Cotton fields of Sangamon County

Sangamon County was “as good a cotton country as Georgia,” one early resident told John Carroll Power for Power’s 1876 History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois. That changed, however, after the winter of the Deep Snow in 1830-31.

According to Carroll’s source, Elisha Primm (1814-86), his father, John Primm Jr., built a cotton gin, operated by horse power, in 1822. Cotton farmers from as much as 20 miles away brought their cotton to Primm, whose gin sometimes accumulated as much as 3,000 pounds of raw cotton.

The elder Primm took as his pay one of every eight pounds of ginned cotton. Finished cotton sold for 12 to about 17 cents per pound. However, Elisha Primm told Power:

“After the ‘deep snow’  the seasons appeared to shorten, and cotton was generally bitten by the frost before it had time to mature, and cotton raising was finally abandoned.”

The Deep Snow began in December 1830. Nine straight weeks of snow, sleet and bitter cold left the county covered by four to five feet of snow and devastated the pioneers’ livestock, orchards and food supplies.

Power saw a divine hand in Sangamon County’s brief period as a cotton county.

It seemed as though the seasons were overruled so as to be adapted to the wants of the pioneer settlers, when there was no other way for them to be supplied with clothing, but when roads were opened and capital came in, bringing merchandise, the seasons gravitated back to their normal condition.

Central Illinois’ earliest settlers in general made their own clothing. Power went into detail about the labor – and ingenuity – that required.

Those who first came from the Southern States – as most of them did – brought their cotton, flax and hemp seed, raised the fibre and did all the work.

They at first picked the seed by hand, carded it on hand cards, spun it on wheels designed for spinning wool or flax, wove it into cloth, and made it into garments for men and women’s wear.

That which was designed for underclothing was prepared without coloring, as a matter of course, but for outer garments, and particularly ladies’ dresses, something better was required.

Some among the earliest brought a little indigo, madder, and some other drugs, but for greater variety and economy, a large number of barks were used, such as black walnut, butternut, several varieties of oak, hickory, etc. When peach trees grew the leaves were used for making one of the brightest colors.

Some of the cotton yarn, dyed with each of those colors, skillfully arranged in weaving, and made into dresses, looked remarkably well. …

schs-logo-2Flax and tow was never colored, and was mostly used for men and boys’ wear in the summer. A tow shirt, with a draw string around the neck, and reaching below the knees, was a full dress in summer for boys up to ten or twelve years of age. Some of our most substantial farmers were thus attired in their boyhood days.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.


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4 Responses to Cotton fields of Sangamon County

  1. Curtis Mann says:

    An article that appeared in the February 15, 1823 issue of the Edwardsville Spectator noted that Stephen Stillman had provided “a very beautiful sample of cotton, that was raised in Sangamo County, State of Illinois..” The land the cotton was raised on was reported to have produced 800 lbs to the acre. The article also reported that “some of his neighbors raised at least a third more to the acre and that many settlers from North and South Carolina, have told him that their cotton was as good and as much to the acre as they used to raise in the Carolinas.”

  2. Sam says:

    At first, the timing of this shift made me a bit skeptical of the reason that Primm and others give. Surely the availability of mass-produced cotton from the Ohio Valley mills in the 1830s (and the contemporaneous surge in the production of cotton by enslaved people in Mississippi) would have quickly made the laborious process of growing, picking, carding, and spinning cotton on small Illinois farms obsolete in any case, even if the weather had cooperated. So perhaps the Deep Snow could have just been a convenient marker?

    But in fact there seem to have at least two major volcanic forcing events that significantly cooled the global climate in the 1830s — one of unknown origin in 1831 (until recently attributed to Babuyan Claro) and then Cosigüina in Nicaragua in January 1835. Wayne Wendland (JIHSH 100:1, 2007) notes that the Vandalia newspaper reported that the last frost there in 1835 came on June 22. That would surely have put an end to any Illinois cotton crops that year (and probably some other crops too). So Power may have had a point about serendipity.

    • editor says:

      Sam: This is great information. Weather/volcanic events might well have accelerated what were probably inevitable economic trends anyway. Thanks for your contribution.

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