The early history of Effingham County is closely related to one of the United States government’s greatest enterprises, a road which dramatically impacted economically, politically and socially upon all areas through which it passed. It was a monumental cultural achievement.
Joseph C. Burtschi, author of “Documentary History of Vandalia, Illinois,” declared that the Road was “the most vital highway to the territory west of the Alleghenies” and that “the route has historical interest second to no other in the United States.” Just as is the case today, the Congressional debates concerning whether or not to build the road showed that differing interpretations of the Constitution are not mere abstractions of relevance for political philosophers, but are extremely important for the social development of specific areas of the country. Four Illinois’ counties — Clark, Cumberland, Effingham and Fayette — were shaped by the federal government’s decision to construct the Cumberland (later called the National) Road.
The story had its beginning early in the 19th century, drawing from a movement started in England in favor of broken stone roads, and with such highways an awareness of the importance of improved roads for military, postal and commercial purposes. Once the movement was widely appreciated, road reform was advocated by many of the leading politicians and great patriots of the day. In fact, road reform became one of the leading questions in politics nationally and regionally.
During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency the bill admitting Ohio as a state contained a provision setting apart a specified percentage of the net proceeds from the sale of public lands in that state for the building of public roads leading from the navigable waters emptying into the Atlantic to and through the state of Ohio. Such roads were to be laid out under the authority of Congress and with the consent of the states through which they would pass.
When, in 1806, the sale of public lands in Ohio had amounted to over $600,000, the potential for building a great highway system in the United States was evident. Shortly thereafter, the construction of the “Cumberland Road,” later called the “National Road,” was begun. From Cumberland, Md., it was to extend through southwestern Pennsylvania and over the Allegheny mountains to the Ohio River at Wheeling and then on to St. Louis. In the early phases, the Road was constructed as a well-built, good road for decades.
At the same time that the Cumberland road was being built, a dozen other great national highways were laid out in the states and territories, making what was then regarded as a complete system of roads. Congress appropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the network. But by the term of James Monroe, friendly attitudes toward the federal funding of the transportation system underwent change.
In 1822, the regular appropriation for the Cumberland Road was vetoed by President Monroe, and in 1830 the famous “Maysville turnpike bill” authorizing a government subscription to the stock of a turnpike company in Kentucky was passed by Congress, but was vetoed by President Jackson. The monetary crisis of 1837 put a damper on all projects requiring large government expenditures, and from that time to 1854, only a few small appropriations were made, so the quality of the Road in Indiana and Illinois was much less than farther to the east.
Nevertheless, the National Road was of vital importance to the development of the United States, as it led to the great migration of people into today’s Midwest and beyond. Historian John Allen wrote that those who travel along the National Road today are passing “over the old roadway along which a million immigrants have passed.” A large number of families were brought into Illinois by way of the Road. In fact, many families in Effingham County traveled here by way of the fabled highway.
One such family was the Wright family, one member of that group, Henry Wright, left a detailed, but grammatically incorrect, description of the movement into this county as it related to the Road: “They was working on the National Road when we come. My father and mother rode from Wayne County on horseback here and made a contract for to board of forty hands. They came home and finished fattening forty head of hogs and seven beef cattle and drove them to Ewington and butchered them and marked some sows and shoats and turned them out on range and that was the last we saw of them. We had Seven head of horses, 2 yoke of oxen, two carts which we expected to put to work on the Road.
Most all the work was done with oxen. Soon after this, work all stopped near Ewington (three miles west of the current Effingham High School). The culverts and bridges were all in on this part of the Road. They were all built with sandstone and condemned by the government. The bridge across the Little Wabash was a grand thing in that day. It was built of heavy timbers, a double pass way for wagons. It was grand to look at. It was weather boarded, painted and covered with large wings on the east side to protect the bridge about 10 feet high . . . . with a large ball nicely dressed out of sandstone in less than four years. It stood seven or eight years from the time it was built than four years later the stone walls gave way. The bridge or most of it went down the river by pieces. The stone was hauled away to wall wells. They were all nicely dressed and squared up. They came in very handy to the free settlers for there was but few left. After the work stopped, the workman all left. Deer and wild turkeys were quite plentiful at that time.
A good many depended on game for meat. The Indians left here in the spring of ‘34 and never came back here. There was lots of signs where they had built up great mounds and stone hatchets and arrow heads were found and signs where they had climbed up bee trees and chopped out and got out bee honey. We had sport fishing. Fish hooks were scarce. You could get a big string of fish for one fish hook. . . .”
These pioneers showed the courage that it took to survive in a wilderness area. William Wilson, again in a dramatic, yet ungrammatical and in need of better spelling way, provided a look at the early days of Effingham County as settlers traveled the National Road to begin life here:
“Some of us by this time began to think about our families and talked of sending for them. I had my wife and three children and I thought I would send for them for they could stand it as well as the rest for they all had families that was coming, so I wrote try wife to get ready and start as soon as she could. And I got a letter from her saying she was on her way, and had been started two weeks before I got the letter so that left me in a little trouble again, on I go to Ewington. There was a line of telegraph on the old national road and I wanted to send a message to the prairie house Terrihout, Indians. That was where my family was directed to come to. Mr. Ike Humes was the forewarding agent there at that tine, prairie house was his head quarters. But when I went to the operators offace to send my message — to know if there was a family of that discription there, he told me the wires was down and he hadent sent a message for several days. So I then took the stage coach which was the first put on at that season, owing to the bad roads, and I inquired of every publick conveyance that I met wether there was a family in it by that name. I road all through to Terrihout or as near as I could get as the river was all out in the bottom, and the stage had to stop on this side, mail and passengers want over in a skiff. I was one of them and as soon as I got across I made my way to prairie house and found my family all right and had been waiting there a week for the roads to get some better. I took charge of them my self, left my baggage there to be sent after me. I crossed the river and prepaired to start on the stage the same evening which we did so. There was two other weoman besides my own, them and the children took the inside and the men took the out side. When we had gone about two miles on our way we run in to a chock hole and broke his leaders draw bar and he had to go right back to where we started from to get another. While he was gone we had her pried up out of the hole with some old fence rails which hapened to be close by. When he came back we started on again and soon we came to a mud hole and the driver would say, gentlemen I would like you to get out and walk for I have a terrible piece of road to go through, so we had to get out several times and walk from five to 15 rods at a time before we reached Ewington. We made the trip in about 24 hours, so I think we done very well considering.”
There is a spirit that one can see in the writings of those early pioneers which is adventuresome and which typifies the spirit of America. That National Road which carried those frontiersmen and women into this county is one well worth celebrating and all of these people are part of the shared heritage of Effingham County.