Close this search box.

On the Illinois Frontier 1817-1818

When my great great great grandparents Rachel Starr and Jacob Strader reached Vermilion County, Illinois in the autumn of 1822, they had multiple households of family members there to help them found their farm. By then, Vermilion County as a whole was becoming a destination for westward-flowing migrants. It would only be a few more years until the area boasted such aspects of civilization as trading posts, ferries, and mills.

The scene had been quite different in the spring of 1815 when Rachel’s eldest sister Lizzie and her husband Henry Johnson had arrived. I have good reason to believe they were the very first settlers in any part of what is now Vermilion County. If not, they certainly they were the first to found a homestead in that portion of the county along the Little Vermilion River. The land was raw prairie and uncut stretches of timber, left untouched for many years by any former indigenous inhabitants. Lizzie and Henry had no neighbors to call upon, and no stores at which to purchase (or barter for) supplies. A young couple in their thirties, they had only themselves and their children for company, the eldest of those children being Esau, who turned fifteen a few months after their arrival. It was just them and the wolves, as Esau wrote about so colorfully in his memoir.

Finally late in the year 1817, by which point the Johnsons had observed their life of isolation for thirty months, the couple were at last joined by relatives. The party consisted of Lizzie’s younger sister Margaret with husband William Marsh and their brood. The Marshes quickly established themselves on a neighboring parcel. Finally Lizzie no longer had to endure the challenge of being the only adult female within miles; now she had her most treasured sister back, the one who had set out with her from Guilford County, North Carolina fifteen years earlier, but who had then stayed in Preble County, Ohio with her newly-acquired husband.

For Esau, the arrival meant he had a second young male with whom to hang out, and was no longer limited to the company of his brother John Henry Johnson. That person was his first cousin John Starr Marsh. The latter was six years younger than Esau, but that was okay with Esau because it left him in the position of being able to show his cousin the ropes, whatever activity or skill was at hand. Esau warmed to this role at once. To his credit, he was an excellent mentor, but on the other hand, he was sometimes a little too certain of the superiority that stemmed from his more advanced age and ability, and it was probably a good thing he was soon confronted with a life lesson that dimmed his smugness.

That holiday season was a big deal, the first Christmas in a while that Lizzie and Henry and family had shared with relatives. One of the extravagances came in the form of sets of ice skates for Esau and John Starr Marsh. They couldn’t wait to try them out. On Christmas Day, they headed off to skate up the Little Vermilion. Esau, in typical impulsive teenager fashion, raced on far ahead of his young cousin. Worse, he refused to be slowed down by a questionable area of ice. Sure enough, the ice broke and he fell in. While submerged, he began to be carried downstream. He was forced to struggle desperately back against the current to the hole he had made when he fell through, and just barely managed to drag himself out. He needed oxygen so urgently by then that he just lay there gasping for twenty seconds or more. After finally succeeding in clambering up the bank, he took off the skates and left them there. When writing about the incident in 1882, despite the sixty-five years that had subsequently gone by, he declared, “I have never put skates on since.”

Lizzie and Henry had always been staunch in their religious faith, but had not been able to express this in formal ways due to living on the edge of the frontier where churches tended not to be built until after settlers had taken care of the practical endeavors vital to their sustenance, security, and physical comfort. They made up for the unavailability of altars and pews and stained-glass windows in their own private, quiet fashion. Henry was a preacher when he had the opportunity. He would read Scripture to Lizzie and the kids by candlelight in the evenings if he had no larger audience. Now with the arrival of Margaret and William, the urge to tend to the spiritual needs of the family increased in intensity. This inadvertently set the stage for a dramatic incident. Esau made sure to include the details in his memoir.

In the autumn of 1818, probably due to the circuit activity of a wilderness preacher, a religious revival meeting was organized, to take place on a Sunday some six miles west of Johnson’s Point. Nearly all of the Johnson family went, the key exception being Esau, who stayed back to take care of some needed work in the fields. Nearly all of the Marsh household went as well, the exceptions being Joseph Marsh, then about eight or nine years old, and four-or-five-year-old Rhoda Marsh. Margaret and William apparently thought the two kids would be happier and less trouble if they stayed at home, and apparently in that era, leaving kids of that age on their own for the day was not unusual. Pioneer kids were expected to know how to fend for themselves for a day.

Unfortunately, young Joseph wanted to show off in front of his little sister, and so he walked along the upper rail of one of the fences. The rail — just a portion of a split sapling — rotated under his feet and he fell badly, his legs coming down on opposite sides of the rail and then the rail falling with him to the ground, in such a way that the bone of his thigh snapped. It was a compound fracture, i.e. it jutted right out of his skin. To make matters worse, the jagged point had landed in the mud. Rhoda, amazing as it may seem, did not panic. She knew she had to get help, and knew that the only adult within range was Esau. (Here I define “adult” in modern terms. Esau had just turned eighteen. By the legal standards of 1818, he had three years to go to reach adulthood.) Rhoda ran to the Johnson farm, nearly a mile away, and told Esau what had happened.

Esau hurried back with Rhoda and found his foolhardy little cousin still stuck beneath the rail, the sharp end of his broken bone still embedded in the ground. Esau picked him up and carried him into the Marsh log cabin. For a brief interval, Esau debated whether he should leave Joseph and Rhoda there and go to fetch his uncle and aunt. That meant going on foot, the two families’ horses having been taken by those who were attending the revival meeting. Esau decided there wasn’t time for that option, not only because of the interval it would take to scamper the miles of distance to reach his family members, but then the delay because a doctor would need to be summoned. The nearest doctor was down in Edgar County, some thirty miles away — one way. Esau knew he had to set the leg himself before the swelling became severe. Otherwise the leg might never heal right. Or worse, the wound might become infected, leading to amputation or even to death.

Esau had never set a bone before in his life, but he had witnessed it done and understood the necessary steps. First he had to immobilize Joseph so that the boy’s thrashing would not defeat the effort. Esau took apart a bed, unlacing the cords that ordinarily were what the mattress rested upon. He then placed the headboard on the floor, laid Joseph on that makeshift platform, and tied him to it with the cords. Next he needed to make sure the bone was clean. Knowing that water was not the best option, he used strong vinegar as both as an antiseptic and as a rinse. He could still see dirt in the marrow of the broken end, so he washed a needle and used that to pick away until he was certain there was no more foreign matter left. Now the hard part. He had to press the bone back into the flesh and line it up.

Naturally Joseph “hollered manfully” as Esau put it, but there was no getting around the need to do what Esau had to do. He pulled on the leg and forced the bone in, and made sure the alignment seemed right — making certain for example that Joseph’s legs appeared to be the same length. The next challenge was how to keep the leg from drawing up and reversing the progress. Esau split a cedar pole and proceeded to create a cast by wrapping brown paper around the leg, soaking the paper with vinegar so that it was not only sterile, but would contract and form a rigid housing. He added strips of cedar as splints, and then more paper, and layer by layer ended up with an arrangement that would keep Joseph’s leg still and keep the broken ends of the bone pressed up against each other. Only then could Esau leave to inform his uncle and aunt of the emergency, which he did after telling Rhoda to pour more vinegar on the paper if it became dry during his absence.

Fetching a doctor proved as slow a process as feared. It was not until the evening of the following day that the man arrived at the Marsh residence. He looked at Joseph and checked what Esau had done and declared it to be sufficient, and declined to open up the wound or do any other sort of adjustment. The doctor said that the main threat to a successful long-term outcome would have come from filth in the wound, but his assessment as a medical professional was that Esau had taken the necessary steps to avoid that danger and the crisis point was already in the past. If there had been any dirt left in the bone, an infection would have already flared up to such a degree that Joseph would have been lying there in front of them all writhing in pain. Instead, as Esau put it, “He got well all right.” From that time onward until Esau left Vermilion County nine years later, whenever anyone in the immediate area broke a bone, they had Esau tend to the matter in lieu of — or at least prior to — summoning a doctor.



3 thoughts on “On the Illinois Frontier 1817-1818”

  1. Another fun coincidence is that during the mid-20th Century, a great great grandson of Rachel Starr and Jacob Strader, Dwight Buss, was the postal carrier for the part of Vermilion County that had once been the site of the farms of the Johnson family and the Marsh family, even though Dwight had been raised hundreds of miles from there and did not know about the history.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *