (a student and later a professor at University of Wisconsin), stressed the importance of a better understanding of the process by which Americans colonized successive wilderness regions of the continent. At the time, the last western frontiers in America had closed only two decades earlier.
In the forests of North America (regarded as blank canvases with no history), Turner and some of his students pictured a harsh, unyielding environment that stripped newly arrived pioneers of many of their ancestral traditions, as well as the accouterments of a dawning industrial revolution. The result, they patriotically argued, were societies and institutions that were new and distinctly "American." Such simplistic and romantic notions of the frontier were in part products of the Victorian era, and they also took their place in a long line of histories written by colonial powers.
In fact, what Americans of the late eighteenth century regarded as the western wilderness had a long and complex human history, stretching back 12,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. To many of those who moved west from the original colonies, however, the ancient aboriginal history of the place (not to mention the Native American societies that were still occupying the West) was basically part of the scenery. It was also actually quite evident (even in Turner's time) that the cultural traditions of the immigrants who moved west were hardly "stripped away" by the environment in which they built their log houses. Many facets of the cultural identity of the inhabitants of the western frontiers-where and how they set up housekeeping, what they ate, what they wore, or even the songs they sang after dark-echoed the traditions of their forefathers in southern England, Ireland, Germany, or Norway.
The term frontier was not an invention of historians-it was used by the very people who were living there. In most cases, the term appears to have been a geographical one. In early nineteenth-century Illinois, for instance, the frontier simply referred to the most advanced settlements situated on the edge of a wilderness occupied by Native Americans. Often, the word was used in conjunction with an attempt to describe the vulnerability of particular settlements to Indian attack. As the perception of that vulnerability faded, so did the use of the term. During the early nineteenth century, the United States Census Bureau also used the term to measure the density of new settlements. A region occupied by no more than two Euro-Americans per square mile was a frontier. The Native Americans were not counted.
For our purposes, the term frontier is both a geographical and temporal one, used to refer to a brief period of transition (figure 1.3). During this period, Americans transformed what they recognized as a wilderness into a series of interconnected communities with organized social, political, and economic boundaries, as well as a working system of trade and internal improvements. In Illinois, an early nineteenth-century frontier community was characterized by settlements located at the edge of unsurveyed government or Indian-controlled lands. Within these frontiers were dispersed clusters of settlements oriented with respect to natural resources and topography (as opposed to land surveys or sociopolitical districts). These settlements were serviced by only embryonic systems of local government, reliable transportation, and surplus-based agricultural economies.
What would become the state of Illinois in 1818 underwent the transition that we call the American frontier between 1778, the year of Clark's capture of Kaskaskia, and about 1840. The transition did not occur all at once, or uniformly across the state. The frontier moved over time, and within Illinois that movement was basically a northerly one. By 1810, the American settlements had surrounded the old French communities along the Mississippi River. By 1820, they had reached well into the central portion of the state, transforming the forests that cut through the vast upland prairies there. By 1840 in the northern part of the state, what had been Indian country ten years earlier was beginning to look much like the older communities to the south. Plows cut into old forest soils, new roads wound along timberlines, and bridges, mills, and the smoke from new chimneys appeared on the horizon. A landscape that had looked basically the same for millennia was about to change forever. Twenty years before the Civil War, we were everywhere, and the frontier was pushed further west.
Most modern Americans probably regard the nineteenth century as one era-the black and white time before electric lights, refrigerators, penicillin, automobiles, radios, and television. In fact, there were many eras of great change between the artificial bracket of 1800 to 1900.
The early years of that century are also much further back than most of us realize. From our viewpoint today, the tales handed down from our grandmother's grandmother still do not reach the frontier period in Illinois. The bulk of the items we recognize as antiques in the local antique store actually postdate the Civil War, and reflect technologies, fashions, and traditions that would have represented the future to a resident of 1830 America.
This is not to say that 1830 was as primitive as we are often led to believe. Throughout the eighteenth century, the middle classes had been offered an increasingly wider range of refined goods, technologies, and comforts that had once been the province of only the most wealthy. By the time the English colonies had been transformed into the first American states, many elements of what we would consider a reasonably modern life were familiar to families of even limited means. The beginnings of the factory system and an ever-increasing international trade introduced a new era of mass production and mass consumption. The result would change forever many ancient folkways, and give birth to the modern consumer.
The frontier period in Illinois coincided with the introduction of many new things, and the fading of many old ways. Mass production served to make an increasing variety of goods cheaper and less likely to be made at home or by a local craftsman. Pottery was imported from England, printed cloth from New England, cast iron vessels and tools from Pittsburgh. Window glass, bottled foods, and new medicines became cheaper and easier to get. At the end of the frontier period in Illinois, inventions such as the match, the steel plow, and the percussion cap reached deeply into everyday life. In a matter of a single generation, open-hearth cooking, practiced by humans for millennia, was largely replaced by cooking stoves. Even the concept of time would change shortly after the close of the frontier in Illinois, with the coming of the railroads and the need to synchronize our clocks.
In other words, there has been a certain level of extinction since 1840, and there exists a significant gulf between then and now. That gulf, and those extinctions, are what drives much of archaeology, and makes the excavation of a 200-year-old house site not fundamentally different than the excavation of a 1000-year-old house site. The year 1840 lay at the end of an ancient road, and the beginning of the world with which we are familiar today. The colonization of the Sangamo Country occurred during this remarkable time.
Gaps in the Record
There are the libraries above ground, and there are those down below. Above ground is the world of the written record-of histories that were intentionally and self-consciously recorded. Below, the archeological record offers another form of history-an unintentional and often forgotten one.
Paperwork from the early nineteenth century is reasonably abundant, although archival records from rural frontier communities of the period are less so. Much of our information regarding the structure of those communities is based on the kinds of primary documents that tend to appear upon the establishment of a new local government, such as court, deed, or census records. But this material usually does not reflect the content and character of the daily lives of those who were living in the new western settlements. Beyond the probate inventory (which listed the contents of a dead man's home) or the occasional long letter written to a relative living elsewhere, seeing into the physical universe of the early nineteenth-century frontier is difficult. Because the frontier period of Illinois closed around 1840, we also cannot have a single photograph taken during this period.
Excerpted from THE SANGAMO FRONTIER by ROBERT MAZRIM Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 6, 2009
This book provides insight in to how archaeologists see the world, which is very different from everyone else, thank goodness. This is not a book about sexy excavations - instead it's a thoughtful analysis of the most important aspects of the professional and it's written for the general reader. I'm personally interested in this stuff, so i loved this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.