The First Settlers
Curious visitants to the Blackhawk Purchase spread abroad glowing accounts of its attractiveness. Its alluring fame attracted settlers in constantly increasing numbers. They located first along the Mississippi River, then along its chief tributaries, because these are the natural highways. Gradually they pushed into the interior and likewise away from the larger streams.
In 1835, the trading house of William McPherson some distance up Skunk River was an advance outpost. From this place, in August of that year, a company of six men set out to explore the nearby but still unknown country to the westward. One of them was John Huff, a bee hunter. His primary object was to locate bee trees which then were valuable as their honey made a welcome addition to the limited table fare of the frontier and enjoyed a ready sale when taken to market. A number of bee trees were found and marked, as the custom was, by cutting in the bark the initials of the finder's name to indicate ownership. It was a rule of honor among those practicing the calling to respect a prior claim thus established. In wandering about the party came upon an expanse of open land so beautiful and attractive that all its members at once selected and staked out claims. With five of them the impulse was but a dream of the moment not to be fulfilled as they never came back; but with Huff it grew into a resolution to which the remembrance of a young woman living in Illinois gave life and purpose. This place was afterward known and described as "the round prairie."
On returning to McPherson's Huff busied himself in making three large linwood casks. Taking Levi Johnson, a boy of the vicinity, with him as an associate, he put the completed casks in a canoe and paddled up the river to the mouth of Brush Creek. There the two made their camp. In a few weeks they had secured enough honey to fill two casks and partially to fill the third one. The chill air of November at length gave warning of the near approach of winter. Deeming it time to seek more comfortable quarters, they cut and fashioned a large log into a dugout to carry the casks of honey, the camp outfit and other articles. They had not been long afloat when their cumbersome vessel fouled on a sawyer and was capsized, throwing the cargo into fifteen feet of water. Huff, having removed his shoes, lost them in the accident.
Serious as the disaster was, Huff did not lose heart. He possessed that readiness of action in an emergency which characterizes men trained to dependence upon their own resources. The thought of the young woman in Illinois lent incentive and encouragement. The partly empty cask, proving buoyant, was floating away, but was caught, brought ashore and stored in a thicket for safekeeping. The property resting on the bottom of the river represented a summer's work and was of sufficient value to warrant an extreme effort for its recovery. To regain it was a problem too difficult for hands without tools. Johnson returned to his home in the eastern part of Henry County. Huff set out for Burlington, the nearest point where he could procure the grappling hooks they needed. The way led alternately through dense timber and through the tangled grasses of the prairie. It was no primrose path to be trodden with bare feet. He overtook an oxen team bound for the same destination. There was no comfort riding on a wagon jolting with slow and tedious progress over tufts and hummocks. He continued to walk, finding in the exercise relief from the cold. He travelled so that at night he could camp with the driver of the oxteam. In the mornings he would linger by the campfire until the sun removed the frost. Arrived at Burlington, he told of his loss and of his plans in such simple, straightforward and convincing manner that he won the confidence of Sulifand S. Ross, a general merchant, who supplied him with grappling hooks, shoes and a small sum of money.
After an absence of eleven days Huff and Johnson were again at the scene of their mishap. There were Indians all about, but they had respected the right of the absent owner and had not disturbed the honey left in the thicket. Huff offered one of them a dollar to bring out the rifle and the camp utensils. The Indian dived for them but failed to get the gun. While he was warming and preparing for another attempt, the gun was pulled out with the grappling hooks. Although tendered full payment, he would accept but half a dollar for his effort. The casks in the water were recovered in good condition.
Again they embarked. It is likely their experience led them to be more careful in loading their canoes and to be more watchful for the remainder of the voyage. No more serious troubles befel them. They reached Carthage, Illinois, safely and disposed of their honey at fifteen cents a gallon. The sale netted them a tidy sum. Out of the proceeds, Ross, whose kindness Huff always recalled with expressions of gratitude, was repaid his loan.
On the third day of March, 1836, John Huff and Sarah Woodard of Hancock County, Illinois, were married. Apparently the honeymoon of the young couple was spent in a leisurely journey toward the little prairie where in the last late summer Huff with his mind's eye had seen their future home. They visited with friends and relatives along the way, unconscious that disappointment lurked in their delay. Huff at last leaving his wife behind went on ahead to prepare for her coming. When he arrived at his original claim, a cabin already stood upon it. Another homeseeker chancing upon the spot likewise had been pleased with it, and seeing no sign of an earlier claimant by prompt action now had become possessed of a substantial right to it under the rules in force among the settlers.
Huff accepted the result of his negligence in a proper spirit and selected a new claim some miles to the west. Here on the seventeenth day of June, he brought his wife and her brother David A. Woodard, just a small boy. They came on horseback carrying all their worldly belongings which were neither burdensome nor troublesome. Trees were their only shelter until a roof could be made of bark laid on crosspoles carried in forks on the upper ends of supporting posts. Then logs were cut for a more substantial structure. With the willing help of fellow settlers a rude cabin was raised. It was placed in a beautiful grove of young hickories. To Huff and his wife life never brought a happier or prouder moment than the one in which they entered this little cabin and christened it "home."
John Huff and his wife lost by a few months the honor of being the first actual settlers within the limits of Jefferson County. Several families preceded them. The distinction belongs equally to Thomas Lambirth and his wife and to Samuel Scott Walker, his wife and children. It might be considered to belong to James Tilford also, although it was not till (sic) the year 1840 that he brought his family from Illinois.
In February, 1836, Tilford, Lambirth and Walker, all of Morgan County, Illinois, were in the Blackhawk Purchase looking for a desirable location to establish new homes. The three men were related by marriage, Lambirth having married a daughter of Tilford and Walker a niece. Chance led them to the spot whose charm had appealed so strongly to John Huff and his associates. They viewed it with admiration, made choice of claims, built cabins and returned to Illinois. Within three months they finished their preparations and were on the way to the new country. Tilford had with him his son Joseph, a boy of ten; Lambirth his wife; and Walker his wife and two little girls, Elizabeth of six and Mary Francis of four. With them were seven unmarried men hoping to better their fortunes. At Cedar Creek it was necessary to cut down the steep banks in order to effect a crossing with the big oxdrawn wagons. It fell to Mrs. Lambirth's lot to be lifted to a seat on the wagon in the lead and so to be the first white woman to cross the stream. On the sixteenth day of May they reached their claims and cabins. Tilford, Lambirth and Walker proceeded to break sod and to prepare the ground for planting. The single men evidently were not pleased with the prospect. Either not finding the country to their liking or preferring more society than it afforded, after a few days they took their departure.
William G. Coop arrived on the sixth day of June with his family. A few others perhaps preceded the Huffs; a number followed close after. The dates of the various arrivals have not been preserved. By the close of the year the permanent residents included, it is believed, Amos Lemon, his wife and five children; James Lanman, his wife and six children; Alfred Wright, his wife and one child; George Stout, his wife and three children; Samuel T. Harris, his wife and eight children; David Coop, his wife and two children; George W. Troy, his wife and two children; John Mitchell and wife; Isaac Blakely, Frederick F. Lyon, Lambeth Morgan, Isaac Bush, Sexton Mount, Harmon J. Aikes, Harrison Aikes and Alfred Aikes.
These were the forerunning pioneers. Before their coming all was wilderness. They felled trees and built houses; they broke the sod and gathered crops. Their touch was the beginning of a marvelous transformation.
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