The Peoria and other Indigenous nations consolidated their villages near the river bottoms, where the fertile soil allowed cultivation of maize and squash. They also fished and hunted bison, which at the time were fairly common on some of the northern prairie lands. This combination of hunting and farming sustained the Algonquian-speaking people of the prairie until they were encroached upon and eventually forced out by white settlers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Newcomers and New Struggles
Beginning in the nineteenth century, settlers with trans-Atlantic origins headed west from the eastern woodlands into the tall grass of the prairielands. Some of the first settlers who would be instrumental in developing Logan County arrived in 1818, the same year Illinois gained statehood—despite the fact that it was still inhabited and contested by Indigenous nations at the time—and 21 years before the county would be officially formed. At the time, those who would settle in the tall grass and scattered woodlands had their doubts about the land in which they found themselves, largely based on preconceived notions of what “good” land looked like.
With the modern amenities of today, it’s hard to think of being alone in what many considered to be a wasteland with nothing but your wits and whatever you had in your pockets to keep you alive, especially in winter. As opposed to the Indigenous people, who over hundreds of years had grown accustomed to the difficulties of surviving in the often-extreme and deceptively dangerous environment of the prairie, settlers of European descent found traveling through and living on the uncultivated land extremely hazardous. And in two separate events, only a few years before the establishment of Logan County, life and death hung in the balance for many who lived in the heart of Illinois.
A Winter that Became Legend
Like sailors on the ocean, anyone traveling a sea of prairie grass had a close association with the stars and constellations as celestial guides. Reading particular elements of nature could get you home safely. A steady breeze that touched a traveler’s ear could keep him or her headed in the right direction. One did not want a calm, still night. But then, one did not want what happened on the Wednesday between Christmas 1830 and January 1831.
Autumn had been unseasonably warm, but on December 20, cold rain fell in a mix of sleet and ice. Snow began to fall, and many accounts say it did not stop for two months, and remained three feet deep, topped by a frozen layer. Trails and familiar markers were completely covered, and the settlers were put to task trying to stay warm and alive. A massive loss of game, frozen by the storm, threatened the settler’s food sources. Many of those who ventured out to hunt or find stores of corn fell through the top ice layer, became stranded in the snow, and perished. The ravages of the severe winter were not completely known until the coming of spring and after a large freshet from the snowmelt. It was a winter by which many survivors came to define and measure their lives.
The Frozen Prairie
December 20, 1836, three years before the establishment of Logan County, The “Sudden Change” struck the State of Illinois. Many settlers were hunting on a drizzly day, when the temperature dropped instantly and froze their wet clothes to solid ice. Game and livestock died by the droves. A man named Washington Crowder was on horseback, on his way from Sugar Creek to Sangamon County to get a marriage license, when he was caught in the sudden temperature drop and was frozen fast to the saddle of his horse. Crowder was extricated from the saddle only after two men removed him, saddle and all, inside to a fire where his clothes finally thawed. Others who were outside when the sudden cold snap hit, perished before they could find heat or shelter.
Yet, through all that, settlers in the heart of Illinois persevered and made Logan County their home. Today, you can contact the Logan County Tourism Bureau to learn more about the fascinating history of our little patch of the prairie.