Indigenous peoples farmed the land that would later be called Illinois as early as 500 A.D. Mississippian women farmers corn, squash, and native grains circa 1100 A.D. In the early 18th century, French settlers in the region established wheat plantations cultivated by enslaved African laborers.
The first family farms took root in Illinois in the 1810s. Early farmers in Madison County came from the eastern United States and emigrated from German Confederation and Scandinavian countries. Newly free black families started farms in Foster Township near Alton and in Pin Oak Township. The land provided abundant wood for building houses and barns, and a rich mixture of clay and silt for growing crops.
Farmers grew their own food: corn, oats, wheat, potatoes, melons, and vegetables. They transformed some of their corn crop to whiskey at the many distilleries across the county, to drink while they smoked the tobacco they grew for themselves. They also grew cotton and flax for making their own clothes. Small house gardens supplied healing herbs such as senna (a laxative), garlics (for deworming), saffron (an analgesic), and wormwood (to aid digestion). Farmers raised cattle and hogs for sale at livestock markets, and sold surplus butter and eggs in town.
The ten sections of this exhibition present just a small fraction of the Madison County Historical Society’s agriculture-related holdings. Please send your feedback and/or any questions about this exhibition, written and designed by Mary Z. Rose, Assistant Curator at the Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Brink, McCormick & Co. of Illinois. Illustrated Encyclopedia and Atlas Map of Madison County, Ill. St. Louis: Brink, McCormick & Co. of Illinois, 1873. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
- Gillham, S.P. Talks with the Early Settler. S.P. Gillham, Esq.: His Reminiscences of the Early Settlement and History of Madison County. 11th paper. Transcribed by C.L. Barler, Esq. Circa 1870. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
- Johnson, Cyrus L. “A History of Negro Settlement in Foster Township.” Presentation, Honoring Foster Township, Spring Meeting of the Madison County Historical Society, Fosterburg Grade School, Fosterburg, Illinois, May 15, 1960. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
- Reid, Debra A. “Illinois Farm Families: Putting Their Hand to the Hoe.” In Illinois Historic Farms: Honoring Our Enduring Heritage. Morley: Acclaim Press, 2015. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
- Winch, Julie. “Forgotten Time, Forgotten People: Pin Oak’s African American Farmers.” Manuscript. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.