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A new book, 'Freedom, Land and Community,' chronicles McLean County's history

Koos BW.png
McLean County Museum of History
Historian Greg Koos has written the first scholarly history of McLean County in more than a century.
Updated: March 15, 2022 at 3:47 PM CDT
As of March 2022, the book is now available for purchase! From the McLean County Museum of History: "Now available for purchase and pre-order pick up. Freedom, Land & Community: A History of McLean County Illinois, 1730-1900 is the seminal work of local historian and author Greg Koos. Koos served and led the McLean County Museum of History for almost 40 years, retiring as the executive director in 2016. His work there was recognized by numerous state and national awards, and his historical research has been published throughout the United States and Ireland. freedom as these communities knew and defined it over a span of almost 200 years This new book tells the story of the diverse peoples and events of McLean County. It relates the struggle to shape the land, build communities, and secure. Books are available for purchase and pick up at the Cruisin' with Lincoln on 66 Visitors Center and Gift Shop at the Museum or can be purchased online at bit.ly/KoosBookFLC. The cost of the book is $54.95, and Museum members receive 10% off. Questions about the purchasing the book or Museum membership? Call (309) 827-0428."

The last serious history of McLean County came out in 1908. That's about to change with the book, “Freedom, Land, And Community: A History of McLean County, Illinois 1730 to 1900.” The author is Greg Koos, retired director of the McLean County Museum of History.

Koos said he had resources available to him that no earlier historian had access to. For instance, archive.org offers a searchable database of 22 million volumes that led to some rare sources for the book. Newspaper records also have moved online and are more searchable than ever before, offering the record of the people for the book. Even some early census records have now been put online.

The early histories of McLean County tended to be name-dropping affairs to draw subscriptions for books from the families of old settlers. Koos said those, in some ways, formed a solid basis. One of them, “Good Times in McLean County,” offered a marvelous collection of oral history that still has value, Koos said, and was a source he used.

The resources of the Museum of History also helped with two newspapers that had not been digitized — the secessionist newspaper Bloomington Times and the Illinois Statesman, which leaned toward the Democratic Party during the Civil War but did not embrace secession.

Koos said even some digitized census records were useful for analysis, particularly of the Irish community in Bloomington-Normal and for rural areas of the county.

“I could paint a picture of what the average person was doing, how big their farm was, what kinds of crops they were planting, who was in their family, were they literate, how old they were," Koos said. “For instance, in 1840, the average age of a farmer was running about 25 to 30. These were young men, young women, and we don't think that about our ancestor. This was the West, and the West was a very young place."

Economy and trade

It also was a time when lack of transportation constrained the people. In the obverse of today, it directed their attention to livestock because they could feed and graze livestock.

“Without rail, the only agricultural commodity that really exists is a commodity that can walk to market,” said Koos.

He used an account book from hog packer A.J. Merriman in the late 1830s during an economically distressed time when money went out of circulation in various parts of the nation and the economy reverted to barter.

“Merriman is trading cloth, food, things like flour, salt, molasses and things like gun flints for hogs. And then he has another deal for butchering. The hogs are packed in salt and he trades dry goods to get barrels. They send it off to market by wagon to Pekin that was the port of entry for McLean County."

In this non-cash economy, Koos said there was a global supply chain that involved imports from Europe and the Indies, even Cuban cigars.

The livestock trade route also went overland to Cincinnati and to Chicago, the largest markets. You also could drive hogs to Galena because of the mining there and to Beardstown for another river access.

“The closer you got to the market, the more money you made. If you went to a place like Beardstown, you're dealing with a middleman, you're not going to get the same kind of price,” said Koos, adding a knowledge of how to get close to meat packers was key and the logistical arrangements were sophisticated.

“For instance, Isaac Funk, who was running about 4,000 head would do cattle drives, timed for the market in Chicago and timed with packing houses. He's bringing in so many head of cattle a day and so his drives are based upon organizing his herds in a way that they're going to market on a basis on an eight-day basis."


National issues a local presence

Koos also tries to depict McLean County’s place among national trends. He said he tried not to use the "L" word — Lincoln— too much because the history of the run-up to the Civil War tends to be Lincoln-centric and he wanted to show how McLean County residents participated in deciding the burning issue of the day, whether slavery would be expanded to western states.

The rise of the Republican Party is part of that, and Bloomington played a key role.

McLean County was a swing district, politically, and the nascent Republican party was made up of remnants of the Whig party, anti-slavery Democrats, and the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, or American party.

“There becomes this tension of how you organize a successful political movement when you're a minority, and that political movement decides it can do it under the auspices of anti-slavery, but just that topic,” said Koos.

At first they called themselves the Anti-Nebraska party because the name Republican was considered too radical. And they held their organizing convention in Bloomington in 1856.

“And so you have, for instance, this guy who is really a key figure in all of this, who we've forgotten. His name is William Frederick Milton Arney of Normal. And he was Alexander Campbell’s private secretary. Campbell was the founder of the Disciples of Christ. Arney becomes the principal organizer of the Kansas element and keeping this Kansas thing going. He's also an organizer of the Republican convention of 1856. Very, very interesting guy,” said Koos.

Koos also said one of the key pieces missing in understanding the Underground Railroad is the key role played by African American people who already were in central Illinois.

“A previously enslaved person was working as an agricultural laborer. And there were slave hunters in the area. And the guy who hired this formerly enslaved person decided he could probably make more money by turning this guy in,” said Koos.

The African American was taken to the McLean County Jail and allowed to sit in the office for a while. Koos said African Americans who were there talked to him.

“Look, you're in Illinois, you're free. You don't have to listen to these people. You can just go and do what you want to do, because you are now free. And it was that kind of dialogue of African American people educating those formerly enslaved people about the facts of the law in Illinois,” said Koos.

McLean County was not exactly a hotbed of abolition despite organization of the Republican Party. Koos said one measure is the 1862 referendum on the adoption of a proposed Illinois Constitution, which failed. That measure had separate issues to be voted on independently — one dealt with whether the Illinois Black Code should be part of the new constitution.

“Eighty-six percent of people in McLean County voted that African American people should not be allowed to live in Illinois, or come into Illinois, and that those individuals who were in Illinois should have no civil rights, they should have no ability to vote, they should have no ability to serve on a jury, they should have no ability to testify in court, and they should have no ability to sue anybody for damages in a court,” said Koos.

Pre-settlement and Native Americans

Koos began the book with the year 1730 as the French interacted with Native Americans. It also began with a massacre of 800 people in what would become southeastern McLean County. They were members of the Fox tribe. The Algonquin- speaking people of the Midwest and upper Midwest were involved in a international commerce. They had become market hunters and trappers for two French companies, one in Canada, the other in New Orleans.

“These Native Americans were changing from a subsistence type of life to a life based on the exchange of goods, metal goods that includes guns, hose, knives, cloth, this kind of stuff. They were involved now in international commerce and their material goods were becoming manufactured in Europe,” said Koos, adding this probably did not result in a net increase in leisure time because they had to cure hundreds of hides.

Koos said the two French companies competed and allied with different tribes to take trapping areas. And the Fox ended up killing people for the company they were allied with. Koos said that prompted the French to talk.

“Yeah, we didn't really mean kill a bunch of people and so both of those companies agreed that the Fox had to be exterminated,” said Koos.

Other tribes, including those who had suffered depredations by the Fox, such as the Kickapoo, chased the Fox into McLean County where the Fox built a dirt fort and were besieged. Eventually, food ran out and Koos said they tried to make a break for it.

“They're out in the open now. They're physically debilitated. And they're caught by these other warriors, and most of them are killed. There are some of the women and children are taken as slaves. And that is essentially the end of the Fox as an independent nation,” said Koos.

The remnants later combined with the Sauk and persisted until the Black Hawk War about a century later.

Koos said the Native American Algonquin-speaking tribes got along with the French because the French did not want the land — they wanted trade. Even after the British took over following the Seven Years War in Europe, what was called the French and Indian War in north America, the British wanted furs and hides as well, and Native Americans maintained some sovereignty.

“And the deal is the British are kind of mean. They consider the Native Americans to be less than human. Whereas the French would marry them. There's a different kind of relationship,” said Koos.

But after the American Revolution, the British took everything east of the Mississippi and land for settlement became an issue that the Native Americans eventually lost.

“We end up with a period of what they called Indian depredations, and what these were, were raids to push back American settlement on to the other side of the Ohio,” said Koos.

This emphasizes the effect of globalization. A struggle between two European powers resulted in shifting economic patterns and shifting warfare in central Illinois, long before it became a state and long before there was a lot of European settlement.

“What I really like about the Kickapoo is the way they were able to through diplomacy, play the European people against each other. They were good at that until the British lost the War of 1812. And at that point, the Kickapoo suffered from their support of the British. Kickapoo villages were burned in central Illinois,” said Koos.

The Kickapoo were eventually relocated in the 1820s and later.

“The Kickapoo who were in this area, are found in four locations: in Kansas, in Oklahoma, at the border Eagle Pass with Mexico, and then in some central Mexican mountains.

Post Civil War trends

The era following the Civil War changed the nation and McLean County. Koos said the promise of the war was free men and free soil. The war also created the rise of large business organizations because of the material needs of the war. And Koos said business started being conducted in a different manner. That, in turn, created a reaction from several groups, including farmers, laborers, and women.

“What comes out in McLean County, is the argument that corporations, railroad corporations are creation of the state and therefore the state has not only the right, but the responsibility to control corporate behavior, after a massive, massive legal judgment that ends up going to the U.S. Supreme Court and being ratified,” said Koos.

For women, the issue was suffrage. And for labor it was the right to organize, the right to withhold labor, and the right to protect their families by demanding a proper return for their labor.

Each of these became significant in McLean County. The Knights of Labor had about 2,000 members in the county. Illinois Wesleyan University professor Jenny Fowler Willing was the chair of the first Women's Christian Temperance Union National meeting and led the suffrage movement in town. She was an effective political organizer and got the City of Bloomington to vote dry, said Koos.

Koos has studied the history of McLean County all his working life. And he still found himself discovering things when he retired and began work on the book.

“The biggest aha moment is found in the title, 'Freedom, Land, and Community.' Freedom is contested. There are opposing parties who have completely different definitions of freedom and who can be free and who has the right to be free and who can call it freedom. Land is the place where that takes place. But it isn't just a farm. A workspace is your land. And then, community. We require the support of one another to have our freedoms and to fully develop our capacity for what we can do with the piece of physical reality that we control. To me, that's the big piece. It's about the human struggle for who we are, who we can be, and that it takes others to help us get there,” said Koos.

Koos' book, "Freedom Land And Community: A History of McLean County, Illinois 1730–1900,” will be published in mid-January. Pre-orders can be made by calling the McLean County Museum of History.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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