Ferdinand Ernst (1784?-1822) was a wealthy German farmer who led more than 100 Germans to the United States and founded a short-lived colony in Vandalia. He ventured to the Sangamon country in 1819. This excerpt comes from the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, which in 1903 published the Illinois section of Ernst’s Observations Made Upon a Journey Through the United States of North America in the Year 1819 (translated from the German by Professor E.P. Baker of McKendree College).
As soon as the building was far enough advanced … I started upon a journey to view the wonderful land upon the Sangamon before I returned to Europe. On the 27th of August I, accompanied by a guide set out upon this little journey. We were both mounted, and had filled our portmanteaus as bountifully as possible with food for man and horse, because upon such a journey in those regions, one can not count upon much. …
We left the forests about the sources of Sugar and Silver creeks to the south, and in the vicinity of the groves about the sources of the Macoupin we came upon this road (the Edwards Trace — ed.) We now touched upon points of timber on some branches of this river, and then came into that great prairie which extends from the Illinois river through the greater part of the State. … This great prairie is the dividing line of the waters flowing southward to the Mississippi and northward to the Sangamon; but is, however, of no considerable height (elevation). … All rivers here have but little fall and form many stagnant bodies of water, while in dry seasons the rivers dry up almost completely, and thereby are produced those vapors which make the air unhealthy.
As soon as one arrives upon the elevation and northern side of this prairie the grass of the prairie changes and the ground becomes visibly better. The river banks decline in a gentle slope from the prairie to the water, and are likewise covered with woods, which also shows the greater fertility of the soil. We find here in the State of Illinois almost the same variety of woods that are found in Ohio; and I found, in addition to the soft maple, the sugar tree which, in its leaves, differs but little from it. The inhabitants regard the latter as far better for the production of sugar.
On Sugar creek, where we passed the second night, we found, right at the point of the timber, a family who had not yet finished their log cabin. Half a mile farther three families had settled near an excellent spring, and here we passed the night. Upon this little stream, which about 15 miles to the north of its source empties into the Sangamon, about 60 farms have already been laid out and indeed all since this spring of 1819. They have only broken up the sod of the prairie with the plow and planted their corn, and now one sees these splendid fields covered almost without exception with corn from ten to 15 feet high. It is no wonder that such a high degree of fruitfulness attracts men to bid defiance to the various dangers and inconveniences that might, up to this time, present themselves to such a settlement. And one can therefore predict that possibly no region in all this broad America will be so quickly populated as this. Nevertheless, one must regard as venturesome daredevils all settlers who this early have located here for they trespassed upon the possessions of the Indians, and ran the risk of being driven out, or killed during the great annual hunt of the Indians, if that treaty at Edwardsville had not fortunately been made. But now how many will migrate hither since everything is quiet and safe here! Let us consider these present farmers in respect to their property right upon these their plantations. … The land is not even surveyed, and therefore cannot be offered for sale for three or four years. And then, … anyone is at liberty to outbid the present settler for his farm which is already in cultivation. If now all these considerations and actual dangers could not restrain men from migrating to this territory, this then is the most convincing proof of its value and that it is justly styled “the beautiful land on the Sangamon.”
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