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Land speculator's wife writes of her life

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By Linda Hanabarger

The first column I wrote for this newspaper was published in January 1997. It was written about the life of Christiana Holmes Tillson of Montgomery County.

Christiana’s husband, John Tillson, came to Illinois in June 1818, as an agent for Eastern land speculators. Christiana wrote of their early life in Illinois in the book, “A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois.”

At the close of the War of 1812, Congress awarded to each soldier who had served in the war, a bounty of 160 acres of land, lying between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. This area was identified as the Military District.

At that time, many of the soldiers sold their patents to land speculators in the Eastern cities, who then hired agents to travel to far-off Illinois and choose a prime quarter-section of land between these rivers. When the soldiers sold their patents, they also gave deeds, which were to be recorded in Illinois.

Among the speculators was Dr. Benjamin Shurtleff of Boston. Christiana wrote, “With the mails being so uncertain, it was best to employ someone, such as (John Tillson), to go out and attend to the recording and locating the land, as it had not been surveyed and laid off into townships, sections and quarter-sections.”

Upon reaching the Illinois country, Tillson made a stop at the United States Land Office in Edwardsville, leaving his papers to be entered. 

 Returning to the office some weeks later, he found the office so crowded with previous business that the recorder, Josias Randall, offered to hire John as a clerk to help with the backlog. John joined the two clerks already working in the office, Hiram Rountree and Joel Wright.

Christiana wrote, “During the winter of 1819-1820, two or three young men approached Mr. Randall to see if he would buy their land. They were specimens of the many disappointed Yankees who had gone west, spent all their money for land and had not the means of getting back to commence the world anew. The three clerks, from compassion for the poor fellows, each bought a quarter section of land, paid them, and sent them home to their mammas rejoicing.”

The land was situated in territory belonging to either Bond or Madison county, 40 miles north of Edwardsville. Toward spring, with work slacking off a little, the three mounted their horses and started in search of their new possessions. They expected it to take them a day to make the journey, but they got lost and had to make camp on the prairie.

It was several days before they found what afterward became their homes. Rountree and Wright found their land just as nature had made it, but on John Tillson’s tract, an “improvement” had been made, with a cabin and smokehouse erected and enclosed with a rail fence.

 Many times a “squatter” occupied property that he did not hold title to, and it was expected that he would be paid for his improvements to the tract of ground. As his wife wrote in her memoirs, Tillson was fortunate because “Commodore” John Yoakum, “the best hunter, life of the corn-shuckings, best ‘corner-man’ at a log cabin raising,” was the occupant.

The following winter, Tillson, with Israel Seward, Hiram Rountree and Eleazer Townsend, traveled to the capitol at Vandalia with a petition to the legislature, then in session, asking that a new county, Montgomery, be formed north of Fayette and Bond, their lands being within the new county.

Their petition was granted, and Israel Seward received the appointment of probate judge; Joel Wright, sheriff; Hiram Rountree, county clerk; and John Tillson postmaster.

With no mail routes established, Tillson made the weekly trip to Greenville on Saturday afternoon, returning on Monday with the county mail in his pocket; or sometimes his hat.

Soon after the county was formed, a county seat was platted and named Hamilton. In 1823, after some grumbling, a new site, a little more than four miles north of Hamilton was chosen as the county seat, and named Hillsboro.  

In 1822, John Tillson rented his cabin to Hiram Rountree and returned to his Massachusetts home to marry Christiana Holmes. Almost immediately following their wedding, they began their journey to Illinois, accompanied by Christiana’s brother, Robert.

The rest, as they say, is history. Although with the Tillsons, the history they made in Illinois lives on through Christiana’s words in her book, “A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois.”