The Grandfathers
Vol.I, The Hall and Overstreet Families
Carrol Carman Hall, Springfield, IL, 1981

Section IV
Chapter 15, Page 161

…"we concluded we had enough
of Athens…."

Pioneer Athens
1830 - 1860

What was pioneer Athens like?
We can catch a glimpse of its people and their activities from several sources: the pages of the Sangamo Journal, the Petersburg Democrat, from articles in the Journal of the Illinois Historical Society and from personal reminiscences of early residents.

Fortunately, Anna R. Morrison, who made a trip (1840) to Athens with her father, kept a diary. From it, we get a most personal look at the town Abner Hall had platted. Mrs. Morrison was a well-educated, sensitive and perceptive woman. Coming from a refined environment, the backwoods aspect of pioneer Illinois affected her refined tastes. So - her comments must be evaluated against her personal feelings and prejudices.

After reaching Springfield from St. Louis, Anna with father, who was looking for a place to establish a business, left for Athens on Monday, December 18, 1840.


"(We) started at 11 a.m. for Athens, 15 miles from Springfield. Five miles from Springfield, we crossed the Sangamon River, drove in. It was over the wheels, and such a mud bank: it was a terrible sight to see their exhortations (the horses). They sprang and flounced in the mud. I never want to go up again.

"We did not know the road, and whirled about on a large prarier not knowing which road to take. Drove to the only house in signt and found it inhabited by chickens only, which were not able to give much information. It was intensely cold and I suffered very much.

"We at last found our way to Athens. It is beautifully situated, but the town is comprised of log houses placed directly on the street.

"Directly opposite the house (tavern?), there is a man very low with pleurisy. I wish I was in Springfield again.


"We return to Springfield tomorrow. They are very fine people here. I feel very sorry for the old man. Their place is to be sold tomorrow. They are very poor."

For her diary entries on Tuesday, Dec. 19 Mrs. Morrison tells of the death of the old man, "the shrieks of the family were terrible."

Her room is above the death room. "It was a dismal room and full of strange holes. (possibly where the original cabin chinking had fallen out.) Both she and her father fear danger from the activities below, the comings and goings, the hammering and pounding. They arm themselves with a Bowie knife. In the morning they learn that it was the neighbors coming and going and the building of a coffin in the room below. Of course, the travelers' fears were unfounded, but Athens was really a pioneer place and their people were of the homespun variety. They appeared as being capable of murder and robbery.


"We concluded we had had enough of Athens and left at 9 a.m. for Springfield and took a different route. We came through Sangamon Town. There the river was more easily forded. A bad hill to ascend, but not so muddy. The town consists of a mill and two other houses. A dangerous hill to descend, one skittish horse."

The Morrisons return to Springfield. The eventually settled at Jacksonville, Illinois, which in 1840 was the most refined and cultured community in central Illinois. There Mrs. Morrison lived out her life.

Lest the reader assume that Athens was the exception, one more glimpse into Illinois pioneer life by Mrs. Morrison is in order. On the way to Springfield from St. Louis they had breakfast at a tavern in Carlinville. Here is the way it was described:


"We arrived just as day dawned at this little cabin and were met by a young woman, whom we asked if she could give us breakfast immediately to which she answered, 'yes.'

"She gave us a seat by the fire and immediately commenced the procedure for breakfast.

"First, she took out a long-handled frying-pan and, resting the handle on a chair before the wood fire in the fireplace, she put in some coffee, which she quickly parched.

"Removing the coffee and washing out the frying pan, she made a 'pone' of corn bread and put it in to bake. Then she ground and prepared the coffee, which she proceeded to make in a pot over the fire.

"After the pone was done, the 'lady of the house' cut some bacon, put that in the pan and fried it and then asked if I would like some eggs. Which she fried, and in a few minutes we were called to breakfast ---for which we paid four shillings apiece."

In spite of her feelings, Mrs. Morrison liked her breakfast and the novelty of preparing it.

"The table was a plain wooden one, and while I had a cup and saucer, the rest of the guests had tin cups."

Mrs. Morrison then added to her notes: "Pone and dip are expression much used here."


Our ancestors who lived in Athens at the time of the foregoing account, lived in the manner described. They had log house, they cooked over open fires and their diets were principally cornbread and hog meat. They lived crudely and, of course, paid the penalty for exposure by dying young. A man of 45 years was old in those days. Pleurisy and lung related ailments were common.

The community was first called 'Rogers.' This was because the post office was in the home of Mathew Rogers, slightly to the north and west of present Athens.

We are indebted to Joseph Cravens Chandler for this bit of history:
'In the 1830's at Rogers, now Athens, and at New Salem, it was usual on stage days for a goodly crowd to be waiting for the arrival of the mail, drawn less by personal expectation of letters from abroad than from the wish to share in the general intelligence dispersed there from that source.'

In other words, to get the news!

Since Athens, like so many central Illinois communities was populated by two streams of settlers, those from the southern states and those from the eastern states, there was a general conflict of interests that took many years to resolve. Not only was this true in politics but in other matters. As early as 1833 there is report of a Temperance Society in the village, and there was a continual struggle over the control of liquor in the years to come. Adherence to or avoidance of the Temperance movement reflected your background.


The writer can find no evidence of his early family members being too enthusiastic about the temperance movement. Only in later years, when marriage and prosperity lifted them to a higher socio-economic level can any evidence of family members in such an activity.

Politics was the life blood of early Athens. The southerners, generally, were Democrats; those from the east, Whigs. It was somewhat a division on the rich and poor. The Francis wing of the Hall family were Whigs and their newspaper was the Sangamo Journal. Less is known of the Democrats mouthpiece, but the Petersburg Democrat usually reported their activities.

The Civil War changed the political line-ups. The Whigs, some very reluctantly, became members of the new Republican party as did many Mug-wumps of the old-line groups. There was a basic group that remained Democrats, but generally supported the war or were very discreet in their views. Of interest, is that the lower socio-economic Democrats (including many of the Hall family) became ardent Lincoln-Republicans and members of the Union party in the 1864 election. They furnished numerous men to the armed forces. The wealthier Democrats stayed with their party and substituted contributions to the bounty programs rather than manpower for the services. Beginning in 1862 when Union activities reached low ebb, the rise of the Union League in Illinois was dramatic. Its major effort was to preserve the Union. The activities of the Union League at Athens affords an interesting area of study. Since slavery could not have been a dominant interest in the area, saving the Union was paramount.


Roads were a constant problem in early Illinois. A great deal of time and energy was spent is approving county-defined and acceptable routes. On petition the County Commissioners at Springfield could appoint road-viewers who, in turn, reported back on the suitability of proposed roads. For the Athens community, the problem was crossing the Sangamon whether they went towards Springfield or Petersburg; if they headed north the Salt Creek system was an obstacle.

The points of crossing the stream had to be fords -O.K. in summer, but questionable in times of high water. Over the years there was a competition of routes coming into Springfield. Coming directly south from Athens and crossing at Sangamon Town - the Lincoln surveyed - post road was, the most popular. In later years, the construction of bridges, first wooden structures and later steel bridges eased the problem. Today, as we whiz of the paved roads and bridged streams we have no appreciation as to how formidable these things were to the pioneers.

Fourth of July Fourth of July was an important event in early Athens. Here we find evidence of our family members taking part in these celebrations. The celebration of 1836 saw 200 persons taking part and 15 toasts proposed to present and former national heroes.

The biggest event in Athens pioneer history occurred August 3, 1837 when the village feted the 'Lone Nine' --- the area legislators who had brought the state capital to Springfield, only 13 toasts and speeches as well as a band. A. Lincoln was called 'one of nature's noblemen.'

Lincoln responded to his toast by saying 'Sangamon county will ever be true to her best interests and never more so than in reciprocating the good feeling of the citizens of Athens and neighborhood.' +

Another 'toaster' to Lincoln said, 'A. Lincoln has fulfilled the expectations of his friends and disappointed the hopes of his enemies.' (The enemies were those who didn't want the Capital at Springfield, preferring Peoria perhaps.) ++

Abner Hall was likely at this big celebration as were other members of the Hall-Overstreet clan at Athens. One hundred years later, in 1937, John Clark Harris, a Hall-Overstreet descendant, was the toastmaster for the re-enactment of the 'Long Nine' banquet


John Overstreet, Sr., the Revolutionary War hero of Athens, was a frequent attendant at these community celebrations. He was surely at the July 4th celebration in 1839, 'when some heroes of the American Revolution were honored.' He probably heard the following toasts to the Ladies: (After all, they'd prepared the food!)
'God tried his hand at man
And then he made the Lassies O!'

Here's another one to the ladies:

'To -
'The ladies of Athens and vicinity,
'The people of Athens and vicinity,
'The best farmers, the cleverest fellows,
and the prettiest gals in Sangamon.' +++

In early Athens Washington's birthday was also an important occasion. Since the date was in February, the celebration would be held at the Methodist Church. In 1844, the program was headed by Ninian W. Edwards, son of a former Governor; and such well-known personages as: John T. Stuart, W.D. Herndon and J.H. Matheny from Springfield. (Lincoln didn't have this one on his schedule!)

County Seat

The over-riding question during the early years prior to 1839 was: Would Athens be the seat of a new county that was to be carved from Sangamon? The inhabitants used every angle, and depended on Lincoln to help. He, however, let them down, as the prize went to the up-start city of Petersburg. Lincoln's ties to the New Salem-Petersburg area were greater. ++++ Undaunted, a group of Athenians sought to carve out another county to the east and north, but this effort never got very far. (An area later incorporated into Logan county.)

If you were intellectually inclined, there was the Athens Macillinan Society++++++ you could belong to. A few people would gather at 'candle light' to read their papers, recite poems or engage in debates. By 1840 the formally organized churches were getting under way and to increase their part of the life of the community. Toward the end of the 1840s and through the fifties into the sixties, joint Sunday School events such as picnics were held in the various groves about the town, including one called 'Hall's Grove.' (Location unknown)

As early as 1835, 'The Marksmen of Athens' were organized - a militia unit and during the next twenty years they met sporadically, occasionally went to camp and paraded on Fourth of July at home or participated in the more important political events at Springfield. By 1855 the tempo of these activities had stepped up in Menard county and fore-shadowed the terrible war to come. Many of the militia officers became commanders of Civil War units while the rank and file of the old militia companies were succeeded by the younger men and older boys who were to be caught in the war spirit.


Along with their efforts to capture the county seat, the village in 1837 elected some Trustees and enacted a set of ordnances for the town. The Sangamo Journal at Springfield with its sympathetic editor, Simeon Francis, published the town laws in full. After all, his brother, Josiah, was the President of the Town Board.

The town laws read like those straight from New England. (The Francis' family was from Connecticut.). After outlining the government, its officers, their election, etc., and giving the rules for policing the town, a whole section was given to observing the 'Sabbath'.

Athens youth couldn't 'play old cat, town ball or corner ball' nor 'pitch quoits' on Sunday. There could be no 'gang fights' nor fire works on the holy day and a lot of other restrictions. The fines imposed were stiff -- $1.50 for minor offenses and $5.00 for the more serious infractions. Needless to say, the town Marshal had a lot of responsibilities.

Oh yes, there was provision for a jail!

Changes *

By 1840 the townspeople were talking about levying taxes to provide a school. Before that time schools had been privately conducted by subscription. That is, an itinerant school master (or local mistress) would set up shop, advertise for pupils, set the charges and operate for a few months out of the year. The only school of note in the area was the North Sangamon Academy at Indian Point, an area settled by easterners. The school had examinations for entrance and an 'exercise day' annually in which folks could come to see and hear the pupils perform. It was in session perhaps six months out of the year. It was a high-class fore-runner of the Public High School now supported by the Athens community.

A Dr. Abbot was the first physician to practice in Athens; Dr. Lee (reportedly, a cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee) and a Dr. Estry came later about 1837 or 1838. As time went on, the doctors became community leaders. Dr. W.F. Roberts (in the family); Old Doc. Primm and a Doctor Mudd. Later there was a Dr. Hill, whose son, Dr. T.F. Hill, living in 1981 was 105 years old! One of the Hills, later a Dentist at Auburn, Illinois married into the Hall family!

The war clouds gathering in the late 1850s were to hasten the end of the pioneer isolation of the community and expose many of its men to country beyond the county lines. There was still another indication that the pioneer days were fast ending. From the old reliable Springfield newspaper, The Sangamo Journal, issue of December 3, 1855 is taken the following announcement:
'On Saturday, the 8th, a meeting will be held at Athens for those interested in the Sangamon and Northwest Railroad."

The railroad didn't get to the town until about twenty years later but the days of the stage coach, covered wagons, and horseback travel - along with fording the streams was nearing end.

+Not one of Lincoln's best efforts. He had to keep them in good humor as he had not brought them the county seat, but let it go to Petersburg.
++This dinner was likely a fence-building operation for Abe.
+++This was a good toast. By changing the name of the town, its proposer, if a politician, could use it anywhere in his district!
++++the author believes Lincoln never had any serious intentions of supporting Athens for the county seat, this opinion is arrived at by reading some of his correspondence that survived those years.
+++++also the Philo Franklin Society and a Franklin Library Society.
*By 1845, the U.S. Post office, now in Athens, was aiding the residents in getting their newspapers from Springfield and Petersburg by not requiring them (the subscribers) to pay postage. The newspapers paid a fee for their delivery. To understand this, it should be noted that until 1848, the receiver of a letter or other item sent by mail, paid the postage not the sender. Simeon Francis at Springfield, owner-editor of the Sangamo Journal was constantly complaining about the poor delivery of newspapers (they copied out of each other) citing the poor stage connections between various towns throughout Illinois. Before the railroads, mail carrying was a contract service executed between private stage owners and the government.



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Illinois Ancestors