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Source Analysis

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Primary Source Analysis

The sudden change from a subsistence to a commercial agriculture in the Old Northwest in the beginning of the 19th century, and the Transport-, as well as Market Revolution attracted many new migrants to the area. One of them was Ferdinand Ernst, a German colonist and “wealthy promoter of a colony of German settlers in frontier Illinois.”[1] The constant opening of farmland encouraged mobility and everyone was wanting to get land 60-80 miles northwards of what would become the capital of Illinois, Vandalia, upon the river Sangamon. Ferdinand purchased land in Vandalia, and then traveled and surveyed the then-western United States. In his letters Travels in Illinois in 1819, written for future and potential colonists, he talks about the Sugar Creek land, the Richland Creek land, the Sangamon and Onaquispasippi River, and the Shoal Creek land. Ferdinand described Sugar Creek as a land of “high degree of fruitfulness [that] attracts men to bid defiance to the various dangers and inconveniences that might, up to this time, present themselves to such a settlement.”[2] Since the treaty at Edwardsville in 1819, in which the Natives ceded the land to the United States, it was quiet and safe; therefore, no more risk of being captured, killed, or driven out during the great annual hunt of the natives made the land more desirable for many. Corn grew enormously in this region, from 10 to 15 feet high, and Ferdinand made the prediction that “no region in all this broad America will be so quickly populated as this.”[3] In contrast to that, farms on Shoal creek were plagued by sickness since people there lived upon dried venison and often were exposed to wet weather, resulting in bad fevers. The rivers Sangamon and Onaquispasippi offered great value to the region as well. Roads were starting to be unsatisfactory in commercial ways, so water transportation was needed. Using rivers as a form of transportation would open up the market in the direction of St. Louis and New Orleans, and link Americans beyond local communities. Additionally, the rivers were also very close to the Illinois River favoring more waterway transportation. With the improvement of waterways, Illinois could easily be united with Lake Michigan by a 12-mile long canal. This development, with the in progress Erie Canal from New York to Lake Erie that was finished in 1825, would connect New York with New Orleans, a distance of 3,000 miles, and greatly promote inland navigation. Ferdinand believed that a connection like that will never exist anywhere else, and since the internal rivers are all placed in communication with each other through the Mississippi, it will become even easier. A quote from one of his letters “In short, I do not believe that any one State in all America is so highly favored by nature, in every respect, as the State of Illinois”[4] shows that he believed Illinois was the best state in the United States, and that he wrote the letters in order to attract colonists and show them the opportunities for prosperity and freedom. This attracted thousands of Germans within the next couple of years to immigrate to the United States. (Ernst 1903) It becomes clear that due to the constant offering of new land, people in this region were more interested in mobility and unlike colonial/southern settlers did not pursue permanent ownership as their goal anymore. Throughout his journey, Ferdinand met many people and in his letters he describes how each family supported themselves by farming. In Sugar creek he met families that grew whole fields with nothing but corn, and in Richland creek he met a farmer named Schaffer who grew maize, turnips, and melons, and promised Ferdinand to give wheat a try. Additionally, Richland creek also offered many sugar trees, giving families the opportunity of sugar harvesting. He even encountered some Indians who cultivated maize, which was very useful to white settlers. It provided good healthy food and was used to feed horses and pigs. Even though Ferdinand describes how the Indians provide useful resources to the white settlers, he leaves unanswered the question how further westward expansion would affect their lives and how they would react to possible invasion of their land.


Ernst, Ferdinand. 1903. "Travles in Illinois in 1819." Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society.

[1] Ernst, Ferdinand. 1903. "Travles in Illinois in 1819." Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

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