Champaign County is a part of what the early French explorers called the Grand Prairie of the West, which they described as extending from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Wabash River.
In the beginning the pioneer generally stayed close to a wooded area, along the course of a stream. There they would have wood to build a home, for fires to keep warm and for cooking, and plenty of water. As a result of this the more fertile, easily cultivated prairie stretches were long neglected.
Localities Designated By Groves
Before the county was divided into townships, many of the localities outside of the villages were designated by groves and fords and other natural features. “The Big Grove” was the large grove of natural timber just north of the city of Urbana, partly in Township 19 and partly in Township 20.
The Salt Fork was a general term which designated the land covered by timber along that stream and the neighboring farms. Homer and Sidney are villages along this stream.
Sadorus Grove was the name of the isolated grove of timber at the head of the Kaskaskia River, where Henry Sadorus and his family settled in the spring of 1824, when they came to this county.
Nearer Philo were Bowse’s Grove which referred to a small grove of natural timber on the east side of the Embarrass River. This was later called Shaeffer’s Grove and is in Crittenden Township, which is just south of Philo Township.
Lynn Grove, generally spelled Linn Grove in the oldest records, was the name attached to a beautiful eminence which was crowned with trees of Nature’s planting in the southwest corner of Sidney Township.
About one mile north of the village of Philo there was a tuft or small patch of timber and brush along the margin of a small pond which protected it from the annual prairie fire. It was less than one acre which was a noted landmark for travelers and was known far and wide as the Tow-Head. It was called the Tow-Head because the clump of trees situated on a high knoll resembled a human head. Its position upon a very high piece of prairie made it visible for miles around.
Tradition has it that many years ago before the settlement of the prairies, a band of regulators from an Indiana settlement found the trail of a horse thief. This thief hade made it as far as Towhead with the stolen animal. They found him fast asleep in the shade of the little grove. Without even a trail, he was hung from one of the trees. For this reason, this little clump of trees was also known as “Dead Man’s Grove.”
The Tow-Head was near the road which led from the Salt Fork timber westward to Sadorus Grove and the Okaw. The Tow-Head has long since yielded to the march of improvement and the pond is no more and now yields a fine yearly crop of corn or soybeans.
A Distinct Watershed Divide
There is a distinct watershed which divides the Wabash system from that of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The Kaskaskia empties into the Mississippi and the Sangamon, flowing into the Illinois River, are a part of the system of the “Father of Waters” which drains the western third of the county. The Salt Fork of the Vermilion, the Middle Fork of that stream, the Little Vermilion, and the Embarrass are portions of the Wabash system and drain the remainder of the county.
The Embarrass rises south of Urbana, on the University of Illinois farms and drains the southwestern part of Urbana Township, and Philo, Crittenden, Raymond and Ayers Townships. North of the Embarrass the Vermilion system spreads over the eastern townships of South Homer, Sidney, St. Joseph, Ogden, Stanton, Compromise, Rantoul, Kerr and Harwood Townships.
There were county neighborhoods in their early settlement that took upon themselves some interesting names, many of which are now forgotten or are no longer used.
One of these settlements, Yankee Ridge was located in Philo Township, along the ridge which divides the waters of the Salt Fork from those flowing into the Embarrass (Ambraw). In the mid 1850’s this settlement became the home of a colony from Massachusetts. The original group was E.W. Parker and his brother, G.W. Parker, who brought the first piano to this area. Others included David Lucius, T.C. Eaton, Asa Gooding, Dennis Chapin and J.P. Whitmore. It was named for the place they came from and for the ridge which was on higher ground and had better drainage for that day.
he black, friable mold of which the prairie soil is composed, is due to the growth and decay of successive seasons of the coarse swamp grasses which covered a great part of this area. The grass would start growing in the spring, grow luxuriantly during the summer and fall and decay during the winter, to be added to the annual accumulation, which over the years became from one to as much as five feet in thickness.
For years the swamps and lowlands were considered to be worthless. There was a great deal of sickness from malaria and other diseases. The great work of drainage was begun during the 1850’s. In 1878 the State Constitution was amended by the addition of the drainage section, which authorized the formation of drainage companies. For regulation and systematic reasons, the digging and tiling of ditches was divided into districts. Success with drainage allowed many lands to be reclaimed are now some of the most productive and valuable in the county.
Native Wildlife and Vegetation
When the first explorers came to Illinois they mention many animals that they saw as they traveled, among them deer, moose, all sorts of fish, turkeys, wild cattle and small game. In Champaign County toward the end of the nineteenth century and even later, prairie chickens, quails, squirrels, rabbits and other small game were plentiful.
There were many flowers native to Illinois to be found among the tall grass and along the streams and among the trees.
One man writing about his first sight of the Grand Prairie said, “The grass waving in the beautiful sunlight of June and all the wildflowers indigenous to the prairies bowing their heads to the breeze, presented a sight that I thought the most beautiful I had ever beheld, the remembrance of which, notwithstanding seventy years have passed and gone since then, is still as vivid to my mind it seems, as the day when I first viewed the beauties of the grand old prairies of Illinois.”
The Illinois Indians
The Illinois Indians meaning “men of people” formed a loose confederacy of about a half dozen tribes, mainly the Metchigamis, the Kaskaskias, the Peorias, the Cahokias and the Tamaroas.
The Metchigamis were found along the Mississippi River and also lived in the vicinity of Lake Michigan, to which they gave their name. They were allies of Pontiac in the War of 1764 and some perished with other members of the Illinois Confederacy on Starved Rock in 1769.
The Kaskaskias were originally along the upper Illinois River and moved to the mouth of the Kaskaskia in 1700 and founded the old city of Kaskaskia, which became the center of French life in the interior of the continent. During the next century the Kaskaskias lived at that region and after nearly being exterminated by the Shawnees in 1802, the Kaskaskias moved to a reservation on the Mississippi and eventually went to Indian Territory. The Cahokia and Tamaroa tribes merged with the Kaskaskias under one chief.
The Potawatomi and Kickapoo The Potawatomi and the Miamis were familiar with the early settlers, not so much that they were settled here but rather that they made their appearance here as warriors or hunters. The Kickapoos were associated with the two above named tribes in Indian campaigns in other regions and especially at the battle of Tippecanoe. They were scattered throughout the Illinois country and for fifty years before the Edwardsville treaty of 1819 held strong sway over the eastern part of the State of Illinois and were here in the late ’20’s and early ’30’s, when the first white settlers were arriving in Champaign County.
The Potawatomi, “People of the place of fire,” and the Kickapoos, “he moves about,” had migrated south into the land vacated by the Illinois Indians beginning about 1765. The battle fought in 1811 was to remind the Indians of the wisdom of peace. In 1812 William Henry Harrison was victorious. The Indians of the northwest supported the British in the war of 1812 and some were led by the great Indian leader, Tecumseh.
Edwardsville Treaty of 1819
At Edwardsville, Illinois, the Kickapoos signed a series of treaties on July 30, 1819 and ceded their grounds along the Sangamon which means 66plenty to eat.” They honorably observed their contacts and moved to western lands, although weak remnants of their tribe lingered until the early ’30’s on several of their camping grounds.
The Black Hawk War was to clear the State of Illinois from the Potawatomi and the Kickapoos who sought land in the west.
Remnants of Indiana tribes migrated westward as late as 1832-1833.
Champaign County was a favorite region for the Kickaooos and the more migratory Potawatomi as it abounded in game, the climate was less rigorous than the northern sections and the soil yielded plentiful of cereals and vegetables. Favorite camping places were near Urbana, and in the wooded areas along the Okaw, the Sangamon and the Salt Fork and wooded areas.
Corn-hills of the Indians Judge Cunningham wrote “But a few years since, and plainly to be seen until the white man’s plow had turned up the sod and effaced the evidences of their occupation, were many Indian trails across the prairies; and it is well within memory of many now living, as well as attested by the well remembered statements heard from early settlers, that the corn-hills of the Indian occupants were found not far from the site of the Public Square in Urbana, as late as 1832.”
Shemanger, a friendly Potawatomi chief, also known as “Old Soldier,” was known by many of the first white settlers. Shemanger often visited the site of Urbana after the whites came and for several years after 1824. He claimed it as his birthplace and told many of the early settlers the family home of his birth was near a large hickory tree near a spot north of Main Street and a few rods west of Market Street.
It is remembered that Shemanger would sometimes come in company with a large group of his tribe and sometimes with his family only, when he would remain for months in camp at points along the creeks.
Shemanger told early settlers of a very heavy fall of snow, the depth of which he indicated by holding a ramrod horizontally above his head and said that many wild beasts, elk, deer and buffalo and other animals perished under the snow. This was, no doubt, the great snow that fell in 1830-1831.
Shemanger was remembered as a very large, bony man, always kind and helpful to the early settlers. He attended the cabin raising of the early settlers and assisted them in the completion of their homes. It is also known that he helped Mr. Sadorus at his barn raising.
In 1830 Shemanger was about 75 years of age. The Kankakee Valley was the home of the chief during his last years in Illinois, and he was seen by many who made trips to Chicago to sell their grain and obtain supplies.
Following the Black Hawk war his tribe, or what remained of it east of the Mississippi River, went west and then were seen no more.
Told to “Puck-a-Cheell In the summer of 1832 before the organization of the county, a large number of Indians came and camped near a spring. It caused some apprehension among the early settlers and a committee was formed, composed of Stephen Boyd, Jacob Smith, Gabe Rice and Elias Stamey, to talk to the red men. The committee went to the camp and told them they must “Puck-a-chee,” which they understood meant “to git.” The Indians gathered their ponies, papooses and squaws and left, greatly to the relief of the settlers.
Near Salt Fork, Sidney, in 1828, one of the Indian chiefs died just as they were about to move west and the other Indians asked William Nox and Mr. Hendricks to manufacture a white man’s coffin for him. They did and the Indians gave them a nicely tanned buckskin. The Indians took the coffined body with them on their trip west.
Isham Cook, who probably was the first white man to die in this area, came in 1830, bought out a squatter and built a home and then returned to Kentucky for his family. In the dead of winter, on their way back to their new home, upon arriving at Lynn Grove, Mr. Cook sickened and died, leaving a widow and four children who were grief stricken and bewildered. Joseph Davis took the remains to Big Grove, where Mr. Cook had erected his home and dumped the body on the ground, and returned to his home. Indians heard the family’s crying and came to help. The deceased was rolled in a wide strip of bark, their tribal custom, and they buried him according to the white man’s custom.
The Kickapoos of the Vermilion were the last of the Illinois Indians to leave. In 1833 the last of them joined the main body of the tribe in their reservation west of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and were soon afterward moved to Indian Territory.
In 1832-1833 remnants of the Indiana tribes migrated westward.
Early Settlers of Champaign County
It is generally believed that Runnel Fielder, in 1822, was the first white man to build a house and break sod in Champaign County. William Thompkins was a close second. Between 1826 and 1832 there were about two dozen families at Big Grove, most of them from Kentucky. William Sadorus had settled at the head of the Kaskaskia in the spring of 1824. William Nox was an early settler of Sidney and Mathew Busey settled there in 1842.