LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF
CAPT. STEPHEN B. HANKS,
John Beck lived some five
or six miles north west of Springfield and we went direct to this
place and spent several days resting from the arduous journey we had
For some days past it had been raining and the roads were getting
heavy and the streams high. The first night after leaving John
Beck’s we were told it would be necessary to carry fuel for our next
few camps as we would see no timber for many miles. The rains came
on afresh and the country was flooded; the roads cut up so they were
rivers of mud.
When we came to Horse Creek it was bank full, but it had to be
crossed. The teams were weary and the women were discouraged and
heartsick. With much effort we reached the other side but in going
up the bank in the big wagon stuck hard and fast, and it looked like
a disastrous end of our journey. It would not be safe to leave the
wagon then with a rising river and we decided the contents must be
taken out in the hope that the wagon might be pulled out when empty.
Just then a man appeared with a prairie team of four yoke of oxen
with chains and couplings. He hitched on to our wagon and in five
minutes it was out on high ground and a load bigger than that in the
wagon was lifted from our hearts. It was a most welcome deliverance.
As the day was near ended we camped right there. The place was then
called McGoupin Point and had one lone house. After two more days
travel we came to a small settlement and there I saw a tread mill,
so called for the first time. It was operated by two oxen and used
for grinding corn and wheat. Through long experience the oxen had
become wise and when no one was watching to keep them at their work
would brace their feet and by throwing their weight upon the rope
around their horns stop the mill. Shortly before reaching this place
our loose cattle had become very thirsty, as we had come a long
distance without reaching water, and broke away from me and started
for a creek a mile or more away where they had smelled some water.
The next stage of our journey took some two days. We now began to
notice a change in the appearance of the country. Instead of the
long rolling prairie we found some low land, an occasional showing
of gravel, some lakes with bull rushes an similar vegetation on the
banks, the prairies were not so broad and we were no longer out of
sight of timber. We realized we were approaching the Illinois river.
When we reached the Illinois river we were opposite the town of
Havana. Here we crossed on the usual primitive ferry, the cattle
swimming which was now not difficult as they were used to it and
readily took to the water when driven. After leaving the Illinois
river bottom we followed up the Spoon river valley a short distance
where we found a place called Waterford, the homes of Asa Langford
and a man named Shelby, both brothers-in-law of Alfred Slocomb. Here
we rested a few days and the rest was badly needed.
Then we began the last stage of our journey, passed through a little
place called Lewiston and then on Northward reaching our destination
some three or four miles south of Knoxville, in Knox county, after
three or four days of uneventful travel.
We landed at the home of James Newitt, another brother-in-law of
Alfred Slocomb and here we lived in the door yard largely in our
traveling wagons, while we built a house on a claim known as
“Military Tract”, a large territory that had been reserved by the
Government for the veterans of the war of 1812. Few of these old
soldiers located on this tract the most of them selling their
rights. It was a long time before title to these lands was perfected
but in the meantime the settlers continued to live on and improve
During the summer we broke some forty or fifty acres, planted a
garden on some previously broken ground that a neighbor let us use
and broke some ground on an additional tract of Government land. We
harvested a crop of wheat on shares and after it was threshed
Slocumb took a load of it to a mill at straddle creek, on Spoon
river, and while he was away a prairie fire came and nearly burned
us all out. The grass was rank and dry, the wind blew a gale and the
fire traveled very fast. When we saw the danger I ran for our
nearest neighbor, about a mile away, and he came and helped us. The
cattle ran into the timber and a call that was picketed near by
broke loose after the fire had passed and ran into the brush. His
hair was all burned out but otherwise he was not injured. We lost
everything but the house, including some one hundred tons of hay we
had put up. The fire went onto the timber in places and was burning
in some of the tree tops for a week. The chips from the hewn logs
for the house were in piles scattered around the yard and I carried
water from a spring one hundred yards or more away to put out the
fires continually breaking out among them. We fought fire all that
night and well into the next day. It was an experience that remains
a vivid picture until this day.
Winter was approaching and the severe loss by fire hampered us
greatly. We had been depending on the hay to cover temporary
structures to shelter the stock. Other arrangements had to be made.
Hay and grain had to be bought and many eatables for the table. One
thing, we had in abundance was honey. We had gathered more than a
barrel of clear strained honey from bee trees found in the timber
I recall that we had a man working for us in the fall named Gridley.
One day he showed us a drawing of a machine which he said one day
would cut the hay and grain and do away with the then slow and
laborious hand work. He went to Chicago when he left us and in a
year or two the McCormick reaper came into the neighborhood and
there was the identical Gridley machine.
One frosty morning in early fall the fire in the house was out and I
made a trip to the nearest neighbor a mile or so away and brought
back a chunk of fire.
There were no schools or churches, but occasionally a minister would
come along and hold a service in some prairie home.