History of the Beef Cattle Industry in Illinois


Sleep Aid

Gustave Courbet, Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), 1856.

It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain. Tonight’s prescription: “Cattle Barons and Pioneer Drovers of Illinois,” a chapter from Frank Webster Farley’s History of the Beef Cattle Industry in Illinois, a 1915 thesis submitted “for the degree of Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in the College of Agriculture of the University of Illinois.”

Previous to the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, no droves of cattle were seen in the country west of Ohio. The first drove ever driven from Illinois was taken from Springfield, through Chicago, to Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1825, by Colonel William S. Hamilton. Beginning with this date, the practice of collecting cattle into droves and driving them to market soon grew from a minor occupation into an industry within itself; beef cattle that were grown and fattened in Illinois were gathered together into large droves by men who made it a business, and were driven to the then great cattle markets on the sea board. Foremost among these early pioneer cattlemen were: Jacob Strawn, John T. Alexander, B. F. Harris, and Tom C. Ponting. In the scope of their operations, Jacob Strawn and John T. Alexander exceeded many of the conspicuous operators in the rise and fall of the range industry in this state. These men owned hundreds of acres of the prairie land of the state, on which they collected enormous droves of cattle. These cattle were grazed here throughout the spring and summer, then were fed during the winter. It was no uncommon occurrence for one of these operators to buy all the corn for sale during one season in three or four counties. The next spring these fat bullocks were trailed across the level country to the eastern mountain ranges, over which they climbed to reach Lancaster, Philadelphia, and New York. Cincinnati and Buffalo received a few of these cattle, but most of them were driven on through to the markets on the sea board, where better prices were obtained. These cities bore about the same relation to the livestock traffic of those days as Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and St. Joseph bear to the cattle trade of today; they were the collecting points for the business, and the slaughterers who bought them either salted the carcasses down in barrels and casks or sold them to local consumers. Other dealers, however, bought some of these cattle and drove them on to smaller towns nearer the coast. “In the census of 1850, it was recorded that Illinois alone sent 2,000 head of cattle each week to the New York market.” 

While the cattle barons represented a large part of the beef cattle trade of Illinois, there were hundreds of smaller dealers who fed only a few cattle each year which added materially to the magnitude of the beef cattle industry of the state. A few of these smaller operators were found in almost every section of the state, especially in the central and northern part.

Cattle trailing continued until lines of railroad connecting Illinois with the cities on the Atlantic coast were built. This made cattle trailing unnecessary and greatly stimulated the production of beef in the state by furnishing means for placing beef before the consumers of the east quickly and at a much less cost than that of the old method. The long drives greatly decreased the weight of the animals, and, at the same time, the meat of carcasses was inferior to that of the cattle that were shipped by railroad and slaughtered without having taken such a long drive.

John T. Alexander

“Among the cattle operators of Illinois, John T. Alexander was probably the greatest by reason of the magnitude of his transactions, but he was antedated by Jacob Strawn, who located in Morgan County in 1827. Alexander has been regarded as America’s greatest cattleman in a commercial sense. In the strict sense of the term, he was a pastoralist and a trader, not an agriculturalist. His parents were native of Ireland, who migrated to Virginia in 1818, and in 1824 joined the exodus to the Mississippi Valley, settling in Jefferson County, Ohio. John T. Alexander was the oldest of a family of eleven children. His education was on the farm. He was endowed with that faculty called cattle sense. At the age of fifteen, he was entrusted, by his father, with the entire charge of a drove of cattle sent to Philadelphia. He sold them to advantage, collected the money, and took it safely home. At the age of seventeen, he was purchasing cattle in Illinois to replenish his father’s Ohio pastures. It is related that his search took him down into Sangamon County, where he was so struck with its natural advantages, from a cattle standpoint, that he determined to migrate.”

In 1840, the Alexanders settled in Morgan County, then a cattle range bounded only by the horizon. Mr. Alexander accumulated a herd of steers, pastured them on the public domain, and for half a decade prospered in a moderate way. As the country became settled, it soon became evident that he must own land or get out of the cattle business as far as that locality was concerned. In 1848, he purchased 3,000 acres of land at prices ranging from 87 cents to $3.00 per acre. This land was adjoining the half section that he had originally homesteaded. In 1855, he acquired another 1,000 acres at $30.00 per acre. This indicated how rapidly the price of land was advancing. In 1857, he bought 700 acres more at $50.00 per acre, and in 1859, he acquired 1500 acres of the Strawn estate at $30.00 per acre. In 1864, he secured 853 acres at $60.00 to $70.00 per acre, making him the owner of 7,233 acres of the choicest land in Illinois. In 1866, he purchased the stock farm of Michael Sullivan in Champaign County, Illinois, containing 26,000 acres at $11.00 to $12.00 per acre.

It was during this period of purchase that John T. Alexander acquired the title of “cattle king.” His transactions were on an enormous scale. His buyers searched every nook and cranny of the cattle producing region of the Mississippi Valley, and Alexander, on the Wabash railroad in Morgan County, Illinois, was the largest cattle shipping station in the world. Entire trains of cattle, destined for eastern markets, were daily loaded there and almost the entire population was on the Alexander pay roll. Thousands of other cattle, for which he paid but never saw, were loaded at innumerable points for eastern markets. From a pastoralist, he had emerged into a speculator on probably the most gigantic scale the livestock industry has ever witnessed. He ruled the markets of the East and was the Napoleon of the cattle trade. His name was more familiar to the West than that of Vanderbilt or A. T. Stewart. His annual cattle shipment for many years exceeded 50,000 head, and in 1868, reached 75,000. For a lengthy period, his sales on eastern markets exceeded $4,000,000 annually, and it is related that prior to his Champaign County purchase, an inventory of his assets showed 7,233 acres of land, averaging $75.00 per acre in value, $100,000 in bank, 7,000 cattle on his Morgan County pastures, and not a dollar of debt.

Such speculative operations, however, had the result of entailing financial embarrassment. In 1871, Alexander had to contract his business and part with his Champaign County property. This embarrassment was due to many causes, not the least serious of which was cattle mortality by splenetic fever, by which he lost $100,000. He also sustained heavy losses by shrinkage in cattle values, and the Champaign county investment proved disastrous. He also became involved in railroad complications. The railroads were keen competitors for the livestock traffic, and in 1871 Alexander severed his relations with the Pennsylvania railroad, making a contract with the New York Central, by which that company gave him a low rate conditional to a specified tonnage. By way of resentment, the Pennsylvania Railroad put merely nominal rates into effect, thereby glutting eastern markets and crippling Alexander’s trade, which had become so colossal as to be unwieldy. To carry on such gigantic operations, he was compelled to trust to innumerable assistants, many of whom proved to be either incompetent or unfaithful. Confronted with liabilities aggregating $1,200,000, he was forced to make an assignment, but his estate was sufficient not only to pay off every creditor, but leave him a large sum for a fresh start in life. It was while energetically engaged in retrieving his fortune that he died, in 1876.

Those survivors of John T. Alexander, who remember his activity as Illinois’s greatest operator, describe him as being tall and commanding in appearance. Even at the time of his death, he was hale and youthful. He was of sanguine temperament, naturally impulsive, but quiet and non-assuming in manner, sparing in speech, and undoubtedly one of the great American captains of industry in his time, an outstanding figure in a trade that boasts many conspicuous men.

The old Alexander mansion in Morgan County, the greatest house in the countryside half a decade ago, remains in a somewhat dilapidated condition, and the decaying out-buildings convey a mournful hint of vanished greatness. Here, during Alexander’s time, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Richard Yates, and others, whose illustrious names adorn Illinois history, were the guests of America’s greatest cattleman.

Jacob Strawn

Jacob Strawn came from Ohio and settled in Morgan County in 1827, and a few years later was probably the most extensive cattle dealer in the world, but his operations were, to a large extent, local and his most distant shipping point, Saint Louis. His pastures in Morgan county embraced about 15,000 acres and his business reached its maximum about 1860.

Survivors of that period recall Strawn’s free handed methods. He purchased cattle by the thousands, fixing the price on mere verbal description as to quality and weight. Frequently, at delivery time, nobody was on hand to receive the cattle, but they were driven into the Strawn pastures and left with confidence that payment would be prompt. Both Strawn and his successor, Alexander, were always ready to buy cattle, in fact they were the market of that period. Strawn was at the height of his career when John T. Alexander came on the scene. Strawn produced beef as a feeder and grazier; Alexander contracted cattle to be delivered in the future.

Mr. T. C. Sterrett relates that in the summer of 1856 he came to Illinois and was informed that the largest cattle dealer in the state was Jacob Strawn, living near Jacksonville, in Morgan County. He visited Strawn’s place and found a remarkably large brick house and was astonished at the amount of brick paving about the house. Mr. Strawn lived on a good farm at Orleans Station, east of Jacksonville. He owned a lot of good horses and Shorthorn cattle. Piloted by the foreman, Mr. Sterrett went out into a 1,200 acre pasture which was fenced with rails and stocked with a fine lot of cattle. He was very much struck with a hundred head of the finest general work horses that could be found anywhere. This band of horses and cattle, the good fences, and the general appearance of everything about the place, indicated the power and ability of the owner. Mr. Strawn was by far the greatest American cattleman of his time.

Benjamin Franklin Harris

Benjamin Franklin Harris was born December 15, 1811, on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, near Winchester and Harper’s Ferry, in Frederick County, Virginia. He was the second of ten children of William Hickman Harris and Elizabeth Payne (own cousin of Dolly Payne Madison from England). His grandfather, Benjamin Harris, with two brothers, came from England and settled on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1726. The family were of Scotch-English extraction and Quakers; in this country becoming fighting Quakers, then Methodists. He grew to manhood on his father’s Virginia farm, attending the country schools until sixteen years of age. At that time, President Jackson’s attitude toward the United States bank so seriously affected values that wheat declined from $1.50 to 50 cents and Virginia farmland to less than one-third of its former price. These declines so affected the father’s obligations that Benjamin Franklin Harris and his brothers, each with a six horse team—in those days without railroads—went into the “wagoning” or freighting business, and for three years “wagoned” freight over that section and out through Pennsylvania and as far west as Zanesville, Ohio, in order to recoupe the father’s losses.”

On March 20, 1833, the Virginia farm had been sold at 40 % of its original cost, and in a one-horse gig and a two-horse carryall, the Harris family set out for Ohio, arriving at Springfield on April 8, and nearby, purchased and settled upon their new farm. It was during this year that Benjamin Franklin Harris commenced business for himself, buying and driving cattle overland to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and there disposing of them to cattle feeders.

In 1834, he started for Illinois via Danville, then through the present site of Sidney, and Urbana—where there was but one cabin—and on to what is now Monticello in Piatt County. During the ensuing years, he began to accumulate farming lands in Piatt and Champaign Counties and to buy cattle throughout all this section as far south and west as Mt. Vernon, Vandalia, and Springfield. During several seasons, he bought for the purpose of feeding cattle, all the corn for sale in Macon, Sangamon, and Champaign Counties. Each year, for nine years, he drove these cattle overland via Muncie, Indiana; Springfield, and Columbus, Ohio, into Pennsylvania, and some into New York and Boston, where they were sold.

When B. F. Harris came into this state, no streams were bridged, and there were only eleven families on the Sangamon River from its source to the limits of Piatt County. Fifteen years later not a half dozen men had ventured their cabins a mile from the timber limits—the deer and the Indians were still at home here. In 1840, he visited Chicago, a town of 2000 people, on stilts in a swamp. Nineteen days were required for the trip and the corn and wheat he teamed there sold for 20 and 30 cents respectively. Fifteen years after he came, not 25 percent of the land in these counties had passed from government ownership and the first railroad came twenty years later.

The operations of B. F. Harris in connection with the early beef cattle industry of Illinois were conducted more largely along the feeding lines than were those of John T. Alexander or Jacob Strawn. He bought, fed, and sold, from 500 to 2000 head of cattle annually for nearly three-quarters of a century. The Pittsburgh Live Stock Journal, May 8, 1905, in speaking of his death, referred to him as “The grand old man of the live stock trade—the oldest and most successful cattle feeder in the world.” Everything to which he put his hand flourished. His judgment was so trustworthy that he made but few business mistakes. He did business on a cash basis and was never in debt. Operating on this basis, he was a rich man long before his race was run, and he enjoyed a period of ease and entire freedom from anxiety much longer than falls to the lot of most men who are counted fortunate in the world.

On May 23, 1856, his famous herd of one hundred cattle—the finest and heaviest cattle ever raised and fattened in one lot by one man—were weighed on his farm by Dr. Johns of Decatur, the president of the State Board of Agriculture. The average weight of each of the hundred head was 2,378 pounds. Visitors to the number of 500 came from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and this state to see these cattle, whose weight can never again be equalled. The following year, February 22, 1857, twelve of these cattle which he had retained and fed were shipped to Chicago. This remarkable bunch averaged 2,786 pounds. Clayborn and Alley, the most famous butchers in Chicago at that time, paraded them about Chicago’s downtown streets.

Following is a copy of a pamphlet gotten out by Mr. Harris immediately after the sale of these cattle.

The New York Tribune of October, 1853, refers to his prize winning drove of cattle averaging 1,965 pounds, displayed at the New York World’s Fair then in session.

Every few years, he took cattle prizes or topped the market. Less than a year before his death, his 1,616 pound cattle topped the Chicago market for that season.

Mr. Harris died May 7, 1905, in his ninety-fourth year, still in strong mental and physical vigor, although at the age of fifty-three, he had retired from extremely active business life. He came in the day of ox teams and lived to ride over his farm with his son, grandsons, and great grandsons in an automobile. He voted for nineteen presidents, beginning with Henry Clay, and saw five generations of his family settled in Champaign County. He established the First National Bank in Champaign in 1865—the oldest bank in the county, and was its president at the time of his death.

In the issue of The Breeder’s Gazette, May 24, 1905, is the following statement: “In literature, art, professional life, or politics, a man with a record of achievements equal to that of the late Benjamin Franklin Harris would deservedly have numerous biographers. Many a man has been made the subject of bulky biography who might not measure up to him on any score. This is not because the most inviting and interesting personalities are found outside the farmer’s calling, but largely because until recent years agriculture as a vocation has not been adequately appreciated by the public. It has not been sufficiently dignified to become the source of life histories. Other professions have furnished the candidates for the Plutarchs, and contributed the heroes and heroines famous in fiction. Farming has been drawn on principally for Philistines. Its great men, its geniuses, its Harrises, have been overlooked by almost all writers worthy of putting their useful lives into books.”

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