FICAS WEB ARTICLE
Descriptions of the Morris Birkbeck House on the English Prairie
Curtis Mann 2024
In 1817, Englishmen Morris Birkbeck and George Flower established the “English Settlement” in Edwards County, Illinois as a colony for their fellow countrymen. Their plan involved Flower returning to England to encourage immigration to the settlement while Birkbeck purchased land and prepared for the arrivals. The partnership fell out shortly after Flower returned with the first shipload of immigrants. The two men established separate villages to accommodate the new settlers. Birkbeck created the village of Wanborough in August 1819. Flower (along with other proprietors) established the village of Albion in October 1819. Besides creating Wanborough, Birkbeck planned to build a house for his family and develop a farm just south of his village.
A number of historical sources provide an unusual amount of detail about the construction, occupation, and demolition of the Morris Birkbeck house. Reports from Birkbeck himself (as well as family members, neighbors, and visitors) make this house one of the most noted buildings for its place and time in the history of the region.
Birkbeck’s plans for his house in the English Settlement appear to have been intended to replicate the dwelling that he left behind in England. He noted “I shall build and furnish as good a house as the one I left with suitable outbuildings, garden, orchard & c.” (Birkbeck 1818: 18).
The setting and initial construction of the house, with its view of the prairie, was noted by several of the sources. Birkbeck first contracted for the construction of a small log cabin near the edge of a timber, where it would face the prairie located to the south and east. The cabin was built two hundred yards from the future location of the house. In June 1818, Thomas Hulme visited the Birkbeck house site and reported:
“At present his habitation is a cabin, the building of which cost only 20 dollars; this little hutch is near the spot where he where he is about to build his house, which he intends to have in the most eligible situation in the prairie for the convenience to fuel and for shelter in the winter, as well as for breezes in the summer, and will, when that is completed make one of its appurtenances.”
(Boewe 1962: 91).
Wanborough resident John Woods also appreciated the location of the house noting that it “stands pleasantly and commands a fine view of the prairie” (Woods 1968: 120). Construction of the house began soon afterward.
Morris Birkbeck noted in February 1819 that his family was still lodging in cabins, but construction of the house was progressing (Thomson 1953: 53). Birkbeck’s inability to procure seasoned lumber delayed the finishing of the house (Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature 1820:607). The cost of these materials apparently made building the house quite expensive (Weekly Messenger (WM), 22 September 1825:4).
The Birkbeck family was able to move into the partly-finished house by September of 1819 (Thomson 1953:57). The family at this time consisted of Morris, his sons Charles and Bradford, and daughters Elizabeth and Prudence. Elizabeth reported at that time “one of the upper rooms, which opens on to a balcony commanding a fine view over the prairie we have fitted up as our library.” (Thomson 1953:60). Adlard Welby visited the Birkbeck settlement at about the same time Elizabeth wrote her description, and made similar remarks regarding the status of the house after being offered a tour by Morris. Welby reported the library was the only room that was finished. He met Birkbeck’s daughters in the library where they were busy with ornamental needlework. Welby noted everything in the library “was well arrayed to give effect, as well as the sterling, good, and for a private library, a large assortment of books” (Welby 1821: 117). William Faux visited the house two months later and left the following description:
“[The house] is very capacious and convenient, furnished with winter and summer apartments, piazzas and balconies, and a fine library, to which you ascend by an outward gallery. Every comfort is found in this abode of the Emperor of the Prairies as he is here called. It is situated out of the village and on an elevation, having a fine view of his estate and the prairies in front. It is a pity that it is not built of brick or stone instead of wood; once on fire it will be inextinguishable, and the loss of comfort and property considerable and moreover, irrecoverable. ”
(Boewe 1962: 130).
By February 1820, the Birkbeck family was living comfortably in their frame house which included a handsome dining room with whitewashed walls (Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature 1820:609). The complete Birkbeck house had become one of the larger homes in the southeastern portion of the state. One local resident described the house as a “large and commodious mansion” (Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature 1819:690). Woods described the house as a frame and log building of good size. Birkbecks’ own description of the house noted it was mostly of frame construction, with the walls in-filled with brick. It contained thirteen rooms with two cellars walled and floored with bricks. (Birkbeck 1819: 32). In 1822 a visitor to the English Settlement reported the Birkbeck residence was a large frame house measuring about 90 feet in length (Weekly Messenger 1825:4).
Morris Birkbeck died in June 1825. His will left the house to his son-in-law Gilbert T. Pell, with the provision that Birkbeck’s two sons, Charles and Bradford, could occupy the house for up to two years after his death. The house site included a vineyard of about one acre, a garden of about three quarters of an acre and a nursery of about an acre. Bradford Birkbeck reported in August 1825 he was living in the house along with his brother Charles, his sister Prudence, her husband Francis Hanks, and his brother Richard’s wife as well (Thomson 1953: 108).
Gilbert Pell and family were living in the house in 1830 when James Stuart passed through Wanborough. Stuart observed that the house and property was not as well managed as well as it been when Morris Birkbeck was alive. He specifically noted Pell’s disinterest in the maintenance of the property:
“Mr. Birkbeck was drowned in the Wabash River some years ago, and none of his sons were in a situation to succeed him here. Since his death, the property has not been managed as he would have managed it. Mr. Pell, one of his sons-in-law, is here but, I was afterwards told, has no turn for proceeding with the improvements. It is, however, sufficiently apparent that Mr. Birkbeck was possessed of a very comfortable settlement here, and that his residence and the accommodation afforded were in substance such as he represented them in publications.”
The Pells lived in the house for approximately one year, and then left Illinois. They travelled to New Orleans, presumably to follow the Birkbeck brothers to Mexico. Gilbert Pell sold the house site and forty acres to New Orleans merchant Daniel T. Walden. The Birkbeck brothers also sold their inherited land to Walden through Pell, who functioned as their agent (Edwards County Deed Book B page 245).
With ownership of the property in the hands of an absentee landlord, the house fell into further disrepair. A description of it was made on September 10, 1835 by Frederick Julius Gustorf:
“Not far from here, on the western side of the Boltenhouse Prairie, was Birkbeck’s country home, a plantation of four to five hundred acres that now lies deserted. During the lifetime of its founder, this settlement is supposed to have been magnificent; but now the land is covered with high weeds, part of the house is torn down and the remainder is near collapse. The land, which by nature is very productive, with a charming view of the prairie, belongs to a merchant in New Orleans who has tried for two years to sell it for $1.25 per acre.”
(Gustorf 1969: 51-52)
In 1837, English entomologist Edward Doubleday visited Wanborough while on a tour of North America. Doubleday’s report was similar to that of Gustorf’s:
“We reached Albion to dinner, calling at once on J. Clark and afterward walked to Wanborough. D. Prichard’s house does not answer Stuart’s description as being like an English villa, but it stands pleasantly, and is, for that country, a very good house. We were hospitably received, and had our luggage fetched from Albion. The following day we walked to Birkbeck’s farm. The house is two-thirds pulled down: much of the land is so entirely overgrown with brambles, that you could scarcely suppose it had ever been cultivated: everything about the place is backwards.”
(Doubleday 1838: 204)
The Birkbeck house site and forty acres of land was purchased by Albion, Illinois shoemaker Joseph Shepherd on June 18, 1856 for $600 (Edwards County Deed Book J page 381). Shepherd built a new house very near the site of Birkbeck’s, and commenced farming. The Shepherd House was torn down in the early 1960s, was replaced by another dwelling which still stands today. The archaeological footprint of Birkbeck’s 1819 dwelling is still preserved nearby. A stone-lined well dug for Birkbeck is still open and in use.
1818 Letters from Illinois. Taylor and Hessey. London.
1819 Extracts from A Supplementary Letter from the Illinois; An Address to British Emigrants: and A Reply to the Remarks of William Cobbett, Esq. James Ridgway. London.
1962 Prairie Albion, An English Settlement in Pioneer Illinois. Southern Illinois University Press. Carbondale, Illinois
1838 Communications on the Natural History of North America. The Entomological Magazine 5:199-206.
Extracts of Letters from Illinois
1819 Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature. 14:689-692.
1969 The Uncorrupted Heart Journal and Letters of Frederick Julius Gustorf 1800-1845. University of Missouri Press. Columbia, Missouri
Letters from the Back Settlements of America
1820 Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature. 15:602-612.
Thomson, Gladys Scott
1953 A Pioneer Family, The Birkbecks in Illinois 1818-1827. Jonathan Cape. London.
Weekly Messenger (WM) [Boston, Massachusetts]
1825 From the Journal of a Traveller through the Great Western Lakes and down the Illinois River in the months of July, August and September 1822. 22 September: 4. Boston, Massachusetts.
1821 A Visit to North America and the English Settlements in Illinois with a Winter Residence at Philadelphia. J. Drury. London.
1968 Two Years’ Residence on the English Prairie of Illinois. R.R. Donnelly & Sons. Chicago, Illinois.