The majority of immigrants to the new county, now known as Mercer, came in great covered wagons drawn by oxen or horses. Unmindful of the dangers around them, they pushed their way over the prairie towards their destination. After a day's journey they would gather about the camp-fire and one of their number would be detailed to stand guard. Deer steaks were cooked and the johnnycake baked before the fire.
The journey often occupied months, when at last having reached the banks of some river where the outlook pleased the immigrant's fancy, he resolved to establish his permanent home. Rude cabins were erected and the planting of a crop began.
Such were the trials and experiences of the first white settlers who blazed their way to the "Yellow Banks" on the Mississippi. The honor of being the first to locate in Mercer county belongs to the Denison family. William Denison and his son, John W., were Pennsylvanians, who, having lived a short time in Ohio, removed to Wayne county, Indiana, and thence to Illinois, first locating near the present site of New Boston on the 20th day of April, 1827.
The Indians, who at that time inhabited the vicinity then known as the "Yellow Banks" (now New Boston), soon became their friends, and they thus lived in peaceful relations up to the advent of the Black Hawk war. The locality was well known to the red men because of its attractions for hunting and fishing, and they consequently resisted plans for their removal by the white settlers who coveted these profitable grounds.
When the Denisons came to this part of the State, the country east of the Mississippi in the county was a bleak rolling prairie without a civilized habitation, the deer, wolf and other wild animals, together with the red men, being the sole occupants of the land, soon to be peopled by the pioneer whose restless energy blazed the way for the generations who are now its citizens. the Black Hawk war broke out. Although a war chief, when Black Hawk partook of the hospitality of the whites, he never forgot the favor and protected them whenever he could.
On his last campaign in 1832, when his warriors passed up the Mississippi, he stopped at the Denison house and personally guarded it and its inmates until the last canoes passed beyond the limits of the settlement. When the Denisons located here their claims included the ferry franchise between the Illinois and Iowa shores, and since then ferryboats propelled by horses and steam have plied back and forth to accommodate the people in the vicinity and the traveling public. At this date the river is crossed by a ferry propelled by gasoline.
After the close of the Black Hawk war a new impetus was given to emigration from the Eastern and Middle States, on the part of people who wished to exchange their timber farms for cheap lands that could be easily improved. Up to 1834 immigration into this section had been light, but during that year there came a number of pioners in search of new homes and cheap land. Among those who came about that time were William and Isaac Drury; Joshua, William and Newton Willitts; Louis and Joseph Noble, and John Glancy. John, Isaac, George and Abraham Miller, John Farlow, Hopkins Boone and others followed, and by the fall of 1835 there were about 250 people in the county, which was then divided into two precincts—one named New Boston, which had just been laid out as a town, and the other Sugar Grove.
When these pioneers arrived they found the land ready for the plow, but they had to meet other privations incident to a new country. Their experiences qualified them to become worthy pioneers—the advance guard of a people whose works and characteristics have laid the foundation for and developed a community which, today, has cities and towns advanced beyond the utmost expectations of the pioneers themselves. They bought land cheap, scarcely expecting Its value to advance to that of the present time; they worked and waited, enduring the privations of pioneer life, and to-day there are a few still living in the enjoyment of the results of their labors and the honors "consequent upon a well spent life," calmly awaiting the summons to "that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns." But the benediction of their lives rests today upon their children's children, to whom the story of the strange new country seems like a tale of foreign lands, rather than that of our nearby broad and beautiful home county.
These depositories of early history are rapidly passing; but ere the trembling hand. once so strong, be folded away and the well stored brain cease to remember. we can rear for them no more fitting monument than to transcribe into this, the enduring history of our county, their own story of personal experience. All honor to the squatters and pioneers who made Mercer county a permanent home for an intelligent, educated and law-abiding people. Through their influence there came into the county the young blood from overcrowued communities, and took up claims in every township; although at times miles apart, they were neighbors; they founded society, molded character and left their mark on the generation now occupying the country. They will be remembered for what they accomplished by lives of endurance and hardship.
Their works are their monuments. It is to them that the people of the present day. owe the existence of churches, school and public buildings, beautiful cities and towns, and an agricultural community which has attained a degree of civilization and intelligence which will compare favorably with the most enlightened portions of the world. The ox-teams once required to transport the products of the county 160 miles to a Chicago market to procure the necessaries of life, have given place to facilities of transportation scarcely second to those of any other region, yet there are a few still living whose personal experience enables them to recall that early period. Notable among these is Uncle John H. McBride, who still resides on the farm south of Aledo where the family originally located in 1836.
Among the water mills erected at an early day to grind wheat and corn for the settlers were those of Lutz, Maus and Boone on Edwards river, and Brown's, Glancy's and Kimel's on Pope creek. These ground all the grain required for the people until the development of the wheat region of Minnesota led to the abandonment of wheat growing in this part of the State. Left without business, these mills gradually disappeared and are now only remembered as a thing of the past. Before their advent the few farmers in the county would transport their grain by wagon or horseback to the nearest mill, the journey sometimes requiring a week or ten days.
Game—deer, prairie chickens, wild geese and ducks—for the supply of meat. was abundant, and. when wanted, the boys were always ready to procure it. Tom Hyett. one of the old-timers in this county, during the summer months operated a flatboat between Muscatine. New Boston and Keithsburg, delivering stone and lime. neither of which was found in the county. During the winter, after navigation closed. he would spend his time hunting. disposing of his game at Rock Island and other large towns. In the winter of 1853 he is said to have killed over one hundred deer in the Pope creek valley. on one occasion capturing three as the result of a single shot from his powerful long-range rifle.
Before the 'advent of the railroad. methods of communication and transportation were confined to the ox-team and the steamboat. As immigration increased more boats came onto the Mississippi, until from thirty to forty would pass the towns in one day. Rock river, the Iowa and other smaller streams were navigable in those days, and boats of smaller draught plied these waters.
In 1853 the steamer Osceola was the Iowa river packet, carrying freight and passengers to New Boston and thence to Rock Island. A large amount of grain awaiting shipment from Keithsburg to Rock Island served as an inducement for the captain of the Osceola to make a special trip. It left New Boston after dark one night, and the pilot not being acquainted with that part of the river, ran close to the mouth of Edwards river, where the boat struck a rock, sinking in ten minutes. The hull was afterwards sold for a flatboat and the cabin converted into a residence, which occupied a prominent corner in Keithsburg for many years. Many boats were veritable floating palaces, elegantly furnished, carrying hundreds of passengers and thousands of tons of freight, sometimes with crews of fifty to one hundred men. The mates were generally masters of profanity, and the stream of oaths passing from their lips would have almost shocked the reputed master of ceremonies in perdition.
Fights between mates and deck-hands were common, and boats would frequently be tied up at a town for hours while the culprit was being tried for brutally beating some deck-hand. There were occasions when the mates murdered deck-hands, but the perpetrator was seldom brought to justice, as the boats passed the towns without landing and, in the lapse of time, the crime was lost sight of or forgotten.
As the country had to be supplied with dry goods, groceries and other supplies necessary for the winter, the boats passing from St. Louis to St. Paul in the fall were usually loaded to the guards with freight of all kinds for the river or interior towns; but when navigation closed, the only communication with the outside world being by the mail hack, the people were virtually shut in until spring. The merchants of New Boston, Keithsburg and other river towns had to lay in enough goods of all kinds to supply the country until the opening of navigation. As an illustration of what was needed I will enumerate one shipment received by William Gayle & Company in the fall of 1853: 100 hogsheads of sugar.
.300 barrels of N. 0. molasses.
300 half-barrels same.500 ten-gallon kegs same.
500 boxes of soap.
500 boxes of candles.
100 boxes of tea.
300 bags of coffee.
2,500 kegs of nails.
250 cases of boots and shoes.
150 cases of dry goods and clothing.
Added to these were many other varieties of merchandise, besides a steamboat-load of cooking and heating stoves from Quincy on the sternwheeler "General Morgan." Other merchants making such purchases for the winter were: James A. Noble and Abram Rife, of Keithsburg, and Bell & Thompson and Ives & Denison, of New Boston.
These stocks were to supply a country extending from thirty to forty miles east of the Mississippi. Most of the river towns had large packing houses, where thousands of hogs, driven in from all parts of the county, were slaughtered and packed, giving employment to large numbers of men for a few months during the winter. Rock salt was shipped in by thousands of barrels. During the winter the wheat, corn and oats were hauled to the towns and stored, immense warehouses being required for this purpose. At the opening of navigation the pork and grain were shipped to St. Louis, New Orleans and thence to the eastern cities, and sometimes to European markets.
During the Crimean war an English firm, which had a contract for furnishing the army with provisions, bought of William Gayle & Co. their entire stock of pork packed the preceding winter, which was carried by way of St. Louis and New Orleans direct to the seat of war. The old packing houses have passed away and only the few oldest settlers have any recollection of those busy times. The railroads now take our hogs, cattle and grain to the markets of the country, and Illinois points with pride to the famous stock yards and the immense elevators of Chicago, which supply sustenance to every civilized nation of the earth.
Mr. Levi W. Myers, now a resident of Portland, Oregon, in a letter to the writer, furnishes many interesting incidents connected with the early settlement of the county. Mr. Myers came to Mercer county in October, 1836, with his father, Colonel Andrew Myers. The family consisted of the father, mother, two sons and seven daughters. At this date there are seven still surviving, the youngest being sixty-five years old and the oldest nearly eighty-four. Colonel Myers opened a farm in 1839 on the north side of Edwards river, in New Boston township, midway between New Boston and Millersburg, which he improved and owned until his death in 1881. He was commissioned by the Governor early in the '40s to organize a regiment of militia in the county, which he successfully accomplished, with • William I. Nevi us as lieutenant-colonel and Benijah Lloyd as major, the only organization of the kind the county ever had. The place of meeting for drill was Millersburg, and parade days brought hundreds of people to the seat of justice from all over the county. There were those who did not take kindly to the movement, and some witticisms were indulged in at uniforms and accoutrements, but on the whole it was a creditable organization and kept alive the military spirit that was soon to find expression in the Mexican war, the troubles about Nauvoo and the Southern rebellion. Most of the companies were well drilled, fully officered, fairly uniformed and armed with such guns as the pioneers had for hunting and common protection. Colonel Myers stood six feet without shoes, was spare, erect and athletic in person and as full of martial spirit as General Jackson himself. About 1847 the Bragg artillery company was formed at New Boston and Colonel Myers was made its captain. These were the only military organizations the county had until the opening of the Civil War.
Schools were crude in those days and far between. the children often being compelled to go six or seven miles to school. In neighborhoods which had no school houses children would assemble at the cabin of some settler. Although the religious sentiment of the people was quite diversified, they generally attended all religious services when ministers came into the settlement. Services were held in the school houses and cabins. The Methodist itinerant was a busy man in exponnding the gospel to the people, preaching two or three times each day, his salary being made up prom collections at his meetings. This would keep him in passable clothes and leave him a little change to send to his family for the purchase of necessary provisions.
The people to whom these missionaries preached were not only the emigrants from the Eastern States, but also the Irish. Scotch, English. Swedes and Germans. who came from their mother countries and have, by intermarriage, contributed to the cosmopolitan character of our population, rendering it the peer in education, patriotism, reile,lon and wealth of any nation on the habitable globe. The churches of the early settlements were few. The people would drive five to ten miles to hear the gospel preached. The preachers Who came to minister to the people were men full of the spirit; they bore many privations to meet appointments, but they considered this a duty. They fought the good fight until success crowned their efforts; and could those old servants of the Master, who blazed their way through the wilderness in early days, look upon the development of these prairies, now dotted with churches, school houses and beautiful cities and towns, they would see the fruits which have followed the early labors of the circuit rider, and be convinced that the Lord, through his servants, has prospered a people who abideth in Him.
History of Mercer and Henderson County
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