Posted by: Democratic Thinker | February 5, 2014

Weekly Story: Birk’s Prairie

Weekly Story

In about 1816, George Flower, an English immigrant, becomes lost in the wilderness of Illinois, finally coming upon the home of Captain Jeremiah Birks.

I afterward found all of this class of men, who live in solitude and commune so much with nature, relying on their own efforts to support themselves and their families, to be calm, deliberate, and self-possessed whenever they are sober. The best breeding in society could not impart to them more self-possession or give them greater ease of manner or more dignified and courteous bearing.



Birk’s Prairie.


—Captain Birk, a Specimen Pioneer—His Cabin and his Family—Intense Prejudice against the British—Journey Continued—Reflections on the Pioneer—



IN my wanderings, the thought struck me of finding out a Captain Birk, mentioned to me by my old friend Sloo, as living hereabout, the oldest settler in these parts; he had been here almost a year. Going in the direction in which I thought he lived, I espied a trail, made by the dragging of a log. Following this, I came suddenly to a worm-fence, inclosing a small field of fine corn, but could see no dwelling. I wished to see Birk, but felt a little diffidence in appearing before the captain in my deshabille. After several day’s travel, and two night’s camping out, my toilette was considerably compromised. Looking closely, I observed, between two rows of corn, a narrow path. This I followed until I came suddenly in sight of a small cabin, within twenty steps of me, a little lower than the surrounding corn. Looking in the direction of a voice, calling back a savage dog that had rushed out to attack me, I saw a naked man, quietly fanning himself with a branch of a tree.

My first surprise over, finding his name was Birk, I told him who I was and my errand, at which he did not seem at all pleased. These original backwoodsmen look upon all new-comers as obtruders on their especial manorial rights. The old hunters’ rule is: when you hear the sound of a neighbor’s gun, it is time to move away.

What surprised me was the calm self-possession of the man. No surprise, no flutter, no hasty movements. He quietly said that he had just come from mill at Princeton, thirty miles distant, and was cooling himself a bit. Well, I thought he was cool. I afterward found all of this class of men, who live in solitude and commune so much with nature, relying on their own efforts to support themselves and their families, to be calm, deliberate, and self-possessed whenever they are sober. The best breeding in society could not impart to them more self-possession or give them greater ease of manner or more dignified and courteous bearing. Birk’s cabin, fourteen feet long, twelve broad, and seven high, with earth for a floor, contained a four-post bedstead, said posts, driven into the ground by an ax, were sprouting, with buds, branches, and leaves.

The rim of an old wire-sieve, furnished with a piece of deerskin, punched with holes, for sifting cornmeal, a skillet, and a coffee-pot were all the culinary apparatus for a family of seven. A small three-legged stool and a rickety clap-board table the only furniture. An ax lay at the door, a rifle stood against the wall. Himself and boys were dressed in buckskin, his wife and three daughters in flimsy calico from the store, sufficiently soiled and not without rents. Mrs. Birk, a dame of some thirty years, was square-built and squat, sallow, and smoke-dried, with bare legs and feet. Her pride was in her hair, which, in two long well-braided black and shining tails, hung far down her back.

Birk got his title as commander of a company of men like himself, employed as outlying scouts to the American army on the Canada frontier. The cabin-door was made of two strong puncheons, to withstand an Indian attack. You might always find in the behavior of the females, of this class of people, the degree of estimation or aversion in which you were held. Mrs. Birk was sour and silent, omnious indications. The British and Indians, having fought together against the Americans, were held by these people in the same category as natural enemies. To such an extent was this feeling exhibited, that, at a future time, quite a respectable farmer in the Big Prairie apologized to Mrs. Flower for the non-appearance of his wife, by saying she had lost a brother at the battle of the River Ráisin, and that she always went out of the house into the woods whenever an English person entered, and remained there as long as he or she stayed. Besides, we came with the intention of settling and bringing other settlers. All this was distasteful to them. They came to enjoy the solitude of the forest and the prairie. They wished to be far from that species of civilization whose temptations could not be withstood by them, and which made the weaknesses of its victims augment its own gains. No wonder we were met by no cordial greetings. Our success would be their defeat, and the growth of our colony the signal for their removal. A few dollars liberally given for information and pilotage, and a dram of whisky whenever we had it to bestow, would modify the hostile feeling, and we soon became on friendly terms.

Two or three slices from a half-smoked haunch, a few pommes of coarse corn-bread, seasoned by hunger, the best of sauce, gave us a relishing supper. How sleeping was to be managed, I felt at a loss. As night advanced, Birk reached his long arm up to a few clapboards over the joist, and pulled down a dried hog’s-skin for my especial comfort and repose during the night.

Father, mother, sons, and daughters all lay on the one bed. I, as in duty bound, lay my hog’s-skin on the floor, and myself upon it. But I soon found that

“Big fleas and little fleas.
And less fleas to bite ‘em,
These again had lesser fleas,
And so on ad infinitum.”

I removed my not over-luxurious couch outside the house, to a spot of earth free from vegetation, and there I lay until break-of-day; glad enough to run to the fire for a little warmth as soon as it was kindled.

Cold is never more felt than at daybreak, after lying on the ground without covering, even in the summer season. Our horses which had strayed, were brought back to us by John Anderson, one of those outlying hunters who for a liberal reward acted with efficiency on the occasion. Understanding the instinct of the horse, Anderson took a straight course toward Princeton, until he reached the Great Wabash, at La Vallett’s ferry. There he found the fugitives, arrested by the broad stream, from immediately attempting a crossing.

Having again joined my companions, we once again mounted, and proceeded to look at the prairies west of the Little Wabash. We were advised by Birk to call on a man named Harris, who lived about twelve miles west of the Little Wabash. To find a little cabin through fifteen miles of forest and prairie, without road or even path, is no small job. But it is astonishing how necessity sharpens the wits, and how soon signs, before unnoticed and unknown, become recognized. We found him in a small cabin, sheltered by a little grove, but no field or cultivation of any kind about his humble dwelling. He lived in the same style as Birk and in the same destitution. One article of luxury only excepted. This was a fiddle with two strings. We found the prairies desirable as to size, soil, and proximity to timber, and of every form, each with its own peculiar style of beauty. One small prairie charmed me very much—not more than two hundred yards wide and about half-a-mile long. A thin belt of tall and graceful trees marked its boundary from other and larger prairies. Its distinguishing feature was a large Indian mound in the centre, covered with the same rank growth of grass as in other parts of the prairie. Its beauties lying in silent solitude, with its ancient burial-place of a by-gone race, gave to it an unusual and somewhat mysterious interest. These tumuli are not the burying-place of the present race of Indians; but of an anterior race, probably displaced by the Indians as we are displacing them. These prairies were only less, desirable than those east of the Little Wabash as being further from main navigation, the Little Wabash not being navigable for steam-boats.

Harris returned with us to Birk’s, carrying the superannuated fiddle carefully along. It was kept in scream until a late hour, bringing to the inmates of the cabin happy recollections of Tennessee, the State from which they had emigrated. The people of which Birk and Harris were specimens, were serviceable to us in our first settlement. Dexterous with the ax, they built all our first log-cabins, and supplied us with venison. In a year or two, they moved into less-peopled regions, or to where there were no people at all, and were entirely lost to this part of the country. The people in this part of Illinois are mostly from the slave-states, from the class of “poor whites,” so-called. When they leave their homes and come into the little towns, on some real or pretended business, they are sober and quiet. They soon get to the whisky-bottle, their bane and ruin. Getting into a state to desire more, they drink all they can, becoming disagreeable, fractious, and often dangerous men. One glass kindles the eye, the second loosens the tongue, the third makes them madmen. They own a horse, rifle, ax, and hoe. It is astonishing to see with what dexterity they use a good ax, and how well they shoot with even a bad rifle. They are not of industrious habits, but occasionally work with great vigor.

Solitude, watchfulness, and contemplation amidst the scenes of nature, from day to day, from week to week, and often from month to month, give them that calm and dignified behavior not to be found in the denizens of civilized life. Another portion of this class follow a different destiny. Their little corn-patch increases to a field, their first shanty to a small log-house, which, in turn, gives place to a double-cabin, in which the loom and spinning-wheel are installed. A well and a few fruit-trees after a time complete the improvement. Moderate in their aspirations, they soon arrive at the summit of their desires. Does a more complicated mode of life and a larger amount of wealth add to human happiness? The only difference between these stationary settlers and the roving hunters appears to be in the sobriety of the one and the intemperance of the other.

—George Flower, History of the English Settlement in Edwards County, Illinois (1882).

Related posts:


History of the English Settlement
In Edwards County, Illinois.
Read the Book.
Two Years’ Residence on the English Prairie
In the Illinois Country.
Read the Book.