"Glasses of Rose Tint”
New-World-making in southern Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
Most of the new-world-making in Illinois happened away from southern Illinois, in parts of the state where lived Yankee and other cultural types who carried that virus in their blood. But southern Illinois along the Wabash still lay within what Baker Brownell in The Other Illinois called the “utopia belt of the great midland.”
This is another excerpt from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. (For more about that project, see Publications.)
The earliest and in some ways most interesting of the many social experiments in Illinois was the settlement, beginning in 1818, of the “English Prairie” in Edwards County by Morris Birkbeck and the Flowers, George and father Richard.
None of these men was typical of the settlers then streaming into the Wabash valley. They were not Kentuckians or Indianans but Englishmen, to start. While they were religious dissenters and avid republicans—traits shared by their new Illinois neighbors, many of whose ancestors had fled Britain to escape the king and established church—they differed from their neighbors in other ways. Flowers was a son of landed gentry; the yeoman Birkbeck’s “haughty bearing and lordly air” earned him the not-at-all respectful nickname “Emperor of the Prairie.”
Why then did Birbeck and the Flowers come to Illinois? While Birkbeck was a prosperous farmer in England, he was not a landed one, and thus could not vote; he also resented paying tithes to an official state church whose doctrines he disapproved of. Then there was the universal lure—land. Land could be had in Illinois on easy credit terms for two dollars an acre. George Flower, traveling in Pennsylvania and Ohio the year before, had divined the secret that sustained generations of Illinois farmers to this day—that disposable capital was not generated in American agriculture by the sale of produce but by the sale of farmland. Perhaps just as important, land in this new place would give a man not only an economic sufficiency but political standing.
It was to look for land, then, that Birkbeck and George Flower rode west from Virginia. It was in southeastern Illinois—a few miles beyond the ferry that took them across the Wabash near Harmony, Indiana—that they found it. Flower and Birkbeck each purchased 1,500 acres of land in Edwards County on a high, grassy meadow between Bon Pas Creek and the Little Wabash River. On it they laid out the settlements of Albion (an old term for England) and Wanborough (the name of Birkbeck’s English estate).
The pair conceived a scheme to settle the place with like-minded countrymen. While Birkbeck remained on the spot, Flower went back to England to collect money and settlers, both of which were to be generated by the sale of Birkbeck’s published accounts of the new territory. These accounts—Notes on a Journey an America from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois (1817) and Letters from Illinois (1818)—were published in many editions in five languages on both sides of the Atlantic.
Birkbeck’s books were controversial as well as popular. Birkbeck described the new country in extravagantly optimistic, even ecstatic terms, which later historians have felt obliged to correct. (“He described [his house] as made of frame filled with brick, and containing thirteen rooms and two cellars,” noted Edwin Sparks in 1907. “Travellers [sic] who visited him called it a cabin.”) Wrote Theodore Pease, “The United States seemed to him the realization of his political ideals; and except for his detestation of slavery he looked on its institutions and the assumed political and social virtues of its republic and citizens through glasses of rose tint.” Birkbeck professed even to be enchanted by the prairie landscape—hardly a universal reaction—because it reminded him of English manor parks. By 1819 there were 400 English and 700 Americans in the settlement.
Birkbeck and Flower’s new Albion on the prairie was no crackpot Utopian scheme, merely a land company. Nonetheless, it offered the prospect of as perfect a world as an English yeoman might hope for, since in those days an estate of his own was farther beyond the reach of the typical English tenant farmer than heaven.
Birkbeck and Flowers had sought to join with them men of their own class. (Their amusements included riding to hounds, which must have struck their neighbors as effete, if not subversive of republican social order.) Neither mechanics or laborers were recruited, even though the latter were sorely needed. Laborers had to be imported from England in the end, after they learned that the Americans already in the area lacking the skills and (just as important) the habits of deference that the founders thought necessary in such men. Nor did the “quality” ever appear in numbers; most privileged Englishmen found Illinois hard going without servants, and even poor Americans would not stoop to service.
Birkbeck was a son of a rich Quaker, Flowers of a landed gentleman. As early as 1820 they had built houses outfitted with carpets, plastered and wallpapered walls, pianos, and books—this in an era when a cabin with a window in it was considered posh. (A frontier piano was as exotic an artifact as an Indian chief’s tomb carving, and today is coveted as a museum piece; George Flower’s piano—only the second in Illinois—is owned by the Chicago Historical Society.) This made them not only unusual but socially suspect in a state that had been settled mainly by men who could put all they owned onto a wagon.
Nor was their sophistication the only thing held against them. Model settlers the citizens of Albion might have been, but apparently the tamers of the English Prairie excited little admiration among their new countrymen. They were British for a start, natives of the nation against whom most of the local families had warred.
The experiment thrived for a time nonetheless. Though the setting was primitive, most settlers were industrious and experienced farmers. Flower imported good breeds of sheep and cattle. Birkbeck too was a forward-looking farmer—he became president of the first agricultural society in Illinois and was the first man in the county to raise merino sheep—and introduced to the locality such notions as the scientific tilling of the soil. The settlements achieved a material prosperity that would have shamed the neighbors had they been vulnerable to such feelings.
Most Illinois colonies ended in disaster of one kind or another and the English Prairie towns were no different. In 1818 Birkbeck and Flower parted company, with Birkbeck conducting business with his former friend only through an intermediary. The cause of the feud probably was love—Birkbeck and Flowers fell in love with the same young woman, and she wed Flowers—but whatever its cause the dispute it scuttled their colonization scheme. Worse was to follow. The town Birkbeck laid out in 1818, Wanborough, went into decline when Flowers’ Albion was named the new county seat. Its demise was ensured in 1825 when Birkbeck drowned while swimming his horse across a river.
Wanborough has by now completely disappeared, apart from the cemetery in which many original settlers are buried. George Flower’s Albion has at least survived as a town but its founder had his woes too. Like Birkbeck, he made enemies, in his case by his agitation against slavery. He’d invested perhaps $150,000 in the community for what would today be called infrastructure improvements and for purchasing supplies, and when the depression of 1837 hit and his hoped-for buyers never materialized, he was nudged toward bankruptcy. He lost his fortune, save for the household furniture and the family plate, and retired to Ohio, where he wrote a book before dying in 1862—sadly, too soon to see slavery ended.
The English Prairie phase is still the most interesting thing about Albion. Sadly, nearly all the structures from what must be called the Flower-ing of Albion are gone. What is today the town’s public library was built as the home of a local doctor in the Georgian style then preferred by the English well-to-do; touches of Georgian style, such as a fan-lighted doorway, also grace the nearby George French house at 6 North 4th Street, built in 1841. The Edwards County Historical Society Museum and Library houses its relics, manuscripts, and books of reference at an early (1850s) residence in Albion on Main St. The closest relic of that era may be the Old Albion Cemetery located on 4th Street, where lie many of the town’s founders; its cross style tombstones and above-ground concrete caskets gives it the feel of an English parish cemetery.
Albion and Wanborough were the first but far from the last of the land companies in post-statehood southern Illinois. Chester was founded by Cincinnati entrepreneurs as a commercial alternative to Kaskaskia, its older upriver rival. Teutopolis was founded by the German Company of Cincinnati which settled immigrants on 10,000 acres there beginning in 1839. (Teutopolis high school athletes still call themselves the Wooden Shoes, after a local craft imported from the old country.)
Ferdinand Ernst, the wealthy son of a north German farmer, brought about one hundred German immigrants to Vandalia in 1820–21. Like Birkbeck and Flower—and unlike the founders of utopian and religious colonies that would be set up in western Illinois a few years later—Ernst was not a charismatic leader bringing followers to the promised land. As Paul Stroble puts it, the Vandalia Germans were simply a group of impoverished Europeans fleeing inflation and crop failures who temporarily obligated themselves to the wealthy Ernst in exchange for Atlantic passage and land in Vandalia. Thanks to his efforts, perhaps a third to a half of Vandalia’s citizens in 1821 were German immigrants.
Ernst invested in good land, imported good beef stock, and commissioned the building of a grain mill. But some colonists reneged on their obligations, malarial diseases decimated the group—at least twenty died, including Ernst, in 1822—and Ernest’s financial and legal affairs proved a muddle. But while the colony failed, the colonists did well. Many worked out their indentures to Ernst in as few as four months, after which they were free men in America. Several set themselves up in business locally as merchants, butchers, tailors, and goldsmiths. They at least found their promised land. ●