Thursday, July 28, 2005

Belleville, St. Clair County in the 1840s

Our Stumpf and Wenkel ancestors emigrated from Germany to Illinois in the 1830s, settling in northern Monroe County near the towns of Columbia and New Hanover. Map. The nearest "city" was Belleville, about 15 miles to the northeast of Columbia in St. Clair County (Map). Belleville's size (and proximity to St. Louis) brought many notables into town. The records they have left paint a picture of Belleville and the surrounding area in the mid-19th century.

In 1840, Abraham Lincoln (then a member of the Illinois state legislature) spoke in Belleville. "The audience did not think him much of a speaker. They heckled him for his story about a one-eyed horse. Belleville at the time was staunchly Democratic. Lincoln at this stage in his political career was a Whig." (Cahokia Beginnings - he was received much more warmly in 1856)

In 1842 the English novelist Charles Dickens travelled through St. Clair county on his way to the "Looking Glass Prairie" (now Lebanon), Illinois from St. Louis.

Belleville was a small collection of wooden houses, huddled together in the very heart of the bush and swamp. Many of them had singularly bright doors of red and yellow; for the place had been lately visited by a travelling painter, ‘who got along,’ as I was told, ‘by eating his way.’ The criminal court was sitting, and was at that moment trying some criminals for horse-stealing: with whom it would most likely go hard: for live stock of all kinds being necessarily very much exposed in the woods, is held by the community in rather higher value than human life; and for this reason, juries generally make a point of finding all men indicted for cattle-stealing, guilty, whether or no. . .

On his return to St. Louis, he described the Monks Mound in Cahokia and stranded new settlers, probably in the American Bottom.
After breakfast, we started to return by a different way from that which we had taken yesterday, and coming up at ten o’clock with an encampment of German emigrants carrying their goods in carts, who had made a rousing fire which they were just quitting, stopped there to refresh. And very pleasant the fire was; for, hot though it had been yesterday, it was quite cold to-day, and the wind blew keenly. Looming in the distance, as we rode along, was another of the ancient Indian burial-places, called The Monks’ Mound; in memory of a body of fanatics of the order of La Trappe, who founded a desolate convent there, many years ago, when there were no settlers within a thousand miles, and were all swept off by the pernicious climate: in which lamentable fatality, few rational people will suppose, perhaps, that society experienced any very severe deprivation.

The track of to-day had the same features as the track of yesterday. There was the swamp, the bush, and the perpetual chorus of frogs, the rank unseemly growth, the unwholesome steaming earth. Here and there, and frequently too, we encountered a solitary broken-down waggon, full of some new settler’s goods. It was a pitiful sight to see one of these vehicles deep in the mire; the axle-tree broken; the wheel lying idly by its side; the man gone miles away, to look for assistance; the woman seated among their wandering household gods with a baby at her breast, a picture of forlorn, dejected patience; the team of oxen crouching down mournfully in the mud, and breathing forth such clouds of vapour from their mouths and nostrils, that all the damp mist and fog around seemed to have come direct from them.
(from "American Notes" Chapter 13)

American Notes, 1850 Edition (page images, chapter 13 begins on page 122). Map of Dicken's Journey
Panoramic Map of Belleville, 1867

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