Once Upon a Time

Nature more important than slavery issue for early settler

Titian Ramsay Peale, a naturalist and artist on Capt. Stephen H. Long's explorations of the Mississippi and Missouri river regions, drew this illustration of the Western Engineer. The vessel was the first steam-powered boat on the Mississippi, seen by early Quincy settler Asa Tyrer in 1820. | Illustration courtesy of William Frances Deverell, “A Companion to the American West.”
Posted: Nov. 5, 2017 12:01 am

The greatness of the Mississippi River impressed Asa Tyrer as he made his way along its western shore in 1818. A breeze rustled the thistle and drooping petals of tall pale cornflowers and white and purple asters at Tyrer's feet as he negotiated the slight slope toward the quarter section of land he had bought a few months earlier. Dickcissels, a larklike, yellow-masked bird, sang their "dick, dick, ciss, ciss, ciss" when Tyrer disturbed them as he swept his way through the bluestem prairie grass that grew as high as his shoulders.

A muffled flapping halted him for several minutes. He stood stick-still to observe a flock of white trumpeter swans descending onto a sandbar that rose like a humped back in the slow current of the river. The birds, which could weigh as much as 35 pounds and the likes of which Tyrer had not seen before, were the largest species of waterfowl in North America. They crooned like French horns as their landed flock made the bar look as if a soft, white autumn cloud had descended in the river.

Tyrer was a gaunt 20-year-old when he walked from his native Hampshire City, Mass., to Broome County, N.Y. There he negotiated a deal for land in the recently surveyed Military Tract in Western Illinois. With nothing more than the word of the quarter section's owner, Stephen B. Leonard, Tyrer paid $300 for his 160-acre piece of bounty land situated about two miles southeast of what would become Quincy in the years ahead.

Tyrer made his way to Illinois in 1818. It was at or about the time legislators of the Illinois Territory, which in 1809 had been carved from the west side of the Old Northwest Territory, petitioned the U.S. Congress for statehood. The quiet of Tyrer's land was matched by noisy disagreement in Washington, D.C. Illinoisans' quest for statehood reopened an unhealed wound that had persisted from the nation's founding. Although Congress in 1787 had approved Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance, whose Article 6 prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, its ambiguity had failed to remove slavery from the French settlements and the salines or salt springs of the Illinois Territory, which depended on slave labor.

Early Illinois settlers, who would be Tyrer's neighbors on south in Illinois, were either immigrants from France or Southern states. Both groups included slave owners. The British had planted slavery in the South as early as 1660, and French settlers introduced it in their villages in Illinois in 1718.

Tyrer's journey on foot and alone had distanced him from the controversy. Nature was his only communicant. All he needed -- a few provisions and steel, flint and kindling for fire -- he carried in his canvas knapsack.

Luck served Tyrer as he reached the southern union of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. A lone voyager was camped on the south bank, a barrel of whiskey the only freight in his skiff. Tyrer's son, who wrote his father's story in 1884, said the traveler "no doubt felt well pleased to have even such company." The next morning, the voyager put Tyrer on the northern bank of the Illinois. Turbidity had not yet spoiled the river, and it was clear and filled with fish, and Tyrer watched the morning's other pilgrim disappear over the horizon.

Tyrer was north of Illinois' territorial capital at Kaskaskia, where the cause of the controversy in Washington began. As much as a decade earlier, Carolinians, Kentuckians, Tennesseans and Virginians streamed north of the Ohio River into the west side of the old Indiana Territory. Fed up with their Western neighbors' constant nagging to legalize slavery, Indiana's territorial legislature carved out the Illinois Territory in 1809.

The territory's officers favored slavery. Arthur St. Clair, the Northwest Territory's first governor, was a slave owner himself. St. Clair did not argue against federal authority to regulate slavery. But he contended that British, French and Virginia slave laws that had planted slavery in the territory could not be changed retroactively. No less a figure than James Madison agreed that Article 6 did not end slavery where it existed in the Northwest Territory but restrained "settlers in the future from carrying person in servitude into the western territory." Ninian Edwards, the Illinois Territory's only governor, petitioned congress to legalize slavery. Illinois' legislators recognized that Congress would not approve a slave constitution, however, and Illinois nominally entered the Union free on Dec. 3, 1818. Indentured servitude, by which African Americans could be bound to their creditor for up to 99 years, made Illinois a slave state in all but name.

On an August day in 1820, Tyrer glimpsed what was described as a "black, scaly serpent rising out of the water ... an apparent monster ... the sides gaping with port-holes and bristling with guns." The apparition was the Western Engineer, the first steam-powered boat on the Mississippi, which was returning from an exploration of the Upper Mississippi. Capt. Stephen H. Long saw Tyrer jumping and waving and steered the Engineer to the eastern shore. Long landed the boat and picked up the excited Tyrer. The event made the Western Engineer the first steamboat to land at what would become Quincy and Tyrer the first passenger to embark from there.

Although Tyrer's young family refused his desire to move them to Illinois in 1822, wife Chloe Andrews and their six children joined him on his Illinois land in 1824. He had built a cabin on the property and a blacksmith shop and corn mill alongside. In 1824, Tyrer joined another settler, John Wood, who persuaded him to ride along to the county seat in Atlas to vote against a plot by the Southern-dominated Legislature to make Illinois a slave state. Tyrer and Wood were in the majority of Illinoisans who rejected slavery on that day, Aug. 2, 1824.

Wood organized Adams County in the next year, and Tyrer was elected the first coroner. He died in Quincy on Aug. 6, 1873, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery.

Reg Ankrom is a former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County and a local historian. He is a member of several history-related organizations, the author of a history of Stephen A. Douglas and a frequent speaker on pre-Civil War history.


Asbury, Henry, Reminiscences of Quincy. Quincy: D. Wilcox & Sons, Printers, 1882, p. 27.

Davis, David Brion. "The Significance of Excluding Slavery from the Old Northwest in 1787," Indian Magazine of History, Vol. 84, at scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php//imh/article//view/10860/15429.

"Descendants of James T. Tyrer," at illinoisancestors.org/fulton/family_histories_tyrer_family.html.

Dolinar, Brian. The WPA Papers: The Negro in Illinois. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013, pp. 8, 9.

Kotar, S.J. and Gessler, J.E. The Steamboat Era: A History of Fulton's Folly on American Rivers, 1807-1860. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishers, 2009, p. 45.

McColley, Robert. Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964, pp. 178-180.

Middleton, Stephen. "Freedom's Early Ring: Ending Slavery in the Illinois Country, 1787-1818, at lib.niu.edu/1998/iht519802.html.

Pease, Theodore Calvin. Illinois Election Returns, 1818-1848. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1923, p. 24.

Schwegman, John E. The Natural Heritage of Illinois: Essays on Its Lands, Waters, Flora, and Fauna. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016, p. 17-18.

Tilson, John Jr., History of Quincy. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1905, p. 13, 14, 16.

Wilcox, David F. and McCarl, Judge Lyman, Quincy and Adams County History and Representative Men. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1919, pp. 100-101, 102.


Bicentennial event Sunday, Nov. 5

Three speakers will discuss "Visions and Decisions: Early Statehood of Illinois" at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, at the Quincy History Museum, 322 Maine. This Illinois Bicentennial (1818-2018) celebration event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served from 1:15 p.m. until the time of the program.