Little Egypt Heritage Articles
Stories of Southern Illinois
© Bill Oliver
20 April 2005
Vol 4 Issue: #16
Osiyo, Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen of Little Egypt,
What my father told me about being an [Southern] Illinoisan. First off,
there is an uncertainty about what an American is, let along a
[Southern] Illinoisan. He said you can ask a politician, or a scholar,
or a plain citizen and they would look puzzled. By mid-19th century,
just one generation after statehood, the new residents of southern
Illinois knew that they lived below or above the Shelbyville Moraine,
which was the southern east-west line that the glaciers [called the
Wisconsin Drift] progressed. North of that divide the terrain was quite
level and the soil was rich and deep. South of this line, the land was
unglaciated. This means that the rocky hills limit agriculture. This, of
course, made land prices higher in the north, as were crop yields, thus
drawing more citizens.
From the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee came the first
wave of settlers to the southern portion of the state. They filled the
rich bottom lands and fanned out into the wooded sections of the
interior. They brought their Southern characteristics with them.
At the end of the first quarter of the 19th-century the Erie Canal
opened, providing a new entry into the prairie lands. This brought
people from the northern portions of the United States and Europe,
making for a broader mix of cultures. This influx included the Irish
peasants displaced by the potato famine in the Emerald Isle. These were
different from the Ulster-Irish coming up from the south. There was the
German pioneers driven from their homeland by revolution and famine.
These were separate from those Germans from the Carolinas who were
coming into the state. And, then there were those who were trying to
replicate the characteristics of the Northeast. These were the
influences that made up the Illinoisan.
The variety of land presented new problems and encouraged the mechanical
ingenuity of the people. The prairie lands were tough to plow; there was
a scarcity of wood to heat their homes or fence their lands; and the
water wasn’t suitable for drinking. Thus, their ingenuity invented the
steel plow, well-drilling machinery, and barb wire. They marketed these
things to settlers moving into the Great American Desert of Nebraska and
An unconquerable optimism fostered democracy. All officials had to be
elected by popular vote, and citizens did not need to own land to vote.
With most of the power invested in the legislature democratic practice
Higher education developed quickly fostering optimism about the future.
By 1840 there were twelve colleges on the Illinois frontier. Grandma
Oliver would often mention that this or that family member went off to
one of the colleges for some courses.
Well, this article started with what Dad said an Illinoisan is, so I’d
best get to what he said an Illinoisan was. Dad said and Illinoisan was
a person who lived in Illinois. He is a heterogeneous character; he is
very tall; he possess’ humor and he has shrewdness; he is very gentle;
and is just a tad coarse. I said to Dad, “Aw, that describes Abe
Lincoln.” To that Dad replied, “That describes my Dad.” Grandpa Oliver
was taller than the sixteenth President by an inch or so. And, though
Grandpa passed on when I was a toddler, that describes everything I ever
heard about him. Grandpa was from Creal Springs.
e-la-di-e-das-di ha-wi nv-wa-do-hi-ya nv-wa-to-hi-ya-da.
(May you walk in peace and harmony)
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