For the 1879 meeting of the Old Settlers of Sangamon County, president Roland Diller read letters he had solicited from some of the county’s pioneer women. They were reprinted in the History of Sangamon County, Illinois, published in 1881 by Interstate Publishing of Chicago.
Here is one of those letters, written by sisters Mahala Earnest Parkinson (1811-86) and Sarah Earnest King (1806-78).
FRIEND DILLER – In response to your request that you would like to hear from the women portion of the old settlers of Sangamon county, we will give you some of our experience.
Our father moved from Kentucky to St. Clair county, Illinois in the year 1816 or 1817 – lived there till the fall of 1819; then moved to what was then called the Sangamo country, and settled on Spring creek, ten miles west of where Springfield was afterwards located.
Our father built a camp, which we lived in until winter – and considerable snow and very cold – then built a cabin; had to thaw the snow and ice off the boards to lay the roof; then put poles on to hold the boards down. That done, they made puncheons and laid part of the floor, and put up bedsteads of some kind; then had to make beds under the bedsteads for us children to sleep on, there being nine children and three grown persons. (The part of) the cabin where there was no floor, we used for hearth and fireplace, leaving a hole in the roof for the smoke to go out at. This way we lived the first winter.
After that we done a little better; built a pen at one end of the house for the sheep, to keep the wolves from killing them, and the wolves serenaded us nearly every night.
The principal part of the provender for our stock was elm and lin (linden or basswood – ed.) brush. Our men would cut down branches for the stock to eat the branches and bark off.
Our breadstuffs had to be brought from near St. Louis, about one hundred miles. It was principally corn bread made up with cold water and baked in a skillet or oven – was commonly called corn-dodger. Our meat was in abundance, we had pork venison, turkey and prairie chicken and wild honey for all that was out. Had coffee about once a week, generally of a Sunday morning, the balance of the time, milk and water mixed. This was for the first season, after that we had enough milk without mixing it with water.
As for our clothes, we had to raise, pick, spin and weave cotton to make clothes for winter and summer; we also made linsey. The first indigo we had, we raised; used that and shumack (sumac – ed.) berries, white walnut bark and other barks for coloring.
Now for the cotton picking. Mother would every night fill a pint cup full of cotton in the seed for each one of us, and lay it down before the fire and tell us when we picked it we could go to bed, and we had it to do. Then we pitched in and warmed our cotton, and the warmer we made it, the better it picked, so we would take a good sweat.
The next day that had to be carded and spun, so we would soap the cotton some card and some spin, and when we would get enough spun and colored to make a dress apiece, we would put it in the loom and weave it. It did not take fifteen or twenty yards to make a dress, nor thirty or forty days to make one, although they were made by hand. (The sisters brought one of their mother’s cotton dresses, the only one they had saved, as a sample to show the Old Settlers – ed.)
… Now for our calico dresses. We cannot show a sample, as we have not saved one for posterity, but it would be something similar to the cotton, one in number of years and make. Before we could get one we had to make jeans and swap for calico, or else dig ginseng and smat. (It’s not clear what “smat” refers to, although it apparently was a term for a type of root – ed.) We had a neighbor woman who had a small baby, and had no cradle, and she conceived the idea of substituting her apron for a cradle, tie the baby in it, then the apron around her neck, and spun on the big wheel in order to make clothing for her family.
As for schooling, that was not very much. Our first school we went to after we came here was four miles (away), taught by a man named Andrew. Four or five of us went by turns. The youngest was nine years old. Went on foot, and the road was a path through the high grass and woods, and the stars were often shining when we got home, and there were wolves and panthers plenty. They were frequently seen, and you can well imagine how we felt when the stars began to shine. The oldest ones would form a front and rear guard, and put the smallest in the middle, and hurry them along, all scared nearly to death.
Our school house was a log cabin; the windows were big cracks, with paper pasted over and greased to give light. Our seats were split logs, with legs put in to sit on. Our church was built of logs, and about four miles from us. It was a Methodist church, and when we had company we went on foot, one behind the other in the path.
(signed) Mrs. James Parkinson, Mrs. Sarah King
Mahala Parkinson is buried in Farmington Cemetery, Farmingdale. Sarah King is buried in the King Cemetery, New Berlin.
Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.
It was amazing to read the words written about 140 years ago by women who were part of the pioneer families here in Sangamon County. I enjoyed reading every word and appreciate these posts. Thank you.
Thanks for the kind words, Ms. Wheeler, and thanks for reading.