History of Coles County, Illinois

By Charles Edward Wilson

© 1905
Transcribed by Kim Torp and Judy Anderson

Chapter 1

Primitive Conditions

The County Before Settlement -- Physical Features and Characteristics -- Geology -- Water Courses -- Flora -- Indigenous Plants and Fruits -- Some Historic Groves -- The Prairie Soil And Its Products -- Wild Animals, Birds And Other Game -- Reptiles and Insects -- A Pioneers Recreation and a Backwoods Twilight Scene -- Climate and Early Diseases -- Changes Produced by Cultivation and Drainage (p.617-622)

When the first white man came to the territory now known as Coles County, they found no great mountains or splendid scenery, but a country very level except near water courses, and near them only moderately hilly. They found a country whose rivers and creeks were not generally attractive, with gravelly banks and sandy bottoms, and surrounded by picturesque views, as in many other places, but streams bordered with black soil along the smaller creeks, and generally with clay banks along the larger ones, except in the few places along the Embarras, where there are rocky bluffs and somewhat rugged shores.

Geology. -- No systematic and scientific investigation of the formation of the strata below the surface of the land in Coles County has ever been made. Beneath the soil is yellow clay, below that a hard blue clay, and still lower, in many parts, is a layer of gravel and sand, which is full of water, and is the source of the water supply obtained for the city of Mattoon at a depth of 60 to 75 feet. Below that is a whitish shale and, at intervals at a greater depth are strata of stone, sand, slate and coal. Saltwater is found in abundance at various depths. Coal has not been found in deposits sufficiently thick to be mined profitably.

About 1880, after preliminary borings had been made, a shaft was sunk at Mattoon to a depth of 900 feet, and mining operations begun at that depth upon a vein about four or five feet thick. It was found to be a good free burning quality of soft coal, but after several years of effort to mine it at a profit, the mine was closed about 1885 and the project abandoned. Thin veins of coal cropped out at an early day along the high bluffs upon the Embarras River, and some of it was taken out and used by the early settlers.

At an early day stone was quarried along the Embarras to some extent for building purposes, and for the use of the railroads; but for many years that has been abandoned. The LeBaron History states that the "quality of the stone was poor, and of but little value for building purposes." Since then, however, other beds have been opened up and a stone of white brown color has been found untested, which has proven such superior quality that the Court House, the Christian Church and other buildings at Charleston have been constructed of it.

Some 30 or 35 years ago gas was found near the north line of the County in Seven Hickory Township, and also in the town of Paradise, at a depth varying from 70 to 100 feet, which had fairly good illuminating and heating qualities. Several residences in the latter Township have, for many years, been lighted and heated by this natural gas. It has also been found recently in the west part of Mattoon at about the same depth. The pressure of the gas so far found is small, and therefore cannot be made available for general use. Whether this gas is generated at about the depth found, or whether it is a leak through some crevice in the rock far below, which, if penetrated, would produce an abundant supply, is a much mooted question.

Oil has, within the past year or two, been found in Clark County near the southeastern part of Coles and land in that vicinity in this County has been leased for the purpose of putting down test wells. Parties have also executed leases recently in other parts of Coles County for the same purpose.

The strata of stone known as Trenton Rock, which overlies oil and gas in other states, is estimated to lie from 2500 to 3000 feet below the surface in this County, and some enterprising individuals or company will sooner or later penetrate that rock and settle the question whether oil or gas can be found here in paying quantities.

Up to this time the "bowels of the Earth" in this County have never been penetrated beyond a depth of sixteen to seventeen hundred feet.

Water Courses -- The principal water course in the County is the Embarras River, so named by the early French explorers, and their pronunciation of the name has been corrupted into "Ambraw," which is the spelling now very commonly used. This stream often overflowed its banks in early days, and, for several miles above its mouth, its water sometimes united with those of the Wabash in high freshets; and, even when the waters of both were within their banks, the country between Fort Vincennes and the Embarras River was swampy. A large tract between those places was then called "Purgatory Swamp," or "Devil's Holes," in which animals, and sometimes men, were lost, so that the services of an experienced guide were required in certain seasons in going over that swampy country by the early travelers, when they desired to journey from or to Kaskaskia over the obsecure path known as the "Vincennes Trace," which stretched between those settlements. These troublesome conditions caused the French settlers to give the name "Embarras" to this stream. The French word having a similar meaning to that our word "embarrass."

The Embarras heads in Champaign County and enters Coles County near the northwest corner of East Oakland Township, and continuing west of South, emerges from the County near the southwest corner of Section 23 T.11 N. R. 9 E., thence it flows south and east to the Wabash.

The principal tributary streams flowing into the Embarras River in Coles County are: Hogue's Branch which, heading in Douglas County, flows down near to the village of Oakland, thence northwest into the Embarras; Donica's Branch, heading in Ashmore Township, flows north, forming a junction with Brush Creek about Section 29; and Brush Creek, heading in Edgar County, flows through the town of East Oakland, emptying into the Embarras at the northwest corner of Ashmore Township.

A small creek, starting near the village of Ashmore, flows northwest and empties into Brush Creek just above its mouth. Another creek, heading in Ashmore Township, which flows north and pours into the Embarras just below the mouth of Brush Creek, is called "Devils Run." Pole Cat Creek starts in Edgar County, flows through the town of Ashmore into the Embarras about at Section 8 in T.12 N. R.10 E.

Whetstone Creek flows west through the North part of Hutton Township and into the Embarras.

Hurricane Creek has several heads in the town of Hutton known as East Branch, West Branch, Lizard Creek, Miller's Branch and Clear Creek. All flow southward, forming junctions at various points until they reach the Embarras in Cumberland County.

Streams on the west side of the Embarras, in Coles County, are: Greasy Creek which heads in Seven Hickory Township and flows northeast through the north part of Morgan Township into the Embarras, and Dry Branch, which, heading about in the central part of Morgan, flows northeast into the Embarras.

Kickapoo Creek, heading near Mattoon and having two principal branches on the North; Riley Creek, which has heads in LaFayette, Humboldt and Seven Hickory Township, and Cossel Creek, heading in Seven Hickory Township-all form a junction just before they reach the Kickapoo. The latter empties into the Embarras in the southeast corner of Charleston Township.

Indian Creek, having two branches (North and South) heads in Pleasant Grove Township and flows east into the Embarras.

In the southeast part of Pleasant Grove Township by the head waters of Cottonwood Creek, which flows south into Cumberland County, forming a junction there with Muddy Creek, which heads still further north, and Clear Creek, which heads in the extreme northwestern part of the same township, all reaching the Embarras near the south line of Cumberland County.

A smaller river is the Kaskaskia, generally called the "Okaw." The derivation of the shorter name is not quite so obvious as in the case of the Ambraw. The French settlers who gave it the name Kaskaskia, early began to shorten it by referring to it by the first syllable only as the "Kas." Prefixing the article "Au" (a common practice), it became "Au Kas," which was easily and naturally changed by the later American settlers into "Okaw." This stream heads in Champaign County and enters Coles at the dividing line between the town of Humboldt and North Okaw, and flowing southwest goes out of the county at section 19 T. 13 N. R. 7 E. thence continuing south and west, it empties into the Mississippi near the place where stood the old trading post of Kaskaskia in Randolph County, which was taken from the English, July 4, 1778, by Col. George Rogers Clark.

These victories of George Rogers Clark -- the one near the mouth of the Kaskaskia on the western border of Illinois, and the other near the mouth of the Embarras at the eastern border of the state -- settled forever the fact that Illinois and all the vast Northwest Territory should, thence forward, be a part of the United States and not belong to some foreign country.

The tributaries to the Kaskaskia in Coles County are few and rather small creeks.

Flat Branch heads in Seven Hickory, and flows west across Humboldt Township, emptying into the Kaskaskia near the northwest corner of Section 1 T. 14 N. R. 7 E.

Crab Apple Creek starts in the town of Humboldt, and flows west through the South part of North Okaw, reaching the Kaskaskia in Moultrie County.

Whitley's Creek begins in the town of Mattoon and flows west into the Okaw. The streams just mentioned are the most important.

Butter Milk Creek is a small stream starting in the northeast part of the town of Paradise and, flowing south and west into Cumberland County, empties into Muddy Creek.

The Little Wabash, which becomes quite a large stream before it pours its waters into the Wabash River, has one head near the city of Mattoon and another in Shelby County. The Coles County branch runs south through Paradise into Cumberland County, where it joins the Shelby County branch and flows south and east, reaching the Big Wabash at the northeast corner of Gallatin County.

These were streams which the pioneers found here and along whose borders the first settlements were made. They carried larger quantities of water than they do now -- a condition in those early days, which was due not so much, perhaps, to a greater rainfall (although that was somewhat larger than), as to the vast quantities of water stored and retained in the sloughs and ponds upon the prairies, and which fed their waters gradually and constantly to the streams, thus keeping up the flow during the dry season and augmenting it in times of heavy rains. The Embarras, Kaskaskia and Little Wabash in early days were all navigable streams for small craft for a considerable distance above their mouths, and both state and national appropriations were made for their improvement as such.

These rivers team with fish life. Besides those varieties now found in them -- such as Black Bass, Rock Bass ("gobble-eye"), Crappie, ("Newlight"), Catfish and the little Sunfish -- there are many varieties of so -- called Sunfish and Red Perch or Bream, and the pike, red horse, buffalo, white sucker, chub, shiner, grindle, carfish and eel. They were also well stocked with the shellfish called mussel. The smaller creeks thronged with minnows and the young of the larger species.

Some years ago the German carp got into these waters and like that other importation from the Old World, the English sparrow, it has become a nuisance. The better game fishes do not like the company of this bottom-feeding, mud-wallowing foreigner, and are gradually becoming more rare in Coles County streams.

Flora -- Timber was abundant in early days, and many splendid forest "monarchs" were found here by the first settlers, measuring from 4 to 6, and some even 7, feet in diameter. This timber bordered all the large streams and followed the smaller creeks back several miles, in many places, away from the main river. Along the Embarras the timber belt varied from two to 6 miles width, and a little less along the Kaskaskia.

The kind of trees found here were: Oak of several varieties, including white, black, red, burr, pin, water, post, scrub, chinquapin and jack-oak; Walnut - black and white (or butter nut); Hickory of the kind variously called shag-bark, shell-bark, and scaly-bark, the pignut and swamp hickory; Elm -- white and red; Maple -- several varieties, including the sugar trees, which, in some places, were numerous enough for the settlers to have their "sugar camps," converting the sap each spring into delicious syrup and sugar; honey-locust, linden, cottonwood, sycamore, buckeye, pecan, mulberry, wild cherry, box-elder, birch, hackberry, basswood, quaking asp, gum, willow, thorn, beech, sassafras and persimmon.

Interspersed between and among this larger timber, some of these varieties extending further into the prairie region, were red-budud, dogwood, paw-paw, sumach, plum (of many varieties and producing its fruit in "wagon loads"), crabapple, spicebush, greenbrier, hazel, black and red haw, prickly ash, wafer ash and ironwood.

There were splendid great grapevines of the fall-grape, winter-grape and fox-grape varieties, which furnished enormous quantities of their fruit, some of which was converted into wine by the early settlers.

Another vine that the pioneer's children early learned to shun, was the poison ivy. Simply coming in contact with it caused an eruption upon the skin, with swelling and a burning sensation often accompanied by pain. Several days, and sometimes weeks, were required to recover from its effects.

In and bordering upon the timber and thickets, were many fruit-bearing small shrubs and vines, as blackberry, raspberry, gooseberry, elderberry, wild currents, dewberry, buckberry and others. These, in their season, all added varieties to the pioneers bill of fare and were made into jams and preserves for winter use.

There were several detached bodies of timber or groves in the County, such as "Dodge Grove," about two miles north of Mattoon in section 2, which received its name from the fact that one Whitley once hid a horse in that grove to keep it from being found by parties who claimed to have won it in a bet on a horse race. The horse thus "dodged" its pursuers.

Dead Man's Grove in LaFayette, northeast of Mattoon, in sections 3 and 4 T. 12 N. R. 8, was so named because a man was found dead there by some of the first settlers or the Indians, and his body was said to be taken on a horse by Samuel Kellogg, to the John Parker settlement on the Ambraw and there buried. Blue Grass Grove, near Humboldt, about the Southeast part of section 4 and vicinity, received its name from the extensive growth of blue-grass about it. Dry Grove and Buck Grove, south of Mattoon about four miles (the first named in the northeast part of Paradise Township and the second in northwest part of Pleasant Grove)-the origin of whose names is now only guess work -- and Seven Hickory Grove from which the town in which it is located was named, were notable localities at an early day.

The first comers here said that there were only seven hickory trees in Hickory Grove originally, and no other timber of any kind; but it soon spread and developed into a large grove, not alone of hickory but gradually of other species of timber. Those trees were near the northeast corner of section 20, in Township 13 range 9.

There was much speculation as to the cause of these detached clumps of timber and many theories were promulgated. The most reasonable one, perhaps, was that, as they were all upon relatively high ground, the wolves had, through previous years, been accustomed to make dens there, and their digging in the ground had given the needed means for the sprouting of nuts and seeds dropped by animals, birds or Indians. There were always wolves dens in and about these groves, and wolves never made dens in low ground which was liable to be flooded in wet seasons.

Between the tracts of timber and surrounding these groves was the prairie land, not attractive as a place of settlement in those early days, because of the water that covered so much of its surface in some seasons of the year and because wood for fuel and other purposes was needed near at hand. All lower parts of this comparatively level prairie were covered with water a part of each year, and, in many places, a horse could swim in it after a time of much rain. The writer, when a boy, in the winter of 1860-61 went with a friend some seven miles north of Charleston, starting early in the morning to make the trip on foot. There was thin ice upon the ponds and sloughs, not strong enough to bear one up. Each step was through the thin ice and into slush or water. Upon various stages of the trip we were obliged to go around, or "coon" the occasional fences, over long stretches of water, so that our destination was not reached until in the afternoon. The worst of these "sloughs" we encountered was fully one-fourth of a mile across, and, perhaps, from three to five feet deep in the middle. That slough was in section 10 -- 13 -- 9, and one visiting that neighborhood now, would never suspect its former "moist" condition.

Prairies and Their Products -- "Prairie" is a French word signifying meadow, and is applied to any land that is destitute of timber and clothed with grass. A large part of the earth's surface (possibly one-half) was, in a state of nature, prairie land. The "steppes" of Tartary, the "pampas" of South America, the "savanna's" of our Southern and the prairies of our Western States, all described similar tracks of country. The patriarchs of Judea, Syria and Mesopotamia fed their flocks upon the ancient prairies of those lands.

The tough sward of the prairie prevents timber from taking root, but when once it is broken by the implements of man, or by the wolves and foxes in digging their dens, or by the tramping and pawing of wild animals in their daily visits to the water courses, the land soon becomes forest.

All that prairie country in Illinois, lying between the waters which flow into the Mississippi and those which fall into the Wabash, was named by the pioneers "The Grand Prairie." Therefore, all the treeless land in Coles County west of the Embarras river was a part of "The Grand Prairie." There was some confusion in early days, growing out of the fact that the citizens of Crawford, Clark and Edgar Counties insisted on calling the tract of prairie land between the Embarras and Wabash rivers "Grand Prairie."

Upon these prairies grew mainly that coarse verdure known simply as "prairie grass"; interspersed however, were some other varieties of grasses and many kinds of weeds and flowering plants. The prairie dock grew 10 feet high. The compass plant, or "rosinweed" made many spots of blaze of yellow glory in the fall. In ponds and swampy places grew several varieties of water plants, as pond-lilies, cat-tail flags, etc. upon the drier parts of prairie were, in many places, acres of wild strawberries which, in their season, furnished another luxury for the pioneers table.

Animal and Bird Life -- The native animals were such beasts of prey as the panther, wildcat, the black timber wolf, large gray wolf, and, in vastly large numbers, the prairie wolf or coyote. Bears were here, but not numerous, and deer in abundance; also the rabbit, gray and red (or "fox") squirrel, flying squirrel, raccoon, opossum, badger, fox, gopher, ground squirrel, pole-cat, ground-hog, weasel, mink and muskrat.

The buffalo, which had formerly roamed over the Grand Prairie, had gone to the plains beyond the Mississippi before the settlers came. They were still numerous in Illinois for some years after 1800, but gradually disappeared until all were gone. Alert, wary and sagacious as they were, they early learned the deadly power of the white explorers' and hunters' firearms, and migrated beyond the wide expanse of the "Father of Waters" in the hope to evade them. Alas! that, through the pure wantonness of the white man's love of so-called "sport," this noble animal is now practically extinct.

In addition to those species of birds which we now find here (except the English sparrow, which is a recent unpardonable importation), there were wild turkey, wild pigeons (in countless numbers in some seasons during their season of migration), eagles, turkey-buzzards and parakeets. The whippoorwill, then abundant, is now rarely seen. There were the migratory water-fowls, which came each spring and fall in countless thousands, some of them even remaining in the summer to breed, viz: ducks of several species, wild geese, brantgeese, cranes, swans, storks and others. Snipes, various kinds of plovers, woodcocks and various water or marsh birds of the smaller varieties, were abundant. Of those splendid game birds, at first so numerous here - the prairie chicken, ruffed grouse ("pheasant") and quail- the first two are nearly extinct in this county, and the quail, more hardy and more prolific by reason of its ability to breed and thrive in both timber and prairies, will be saved from extinction only by the most stringent enforcement of the State game laws.

Reptiles and Insects -- Following the instincts of humanity everywhere, the early settlers were called upon to stop in their travels, or pause from their tasks, to "bruise the serpent's head." Snakes innumerable were here. The largest and most numerous and venomous was the rattlesnake. Specimens were found here at first, six inches or more in diameter and six or seven feet long. Other venomous species, in smaller numbers, were the "spreading" vipers and red vipers (or "copperheads"). More harmless species were the blacksnake, blue-racer, garter-snake, water-snake, grass (or green) snake, chicken-snake, housesnake, bull-snake, etc. Lizards were here, and frogs of all kinds and sizes made the nights musical, the long summers through.

Insects of every species indigenous to the central United States, were unpleasantly plentiful. Mosquitoes, in "flying squadrons," attacked the tired and sleeping pioneer by night; small green "horse-flies" from the prairies, and great black ones, an inch long, from the timber regions, pursued the stock upon the commons and tormented the beasts of burden in their daily tasks. It was a common sight to see horses flecked all over with blood-spots caused by those voracious insects. Wild life of all kinds was so abundant and strenuous, that the settlers couldn't become lonesome, though human neighbors were scarce.

A Pioneer's Experience. -- The pioneer - after a day's labor at the plow, interspersed, perhaps, with a shot at a fat deer that ventured close, a short chase after a skulking "painter" or wolf, and the destruction of a few snakes that crossed his path - would go to his cabin home in the evening, and while the good wife cooked the venison and johnny-cake, take down from a crack between the logs of his cabin his old clay or cob pipe, crush in his hands a little of the "twist" of home grown tobacco, fill his pipe, and taking up in his fingers a live coal from the fireplace, drop it upon the tobacco take a few puffs to start it and go out. Seating himself upon a stump or home-made bench, or reclining upon the ground, as the sun gave its final winks through the foliage over the edge of the western slopes, he would watch the horde of bats as they appeared from mysterious hiding places and darted about on noiseless wings, intent upon their insect supper; hear the whippoorwill's mournful note along the "worm fence"; see the "lightning-bugs" start from the "garden patch" and twinkle higher and higher among the trees; listen to the human-like voices of the owls down the valley- dimly conscious all the time, of those nearer sounds, the tremolo chirp of the crickets and the rhythmic cadence of the katydids, and, over and through it all, the grand diapason of the frogs- while far out upon the prairie the impudent, "rapid fire" yelping of the coyotes answered the deeper toned howls of the timber wolf, and, ever and anon, in startling nearness to his bare head, the "pinching bugs" "boomed adown the gloom and bumped along the dusk."

Climate and Diseases. -- The climate, which has been modified somewhat since that period by drainage and the cultivation of the soil, was, generally speaking, changeable, and harsh in the winter and spring often extremely cold, with many deep snows and much rain. In the summer the air was heavily charged with moisture; the days were hot and often the nights seemed hotter by reason of the humidity. Vegetation grew rank; the grasses and weeds grew as high, or higher, than a man's head, and when frost came, fell down to go through that process of decay which, continued through countless ages of the past, had made the soil of the prairies as "black as your hat," and as "rich as cream," and two or three feet deep upon thousands of acres.

This process of decay generated a miasma in the atmosphere, and the drinking water (whether of wells, or springs, or running streams) was loaded with disease-breeding germs, so that those sturdy, strong-limbed pioneers, who never quaked at sight of Indians or wild beast, shook until their teeth chattered with "fever and ague."

Whole families were afflicted for months at a time, and everybody stocked up with quinine, "cholagogue" and bitters of various kinds, mostly made by the good mothers from the roots and herbs of the forest and field. But the above must not be taken to indicate that people were sick all the time, or that everybody was sick at the same time. Some were so hardy, indeed, as to be almost immune from these attacks. But nearly every settler and his family had some experience with this baleful malaria.

There were many days, however, when the air was pleasant, balmy and bracing in the summer and fall, and, when the water had partially drained from the land, and the grasses and flowering plants had grown tall and come to their lusty development of shining green and brilliant blossoms, the prairie landscape enlivened, here and there, by the timid deer bounding gracefully away, was indeed pleasant to look upon.

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