The History Behind A MATTER OF TIME
A Matter of Time: Coming in December, but available now for pre-order for your Kindle.
What was the Illinois frontier like when Charles Dickens visited it in 1842? It was one of the key questions I needed to answer before beginning to write the book—specifically, St. Clair County, the setting for A Matter of Time. I read Dickens’ description of it in his travelogue American Notes, published after his return to England after his tour of America. But since Dickens is known for his use of caricature and hyperbole, I couldn’t just take his perspective for what Illinois and her citizens were like. Therefore, as always, I had to “go back to school.” What I needed to know either hadn’t been in my high school history books or I’d ignored it. Now, I was ready and eager to learn. (An example of why having a purpose for learning makes the whole endeavor so much more effective.)
I already knew from my research for Once Again, that St. Clair County was named for Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory. Founded in 1790, twenty-eight years before Illinois even became a state, it is our oldest county. When Dickens reached there on April 12, 1842, it was its current modest size, but in the beginning it covered most of what is now Illinois. It was home to three Illinois governors: John Reynolds, William Kinney, and Gustave Koerner. (You’ll meet the latter two in A Matter of Time.) And Ninian Edwards, our first governor, whom I mention in Every Hill and Mountain, owned and promoted vast lands in St. Clair County.
In other words, St. Clair County is highly significant in Illinois history. (Interestingly, in 1970 the U.S. Census Bureau placed the mean center of U.S. population at St. Clair County, Illinois.)
The ancient Vincennes Trail ran through St. Clair County. It began as a buffalo path through the prairie and became one of the most important transportation routes for early emigrants traveling to and through Illinois. In 1799 the U.S. postal service established a mail route from Vincennes, Indiana to Kaskaskia, Illinois. And beginning in 1802 the road was improved for wagon travel, and inns began to be erected every thirty or forty miles for the convenience and safety of travelers.
One of those way stops was in Lebanon. A few miles west of the little town, another road branched off the Trail and went to Cahokia and on to St. Louis, Missouri, roughly following today’s Route 50. It was this road that Charles Dickens and his traveling companions took from St. Louis for their “gypsy excursion” to the Looking Glass Prairie near Lebanon. It was by then a busy road, and whereas initially the mail coach had run every four weeks, by 1842 the towns along the route, including Lebanon, were getting mail service twice a day. We should be so lucky.
Like all the frontier towns, Lebanon and the nearby the county seat Belleville, had been carved out of the wilderness by the blood, sweat, and tears of the earliest settlers. The History of St. Clair County, published in 1881, speaks to their contributions:
“There will always attach an interest to the history of the pioneer families of the west, which can never properly belong to others who came at a later date, as they have laid the foundation of our social and material status, and coming generations can only modify and develop that which was by their bravery, energy and perseverance at first established. By their strong arms the forests were felled, the tangled undergrowth cleared away, the stubborn glebe broken, and the primitive cabin, school-house and church erected.”
The citizens of 1842 Belleville had many things to be proud of. Theirs was no backwater town. It was a planned city, laid out by John Messenger in 1814 even before it had residents specifically to be the new county seat (replacing Cahokia). Besides receiving constant visitors and communications from all the towns along the Vincennes Trail, Belleville was also connected via another important trail to the important towns of Shawneetown and Equality, where the famous salt works were in deep southern Illinois.
Several prominent Illinois men practiced law in Belleville. Some of them would later become associated in one way or another with Illinois’ favorite son, Abraham Lincoln. James Shields, would face Lincoln in a duel later that year. Lyman Trumball, an on-again-off-again-friend of Lincoln, was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives and also served as the Illinois Secretary of State. Later, he would help found the Republican Party, be elected a U.S. senator, and co-author the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery. Gustav Koerner, another of the Belleville lawyers and also a member of Congress, would soon be appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court and then in 1853 be elected Lt. Governor. Educated at one of Germany’s premier colleges, Koerner had been forced to flee his homeland. His crime? Protesting the lack of a free press and freedom of speech. He was one of the attorneys arguing a case before Judge Breese at the county courthouse the morning Charles Dickens’ party stopped to rest their horses and themselves at the Mansion House Hotel.
I got the opportunity to discuss the hotel with a descendant of the Mansion House’s proprietor. He is a member of the Belleville Historical Society whose name I have misplaced. (I’ll add it when I find it in my notes.) He told me his Grandmother knew for a fact that the hotel always set an elegant table for guests, including white linen table cloths. To this day, the family remains indignant about Dickens’ description of the Mansion House in American Notes.
Dickens and his fellow travelers were only in town for a couple of hours, probably not long enough to find out all that Belleville had to offer. There was the Belleville Academy, which educated young gentlemen. The German population in the region, unofficially led by Gustav Koerner, had a lending library and a reading society. And the Belleville Advocate Newspaper kept citizens informed from a staunchly Democratic perspective. For the less literary, there were boxing, wrestling, and horse racing (including a jockey club).
The business of beer was beginning to really blossom. The Belleville Brewery, built in 1838 by Jacob Fleischbein, was situated at northeast corner of W. Washington and South 1st Street. Mr. Fleishchbein also ran a brewery in St. Louis, that great beer town across the river. And there were other breweries in Belleville, too. The town became famous throughout the West for its lager beer, thus attracting the attention of the St. Clair County Washington Temperance Society.
And there were several other industries present at the time of Dickens’ visit. The first coal mine had begun in 1825.There were multiple flour mills, a brick works two blocks south of the square, a quarry, and a glass manufacturing plant (specializing in beer bottles). As a matter of fact, industry and agriculture were so booming that only four years after Dickens’ visit, the first macadamized road was built between Belleville and East St. Louis. (Known today as Rock Road.)
I wove several Belleville people into A Matter of Time. I even included Rev. Peter Akers, president of McKendree College in Lebanon, mostly, I confess, because of his interesting connection to Abraham Lincoln. (If it seems like Lincoln shows up in every one of my books, that’s because he has a connection to nearly every town in Illinois. I’m not kidding.) I’ll tell more about Akers when I focus on Lebanon.
But one interesting man I wasn’t able to fit into the story was John Mason Peck, so I’ll tell you a little about him here.
Born in Connecticut in 1789, John Mason Peck was a pioneer, a Baptist missionary to frontier Illinois and Missouri, an Illinois historian, and a prolific writer of tremendous influence in the anti-slavery movement. He Founded Rock Spring Seminary and high school near Belleville in 1827. (Later it was moved to Alton and became Shurtleff College.) In 1829 Peck published the first religious newspaper in the West, The Pioneer. He established multiple Sunday schools, schools, and Bible societies until his death in 1855. I highly recommend that you download a free copy of John Mason Peck’s “The New Emigrant’s Guide to the West.” I found it to be a well-written book that demonstrates the author’s intelligence and goodness as much as it provides a fascinating insight into early Illinois, the western frontier.
So now you have a glimpse of what St. Clair County was like as it waited to receive international literary super star, Charles Dickens. What did Dickens think of St. Clair County and its people? I’ll tell you a little about it in a future post, but you’ll have to read A Matter of Time to get the complete story.
It would be so nice of you to share!