An 1843 Guidebook to Illinois
A frontier-era Baedeker
November 17, 1978
It might seem odd to recommend a travel book about a place that readers presumably know well, but the Illinois of the later frontier era was a land as far away from today’s Illinois as Balochistan or Minsk. A classic instance of how time transforms the journalism of the day into history.
The concluding wisecrack was aimed at the grass-is-greener malcontents in Illinois. Note: The edition noted below is the best now available. It was published as part of SIU Press’s excellent Shawnee Classics series.
Reviewed: Eight Months in Illinois: With Information to Immigrants by William Oliver. Foreword by James E. Davis. Southern Illinois University Press, 2002
This summer, while they were on a motor trip through New England, two itinerant Springfieldians shared supper and conversation at a New Hampshire lodge with a convivial native. Our travelers' companion was a well-dressed gentleman in his forties who gave every indication of being a sophisticated man of the world. The subject turned to landscape, and after seconding our travelers' praise of the White Mountains, their companion asked earnestly, "You don't have mountains like this in Illinois?"
Today that gentleman's ignorance of the territory between the Wabash and the Mississippi is an exception. But not too long ago Illinois was a mystery to most of the world. In the 19th century, for roughly thirty years after it became a state in 1818, writers from this country and abroad endeavored to illuminate the mystery of the Prairie State to a curious world. It was the era of the guidebook and the travel memoir, the "how to" manual for the emigrant. Such books were usually published in cheap editions and were staples of the trade in Europe and the Eastern U.S. where lived the thousands of men and women for whom the promise of prosperity and space in the developing West shone like a light. They were written in many languages—reading clubs in remote German villages bought the latest ones and read them aloud over beer and pipes—and for most intended emigrants they (along with letters from family scouts sent ahead alone) provided the only glimpse of the new world of the American West.
For modern readers they perform different functions, of course. Today they are read as history books, even (considering the perils of travel in the early days) adventure stories. Some were written by shipping companies who wanted to stir up transoceanic trade and thus painted the West in the most seductive colors possible. Some were scrupulous journalistic reports, others were booster tracts. The shelves of a diligent collector would include Letters from Illinois by Norris Birkbeck (Philadelphia, 1818), Life in Prairie Land by Eliza Farnham (New York, 1855), Notes on the Western States by James Hall (Philadelphia, 1838), Illinois and the West by A.D. Jones (Boston, 1838), and The Western Tourist and Emigrants Guide by J.H. Colton (New York, 1843).
With these books in hand, the Liverpool lorryman or Silesian flax farmer could learn to the last pfennig how much it would cost to get from New Orleans to St. Louis by steamboat ($8 in the 1840s, half that for children under twelve, with up to 100 pounds of baggage free), how to notch a log for a house, how to put up a worm fence, how much sod corn would bring at market (30c per bushel). The best of them were survival guides, not tourist pamphlets, for although Illinois offered better prospects to Europe's poor, they were won only at the cost of much work, and the lazy man or the careless man might just as easily starve or die of disease as thrive in the vast and indifferent reaches of the West.
The guidebooks were written for the poor, and they were as full of advice and cautions as a grandmother. Don't bring too much luggage. Don't trust your money to strangers. Trade gold for bills of exchange. Plan ahead. And perhaps—the best advice of all—don't come at all unless need demands it.
In this sense William Oliver's Eight Months in Illinois is typical. Oliver was an Englishman who paid a visit to Illinois in the winter of 1841. He was so stricken by the flood of questions he got upon his return that he decided to put his observations into a book, which was published two years later by Mr. William Mitchell of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He dedicated his book to "the labouring men of Roxburghshire," part of the "poorer classes" that compromised his audience. For, as Oliver notes, "The poor. . . are the proper immigrants to a new country, where thews and sinews are convertible into wealth." Oliver's little book thus contains no high-flown rhetoric about Liberty and Freedom—the only liberty most early American immigrants sought was liberty from want—but much about how to hunt deer or to rid oneself of mosquitoes.
Oliver takes to heart his responsibility to be as helpful as possible. He describes the local flora and fauna (and what a menagerie Illinois must have seemed to his readers, what with elk, bear, wolves, rattlesnakes and skunks about) and, a species not less strange, the native American, such as the "two or three strange outlandish-looking gentry" he encountered sitting around a stove in Cairo, or the hunter ("a more picturesque turn-out . . . is not often to be met with") with his palmetto hat, long hair, tomahawk, long-legged boots and capot made from a Mackinaw blanket.
But Oliver was no mere compiler of lists. He showed a sharp eye for the absurdities of life in the West and his style is leavened with ironic humor. He expressed his hope in his preface that "the work may not be entirely destitute of the means of affording amusement to the general reader," and in this, more than in some other things, he was accurate. For the country and the people Oliver describes is for his late 20th century readers every bit as strange as it must have seemed to his countrymen back in Roxburghshire.
The landscape is one example. When Oliver saw it. Illinois had not yet been stripped of its prairie, those vast seas of rolling grasses interspersed with islands of forest. He was impressed but unintimidated; "Much has been said of the flowers of 'every scent and hue' on the prairie," he wrote, "but I must say that . . . whilst yellow is the prevailing hue, the word scent, if it means anything fine, must be taken as a poetical license." Of one aspect of the prairie, however, Oliver stood in acknowledged awe, and that was the sight of the prairie on fire at night—"The huge body of flame spread far and wide, leaping and plunging like the waves of the sea in a gale against a rocky coast, and emitting a continued roar like that of a heavy surf. . ."
Aside from the landscape, visitors were most impressed by the weather and the insects of Illinois. Of the two, only the weather remains unchanged in one hundred and thirty-seven years. The insects, fortunately, survive only in chronicles such as Oliver's. "Among the novel discomforts of the West," he wrote, "that of insects is of no trifling character. The whole earth and air seems teeming with them, and . . . . no sooner do those that wage war during the day retire, than their place is filled with others . . . [H]aving in vain tried to oust the mosquitoes, first by puffing and blowing, then by striking right and left, then by exposing nothing but the tip of your nose at the risk of being smothered—the thermometer at 90 degrees—you begin to summon a little patience, and are willing to compound for some sleep, by the loss of a little blood." House flies were so numerous that "It is not safe to open your mouth," and cockroaches scamper everywhere "in spite of the bitter blows aimed at him with knife and spoon, he is 'so tarnation spry.' "
Making a living in the new country was hard but possible. The land was fertile, and owing to his peculiar circumstances the Western farmer was insulated from depressions and money scares; as Oliver phrases it, "although the western husbandman might not be able to get so much for his grain and cattle as he used to do, still the grain and cattle would be produced—he would not starve." Then the American had corn, "the indigent farmer's main dependence." (Some things don't change much even in a century and a third.) "Not only is everything, down to the dog and cat, fond of the grain," Oliver notes, "but its very stalks, leaves and husks afford a valuable fodder . . . . It is to the poor of this country what the potato is to the poor Irish."
And livestock. Cattle and sheep were scrawny creatures as a rule, but the Illinois hog elicited Oliver's admiration. "There is, perhaps, no animal which the western farmer possesses, reared with so little trouble and expense, and which, at the same time, adds so largely to his comforts, as the hog." Illinois hogs were half-wild when Oliver met them, however; they were "long-nosed thin creatures with legs like greyhounds." "They think nothing of galloping a mile at a heat," he swore, "or of clearing fences which a more civilized hog would never attempt."
To people who labored in a small world in which hogs were civilized and the only fires at night came from factory stacks, the West seemed a magical place. Still, Oliver was too conscientious a guide to leave his readers with any illusions about Illinois. "Some people appear to think, that, if they were once across the Atlantic, they would have nothing else to do but to enjoy themselves," he scolds.. Further, "there is something enticing in the dreamy visions one gets . . . of newer and fairer lands, whose praises come borne along by the western winds and which, like them, have no abiding place."
Oliver, it seems, still has advice for us after all. □