History of Mercer County, Illinois

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Part 2 - 1834 to 1845
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Social and Home Life in the 30's and 40's

Part 1: Mercer County - 1818 to 1833

In 1818 the territory now embraced in the State of Illinois became a separate entity and was admitted into the Union as a State. There were but fifteen counties and Mercer was not one of them, as it was not proposed as a county until January 31, 1835. The History of Mercer County, Illinois, 1882 sets out this time period very well. For our purposes we will quote from an article published in the Aledo Times Record, April 2, 1997, to give a brief synopsis of the history. Then we will discuss Illinois as a Military Tract in 1818, what bounty land warrants are, and, if your ancestor had one in Mercer County in that time period, why you won't find him living there! The bounty land warrants are useful because they sometimes list the native state of the owner telling where he was likely living.

"The Mercer County town of New Boston is full of interesting history. Not only did Abraham Lincoln originally survey the city... New Boston was the original county seat for Mercer.

"In 1834 when New Boston was laid out, it was part of Warren County. A year later when Mercer and Henderson Counties were carved out of the Warren County area, New Boston was made the temporary county seat....

"In the early 1800's the area that is now Mercer County, was the home of the Sac and the Fox Indians. Game was abundant and the streams that laced inland from the Mississippi River provided natural routes for the American natives who roamed the wooded hills to hunt the buffalo, deer and rabbits that provided food and clothing for their families. The land along the river, from what is now New Boston to Oquawka, was a favorite camping area for the Redman, who called the region 'Oquawkiek' or 'Yellow Banks.'

"In 1827 the first settlers, the Denisons, arrived in the area around what is now New Boston...(they) lived peacefully with BlackHawk and Keokuk, chiefs of the nation, and with their people, often entertaining them in their homes. [There is interesting history of young Nancy Denison's interaction with the Indians on the Willett page.] Diplomacy was the key to maintaining their relationship...Levi W. Myers, an early settler in New Boston, 'the country was so near an earthly paradise that it would seem as if every settler would have chosen it as his permanent home.' ...more and more white men transgressed into the world of the Indian and friction developed. Outrages on both sides erupted...In 1832 Keokuk and BlackHawk called some 3000 warriors to pow wow on the site where the town of New Boston now stands. Keokuk, a lover of peace, wished no quarrel with the white man, but BlackHawk was determined to fight for the rights of his people and for the land that was slowly slipping from their grasp. BlackHawk...prevailed and the Indian War of 1832 began. BlackHawk urged his friends, the Denisons, to leave the area...Realizing that he was serious most of the Denisons left for Nauvoo.

"In 1834 Denison sold two thirds of his claim to Elijah Iles and Edward Burrall. Iles, a Springfield businessman, joined efforts with Dennison in a plan to lay out a town on the bend of the river next to a large bay. One of Iles' agents...had purchased a past due monetary note owed by a young Springfield lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. Speculation has it that Lincoln was contracted to survey and lay out a town in an effort to make payment on his note..." Lincoln's survey of the town of New Boston . Note that the survey includes a notation of Dennison's right to operate a ferry (more below). No doubt primitive means to cross the River existed before this time.

In this time period there were no roads or trails leading to the area other than ancient Indian trails. Contact was made via the River and the only visitors were traders and fur trappers who made their way up the Mississippi. The newspaper article above mentions a French trader, Pentacosta, who was there at the time of the Black Hawk War. The first steamboat, "The Virginia" passed by in 1823. It was chiefly to supply the steamboats with firewood that the first settlers came in 1827 (more below).

View across the Mississippi from New Boston

History of the New Boston Ferry

The 1830 Census lists six Heads of Household in Mercer County. They were Erastus Dennison, Benjamin Vannatta, John Vannatta, Augustin Horton, William Dennison, and John W. Dennison. The six families constituted the entire population of 26 souls. After the BlackHawk War was settled, settlers began to arrive. By the 1840 Census there were 135 Heads of Household in Eliza and New Boston Township and Mercer County had a total population of 2,352. (Note: in the 1840 & 1850 censuses the townships are referred to as T15NR5W [Township 15 North, Range 5 West] and T14NR5W [Township 14 North, Range 5 West] respectively as the townships had not yet been named.)

"But wait," you say, "I found my ancestor using a land warrant in Mercer County in 1818!" Yes, there were indeed lands obtained in Mercer County by bounty land warrant beginning in 1818, but the purchasers did not go there to obtain the land.

There is a good description of War of 1812 Veteran Benefits originally published as House Document 262, 165th Congress, 1st Session, 1840, and reprinted by Heritage House in 1977. The reprint is entitled War of 1812 Bounty Lands in Illinois. Most of the following is excerpted from this book.

The Federal goverment began to give away land in an Act of September 16, 1776. Subsequent Acts of Congress awarded land to veterans of Post-Revolutionary War service. In 1811 when war seemed imminent, Congress authorized bounty land to stimulate enlistment (Act of 24 December 1811). Every man who would enlist for five years, or (later) for the duration of the war, was offered a $16 cash bounty and 160 acres of land. An Act of December 10, 1814, offered each noncommissioned officer and soldier who enlisted and was later honorably discharged a bounty of 320 acres. The following provisions applied: (1) Commissioned officers could not receive bounty land. It was not until 1850 that Congress awarded officers 160 acres of bounty land; (2) only federal troops were eligible. In 1852 soldiers of state militia and volunteers were given bounty land; (3) Heirs of veterans under the age of 16 could instead collect five years' half pay; (4) Land could be located only in a military tract. The veteran could select the tract but then drew a quarter section by lot; (5) Warrants could not be assigned, except by inheritance, and land could not be transferred until the patent was issued. Lawyers were able to circumvent this by having the veteran sign a power of attorney and then recording the patent in the attorney's name. Warrants from the Act of 1852 were legally assignable.

No changes were made in bounty land provisions until 1842 when warrants could be used to patent any land in the public domain. An Act of 11 February 1847 provided bounty lands for volunteers and enlistees for the War with Mexico. An Act of 28 September 1850 provided bounty lands for commissioned officers, etc., who served in the War of 1812 and in the War with Mexico at the rate of 160 acres or 40 acres according to their respective period of service from one to nine months. Finally in 1855 any veteran of any war since the Revolution was declared eligible to receive 160 acres of bounty land if he had served 14 days or had participated in battle. This is why bounty land warrants were still being used in the 1850's and after in Mercer County.

Congress designated areas for bounty land, including Illinois, starting in 1812. There were many more areas added over the years (for a chronology of some of the land legislation (Click). To see a map of the present day areas included in the 1818 Illinois Military Tract - Click. The area that later became Mercer County was included in this area. The book War of 1812 Bounty Lands in Illinois, indexed by Lowell M. Volkel, and published by Heritage House includes a list of veterans and their claims. Armed with this information files are available from the National Archives, but there usually is little genealogical information in the files since the land was often immediately sold. The Illinois State Archives includes a database of Illinois public land records. It is the source of land records that we have included in family files on this site.

Clark E. Carr, in The Illini (Chicago: 1912) sets out the reasons why claims taken out in western Illinois were never settled. More are given in Bulletin #220, University of Wisconsin, The Settlement of Illinois from 1830 to 1850, (Madison, Wisc: 1908).The region set apart for the soldiers of the War of 1812 was terra incognita. No one had been there, no one had seen the land. The land had very little, if any, market value; and unless the soldier could emigrate to it, it was of no value to him. Some sold their grants for nominal sums, considering themselves fortunate when able to convert visionary wealth into actual wealth, though no more than a horse or cow. Most of the soldiers lived in the East and South, and very few of them attempted to reach the land, or gave it any attention. The patent, if preserved at all, was valued chiefly as a souvenir of honorable patriotic service.

The people who actually immigrated to Illinois by 1830 were well aware of the value of the land and proceeded to "squat" upon it, since they were unable to get any valid title, not knowing the actual owners. Cultivation followed and then trouble. Land sharks, ever on the lookout for bargains, watched the increasing value of the farms, hunted up the original owners, bought their claims and returned to Illinois to oust occupants and profit by their improvements. Forged titles resulted in almost endless chains of litigation. (See Part 2 for a description of how the land sharks worked.)

The only successful settlement before 1820 was at Peoria. The earliest settlers there came from southern Illinois. While the large river forming the western boundary of the Military Tract was a highway for communication, the first settlers did not congregate there. A few grouped themselves near the river to take advantage of what little commerce there was, but most of the settlers were interested in agriculture and preferred the prairie land to avoid the labor of making clearings. Ague and fever in the river bottoms also induced fear. (See Medicine page for a description of the ague.)

The Dennisons established themselves as the first settlers near New Boston in 1827 to take advantage of the timber to sell wood to the Mississippi River steamboats. During their time of settlement the Dennisons lived in peace with the Sacs and Foxes. They were sent to safety by friendly Indians when the Black Hawk War began according to the 1882 Mercer County History. A Daniel Witter had joined the Dennisons but he did not return after the War. We wonder how much of the "friendship" with the Indians is myth as some of the Dennisons served in the Black Hawk War. It seems more plausible to us that the men sent their families to safety while they fought in the War. The Illinois State Database of BlackHawk War Veterans includes Denison and Vanata/Vanater names. We noted as we went through various family histories that some men who served in the Black Hawk War later returned and lived in Mercer County.

John Vannatta served in the War of 1812 and after discharge worked as a hand on Ohio River keelboats. In 1827 he arrived as the second white settler at the present site of Keithsburg and created a wood yard there. Living among the Indians he learned their language and how to conduct dealings with them and established a large trade with them. Again, we wonder how much of this is myth as we believe he is probably the John Vanater who served in the Black Hawk War. By 1836 he had moved on to establish the town of Bloomington (future Muscatine) in Iowa. Robert Keith purchased his land in Mercer, and started the town of Keithsburg. Later, John's two brothers came and there were many connections to New Boston and Eliza Township.

The real settlement of this part of Illinois is dated from the BlackHawk War and when the last strip of Indian territory (north of Mercer County in the Rock River Valley) was ceded to the government by the Winnebago Indians in September 1832. For nearly a year afterward settlers hesitated as they were not sure the "Indian problem" had really been taken care of. Many of the original bounty lands reverted back to the government for nonpayment of taxes and were later sold as public lands. See the Resources page for obtaining public land records. Mercer County land was sold through the Northwestern U. S. District Land Office. It was located at Galena June 26, 1834, moved to Dixon November 2, 1840, and discontinued September 3, 1855.

Another deterrent to early settlement was the existence of a band of outlaws known as the "Bandits of the Prairie." They had over 400 members and ranged from Indiana to Nebraska and from Texas to the Canadian border in the time period from 1830-1846. If we are able to identify Prairie Banditti who operated in Mercer County we will add information here. Samantha Lowery has an interesting Family Web Site with histories of some of the Prairie Banditti who operated in nearby areas.