History of Mercer County, Illinois

Part 5: Mercer County - 1866 to 1880

Return to Mercer Home Page
Part 4 - 1860-1865
Part 6 - 1880-1900
Surnames Page
Social and Home Life in the 50's and 60's

Our Boys Come Marching Home Again - Hurrah, Hurrah! [Well, some of them did anyway].

Many of those soldiers who did come home would soon die from the effects of the War, or have life long disabilities that would affect their ability to work. There were long drawn out applications for pensions. Death became up close and personal, with many neighbors sitting with a war hero as he breathed his last. We know about these deaths because many of the neighbors who sat with an expiring soldier gave affidavits so his widow and children could receive pensions (cf the affidavits for John Welch in the a href="WelchPapers.html">Welch Papers page). At the same time Spiritualism had a great rise as a religion because it offered the comfort of speaking with loved ones lost. (See more of this at the end of Part 4.)

The Grand Army of the Republic

You will sometimes see references to GAR in connection with Civil War Veterans. The "Mercer County Historical Society Newsletter" Apr/May/Jun 07, carried a short article about the GAR and a great photo of some of the members. It tells us that groups of men began joining together after the war - first for camaraderie and then for politcal power. The GAR was one of these organizations and by 1890 numbered nearly half a million veterans. It was founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, and membership was limited to honorably discharged veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps or the Revenue Cutter Service who served between April 1861 and April 1865. Often you will find a GAR marker on the grave site of a Civil War veteran and it recognizes their membership in this organization.


And many a soldier had seen the elephant and would not be content on the old home farm. Sometimes they had brought home a bride from far away, uncomfortable with her new in-laws. Add to that the fact that the country was getting "crowded" and free land was being offered in the West. On our page about gold we spoke of the many scams used to lure the unsuspecting on the gold rushes so speculators could make a profit. Comparable scams were soon afoot to lure settlers to the "West."

Railroads and Western Settlement

Some veterans, who could not find a financial niche in Mercer County when they returned from war, discovered work in the West among the thousands of men used to build the transcontinental railraod. This marvelous achievement was completed (in a brief three years) in 1869, largely because both the supervisors and the workers on the railroad learned military discipline from the Civil War.

The completion of this railroad vastly increased the accessibility of the West to future settlers. In addition the railroad contributed to the scams used to lure settlers. Gifts of government land on both sides of the right-of-way for the entire length of the railroad (a total of about 181 million acres) was part of the compensation given to the two companies that built the railroad. In order to realize any income from this land, the railroads had to sell it to settlers. And after the successful completion of the transcontinental railroad, railroads in general proliferated all over the country. The railroads held out the promise, not only of new agricultural settlement, but of all the attendant business and services to go along with the burgeoning population.

An interesting note in the Apr/May/June 2006 Mercer County Historical Society Newsletter tells us about the railroad exhibit at the Essley Noble Museum and also tells us the American Central railroad arrived in Mercer County in 1869, bisecting the county east-west.

In Mercer County we note from various family accounts that many of the people who "went West" returned in a fairly short time to Mercer County. To understand why the lures westward were largely "scams" and why many people were unable to remain in the west, one can start by looking at a rainfall map of the entire United States (Click). There is almost a clean line of demarcation at the 100th meridian where rainfall falls off sharply as the continent begins to incline upward. Much of the land west of the 100th meridian had rainfall less than 20 inches per year - with 20 inches per year considered to be the minimum to sustain dry land farms. John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer of the Grand Canyon, pointed this out in no uncertain terms to Congress and recommended abandoning the Township, Range, Section method of surveying, and replacing it with a system that would follow waterways so that most farms could have at least a toehold access to water for irrigation. Congress had a vastly different agenda. New Congressmen from the newly settling West desperately needed constituents and wanted the land surveyed as quickly as possible and filled with settlers.

The railroads wanted to begin collecting hard cash for their right-of-way land. We found advertisements in the Aledo Weekly Record in 1874 and 1875 for land in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. The railroads, in addition to advertising, sent agents throughout the eastern United States and western Europe with inflated stories of the "flowery meadows of great fertility clothed in nutritious grass, and watered by numerous streams." The first years after the transcontinental railroad was completed the West had an unusual amount of precipitation. Congress seized on this and developed the theory that "rain follows the plow." In other words as settlement progressed the rain would come. Unfortunately the wet years did not last. In the Aledo Weekly Record, August 26, 1874 we find a letter from a Kansas settler (signed "J.H.S.") asking for help for Kansas farmers whose corn had been destroyed by grasshoppers and by hot, dry winds. Other letters followed, but no one seemed to pay attention as the "go West" fever increased.

Availability of Land

A number of factors entered into the swelling tide westward - mainly the availability of land just when Easterners were feeling a "land pinch." Land was taken up in full all the way to the Mississippi and there was none nearby for grown sons and their families. When the settlement of the West began, the Homestead Act of 1862 governed the distribution of land. Under this law, all heads of families and all males over 21 could claim 160 acres of the public domain, provided that the settler lived on and cultivated the land for five years. To attract settlers, many states offered Civil War veterans a "deal" where they could prove up their land in a shorter time. (see for instance the Prouty migration to Kansas in the early 1870's).

Speculators had for years been snapping up homestead land with fraudulent claims (usually paying a "squatter" to hold the land for them). To combat this, Congress passed the Timber Culture Act of 1873 allowing any homesteader to apply for an additional 160 acres, which would become his if he planted at least one-fourth of it with trees within four years. This allowed legitimate homesteaders to expand their holdings but was a disaster in the dry and windy west. Homesteaders wasted precious farming time, and even more precious water, planting and replanting the same trees as they succumbed to drought and wind.

Another disaster was the Desert Land Act of 1877, lobbied through Congress by the cattle industry. The bill provided that anyone could secure tentative title to 640 acres on the great plains or in the southwest with an initial payment of 25 cents per acre. After three years, if a portion of the land was irrigated and the settler was willing to pay an additional dollar an acre, the tract became his. This allowed the cattle barons to obtain acreage by rounding up witnesses who swore the land was irrigated (usually by a dumped bucket of water) and then obtaining title for the price of $1.25 per acre. It also allowed them (since they had the necessary dollars) to seize lands that had natural water and to block it from homesteader access for irrigation.

None of these Land Acts can be seen as affecting Mercer County land as it was all taken up long before the Acts came into existence, but it affected the population as residents were lured into "going West." When examining Mercer County census records in 1870 one has to be careful - a woman and children alone does not necessarily mean she was a widow. Her man may simply be looking for land in the West and not present when the census was taken.

As residents of Mercer County participated in the tide of western immigrants, one has to realize that there was also an influx of new residents into the County. People on the East Coast considered "going West" as going to the banks of the Mississippi River! And the proliferation of railroads aided their travels as well. And they found available established farms for sale by those who were leaving the county.

Those Who Stayed

But what of the people who remained in Mercer County (and those who returned from the West) - what was affecting their lives? There was a great increase in industry from the 1870's onward. New and better farm machinery was developed, partly in response to the need for machinery that could handle prairie sod in the west. Better machinery resulted in more and better yields on the existing farms in Illinois. (see for instance two advertisements by John Deere in an 1869 edition of a Wheeler Account Book. Ad 1 and Ad 2) The value in Illinois farms increased from $883 million in 1870 to $1175 million by 1880.

By 1870 the average size of a farm in Mercer County was 120 acres. From a total of 222,809 acres of farmland came a total value of $2.8 million of farm produce and $1.7 million of livestock. The 1880 average farm size was 151 acres, reflecting the removal of some families from Mercer County and some people simply getting out of the business of farming. The average yield reported from the County in 1879 (corn, their main crop) was only 50 bushels per acre where the highest ever reported was 100 bushels per acre, reflecting the reduction in response to reduced crop prices and high railroad shipping. The price for corn was 22 cents a bushel in 1878 where it had been 56 cents per bushel in 1874.

Some average figures from Lake County, Illinois, which also had fertile soil and plenty of moisture, gives an idea of what was happening with the decline in crops and prices:
1870 ­ 12,000 acres of wheat
1879 ­ 2600 acres of wheat

1857 ­ 17,000 acres of corn
1879 ­ 24,000 acres corn (partially reflecting a change from raising wheat to raising corn)

Biggest decline was in raising sheep.>br> 90,000 sheep in 1867 and 21,000 in 1880.
Prices: wool in 1861 was 25 cents/pound, wool in 1880 was 33-38 cents/pound

Eggs from 6 cents in 1861 to 10 cents in 1879. There was a big increase during the war years, then a decrease.

Butter: 1861 ­ 8-9 cents per lb
1863 ­ 18-20 cents
1879 ­ 12-14 cents

The massive markets for produce that existed during the Civil War had vanished. A wave of immigrants in the West (from foreign countries) contributed to surplus farm products nationwide. As a result of large supply and low demand, the prices for crops declined, just as farmers were trying to pay off huge debts for expansion incurred during the Civil War. An added social burden was the care of widows and orphans from the Civil War era.

A nationwide depression set in during 1873, called the "Railroad Panic," followed by world-wide depression in 1874. Farmers, weary of their continual problems, established socio-economic organizations, including the Grange (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry). Part of the reason for establishing the Grange was to combat the problems the railroads were causing. Railroads were contributing in a number of ways to the farmer's troubles. There is an interesting short history of the Granger Movement at http:www.lib.niu.edu/ipo/2000/ihy000228.html.

Isaac LaRue, a resident of Mercer County, wrote a poem that expresses some of the effects of the farm problems on the merchants of Mercer County. It is interesting that at least two of the merchants he mentioned had gone out of business by 1880 and left the area.

Despite the hard times in Mercer County in the 1870's there were people who had money and for the first time they were willing to put it in banks. A good summary of the beginning of banking in Aledo is contained in the biography of Abraham Byers of that city.

Industry in Mercer County

There were nationwide increases in industrialization after the Civil War. By 1876 American society had been transformed by industrial growth. It produced a new class of wealthy industrialists and a prosperous middle class.

According to one history, there were 73 manufacturing establishments in Mercer County by 1870 providing an alternate source of income to farming. Not everyone shared in the economic prosperity. Many workers were unemployed part of the year and wages were relatively low. But it did give young people on farms an alternative to move to the cities in search of job opportunities.

We seriously question the above statistic. The 1870 census is virtually unreadable and we haven't had the courage to attack summarizing Eulalia Garrett's fine transcription (evidently from the National films). But a quick survey of the 1880 census indicates that Mercer County still remained largely a farming community. We suspect the term "manufacturing establishments" may have referred to individual workers producing small items. We do know that by 1900 there was a button manufacturing establishment in New Boston that employed several people; probably making buttons from Mississippi River shells.

Population and Occupations in New Boston and Eliza Townships

From the 1880 census we did a brief survey of occupations and population in New Boston and Eliza Townships. New Boston Township had a population of 1,539 by 1880; 644 of those lived in the town of New Boston. The township remained predominantly a farm community. The town had one small hotel, three restaurants, six grocery stores, 2 dry goods stores, and a drug store. The railroad had a slight effect: there was one railroad brakeman, a switchman, a bridge man, a station agent, a telegraph operator and two section hands. There was a ferry operator, a raftsman, a steamboat engineer, eight fishermen and a fish peddler, reflecting the effect of the river frontage. The trend toward manufacturing bypassed the area. Any type of “manufacturing” was small and individualized. There were two brickyard workers and five masons; there were six wagon makers; there were five shoe makers, 1 tin smith, eight blacksmiths; there were three lumber dealers and two sawyers; there were three milliners and two dress makers; there was a cabinet maker.

Other occupations in New Boston were primarily providing services: three well diggers, a trapper, a grain buyer, a mill engineer, three school teachers, a butcher, a cook, five painters, two physicians, two ministers; and nine who worked in the stores. There was a police magistrate, a constable, an attorney, and a postmaster.

The Township of Eliza was even more firmly rooted in farming. The population was 317 with 30 of those living in the town of Eliza. The only nonfarming occupations were 1 general merchant, 1 blacksmith, 1 physician, a carpenter, and one worker in the blacksmith shop.

Some Social Reforms

The Civil War had an unforeseen effect on the status of women. After years of hard toil in the fields, in shops, in hospitals, and in relief work, women felt they had earned a consideration in the civil life of the state. In 1867 and 1869 Illinois state laws were enacted protecting property rights of married women. And in 1870 the Illinois Industrial University, over considerable objection, voted to permit the registration of women students.

Women, as well as men, were ready to ask why women should not vote. Susan B. Anthony came to Illinois in 1867 for a series of lectures that triggered strong advocates for suffrage among Illinois women. In 1869, Wyoming Territory approved full and equal suffrage for scarcely one thousand women. In Illinois the advocates of suffrage appealed to the Constitutional Convention of 1870 to deal "as justly and fairly with the women of the State as by the Negroes of the State." But they were doomed to disappointment. Not until 1891 were women allowed to vote in "any election in which a school officer was to be elected."

Opportunity for more formal education was eagerly embraced by all [possibly in recognition that farms were no longer going to be viable means of support for entire families?]. School attendance nearly doubled in the decade from 1870 to 1880 in Illinois. Of the 18,000 residents of Mercer County, nearly 5,000 are listed in 1870 as attending school for part of the year. Even young men in their late teens were attending school - something unheard of in earlier decades. In 1866 an amendment to state law enabled veterans of any age to return to complete their schooling. The increases in numbers of students led to more and more consolidation of schools and movement away from the "one room school." A growing professionalism also became evident among the teachers. For more on schools in Mercer County see our Schools page.

Temperance had been on the minds of Mercer County residents since an early date (a liquor store was converted to a bakery and ice cream store by popular request in 1855). But the movement did not get into full swing until about 1868 when local temperance unions were formed, subsidiary to state and national temperance unions. A Board composed of six members was set up in 1875 to try to restrict the evils of liquor and yet still grant liquor licenses. An ordinance was carefully set up for a temporary three month license with every conceivable safe-guard for the prevention of drunkenness incorporated into the ordinance. This was supposed to put saloon keepers on good behavior so that their license might ultimately be renewed. The results were considered a complete failure according to an article in the Aledo Weekly Record of August 15, 1875. Ultimately a Women's Christian Temperance Union was organized in 1880.

Updates:Added information about the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).