|Christiana and John Tillson - Oil Paintings.|
When she first gave birth, Christiana Holmes Tillson was twenty-five years old. She would go on to have three more children, presumably with the same matter-of-factness with which she bore her first, squeezing their arrivals into a daily schedule that included nearly constant physical labor. The Tillsons' only daughter, Christiana, was born in 1838 while the couple was visiting family in Massachusetts; it was the younger Christiana who persuaded her mother to write of her early Illinois experiences. By the time she finally had the time to write about her pioneer days forty-eight years later, in 1870 Christiana Holmes Tillson had come almost to the end of a long and fruitful life. She was born to Charles and Rebecca Briggs Holmes in Kingston, Massachusetts, on October 11, 1798. Her husband John was born to John and Desire Tillson in nearby Halifax, Massachusetts, on March 13, 1796.
Immediately following their marriage in 1822, the young couple set off for new lives in Illinois where John had earlier journeyed as a land agent for Dr. Benjamin Shurtleff of Boston. Accompanied by Shurtleff's son, Milton, and Joel Wright (who would later take his sick horse to the Tillson kitchen), John had traveled in 1819 to the Edwardsville, Illinois branch of the United States Land Office to survey and record the deed for a piece of land that Shurtleff had purchased from a War of 1812 veteran. Upon his arrival in Edwardsville, Tillson secured a job as a clerk at the land recorder's office. In that capacity, he was privy to information about the condition of government land that was available both in and outside of the Illinois Military Tract between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. While working at the land office, he bought 160 acres of arable land for himself on a tract northeast of Edwardsville on Shoal Creek (in what would become, in 1821, Montgomery County) and continued to record deeds for land speculators in the East. By 1832, Tillson had increased his land holdings to 844 acres in Montgomery County and was the proud owner and operator of a prosperous land office business. When he brought his bride to Illinois in 1822, John Tillson moved her into the log cabin that he had built on his first tract of land and where he had lived in a "Bachelor's Hall" with the younger Shurtleff and with Wright from 1819 until 1821. It is clear from her description of it in her memoir that Christiana Tillson did not find the cabin initially inviting to her eastern sensibilities; however, she made the best of the situation and lived the next five years in the cabin as the obedient wife of a prospering businessman. With few complaints about her tiring duties, she bore and cared for her children and she cooked and cleaned for the various combinations of people who composed the Tillson household including the female servants who worked for the family over the years. In her spare time, Christiana Tillson also helped her husband to keep up with his business correspondence and kept his general store when he was away from the homestead. In 1823, while his family remained in the cabin, John Tillson built another log structure in the new village of Hillsboro, where he also opened a brickyard. He was appointed the first village postmaster, an office for which he was especially suited since he had been serving as Montgomery County postmaster since 1821. In 1824, the Tillsons began construction of a brick home in Hillsboro and they planned to move into it in the spring of 1826 but construction delays did not permit occupancy until 1827.
The Tillsons lived in Montgomery County for three decades. Over the years the family prospered and grew to become one of the most influential in Hillsboro. John Tillson's business, the New York and Boston Illinois Land Company, was so successful by the 1830s that he took on a partner and opened a branch office in Quincy. With an increasing amount of his business being handled out of his Adams County office, Tillson began to spend more and more time in Quincy. In 1837, he built the Quincy Hotel and gave nine thousand dollars to support Illinois College in Jacksonville. In 1843, the Tillson family moved to Quincy where the children grew to maturity and formed families of their own. John Tillson died suddenly of "apoplexy" on May 11, 1853, while on a business trip to Peoria. Christiana Tillson lived for two more decades; she died in New York City on May 29, 1872.
Christiana Holmes Tillson had been in poor health for the four years preceding her death but, in 1870, her daughter had convinced her to write the story of the family's early years in Illinois. The result was Reminiscences of Early Life in Illinois, by our Mother, privately published in 1872 (or 1873) in Amherst, Massachusetts. The memoir is one of only a few sources that document the role that women played in the settlement of Illinois. The Reminiscences would have remained obscure-very few copies were printed and less than ten exist today-had it not been for the efforts of editor Milo Milton Quaife and the R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company of Chicago, who printed it in 1919 as "A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois." Christiana Holmes Tillson's memoir of pioneer Illinois was Quaife's fourth work for Donnelley and the seventeenth of the Lakeside Classics series. A Woman's Story was recently republished by Southern Illinois University Press.
Readers of the memoir should remember that Christiana and John Tillson were typical Illinois pioneers; they were certainly wealthier than many, but so were most of the people who moved to the frontier during the nineteenth century since such a journey was always an expensive proposition. Just like millions of other Americans, they were born in the eastern part of the United States and migrated, as young adults, to the West. Just like many other people of their time, the Tillsons worked very hard to build better lives for themselves and for their children. Just like countless other Americans, they struggled with the political and moral issues of their day, and it does not appear from her memoir that Christiana Tillson thought of her life or her experiences as unusual. In fact, her honest manner and her exceedingly low-key delivery give the book its charm.
The book, though, is remarkable in the way that it illustrates the drama of everyday life in the early nineteenth century and in the way that it depicts a time when the lives of typical Americans were so different from our own. It is also remarkable in that it intimately reveals, to the modern reader, an era in which ordinary people lived through extraordinary times. Whether she realized it or not, Christiana Tillson wrote of an age in which the United States was on the verge of tremendous economic, social, and political change. In 1820, the people of the United States viewed their surroundings through a very narrow lens, but by 1870, America would become a country in which citizens could appreciate the possibilities and the opportunities of a modern world. So, although "A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois" appears to be a simple story of one family's experience of frontier Illinois, it is really a book about a nation that was about to come of age. Christiana Tillson did not give much information about her husband's business ventures. She wrote about his extensive travel in Illinois and mentioned that she helped him with his correspondence, but she told little else about how he made his living. In fact, she is so circumspect that the reader might wonder whether Christiana Tillson sought to hide the details of her husband's profession. In actuality, John Tillson did not conduct his business in secrecy and his career was fairly representative of many men who dealt with real estate in the first half of the nineteenth century. He rode the crest of the speculative land wave for nearly twenty years and made a small fortune in the process, but, when the wave broke in the late 1830s, John Tillson nearly drowned.
His career mirrored the development of the land business in Illinois. In the early 1820s, he represented individual eastern investors. He traveled throughout eastern Missouri and western Illinois to find the best land deals for his clients in Massachusetts. From June of 1820 until November of 1821 he made a series of jaunts into the bounty lands of Missouri and Illinois, keeping a journal along the way. It describes the land over which he rode and records his impressions of the people he encountered. On November 22, 1821, he and Joel Smith (who Tillson claimed he took with him "on account of his company and the advantage he would be to me with his gun by killing game so as to prevent starvation") met a band of Kickapoo near the Illinois River. He wrote that "they treated us very civilly, and asked us to eat with them." Two days later, the two travelers stayed near Lewistown with Osian M. Ross, whom Tillson described as a quiet, industrious, entertaining man; he also noted that Ross was a Yankee, "or a New Yorker which is nearly the same thing."
Tillson was hired as the agent for the New York and Boston Illinois Land Company in 1836 and, in that capacity, represented a group of stockholders in New York and Philadelphia. As its agent, Tillson handled huge sums of cash sometimes as much as twenty thousand dollars for the company, which was worth two million. He spent many days in Vandalia, the state capital until 1839, paying the company's taxes and lobbying for the Illinois legislature to give land grants to railroad companies; the railroads, he reasoned, would increase the value of the land company's holdings by attracting settlers and by providing cheap transportation for agricultural goods. Tillson urged the officials of the company to invest five hundred thousand dollars in government land along the route of a prospective railroad between the Wabash River and the Mississippi River. Hoping to profit personally, he convinced the legislature to charter the Alton, Wabash & Erie Rail Road Co. to run through Hillsboro, and was named a commissioner of the railroad.
During the next year, however, John Tillson's world began to come apart. He was caught, like so many other investors and agents who profited from the great land boom of the 1830s, in the great Panic of 1837. The panic, in its turn, caused a nationwide depression that ruined businessmen across the country. In October 1836, President Andrew Jackson declared that after September 1 only specie would be received in payment for the sale of public lands on the frontier. This Specie Circular was issued in response to the increasing number of bank and personal notes that the federal government was acquiring in payment for land. The banks, many of which had very easy lending policies, did not control the number of notes that were issued to borrowers and did not keep cash on hand to back them. The President's actions caused an even larger rush but only in the short run. The eastern capitalists eventually felt the pinch of scarce money and pulled back their investments. By the middle of 1837, land sales had declined across the Midwest; in a letter to Robert Rankin, the secretary of the land company in New York, Tillson rationalized that sales had fallen off in his two offices because "sales in the summer months will always be small, [because] at that period of time farmers have but little money on hand." It soon became clear that he was only fooling himself. Sales continued to plummet.
Then in January 1838 Tillson and the company were hit with another crippling blow. The Illinois legislature declared that land titles would no longer be issued when proof of ownership was determined through tax payments (tax titles). Owners would now have to present deeds to show that they owned their land before they could obtain titles. And since the New York and Boston Illinois Land Company had not usually acquired deeds from sellers, Tillson could no longer sell much of its land. The company was stuck with thousands of acres for which taxes had to be paid but for which it had no titles. Finally, in March 1839, the Illinois General Assembly passed a special bill that would decrease the company's tax liability by half and would buy it out for six hundred thousand dollars. Tillson had convinced the legislators to pass the law by promising to include the Quincy House Hotel as part of the deal, even though he was the sole owner of the establishment. Afterward, his life would no longer be as fast-paced, and he would never again cut the same figure in the community. He continued as agent for a much smaller Illinois Land Company until his death in 1853 at the age of fifty-seven.
John Tillson was a typical, albeit tragic, example of a middle-class man of the early nineteenth century. And Christiana Tillson was a typical woman of the same period. However, in many ways, the life that she portrays does not fit the pattern that present-day readers might expect of a middle-class woman of the nineteenth century. She was, after all, a contemporary of Queen Victoria of England, and one might think that she and women like her would have been a little more ladylike. However, history shows us that while many women lived in the Victorian age, they were not "Victorian women." When, in 1870, Tillson wrote of her early days in Illinois, she described a life of comparative isolation and of constant physical labor. In this respect, she was speaking for most women of her time. Since the overwhelming majority of American women (and men) lived on farms throughout the nineteenth century, their lives were filled with work about which most, like Tillson, rarely complained.
The Tillsons were a bit unusual, however, in at least one respect; they had only four children. It is true that birth rates were falling in the nineteenth century as the American population grew more urban, but the Tillson family, completed in 1838, was even below the average of five and one-half children in 1860. It is impossible to tell whether Christiana Tillson suffered any miscarriages during the years of her fertility. There appears to have been sufficient space in between the births of her children for her to have become pregnant many more times; she bore her children in 1823, 1825, 1831,and 1838. However, there is another possible explanation that, if correct, would put John and Christiana right back into their roles as typical Americans of their time. They might have been practicing some sort of birth control to limit the size of their family. That part of their personal lives, however, will have to remain a mystery to us; and rightly so.
Whatever explains the small size of their brood, it remains clear that the Tillsons were people of their time. However, in her memoir, Christiana Tillson leaves the impression that she wished she was not so typical in one area of her pioneer life. Writing in 1870, just five years after the nation had gone through the agony of the Civil War, she was clearly not comfortable with the family's personal history with African-Americans and slavery. Her story about the lives and legal fate of two people named Lucy and Caleb (who might have been held by the Tillsons in slavery) smacks of both rationalization and racism. But it is difficult to distinguish her ambiguous views about slavery that she expressed in her twilight years from those she might have possessed in the 1820s.
It is not surprising that the Tillsons would be ambiguous about slavery since the people of Illinois continuously dealt with and debated the issue during the first half of the nineteenth century. As a part of the old Northwest Territory that was carved out by the Confederation Congress in 1787, Illinois was, theoretically, to be free of slavery when it became a state in 1818.
However, because many of the early European settlers in the state were French and owned slaves, the Illinois Constitution of 1818 called for the protection of existing slavery and allowed the introduction of new slaves for specific purposes and for short periods of time. As a result, people were held in legal bondage in Illinois until the Constitution of 1848 finally made it illegal. Until then, a slaveowner in a southern state was permitted to take slaves into Illinois and continue to hold them in bondage. The Tillsons may have purchased Lucy and Caleb from such a slaveowner.
Christiana and John Tillson were from Massachusetts, and one might suppose that they would have a totally different attitude about slavery and African-Americans than that of their southern neighbors. In A Woman's Story, Christiana Tillson wrote of southerners in a way that was, to say the least, grudgingly respectful. She referred to them as "white folks," drew amazingly detailed and amusing character portraits of them, and contrasted their habits with those of "Yankees." It is clear that she did not consider herself or her husband to be in the same class as their southern neighbors, even though they socialized, worshipped, and did business with them. It is difficult, however, to distinguish her prejudices and attitudes of the 1820s from those of 1870 when she wrote about them. Perhaps it is good enough to say that they were probably not the same.
By writing her Reminiscences of Early Life in Illinois, by our Mother, Christiana Holmes Tillson hoped her children and grandchildren might better remember their family's story. She must have sensed that she and other pioneers had lived through a time in which the traditional American way-of-life had irreversibly changed. She did not, however, realize that with the republication of her remarkable story as "A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois," the twists and turns of history have allowed all of us to remember, too.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
John Tillson - Civil War Union Brevet Brigadier General. Served in the Civil War first as a Captain in the United States Regular Army, then was Colonel and commander of the 10th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He was brevetted Brigadier General, US Volunteers on March 10, 1865. After the war he served briefly in the Regular Army (resigning in 1866 with the rank of Captain), and served in the Illinois State Legislature. General John Tillson wrote an important early history of Quincy entitled, "History of the City of Quincy, Illinois."
Christiana Holmes Tillson - In her book, "A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois," left a rare and rich narrative of her family's early years in Illinois. Her commentary has unintentionally left us with a significant historical document that reflects a microcosm of Illinois in 1822-1827. As a well-educated New England woman, born in Massachusetts on October 11, 1798, she married John Tillson in October, 1822, and immediately set out with him for her new life in the small log cabin he had built in Montgomery County located in southern Illinois. The focus of her writing is in detailing her trip to the frontier and the first few years of her life here.
She wrote her memoirs late in life (1870) to depict for her daughter the dramatic changes in society since her pioneer experiences. The manuscript she left provides a unique glimpse into her struggles as a pioneer housewife. Abundant anecdotal stories enliven the portrayal of life as she encountered it and enrich the reader with another dimension of frontier history from a woman's viewpoint.
The Tillsons are buried in their family plot on the south ridge of Woodland Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois.
Read Christiana Holmes Tillson's memoirs, "A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois." It's in my Digital Research Library of Illinois History®. Published 1919
Read General John Tillson's book, "History of the City of Quincy, Illinois." It's in my Digital Research Library of Illinois History®. Published 1880