This article corresponds to the Jersey County Fair Agriculture Education Center's 200 Years of Jersey County Agriculture Exhibit, highlighting several of the major periods of change and development for the agriculture industry in the county.
The area now known as Jersey County had seen a European presence since the 1670s, with explorers like Marquette, Joliet, LaSalle, and others navigating the waters of the Mississippi River. Permanent settlement, though, began just after the War of 1812. At that time, the land now encompassing Jersey County was part of Madison County until 1821, when Greene County split from Madison.
Daniel Allen, his sons, and two brothers were the first to settle in the present limits of the county, just north of Jerseyville, arriving in the Fall of 1815. The following summer, they planted the first corn crop. Within the next several years, at least one settler was in every section of the county. However, permanent settlement was not entirely reached in Fidelity Township until 1830, when the Simmons family arrived there.
In those early years of settlement, pioneers avoided the prairies, and not just because of seasonal prairie fires. The tools they brought with them were far from advanced. The wooden and cast iron plows they used required them to stop every several feet to clean off caked-on soil, and they were hardly efficient at cutting into the prairies. The deep root systems only allowed these early farmers to cut into them so far each year. Because of this, the earliest croplands were carved out from forested areas where the wood was used for constructing log cabins, barns, and rudimentary fences.
The earliest crops they planted were corn and wheat. Soybeans as a crop were unheard of for these early farmers. In fact, the first soybeans ever to be planted in Illinois were cultivated in a garden in Alton in 1851. Hence, Jersey County's pioneers likely had no knowledge of them. Aside from corn and wheat, small orchards were also cultivated. Major Gershom Patterson, an early pioneer in English Township, planted a peach orchard in the 1820s that he used for making peach brandy.
Pioneering settlers also kept livestock. Hogs were arguably the most critical livestock that one could keep in early Illinois. Cattle and chickens were also important, but pork was an essential commodity in early Illinois society. Probably the most challenging livestock to manage were sheep, as wolves and other predators found them to be easy prey. Early livestock were turned out by their owners to graze on the abundant mast (acorns, nuts, samara, etc.) found in forested areas and prairie grasses. Keeping them fenced into pastureland was a custom that emerged later in the century. Of course, horses were common among the settlers as well. Although, not everyone owned a horse. Many of the covered wagons that brought settlers into the area, at least in the earliest years, would have been hitched to oxen instead.
When it came time to harvest crops, it was done using scythes or other tools held in one's hand. Next, the grain had to be taken to a mill to be ground into cornmeal or flour. There is a record of early Jersey County settlers going to Wood River to accomplish this task, but such a trip was likely a two-day venture. It should come as no surprise that several pioneers established their own mills in various spots around the county to process grain. Major Gershom Patterson likely established the first grist mill in Jersey County in 1828. It
was built in Jersey Township and "...was powered by a tread-mill, run by cattle," (History of Greene and Jersey Counties, 1885). Gregg McDaniel built another grist mill in 1830. It was built on Otter Creek and was the first water-powered mill in the county. Several other mills were also erected. They signified a critical step in development, as they marked the birth of the county's agribusiness industry.
Farming was a small business in the early 1800s. Jersey County pioneers were subsistence farmers who grew enough to feed their families with a little extra to sell locally. Even if they had the time and equipment to clear patches of land for cultivation, market access needed to be improved. Early Illinois residents who did produce enough grain for market would float their products down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, the most accessible market in those days. Floating grain and stock down the river was manageable due to the river current, but coming back up was quite the hassle. They would haul their goods down in flatboats or keelboats, which could vary in size and scope and were the most efficient means of hauling goods downriver until the steamboat made its introduction. It is quite likely several county pioneers had such experiences during the days of flatboats and keelboats, although no known particular experiences have been located in
local histories as of yet.
As the 1820s progressed, settlers throughout the state, including Jersey County (still part of Greene County), grew less wary of the prairies and settled closer to them. Also, in the 1820s, steamboats started to appear near the area. Steamboats were a relatively new invention that provided a tremendous opportunity for economic improvement. They could navigate rivers with and against currents, carrying goods wherever they had proper access. The first steamboat to travel past Illinois did so in 1811 on its way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Later, the steamboat General Pike was the first to travel up the waters of the Mississippi River, arriving in St. Louis in August 1817. Later, in 1828, steamship navigation began on the Illinois River, meaning that these vessels were skirting across our waters just as settlement was really taking off.
The 1830s were an exciting time for area settlers. Grafton was established by the Mason family in 1832, and Jerseyville followed two years later. Other communities, like Otterville, were likewise found in the 1830s, along with many settlements that soon became ghost towns as Jerseyville and Grafton became prominent. By 1839, when Jersey County finally split from Greene County, Grafton would be the county's economic center because of its strategic location on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. This year is also significant because early residents considered this the end of Jersey County's pioneer era, even though
pioneer characteristics would continue to define the region until the Civil War. Nevertheless, early residents looked forward to a new chapter marked by community and economic development.
Around 1839-1840, William Shepherd arrived as a government contractor to excavate a portion of the bluffs above Grafton so that a road could be built to better connect it with the rest of the county. This project was undoubtedly quite timely, as the Flood of 1844 deeply impacted the river community to such a degree that the county's economic center would shift toward the growing county seat of Jerseyville. By the end of the 1840s, Jersey County would hold one of the most economically strategic positions regarding river access as
farmers continued to settle in the area.
Davidson, A., & Stuvé, B. (1874). A Complete History of Illinois from 1673 to 1873. D.L. Phillips.
Davis, J. E. (1998). Frontier Illinois. Indiana University Press.
Hamilton, O. B. (1919). History of Jersey County, Illinois. Munsell Publishing Company.
History of Greene and Jersey counties, Illinois. (1885). . Continental Historical Company.
Rogers, K. (2020, January 24). Where were Illinois’ first soybeans planted? Illinois Farm Bureau Partners.