Williamson County Illinois, A Brief Pioneer History

Williamson County was the hunting ground of various Indian tribes, even to this day many Indian relics may be found within a mile of Marion. The Kaskaskia’s and Shawnee Indians were probably the last two tribes to contend for the rich hunting ground. About 1802 the last big Indian battle was fought between the two tribes on the Big Muddy river between Herrin and West Frankfort and a granite marker so states the fact. The Shawnee were victorious and retired to Indiana and the Kaskaskia’s to their homes nearer the Mississippi river. But wandering tribes came to this section of the country as late as 1828 after many of our forefathers were living here. They would camp on Hurricane, Big Muddy, Caplinger Pond, or Crab Orchard to trap and hunt. The Kaskaskia’s were always more friendly to the whites than other tribes.

The county was covered with a dense forest and thickets of vines and briars, through which the first surveyors could scarcely drag their chains. The land in 1839 was as fertile as any in North America and produced wheat, hemp, rye, Indian corn, peas, beans flax, tobacco, hops, grapes, apples, pears, peaches, dyeing roots, and medicinal plants. Prairies or natural meadows and forests were both numerous and extensive, affording food and shelter for buffalo, deer, wolves and various other animals. The rivers were plentiful in fish of an enormous size. With these natural resources our early settlers selected their ground, built their cabins on public lands.

In summer the prairies would be covered with grass as tall as a man. The largest and farthest south was one west of Marion, called Phelps’ Prairie, on which the old town of Bainbridge was built and there the first store in the county was built. John and Allen Bainbridge settled there. Not far away was the old Block House built in 1813. A smaller prairie north, on which the city of Herrin is built, was settled by David Herrin and so gave his name to the prairie and later the town. On the east of Marion was Davis Prairie on which the country church known as Old Mt. Zion or Davis Prairie Church was built. Poor Prairie was an oblong irregular piece of land containing several small hills and some swamps bordered by large forest trees and in 1839 the town of Marion was located on the edge of this prairie. Eight-Mile Prairie was in the northwest part of the county.

Near Corinth was still standing, in 1839, the block house built in 1810 by the Jordan brothers, who entered the first land entry of the county in 1814. Phelps Prairie, west of Marion, marked the second settlement on record made by John Phelps in 1811. A colony from Robertson County, Tennessee, settled near the edge of this prairie in 1816. They were the four Spiller brothers; William, Benjamin, Elijah, and Warren, Abraham Tippy and son, the Norrises, the Porters and Whitesides, and probably the Bensons. William Spiller’s wife was a Benson. The Spiller girls have handed down vivid descriptions of the preparation and trip from Tennessee in 1816. Even in 1839 it was a great undertaking to move from one state to another. The wagon trains were well-guarded by the young ladies’ sweethearts and the husbands of the other women. In front of them and back of them were the heavier wagons drawn by large bulls and a few oxen and horses and mares. The women looked after the extra munitions and rifles and shotguns; most of the women could shoot deer, wild turkeys and geese, even bears, wolves, and “painters” (panthers or mountain lions) or Indians.

The town of Marion and Williamson County were both established on February 28, 1839, when the legislature approved a division of Williamson and Franklin counties. On October 8, 1839, William Benson and his wife, Bethana, deeded as a gift, twenty acres for the site of a new county seat to be known as Marion, which was probably named for General Francis Marion who was greatly admired by the southern settlers. The plans of Marion were taken from the city of Lebanon, Wilson County, Tennessee, where many of the settlers came from. Henry W. Perry was the surveyor. Forty-seven lots were surveyed and thirty-eight were sold on time terms lo twenty-six men at a three-day sale. The highest price paid was $161 for the site now occupied by the State Hotel. Our first record of the settlement of Marion dates to one Mr. Tyner, probably Richard Tyner, son of Joshua Tyner, who was one-half Indian and a scout with Georgia troops. When Mr. Tyner settled is not known but in 1835 William Benson bought Tyner’s improvement which was likely a cabin and some small buildings, and later in 1839 deeded the land to the county for a town site.

Entertainment in those days included gander pulling, dancing the “Irish Trot,” three and four-handed reels, and jigs were tramped out to perfection. Cotton pickings were common in an early day, and they were followed by a play where the boys would kiss the girls from “Julius Caesar to the Fourth of July.” The whole neighborhood was on hand at a wedding. And the Sundays were reserved for church going; some going to the first church built in the county, which was called “Squat” (1819), in the eastern part of the county, and some going to “Rich Grove” (1820), built in Herrin Prairie, a regular Baptist church. Isaac Herring was its first preacher. Others went to Gum Springs, Mount Zion, Hurricane, Coal Bank, and Eight-Mile Prairie.

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(By Nannie Gray Parks, Excerpted from an account of the Williamson County of 1839 which originally appeared in 1939 in the Souvenir Program of the Williamson County Centennial published by The Herrin Daily Journal and republished in the 1989 Williamson County Sesquicentennial History)