Settling in Knox County: The Eames Family Letters

The settlement of Knox County, Illinois, began in the second half of the 1820s. The earliest settler families came in 1828, largely from Kentucky.  In May of 1830, a public meeting was held to discuss the possibility of county organization. A group of prominent citizens came together to address a petition, which was presented to Judge Richard M. Young of the fifth Judicial Circuit. The petition group proved to the Judge that Knox had 350 inhabitants, the number of residents required by law to form a county. On June 10, 1830, Judge Young declared the county organized.  

Soon after, the county began to grow. A courthouse and jail were built between 1831 and 1832, roads were established, and bridges were built in order to stimulate the county’s expansion and prosperity. The natural land of Knox County also allowed for rapid and successful settlement. Groves in the area were well suited for materials for shelter and fuel, game was plentiful, and there was extensive grazing space for livestock. Further, settlers could easily cultivate small fields by cutting down trees, and although the ground was tough, after the first breaking it proved to be fertile and easily worked. Knox County was immensely appealing to settlers of moderate means who could find readily available resources and rapidly cultivate the land.  

Much of Knox County’s early settlement stemmed from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Later, after the Black Hawk War, there was a gradual increase of settlers coming from the Northern States as well. By 1836 there was a surge in immigration and a considerable population boost, and by this time southern immigration began to decline while many of the newest settlers came from New York, New England, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  

The Eames Family Letters, 1837-1868 (MS 605) present an example of a settler from New England coming to Knox County. The digitized content of this collection consists of ten letters primarily written by Stephen Eames of Knox County, Illinois, to family and friends in Vermont and New Hampshire. In 1839 Eames purchased land in Walnut Creek, Knox County, where he started his own farm and built a log cabin. He frequently kept in touch with his family on the East Coast and updated them about his farm and health. Many of the letters in the collection use minimal punctuation or capitalization and contain spelling errors. 

In a letter from Stephen Eames to his “Beloved Friend” on April 1, 1839, he wrote: 

I have bought some land this spring in Knox County at a small settlement on Walnut Creek forty miles west of Boyds grove a year ago there was but two families there now there is six and a number more coming in this spring I have been making railes and intend fencing and braking Prairie this summer there is a number of good settlements 10 or 12 miles of this place it is as good land as there is in the county.

In the next letter in the collection, Stephen wrote to his sister, Rhoda Boyd, on August 23, 1840. He apologized for not writing sooner but promised to tell her about his life. He wrote: 

I live in a settlement of 15 families we are settled about a small grove of timber amidst the Prairies at a distance of five or six miles from other settlements one section of land in each township is reserved for schools we sold ours last spring it brought over two thousand dollars the money loans for 12 per cent and the interest will more than support our schools at present we built a school house last spring and have a school this summer.

He also went on to describe Mormons living in the settlements, writing, “The people in this settlement are more than half of them Mormons who believe in revelations given to Jo Smith the finder of the golden plates, but they are generally good neighbors.” 

Stephen noted that he was becoming attached to the land, saying, “If the farmers in Vermont and New Hampshire could plough and hoe on our land and see how it produces crops of all kinds they would never again be willing to dig among the rocks and hills of New England.” 

The next letter, written on August 23, 1840 to his friends William and Olive Plumb, describes more of Stephen’s new life in the settlement. He wrote: 

I have had my land tended on shares this season and have been engaged with one of my neighbors in breaking Prairy myself I have held the plough to break 90 acres this summer and 50 acres last it took about two months  and a half each season with a team of four yoak of oxen I am at work now building a log cabin which I have nearly finished I inten to have a family in it this fall to board with I have fifty acres under tolerable good improvement but produce will fetch but very little now I board with a good neighbor handy to my work and get along very well this settlement has gained ever since it began there is now fifteen families in it  we have school funds arising from sale of school lands that amount to more than two thousand dolars we built a school-house last spring and have a chool this summer we have meetings every sabath but they are not as good as I had in Amesbury the people here are some of them mormons and have some superstitions that I don’t believe in We have a state road leading from the Illinois to the Mississippi River that passes through this place…I think it is as healthy and pleasant a place as there is in the state.

The letters in this collection touch on other topics including sickness, prices for crops, the scattering of the Mormon population and the settlement of the Bishop Hill Swedish colony nearby, and regular updates on Stephen’s health and finances. In the last letter in this collection, dated December 4, 1868, Stephen wrote to his brother and sister that his health and crops were doing well. He wrote that he sometimes considered selling or renting his place and boarding with some family, but “not while I am able to take care of our little place and stock.” 

You can learn more about the history of Knox County through the IHLC’s collection:    

Other Resources 

“History of Knox County.” Knox County, Illinois. Retrieved April 28, 2020.  

Gale, W. Seldon and Geo. Candee. “Knox County, Illinois Genealogy and History.” Genealogy Trails. Retrieved April 28, 2020.

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