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"Following in our forefather's footsteps."

Continuing Series       

Article No.# 4       

Weapons of Midwestern Pioneers

by Chase T. Gibb

Most Midwestern pioneers carried weapons. The variety of these weapons was vast.

Guns and knives were among the most popular of these weapons. The weapons became useful tools for hunting and in defense against people and animals. Each weapon had unique characteristics that made it beneficial to the pioneers.

There were many knives for the pioneer to choose from. Some of the more popular knives were the Green River Knife, the Hudson Bay Camp knife, and the Bowie Knife. One of the biggest reasons why the Green River Knife was popular among pioneers was because it made for a good butcher knife. The pioneers could use it for more than one cause. The main use was to cut meat of animals hunted for food by the pioneers. Protection was another use of the Green River Knife. In 1832, John Russell founded the Green River Knife Company in Massachusetts.

The Hudson Bay Camp knife served as the perfect utility tool because of its size. It was used for butchering and many tasks around the camp of the pioneers. This all-purpose knife had an 8 1/2 inch making the perfect size for odd jobs. The blade was thick and durable and was held by a sturdy wood handle. Jukes Coulson, Stokes & Co. manufactured this handy tool during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Bowie knife is believed to have been most commonly found among the traveling pioneers. James Bowie made this knife popular. So many people tried to copy his model of the knife that many versions of it soon emerged. Because of this widespread mimicking of the original knife, the Bowie knife reigned as the most popular among the pioneers. This knife was used primarily for combat and hunting due to its extra large blade. Here are some examples of the knife.

Two types of guns dominated the frontier of the pioneer days. The rifle was a necessity of most pioneers for survival. The Plains Rifle became the most popular of all rifles used by pioneers. It was such a good rifle that many manufacturers attempted to model their rifles after it. The octagon-shaped barrel reached 34 inches in length, helped make this gun popular because it was shorter than most. The shorter barrel made the rifle lighter and more accessible to the pioneers. The Plains Gun originated in 1807 when Jacob Hawken completed the first model in St. Louis, Missouri.

The other desired weapon among guns that pioneers carried was the pistol. Some pistols were flintlocks, some were cap-and -ball, but the majority were single-barreled smooth bores of the horse-pistol type. These three characteristics had to do with the firing and mechanics of the gun. Later models of the Colt pistol came about in the second half of the nineteenth century. In contrast to the rifle, the pistol served as more of a defensive weapon. It was used for close encounters with snakes, rodents, and in some cases, people.

The pioneers had many useful weapons available to them. The Bowie Knife was used in combat. Two other knives, the Green River Knife and the Hudson Bay Camp knife, served as butchery tools and basic needs knives. The rifle took care of hunting duties, and the pistol insured safety especially when pioneers were camped for the night. The survival and safety of the pioneers depended on such weapons.

Early Illinois Pioneers

French Explorers

German Explorers

English Explorers

American Explorers

Illinois became a state in 1818. There are many more people in Illinois today than there were in 1818, and Illinois had little diversity among the different cultures of people who lived here in 1818. At this time settlers came from different countries and sections of our country to take advantage of the many different opportunities that Illinois offered. The early pioneers had many different reasons to settle in Illinois.

The French

Some of the first pioneers who settled in Illinois came from the north. These pioneers were French people who came from Canada. The earliest of these explorers came to Illinois as fur traders. One of the more famous explorers was George Rogers Clark. Furbearers thought that traveling down the Mississippi River would help them find furs. Then more French explorers followed; they built military outposts. The majority of the Frenchmen came before 1760, while hardly any of the French came after the French and Indian War in 1763. This was because the French had to relinquish all of the land that they owned east of the Mississippi to England. In 1818 there were around 1500 French people in Illinois. Many of these were native to the area due to the little immigration after 1760. Nearly all of the French people lived near the Mississippi River, because most of them were fur traders. The river made for easy traveling and much wildlife. The French got along with the Native Americans well. In fact, there were even a few French people who married Native Americans. The French people built cabins to live in, and they used timber from around the area to build these cabins. Many people who followed the French used this method of building houses. They grew trees around their houses, most of them being apple, cherry, peach, and pear trees, and this gave them fruit to eat. They also grew other crops. They started out with a system of farming called town farms. Everybody in the town would pitch in and help on this farm. Everybody would share the crops and money made from this. Later, the farmers decided that it would probably be easier to have your own farm and work on it yourself. People who later came to Illinois later also used this method.

German Explorers

Another group of foreigners who traveled to Illinois were the Germans. They came to Illinois in smaller numbers around 1800. Some of the Germans who traveled to Illinois were straight from Germany, but most of the Germans who ended up here were native to America. A large proportion of these settlers came from the state of Pennsylvania , and most of these Germans settled in the southern portion of Illinois. They came to Illinois because they needed prairie land to farm. In the east land was more crowded than in Illinois, and the Germans were mostly farmers, so they needed room to farm. Illinois had a lot of prairie land to offer in large quantities for cheap prices. The Germans took advantage of this opportunity.

English Explorers

The English made up a group of the settlers in Illinois, also. They had several reasons for traveling to Illinois. The Englishmen wanted their liberty. In England they did not have this, because England was a monarchy run by kings and queens. They knew that if they traveled to the United States they would have their freedom. They wanted to worship freely, and they wanted to be able to speak out. The English were against slavery, and since they were against it they didn't travel below the Mason-Dixon line into slave states. The English wanted to establish their own estates. Since most of the English were farmers, farm hands, or rural merchants, they wanted to live on the prairie land. Like the Germans, they saw how cheap the land was and decided to move to it. Farming would have been tough for them on rougher land back east. The Appalachian Mountains caused very rugged land in the east. They also had problems living in the east. This is because the revolutionary war had just ended. The people of America didn't like the English people all that well. The English people had a tougher time adapting to Illinois, and because of that they didn't play an important role in politics and the economy in Illinois, although they did play a part in the growth of Illinois to a state. The pioneers had many rivers that could take them to Illinois.

American Explorers

The largest group of people to move into Illinois were the Americans. The earliest of the pioneers were people from Virginia in search of furs and new lands. The pioneers had many rivers that could bring them to Illinois. Most of these pioneers came around the year 1765. Between 1765 and 1800 there was little population growth in Illinois by the Americans. Then between 1800 and 1810 the population in the territory increased from 2458 people to 12,282 people. Once again the population growth halted. This was because the Native Americans became very hostile to people traveling through their lands, and when people back east heard of this they became scared to move to Illinois. Around 1815 there was finally peace reached with the Native Americans, and this allowed there to be a huge population boom to the west. In 1815 there were nearly 15,000 people in the Illinois territories. By mid 1818, 35,000 people located to Illinois and by the end of 1818 around 40,000 people lived in Illinois. The population of Americans was very diverse. Of the people who moved to Illinois, estimates indicated that 38% were from southern states, 37% were from western states, 13% were from mid states, and 3% were from New England. 71% of these Americans came from south of the Mason-Dixon line. With all of these people moving to Illinois, it was easy to blaze trails for people to follow. Many of the people who moved here from the south moved because they disagreed with slavery and wanted to live in a non-slave state. They didn't like living in the south and having to work on one huge plantation; whereas in the north they could establish their own family farm. People were also treated worse in the south if they were poor. So, people would move to Illinois to try to avoid prejudice. The people who moved from the west and east moved for simpler reasons. Many of the pioneers had a love of wilderness and wanted to be surrounded by it. Other people who moved came as settlers following the range, looking for a place to settle down and farm. The last group of people were doctors, lawyers, and other business people looking to find a place for their business. The Americans saw Illinois as a great place to establish themselves.

The people who moved to Illinois in it's earliest stages saw many different reasons to settle there. Illinois was sparsely populated and had plenty of room for growth. Almost anybody who wanted to establish them self in Illinois had the opportunity to do so. There were vast amounts of opportunities in the newly founded land, and many different kinds of people decided to take advantage of these opportunities.

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Information for this paper was found in 3 different sources.

Black, Solon J.. Illinois in 1818. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1967.

Gove, Samuel K. and Nowlan, James D.. Encyclopedia Americana Volume 14.

Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1986.

The Illinois State Historical Society.

The Illinois State Historical Society Homepage. 

The Internet.

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