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Molly Crusen Bishop: Pioneers and Log Cabins

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The census of 1810 said the Illinois territory had a population of around 12,000 people. At the time Illinois was an undeveloped land with the indigenous people and a few French and other immigrant settlers.

Illinois had a very harsh climate with limited resources and supplies for folks relocating to the western portion of the country at that time.

The War of 1812, in the Illinois territory, featured battles between U.S. soldiers, settlers, and Native Americans that changed the landscape and population of Illinois drastically. The indigenous Native Americans were left as a non-threat to the pioneers who soon headed to the middle and northern parts of Illinois in droves. There were later skirmishes called the Winnebago War of 1827, and the Black Hawk War of 1832, permanently leaving Illinois a place for pioneers to settle safely.

Pioneers coming in the early 1800s came west in wagons and sometimes owning tents. Food was scarce, salt supplies were low, and medical care was pretty much non-existent. There were barely any mills of any kinds, but the land was healthy prairies, forests and fertile river valleys, which obviously a draw to the new settlers.

They owned oxen or horse drawn wagons, and they literally used the North Star to guide them through the wilderness. They packed everything they owned inside the wagons, including their children. They would have to unhitch their animals to let them graze, and prepare meals on a campfire, all these arduous.  The berries found by chance would have been collected in wooden pails, and preserved in earthen jars.

Illinois was made a state in 1818 and by 1820 its population topped 55,000. Peoria County was established in 1825, having very few inhabitants and just a handful of random structures made from logs. Downtown Peoria was a lot of marshland, as well.

On Christmas day in 1833, a man named Isaac Underhill came to Peoria and landed by boat on the edge of the Illinois River. He stayed at a miniature two-story wooden building at the corner of Main and Washington Streets called the Peoria Hotel. Underhill stated that he saw seven framed houses and a few log tenements.

Underhill purchased several lots located on Washington Street for $40 per lot from one of the Peoria County Commissioners named Mr. Aquilla Wren.

The first Peoria county jail was built in 1834 and was also made of logs. It stood along an alley between Main and Hamilton Streets, and Monroe and Perry Streets. It was around sixteen feet square and was fourteen feet high.  

The marshland areas were drained, bringing in experts on land draining, leaving them in a position of power and wealth. Real estate, agriculture, and later distilling and brewing also brought and made the wealthy in Peoria. The population of Peoria went from a little over 1,100 in the early 1840s to over 50,000 by the turn of the century in 1900.

Peoria’s settlers and pioneers developed a tiny pioneer village with wooden structures and log cabins into a boomtown along the Illinois River, with mansions built all over downtown Peoria, and later up along the West and East Bluffs.

In the next few articles I will tell some of the stories of the indigenous Native Americans, and the pioneers and immigrants. That will include the story of Mr. Isaac Underhill.

About the Author
Molly is a life-long Peorian and an author, speaker, and storyteller. She is married to Doug Bishop and has five children and one grandchild. Molly loves history and Peoria and loves to share her passions with anyone she can get to listen to her. She loves to research, interview, and write or speak about history. The youngest and ninth child of Don and Joani Crusen, she grew up on the West Bluff in the house her great grandparents built in the 1880s. She writes a historical column in Woman’s View magazine, and will be writing a column called The Peorian Perspective in The Peorian.