NEW DIGGINGS ON THE FEVER 1824-1864
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Hard Times and Indian Troubles
Pages - 20 - 24
As the summer months of 1829 passed, the recession which had been plaguing the East reached the western frontier. The men who had come into the mines during the earlier months must scarcely have become familiar with their new surroundings when hard times set in. A depreciation in the price of lead from seventeen dollars per thousand pounds in 1827 to three dollars in 1829 caused many a miner to turn to cultivating some land, while others abandoned their claims and left the country. During the late months of 1829, a barrel of flour cost from fifteen to eighteen dollars. In terms of lead, which passed for currency, a settler must produce from four to five thousand pounds of ore in order to provide himself with one barrel of this necessary foodstuff. A barrel of pork cost nearly twice as much, while coffee sold for fifty cents a pound when it could be obtained, and sugar for thirty-five. (1)
Under such conditions, interest in mining lagged, and immigration all but ceased. In the new diggings, says a chronicler of the times, 'the whilom cabins of the miners and others who had come in when the prospect looked more encouraging were devoted to vacancy and the wear and tear of the elements. . . . remitting the territory to almost its original condition of wilderness. "
Some came in, however, and went to farming, " (2) he adds, naming some of those we have mentioned, - Field, Dodge, Baldwin, Champion, Dering, Nagle, Potwin, the Earnests, Williams and Gray. The fact that mining and farming both could be carried on in the region explains, perhaps, why these men remained, despite depressed prices and hard times. The agent at Galena granted permission to the settlers to suspend mining operations from November to April in 1830, thus making it possible for them to hold their diggings through the winter without working them.
Lodged as many of them were during that long cold winter in "shacks so frail it appeared that they should be tied to a post when the wind blew', they must have rejoiced at the sight of the first robin. Some had wintered in shacks built against a hillside or the wall of a ravine, described by one as having
"walls of mixed materials and put up in a composite order
of architecture . . . roofed with brush and a few slabs made with a whipsaw.'
Others had holed up in "excavations made in the side of a hill or bluff, covered over with poles, grass and sod," while a few fortunate ones knew the comfort of a log cabin. Possibly those who intended to stay improved their time cutting timber and building their single or double log cabins. Sons of William Field have said that sometime during the years of the Indian uprisings their father built the double log cabin which stood just south of the frame house in which his descendents live.
Many a miner, no doubt, hurried off toward Galena early in March in 1830 when word came that two keelboats, "laden with flour, cornmeal, wheat and Whiskey' finally had reached the mines after having been held over all winter by ice and snow on their way from the lower country. As the days grew longer and warmer, settlers could clear their land and cultivate a garden patch. Perhaps they may have wandered over the neighborhood, looking for the little groves of aspen trees and piles of upturned clay that indicated old Indian diggings. They may have searched too for the blue blossoms of the masonic weed which sank its roots deep into the crevices where the mineral "made'.Since hard times continued through 1830 and '31, it would seem likely that they worked their diggings only enough to retain a hold on the land, possibly stockpiling their lead while they waited for higher prices. While they cleared their lands, became more familiar with their surroundings, continued their desultory digging, built their cabins and outbuildings or whiled away their time in the groggeries and gambling dens in the neighborhood, we can imagine them talking to one another of the things that were happening around them. Preacher Kent of Galena had stopped off at Gratiots Grove and Buncombe to say he would hold meetings at those two places every sixth Sunday when he made his 140 mile circuit. A steamboat had exploded on the Mississippi, - the fifth explosion in the past few months. Iowa County Court had been organized at Mineral Point with Henry Dodge as Chief Justice. The court had levied a tax at the rate of 3/8 of 170 for township purposes. The Murphys were putting up a mill near their smelter at the Bend. 'Jim" Murphy had been appointed a member of the county board of supervisors and had got eight dollars for his services and for taking plans for a county jail to the editor of the Miners Journal in Galena. There was talk of a canal through the mines, linking the Ouisconsin with the Fever and using feeder branches from the
Pecatonica. The Langworthys and a lot more were going to' cross over to the Dubuque mines during the summer, whether the government agent and the Fox Indians liked it or not. A fellow named Davis had just run a random survey through the mines. According to the Galena papers, the line dividing Illinois from the Territory would cross the Fever north of Buncombe and run between Natchez and the racetrack on the Ridge to Gratiots Grove. If Congress decided to hold that line, Gratiot's buildings would be left in the Territory, but most of the Grove, part of the Ridge, the racetrack, Buncombe and the settlement at White Oak Springs all would be in Illinois.
As the miners talked among themselves of these things, they waited for the price of lead to go up so they could resume full scale digging. But they waited in vain. With so little lead being brought to their furnaces, the smelters, "the big men of the country" as one of their group called them, waited helplessly also, as their business came almost to a standstill and rents declined steadily. In an effort to improve matters, the government reduced the rent from 10% to 6%. But this move had little effect. The miners had seen evaders of the existing regulations go unpunished for non-payment of rent. As far as they were concerned, the regulations were no longer in effect. By 1836, neither miner or smelter paid rent to the government for the privilege of working the mines. The lease system had broken down entirely. (3)
But before this stalemate between miners and government had been reached, the settlers were once again beset with Indian troubles. The Winnebagoes who had lingered in the area after the 1827 uprising had seemed harmless enough. They hunted, lighting their campfires often within sight of the settlers' cabins, cured the hides of game taken in their hunts, poached and pilfered when the occasion offered carrying off what poultry and vegetables they could lay their hands on. But many of the settlers, remembering their experiences with the red man in other frontier clearings, looked suspiciously in their direction. In the spring of 1832, Black Hawk and his band of Sauks recrossed the Mississippi from the West and moved slowly northward from the mouth of Rock River.Uneasiness pervaded the mining region. The miners suspected that the Winnebago might be in league with the Sauks in an attempt to seize the territory they had recently released to the government. 'I am convinced', wrote Henry Dodge to a friend,
are not to have peace with this banditti collection of Indians until they are killed up in their dens. They watch from the high points of timber our movements in daylight, and at night pass through the prairies from one point of timber to another, and communicate with the main body which are in the swamps of Rock River. " (4)
In July, as the situation worsened with Black Hawk's approach, the miners panicked. Hurriedly they threw up fortifications, or, bundling their families and household goods into whatever means of conveyance was available, set off for Galena.
"The little place (Galena) was crowded with families pouring in from all parts of the Mines," wrote Mrs. J. P. Gratiot, who was living at Gratiots Grove. 'The flat prairie between the bluff and the river was covered with wagons, the families camping in them; block houses were erected on the hill, companies forming, drums beating, and General Dodge was busily engaged in organizing troops and creating order and confidence out of terror and confusion. " (5)
Farmers left their fields half plowed; miners and smelters deserted their homes and forsook their places of business; their wives and children huddled behind the wooden barricades of the forts. Cattle ran at large; the mails were stopped; there were rumors of a possible famine. At the New Diggings, a company of sixty-nine men was formed; at the White Oak Springs a stockage was erected and a company of seventy organized. Another company of nearly one hundred men gathered at Gratiots Grove.
Not all of the miners took an active part in the military expeditions. Some courted death by continuing to dig. 'The mines were worked quite generally," wrote a county historian, particularly the Bolles and Ferguson leads and the Oliver mines on New Diggings Ridge. Farming was in most cases suspended," he added. George Ferguson of Natchez became involved, quite early in the conflict, in a disagreement with General Wilkinson as a result of an incident near the Blue Mounds. So too did the Murphy brothers, their brother-in-law O'Leary and Peter Carr. They returned to "the diggings', protesting that they had not joined up 'for fun" but "to lick hell out of the Indians.' No doubt there were others who remained in or returned to the mines as the summer wore on.
By fall, hostilities had ceased; peace had been restored; normal living was resumed. But hundreds had left the mining
country never to return. Other hundreds "lined the eastern shore of the Mississippi, ready to seize possession and preemption rights in the new territory (the Dubuque mines) the moment they became perfect." Hundreds of other people, on the other hand, in the south and to the east, after hearing from the returning troops of the wealth of the mining country and the rich soil of the Rock River prairie through which these men had wandered, set out for the territory west of the lakes.
In the mines, as an unhappy aftermath of the war, an epidemic of Asiatic Cholera broke out. In Galena 'the first victim, a young lady, was borne along the street on a bier as we entered,' wrote an eye-witness. But the miners and their families faced up to this scourge as they had faced other hardships, with courage and determination Now, at last, the land could be surveyed; the land office would be established; a home could be "secured".
"... To Secure A Home..." Pages 25-30
"New Diggings on the Fever 1824 - 1864" Lafayette County Homepage
County Coordinator Dori Leekley
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