Skip to content

Frontier Resources

The rich prairie soil was not the frontier farmer's first choice — the dense root systems of prairie plants made the land incredibly difficult to plow using the tools that existed at that time. Because of this and the need for wood, farmers preferred to purchase timber and savannah (the sparsely treed land between timber and prairie).

Native people had farmed this area for thousands of years when McLean County’s first white settlers arrived in 1823. The settlers paid $1.25 per acre — the federal price for Illinois land. They came with the desire to make a living raising crops and livestock.

Advertisements in local and regional newspapers touted the richness of the land, especially to potential farmers.

Because farming was their livelihood and they had access to the resources of the land, the early settlers had the benefit of being somewhat self-sufficient. Some gardened, planted orchards, and butchered their own meat.

Bloomington Pantagraph advertisement, January 13, 1838

This map of McLean County shows where farmers settled between 1823 and 1850. What type of land did they choose? What type of land did they avoid?

Those who purchased prairie faced the extremely difficult task of breaking the land. But once plowed, they found that the nutrient-rich soil produced abundant crops.

Robert Stubblefield arrived in McLean County with his family in 1824. He recalled that when they began to open their first 10 acres of land, the prairie soil was hard to break — taking five yoke of oxen to pull a plow.

John Weedman and his brother-in-law Jacob Bishop arrived in Randolph Township in 1830.

They purchased a team of oxen and made a business of breaking prairie.

John Weedman

Frontier farmers started with nothing but the raw resources they found where they settled.

The savannahs (areas adjacent to timber) were easy to plow, and the timbers provided the necessary wood for building homes, sheds, and fences, as well as firewood to heat the home and for cooking.

Frontier farmers got to work using the tools they brought with them.

Constructed from hand cut and shaped local timber, the John Patton log cabin illustrates how necessary raw resources and survival skills were to frontier life.

The cabin, located near Lexington, is one of the first and only remaining cabins from McLean County’s settlement period.

John Patton's log cabin.

Spiral Auger, circa 1840

Because nails were not available on the frontier, building materials were held together with long wooden pegs. The holes for the pegs were made using a spiral auger like this one, used by the Orendorff family.

Donated by the heirs of J.B. Orendorff
725.63

Surveying Compass, circa 1830

View this object in Matterport

McLean County's earliest farmers arrived before the area had been surveyed. John Hendrix and John Dawson, McLean County's first farmers, squatted on the land until it had been surveyed. Once the land had been surveyed (1833), settlers staked their claims, then rode to Springfield where the claim was recorded and secured with a $100 down payment.

Donated by Mary Evans
775.207

Splitting Froe, circa 1840

Another tool used by early settlers was the splitting froe. Hammered into a piece of wood in the direction of the grain, the handle was then rotated to twist the blade, thus splitting the wood.

Donated by the heirs of J.B. Orendorff
725.59

Hatchet, circa 1860

Hatchets like this one were used for cutting wood and for making flattened surfaces on logs.

725.51

Adz, circa 1850

An adz, like this one, would have been used for smoothing wooden surfaces.

725.52

Surveying Chain and Pins, circa 1850

McLean County’s earliest farmers arrived before the area had been surveyed. John Hendrix and John Dawson, McLean County’s first farmers, squatted on the land until it had been surveyed. Once the land had been surveyed (1833), settlers staked their claims, then rode to Springfield where the claim was recorded and secured with a $100 down payment.

Donated by C.A. Harper
858.539

Previous: Our Rich Land Next: Draining the Prairie