Christiana Holmes Tillson

A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois

In 1822 it was still a great event to undertake a journey to Illinois, and many were the direful remarks and conclusions about my going. Your grandmother dreaded my starting without any lady companion, and was much relieved to find that a Mrs. Cushman, a widow lady... was waiting an opportunity to go and end her days with her beloved Joshua, and that your father had offered her a seat in our carriage, which offer had been accepted.

Our carriage being something what such a vehicle as we would now call a two seated buggy, at that time the name buggy was not known. The seats were made so that a trunk that held my leghorn bonnet, and a portmanteau containing the gentlemen's change of clothing. Mrs. Cushmans's trunk rode behind, and with a little bamboo basket containing my night clothes, brushes, &c., and a lunch basket, we found ourselves pretty closely packed.

All were relieved from the anxiety caused by our separation, and were again at liberty to pursue out journey, and as it was my first introduction to the State which was to be my home I tried to make the dismal-looking bottom prairie through which we were passing look cheerful and homelike, merely because it was Illinois.

Before leaving home your grandfather put up a box for me, of such things as would be comfortable and proper in a log house. There were three bed ticks with bolster and pillow ticks to match, ready to be filled, the feathers sent in a bale by themselves. I had also bedding, a roll of common carpeting, table and bed linen sufficient for a beginning, a set of waiters, knives and forks, and out housekeeping conveniences, which together with my winter clothing and, indeed, all that I had excepting what I brought with me on my seven weeks' trip over the mountains, we had shipped in October, two weeks before we started ourselves, and expected to find them at St. Louis on our arrival there. But what was our disappointment at finding that the boat on which they had been shipped from New Orleans had not been heard from. So I not only found myself lacking in household goods, but minus my winter garments. So I had bought for myself a brown bombazine dress, and some blue and white domestic check to make a morning dress for my log establishment, and with the help and advice of the Misses Paddock, had fitted and made them.

On inquiring the price of furniture we found it extremely high, and hoping, what then appeared to be hopeless, that I might get the box which had been sent, felt unwilling to buy anything it contained that I could possibly do without. Fortunately we heard of a Mrs. Bright who had lost her husband and was selling off her furniture preparatory to returning to Philadelphia. Hither we repaired, and bought two cherry tables that matched, and formed a dining table with circular ends. Here we bought a large bedstead with feather bed, bolster, and pillows, a small washstand, and looking-glass for our bedroom, a work table, and six chairs. As we were leaving the house, Mrs. Bright, pointing to a large basket she had packed to be sold at auction, said the articles contained could not be bought for ten dollars, but she did not expect they would bring much. Without looking at the things, we offered her five dollars, which quite pleased her and was a fortunate purchase for us. I saw on the top a knife basket and something that looked like knives and forks, and so thought it best to secure the basket and save the expense of these needfuls. I bought in St. Louis, also, a piece of furniture patch, some domestic cotton for a comfortable, a blue dining-set, and a chine tea- set; was about to buy some table-cloths, but found that such table linen as could be purchased in Massachusetts for seventy-five cents a yard was selling in St. Louis for three dollars; so I hoped again for my box and concluded to wait--a tale to be told about the table-cloth.

To go back to the first night spent under our own roof, I recollect that the candles became hard enough to be pulled from the moulds. Four large nails with their points driven into a square block of wood served as one candlestick, the other was supplied by paper being wound around the candle and then inserted into the neck of a glass bottle; this made quite a display. When our neighbor [sic] had departed and we had lighted up for the evening we all owned up to feeling very tired; so after getting Simpson's mattress spread on the bed-room floor, with all the loose coverings of old shawls and clothes we could muster, we resigned Joicy to her rest. Two buffalo robes spread on the floor--where a few hours before had stood the work-bench, and between which Loomis and Robert packed themselves with their coats for pillows--finished up our sleeping arrangements.

The next morning we commenced unpacking; do not remember much about it; only how rich I felt when I descended into the depths of Mrs. Bright's clothes basket, where I found knives and forks, iron spoons, two nice sauce-pans, graters, baking tins, spittoons, and many other things that came in play and were useful. Before night we had another bedstead put up for Robert and Loomis, and the old cot set up in the loft for Joicy. Hired a bed and quilt from Mr. Rountree, with whom we had expected to board. When we sent for the bed we found they had been blessed with a son, which explained their hasty retreat from our dwelling.

One day there had been some goods brought from St. Louis, a part of which were for Mr. Rountree; he came for them and your father was out. He seemed disappointed that he could not know the amount that had been paid for them, and although not ready to settle the bill, would like to know the cost. I looked and found the bill of the St. Louis merchant, which was receipted. He perused it approvingly, and then in a patronizing manner, asked "if I knew where Mr. Tillson kept his account book? Would I bring it to him; he would make the charge." I found the book and asked him for the bill, which quite puzzled him, and he again repeated what he wanted to do, but I, as if to save him the trouble, commenced making the charges myself. He looked with blank amazement at my performance. At last when he could bear it no longer he jumped up and looking over my shoulder, said, "Why I had no idea you were such a scribe,"--my scribbling then being somewhat better than my pencilings now--"and you have made the charges correctly.

I had some ambition to show off a little, being aware that the "white folks," though very friendly when I met them, were much perplexed to know what Tillson's wife found to do. She didn't spin nor weave, and had that little Dutch girl, and the men helped her to milk. They had hearn that she sot up nights to help Tillson write, but that wasn't much, no how; never seed her in the "truck patch;" didn't believe she knowed how to hoe. I have made quite a digression in speaking of Mr. Rountree and family, and in describing them I give the bearing and lordliness of those from slave-holding states. If they had slaves the authority was exercised over them; if not, the wife was willing slave; perhaps not so much from fear as from want of knowing anything to assert. There would occasionally be one like Mrs. Kilpatrick who could advance her own opinions.

The first few months' housekeeping was made uncomfortable by the Sunday visiting. We had no regular preaching, and with my new beginnings in domestic duties and the evenings--two in each week--which I devoted to copying letters for your father, I found but little time for reading. The eastern mail came in once in two weeks, and your father being postmaster he usually had papers in every mail from all directions, and although they would be weeks in reaching us they brought the latest intelligence from the civilized world and were about all I could find time to read during the week. I tried to have Sunday for books, when I did not go to "preaching," which time, I felt, was spent without profit and instruction, and but for example's sake would have preferred a quiet day at home.

But there were no such Sundays for me. By the time our breakfast was over and our morning work disposed of there would be a tremendous knocking at the door, accompanied by sonorous demands of "who keeps the house?" Sometimes with the knocking would come, "housekeepers within?" sometimes nothing but a loud, drawling, "h-o-u-s-e-k-e-e-p-e-r-s!" and when the door was opened a backwoodsman would walk in with a big baby on his arm, followed by his wife with the youngest in both her arms, would introduce his lady, and let us know they had come for a day's visit; thinking I was "strangeones'ere," they reckoned they ought to get acquainted. Being few--either male or female--who wore any out-door garments, the women wore their bonnets in the house and added nothing on going out but a little shawl that came about to the bottom of the waist, said waist being a very short one. I suppose, living as they did in cabins without windows and keeping both doors open for the admittance of light--windows and out of doors was all the same to them in respect to warmth--and having come from a more southern climate, they had never learned the necessity of protection from the cold.

I think during the first three months there was rarely a Sunday when we were not called on to entertain some of these families, who came as if to a show, and would go about the house taking up things and ask, "whart's this 'ere fixin?" open the closet and ask how we sold plates. When informed they were not for sale, could not see why we "wanted such a mighty lot," "never seed so many together, reckoned they cost a heap." The most amusing thing would be their remarks at the table, and their petting the children before coming to the table. "Hush up, honey, and be good; see thar, Auntee Tillson is gwine to have dinner right sure. Reckon she'll have some sweetened bread, cake, and all them pretty dishes." When they had satisfied their appetites and taken a final smoke they would make a move to depart, and invite us to go and spend Sunday with them. We would thank them, and say we would go to see them some week day, we did not visit on the Sabbath. We felt we were very fortunate in breaking up the practice without offending them. Of all our Sunday visitors, I think but one ever repeated the visit on that day, and though they were very jealous and suspicious I never knew of any offense being given.

From the first of January until April there was little change. The mail was brought in once in two weeks. The mail carrier would arrive on Monday night about sunset, leave the mail for Montgomery County, and proceed on his way to Springfield, that being the northern terminus of the mail route. Our evenings after receiving the mail were the busiest of al others, your father opening and reading his letters while I regaled myself with the three or four weeks' old eastern newspapers. The carrier returned on Thursday for the eastern mail. Your father's business had become quite extensive, and as it was mostly done through correspondence with eastern landholders he received a large amount of letters, and he generally answered as many as was in his power during the two days that the carrier was gone north. He kept a letter-book into which were copied all the letters sent from the office, and the task was sometimes pretty arduous. Your Uncle Robert would commence in the morning and work diligently, but it was impossible to keep up with your father's rapid penmanship, so, as all the letters had to go into one book and I was a fast writer, it became my privilege to wield the pen in the evening. The evenings were long and not unfrequently would we find ourselves among the small hours of Thursday morning ere our last letter was disposed of and our Wednesday evening's work ended.

After we had been about a month at housekeeping Joel Wright, who had been on an exploring trip through the northern part of the state, returned. As his cabin was closed he wanted to stay with us through the winter, or until he could get a family into his house with whom he could board; so we took him in. We then had heard nothing of our bedding being sent by way of New Orleans, but were weekly hoping that we should. So as we were not abundantly supplied, I undertook the business of making a comfortable. For the outside I had the material, but where, O where, was the cotton to be found! I knew everybody had their "cotton patches" and raised their own cotton, but in trying to buy, found that they only picked it from the seed in small quantities. While I was puzzling myself what to do, Mr. Wright brought from his farm some twenty pounds of cotton in the seed; when separated, two-thirds would be seed and the remaining third cotton. I then commenced the arduous task of separating the cotton from the seed, and after much labor and wear and tear of fingers I succeeded in getting enough to fill a comfortable. It had to be carded and made into bats before it could be used, and fortunately my maid-of-all-work knew how to card. But the cards: where were they to be found? After much inquiry I heard of some one who was willing to lend her "kairds" to a Yankee woman. So the cotton was carded, after about a week's labor by Joicy, and meanwhile Loomis had made a quilting frame and the great affair of making a comfortable was accomplished. The neighbors came in to see it. They had "heirn" that Tillson's wife had borrowed kairds, "but reckoned she did'nt [sic] know how to spin a draw," and "couldn't think what she could do with kairds."

March at last came after a cheerless winter, and with it the news that our boxes and packages were at the mouth of the Ohio River, where they had been lying all winter while the boat on which they were shipped had been undergoing repairs. Another thing to relieve the monotony was the commencement of an addition to our log house , to consist of two rooms--a parlor and bedroom. They were to be framed, and joined to the log house on the north. We also had our kitchen chimney built and a small window put in, so that in April we moved our utensils into the new establishment. It stood about five feet from the main house and a roof extended across, making a shelter from sun and rain; a platform to pass over was also made. The "white folks" thought we had a "power of room," and were "power down well fixed."

Just before we were ready for the occupancy of the kitchen, our Joicy thought she must go back to St. Louis. She liked to live with us. We had bee "right good" to her, she said, but she never lived in one place but a few weeks before. She moaned--longed for a change. Poor Joicy! she could not read, but was of high blood and bearing; said her mother was a cousin of Henry Clay's, and when she married Tarley, Joicy's father, who was a drinker, her relations did not won her and her father kept getting poorer-poorer, and the children did got no "larnin." She had a pretty face. her wardrobe consisted, besides shoes and stockings, of a green flannel petticoat, a calico dress, a white dress, and a checked apron, in all four pieces. When she came from St. Louis she wore her white dress over her calico, which was not in good taste; the stripes and figures of the calico showing unbecomingly though the thin texture of the white cambric; but when, about once a week, she would drop her calico to be washed, and put on her white over her green skirt, with no lining above her waist but what nature had provided, and then to see her sit down on the floor with her lap full of potatoes and turnips and peal [sic] them for cooking, with the green shading of her dress below and the pinkie development above, she presented a picture I cannot describe.

So in April I found myself mistress of all work, with our family of four getting on quite systematically. In order to secure Loomis for our building purposes we were obliged to make him one of our family, and it was only by dint of close management that we could keep him at his work. There were so few carpenters in the country that every one who wanted a door for his cabin would come to Loomis, and he would always promise to do their work for them. Poor Loomis, he was good-natured and could not say no to any request, and while we were waiting with impatience at the slow progress of our house, we had to shut our eyes to the little affairs such as shelves or window sash that were being made for some "Sucker's" cabin. If we offended him our last chance for a workman would be at an end; and we had to see the building materials that had been brought sixty miles for our hose appropriated to the use of others. Loomis had a weakness for military promotion and was eager to secure the good will of the settlers. His efforts were crowned with success when the next year he was commissioned Major William Loomis. It was more honor than his poor, weak humanity could bear, and while he expanded our work lagged, but there was nothing but patience and endurance for out deliverance.

For about two months I had no servant and Loomis used to get up and make a rousing fire, draw a bucket of cold water from the deep well, and Robert would go out and milk the two cows while I prepared the breakfast, and though it is but my own humble opinion, I think the cabin was as cleanly and orderly as any other that came within my inspection. I used to have black Eda come every week to do my washing, which she would stay and finish up unless she "felt a hurtin' in head," or "mightily like ager," and then she would leaver her clothes in tubs and go "hum," the finishing and cleaning up falling to my share.

In April your father went to Vandalia and on his return brought a little Dutch girl, the best thing, he said, that he could fine, and Oh! thought I. But to the girl. She rode on the horse behind your father. She had on a German blue calico dress, with a handkerchief tied over her head and another hung on her arm, in which was her wardrobe. They arrived about noon, under a scorching sun. She had light--nearly white--hair, with large, goggle, black eyes, while her skin was as fair as an infant's; the ride, however, of twenty-eight miles under a hot sun and without a bonnet had changed her face from white to red, which with her startling eyes, gave her a somewhat terrific appearance. She said she was "durdeen" (thirteen) years old, and could do a heaper of work before she had the agy; said she had a big agy cake--enlargement of the liver--but could vork most uls well as ever. From her size I should not have thought her more than ten years old. I gave her some dinner, and then sent her to bed to get rested, trusting to the future to see whether I really had "help," or more to take care of. The poor thing, when rested, took hold of work with a cheerful willingness, and with such perfect neatness and faithfulness that I felt I had in her a treasure.

About this time came court week, the first court that had been held, after my arrival. After breakfast, as your father was starting for the court house, two miles distant, he told me he should invite Starr and Mills home to dinner, and having the addition of a Baptist minister from Maine, who had quartered himself upon us, I had the table set for eight, with ample provisions for that number. But what was my astonishment when instead of the two invited guests they kept up the cavalcade until fourteen had dismounted in front of the house. Someone had told them that they were to dine the court that day, and without waiting for an invitation they pushed on, as hungry men would instinctively do. The first thing for me was to repair to the kitchen and put Doris in the way of preparing a dish of ham and eggs. Then, in the presence of all the bar, with Doris' help I lengthened the table, and with much planning and squeezing succeeded in getting their honors around the board. The chickens, which would have been all-satisfying on my first table, dwindled into insignificance on my lengthened board. The vegetables were dealt out sparingly, but thanks to ham and eggs my distinguished guests seemed full and happy. My poor pot pudding I had made with such care and satisfaction, and the exquisite sauce, its accompaniment, was most sparingly divided, much to my mystification. There was some consolation in perceiving that some of the gentlemen had discovered the mistake of intention, and were not a little mortified at their position.