Christiana Tillson recorded pioneer life

Born Christiana Holmes at Kingston, Mass., she suffered culture shock when she moved with her new husband, John Tillson, to the backwoods of Montgomery County, Ill., in October 1822.

Last week, I referred to Christiana’s book, ‘A Woman’s Story Of Pioneer Illinois,’ written two years before her death in 1872. The book was privately printed in Massachusetts, and intended for family and close friends.

A Chicago publishing company, The Lakeside Press, reprinted the memoir in book form, and since that time it has been reprinted by several publishing companies, including University of Southern Illinois Press.

Considered ‘Yankees’ by their ‘white’ neighbors, Christiana and John Tillson were met with suspicion when they first took up residence in a log cabin in the wilds of Montgomery County, near the present site of Hillsboro.

Christiana writes that she “had some ambition to show off a little, being aware that the ‘white folks,’ though very friendly when I met them, were much perplexed to know what Tillson’s wife found to do.

“She didn’t spin or weave, and had that little Dutch girl (acquired from Vandalia), and the men helped her to milk. They had hearn that she sot up nights to help Tillson write, but that wasn’t much no how; never seed her in the ‘truck patch,’ didn’t believe she knowed how to hoe.”

Accustomed to Sundays where she could sit and read at her leisure, in Illinois she was greeted with a new custom…Sunday visiting, where the host feeds any and all visitors.

Her first such experience is found on the pages of her memoir. “By the time our breakfast was over and our morning work disposed of, there would be a tremendous knocking at the door, accompanied by sonorous demands of ‘Who keeps the house?’ Sometimes with the knocking would come, ‘Housekeepers within?” And sometimes nothing but a loud drawling, ‘H-o-u-s-e-k-e-e-p-e-r-s!’

“When the door was opened, a backwoodsman would walk in with a big baby on his arm, followed by his wife, with the youngest in both her arms. The most amusing thing would be their remarks at the table, and their petting the children before coming to the table. ‘Hush up, honey, and be good, see thar Auntee Tillson is gwine to have dinner right sure. Reckon she’ll have some sweetened bread, cake and all them pretty dishes.’

“During the first three months, there was rarely a Sunday when we were not called on to entertain some of these families, who came as if to a show, and would go about the house taking up things and ask, ‘Whart’s this ‘ere’ fixin?’”

Christiana told of her closest neighbor, Peggy (Kilpatrick) Buzan, who visited the Tillson cabin every day to ‘inspect.’ She wrote, “She was taken quite by surprise when one day I offered her a piece of what I told her was Yankee pie.

“She looked blank and said, ‘I didn’t think you would say the like of that, I allus knowed youens were all Yankees, but Billy said, ‘Don’t let on that we know it, kase it’ll jest make them mad.’ I told her I was proud to be called a Yankee, and that she need never fear of it.”

The Tillsons made friends throughout their neighborhood, in spite of being Yankees. The family names included in her memoirs are of many first families of Bond, Fayette and Montgomery counties – Rountree, Kilpatrick, Seward, Blackwell, McLaughlin and Blanchard, to name a few.

The publisher of Christiana’s book wrote that history generally was recorded by men, and this made her book from a woman’s perspective all the more important.

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