History of the Gallatin Salines
By JACOB W. MYERS
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Webmaster’s note: The following
article is from the October 1921-January 1922 issue of the Journal of the
Illinois State Historical Society (14:3-4. 137-149). It’s based mostly on
George W. Smith’s article, “Salines of Southern Illinois” published 17 years
earlier in the 1904 Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Ironically, Myers article has been scanned from Smith’s own copy of the Journal
purchased in 2002 at an estate state of his granddaughter’s.
Myers does attempt to correct a few errors by Smith, he continues Smith’s
largest omission, that of the history during the middle period of the
saltworks, particularly the reign of John Hart Crenshaw who secured his first
sub-lease in 1828, owned three of the 10 salt furnaces in 1830 and became the
sole leasee of the saltworks in 1840. Although he lost his state lease in 1847,
he regained control of the saltworks during a short period in which the local
township school trustees leased them out.
Myers mostly copied from Smith’s
work and could be expected to leave out the history, the big question has still
focused on why Smith, who spent four days in Gallatin and Saline counties
researching the saltworks in 1903, failed to note Crenshaw who’s most noted for
his plantation home built atop Hickory Hill two miles east of Equality — better
known today as the Old Slave House.
During Smith’s 1903 research trip
he met and interviewed Peter White, a former kidnapped victim taken from Equality
and sold into slavery before being rescued. Smith told part of White’s story in
his 1904 article. Later when he published his Student’s History of Illinois
(1907) and his History of Southern Illinois (1912) he included more of
White’s story as well as his picture. However he never told who kidnapped
White. Other sources indicate Crenshaw was responsible for the kidnapping of
White and three other children, and that they were held for a time on the third
floor of the Old Slave House. Smith also interviewed the elderly Rev. Samuel
Westbrook, a relative by marriage to Crenshaw’s wife, his brother having
married the niece of Crenshaw’s wife. Westbrook had worked at the saltworks
during the time of Crenshaw and Smith used him as a source for other non-Crenshaw
information. Thus either Smith failed as a historian (he was an assistant
professor of history at the time at Southern Illinois Normal University in
Carbondale), or he censored himself, unwilling to write part of Crenshaw’s
story unless he could write all of it. It should be noted that some of
Crenshaw’s children still lived in Gallatin County at that time, and he could
have been reluctant to pick a fight with them.
Yet despite’s Smith’s reluctance
to write about the Crenshaws, he did mention them in his classes nearly three
decades later during a time he was assisting another researching interested in
the home’s history.
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Tradition has it that from time immemorial salt has been
produced and manufactured at the salt springs in Gallatin County, on the Saline
River, near the present town of Equality.
There is much evidence to bear out the truth of the tradition. In and around
the region of the two principal springs is found a kind of pottery or
earthenware whose existence can be explained in no other way than that it is
fragments of large pots or kettles used in evaporating the salt water. Later on
the early settlers used iron kettles of a size and shape similar to the ones
used by the Indians, made of clay. The settlers got their idea of that kind of
kettle from the theory that the Indians made use of the large earthenware
kettles for salt making. Many farmers in that locality possess some of these
old iron kettles today, which they use for various purposes.
The two principal springs are known as the “Half Moon Lick”
and “Nigger Spring.”
Besides the pottery found in this region, there have been found various Indian
relics, such as arrowheads, tomahawks, vases and other similar articles. The
earliest known English people to settle in this locality came about 1800 or
They found these familiar relics and this specie of pottery unlike that found
in other localities. This pottery seems, because of its shape, to be fragments
of large kettles or pans.
Professor McAdams describes these plans as being from three
to five feet in diameter. He found two whole ones used as a casket, near St.
Local tradition has it that the French and Indians made salt
there previous to the coming of the English in 1800. It is reasonably certain
that the French understood the process and that Indians knew the locality of
the springs. An English gentleman writing, in 1770, to the Earl of Hillsborough
remarked on the abundance of the salt springs in the region of Wabash and
It is, indeed, certain that someone was making salt before
the English came. A short sketch of Illinois published in 1837 says: “The
principal spring was formerly possessed by the Indians, who valued it highly
and called it the Great Salt Spring; and it appears probable from a variety of
circumstances that they had been long acquainted with the method of making
salt. Large fragments of earthenware are continually found near the salt works,
both on and under the surface of the ground. They have an impression of basket
and wicker work.”
There has been some controversy between scientists
concerning how these kettles or pans were made, but all are agreed that they
were used in salt making.
It is rather impossible to say just how long before the
coming of the English into this region it was that salt was made. But Capt.
Thos. Hutchins, writing in 1778, twenty-two years before that time says: “The
Wabash abounds with salt springs. Any quantity of salt may be made from them in
a manner now done in the Illinois Country.”
This evidence it seems is sufficient to prove that salt was
made several years before the English came into the region. Indeed, if we may
judge anything from the amount of broken pottery, concerning the length of time
salt was made here, we would say that it was several years before there is any
record of it being made. Mr. Geo. E. Sellars of Gallatin County visited the
place in 1854 and he says that there was an abundance of this pottery all about
the springs. On a
cultivated ridge above the spring he found acres actually covered. This
particular ridge of which he speaks is just south of the spring. His theory is
that the salt brine was carried up there and let the water evaporate. Probably
there was no timber on this ridge and it presented a better position for
carrying on the process of evaporation. The writer of this article remembers
passing through that region a few years ago and seeing fragments of this
pottery sticking in the banks on either side of the road where it had been worn
down by travel and erosion. Some of these fragments were five or six feet in
the ground. So evidently the process had been carried on several years before
we have a record of it.
On March 1, 1784, Virginia ceded all her lands north of the
Ohio river to the general government, except a reservation for bounty lands.
With this cession went the salt springs, that is they became the property of
the United States. It took some little time to get the territorial government
into operation. On March 3, 1803, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury
to lease the salt springs and licks for the benefit of the government.
Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury instructed Harrison, Governor of Indiana
Territory, to lease the springs and licks.
In the summer of 1803 Governor Harrison leased the salines on Saline River a
Captain Bell of Lexington, Kentucky. Bell was probably working the salines
there before this time by permission of the Indians, because Reynolds says the
first white man to the in Shawneetown was Michael Sprinkle who came in 1802,
and about the same time came a Frenchman, La Boisiere who settled there and ran
a ferry to accommodate people who were coming out of Kentucky to the salt works
of Saline River.
Captain Bell worked till the end of 1806 when John Bates
Jefferson County, Kentucky, leased the works, and he worked there till in 1808
when Isaac White became lessee.
An Act of Congress of March 26, 1804, provided among other
things that “all salt springs, licks, wells with the necessary land adjacent
thereto were reserved from sale as the property of the United States.” The
territorial governor was authorized to lease these salt wells and springs to
the best interests of the general government. April 30, 1804, Governor Harrison
appointed Isaac White of Vincennes to be government agent and reside at the
works and collect the revenue due the United States. He assumed his duties and
was assisted by John Marshall who probably resided at Shawneetown. Where White
resided is not definitely known, but probably at the “Nigger Well”.
On Sept. 8, 1806, White became Captain of the Knox County
Militia and perhaps gave up his duties as agent, because the records show that
he himself became a lessee in 1808. How long he held the lease is not exactly
known, but not later than the early part of 1810, for a letter of March 13,
shows that H. Butler was lessee at that time.
Professor Smith in his article says that in 1811 Captain
White sold his interests in the salt works to three men, Jonathan Taylor of
Randolph County, Illinois, Charles Wilkins and James Morrison of Lexington,
Kentucky. I do not
know where he gets his authority for this statement and can reconcile his
statement with the letter of Butler only on the grounds that perhaps the
“Nigger Spring” and “Half Moon Lick” were leased separately.
From the beginning of 1808 to 1811 Leonard White seems to
have been government agent and later on seems to have become interested in
On March 7, 1809 Ninian Edwards was commissioned Governor of Illinois, and at
the same time became superintendent of the United States Salines.
As superintendent it was his duty to make all contracts for leasing the salt
works, to collect the rent, and provide for the shipment and sale of the salt
which was delivered to the government in lieu of cash rent. The rental of all
the salines in Illinois demanded by the government was ten per cent of the salt
certain conditions which were required to be inserted in the leases we see that
the amount would not be under 12,000 bushels annually and might be more.
I will not quote the conditions in full that were to be inserted
in each contract. There were six sections of these conditions.
The lessee was to make annually 120,000 bushels of salt. There was a penalty of
one bushel for each bushel short of this and the penalty was secured by a constant
deposit of salt in the hands of the United States agent. The rent was to be
paid quarterly in. salt, calculated upon the basis of 120,000 bushels.
Conditions were to be introduced to prevent the waste of timber and to
encourage the use of coal; to encourage which the superintendent was authorized
to diminish the rent. The superintendent could lease the works to one or more
companies, but no lessee could be engaged directly or indirectly with any other
Attempts were made to lessen the fuel and to make use of
coal as well as wood. H. Butler while he was lessee made an experiment with
“air furnaces to reduce the amount of fuel used”.
In his letter to Edwards he said, “I also have a proposition to make in regard
to manufacture of salt with coal, altogether”. The
government had promised to pay for permanent improvements made by lessee, and
Butler expected to receive pay for these improvements, and the proposition he
wished to make was concerning what he should receive if the experiment with
coal was successful. I do not know whether he ever carried out the experiment.
The problem of securing fuel was a great one, because of the
distance it had to be hauled. As the timber was cleared away the furnaces were
moved back farther and farther from the wells and the brine was piped by means
of hollow logs or pipes made by boring four-inch holes through the log
lengthwise. These were joined end to end, but the joints were not always tight
and there was much loss from leakage. It has been estimated that over one
hundred miles of sue piping was laid from 1800 to 1873.
They were considered as improvements and no doubt there was some graft in the
pipelines. Many old pipes were taken up and re-laid as new for which the
government paid as permanent improvement. When one lessee took over from
another all pipelines were put in as improvements.
In 1812 Congress took action to provide that the timber
would not give out. The President was authorized to reserve not less than one
township of the land around the salt work from sale. A committee composed of
Leonard White, Willie Hargrave and Phillip Trammel made a commission to select
lands to be reserved as the “Saline Reservation”. They selected 96,766.79
A little later Mr. Sloomade an
inspection tour and added 84,000 acres more to it.
From 1807 to August 26, 1818, the entire rental accruing to
the United States from the Salines on Saline River was 158,394 bushels and the
total cash turn over, for the same time was $28,165.25. The importance of this
saline may be shown by the fact that during the same time Ohio turned in only
$240.00 while Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri made no returns.
April 18, 1818, Congress passed the Enabling Act, enabling
the people of Illinois to form a constitution.
Section 6, part 2, says, “all salt springs within such state and the land
reserved for the use of the same shall be granted to the said state, for the
use of said state, and the same to be used under such conditions and
regulations, as the Legislature of said state shall direct; Provided, the
Legislature shall never sell, nor lease the same for a longer period than ten
years, at any one time”. Thus when Illinois was admitted as a state the
valuable salt works became the property of the state. At that time there were
five distinct leases of salt wells and springs from the United States to
individuals, made by Ninian Edwards representing the government, and all
bearing the date of 1817. These leases were; (1) Willis Hargrave and Meridith
Fisher; (2) Jonathan Taylor; (3) George Robinson; (4) James Ratcliff; (5)
The Legislature which met at Kaskaskia in the winter of
1818-19 authorized the Governor to continue the leases with these men. The
benefit of certain unexpired leases of the United States Government from August
26, 1818, to June 19, 1820, fell to the state.
During the early history of salt making the manufacturers
relied only upon the natural springs, but later they bored wells. It is
impossible to say how many of these wells were bored, but there was probably as
many as a half dozen, for we find that in 1817 there were made five distinct
leases. The first wells were not very deep, but later ones were made deeper.
Timothy Guard, one of the lessees of 1817, dug a deep well at the “Half Moon
Lick” about 1825. The well was dug about sixty feet deep and walled up, and
then a boring made in the bottom. This well furnished a fine quantity of brine
and was used till 1854. Mr. Guard quit the salt making in 1830.
About the year 1854 a company was formed to make salt on a
larger scale than ever before.
The company was composed of Stephen R. Rowen, Andrew McAllen, Challon Guard,
Abner Flanders, Broughton Temple and Joseph J. Castle. They bored another deep
well, and expended a great deal of money in preparing the plant. The company
broke up and Temple and Castle became the sole owners of the plant. They
proceeded with the construction of the plant and installed an outfit of the
best type. The iron kettles were superseded by large iron pans twelve to twenty
feet wide and sixty or more feet in length. There were three rows of such pans
connected with one smoke stack. Coal which had been discovered at a nearby hill
was now entirely for fuel, and a tram-way was built from the min the furnace.
Thus the mine was modern in all its features
Temple and Castle owned and operated the mine from 1854 to
1873. They are said to have made five hundred bushels every twenty-four
hours. About the beginning 1873 they thought the brine could be transported
easier than the fuel, so they started to build a larger and newer plant nearer
the coal mine. The work of construction was started but hard times, caused by
the panic of 1873, came on and work stopped. Salt became cheaper when the crisis
passed over and they never finished the new plant. In course of time the
machinery was removed and nothing the old coal mine marks the site of the new
Thus ended one of the great industries developed
during the early history of the state. At one time, before the development of
steamboat navigation on the Mississippi River, the surrounding country had to
rely upon its own production of salt, because it was too far and expensive
transport it from New Orleans by packhorse and the other earlier methods of
transportation. Most of the salt was produced at the Gallatin County Saline.
St. Louis and Kaskaskia were made distributing points.
How long the state remained in control of the salt works, or
whether it controlled till the end in 1873, I have been unable to find out from
what material I have been able to secure.
The price of salt varied. This was due of course of several
reasons. At first it was sold for $1.50 per bushel. By an Act of Congress,
approved July 30, 1813, a duty of twenty cents per bushel was laid upon
imported salt, enabled the home manufacturers to supply the demand better
price. In 1822 the
price of salt was reported have fallen from $1.25 to fifty cents per bushel,
because of discovery of copious and strong wells.
In 1828 an official port of the superintendent of the Gallatin County Salines
stated that about 100,000 bushels of salt were made anally and sold at from
twenty to thirty cents per bushel.
In 1830 Congress reduced the duty on salt to fifteen cents per bushel, and after
December 31, 1831, it was to be only ten cents. So the price was regulated
mainly by new discoveries and by import duties.
It is difficult to tell exactly how much salt was produced
here at the Gallatin County Saline. The amount varied at different times. In
1814 Samuel J. Mills, a missionary from Connecticut, wrote in his report that
3,600 bushels were made each week.
This would make 187,200 bushels annually. In 1819 an indefinite statement was made to the
effect that from 200,000 to 300,000 bushels were made annually, and sold at
from fifty to seventy-five cents per bushel.
In 1809 we find that one of the conditions in the contract for rental of the
works was that not less than 120,000 bushels should be produced annually. Later on Temple and Castle are reported to
have made 500 bushels every twenty-four hours. The brine was very strong from
the new well and a great deal could be made from it.
There were salines in Vermilion County, the Big Muddy
Saline, and a saline at St. Genevieve, Missouri, but the Gallatin County
Saline produced more than all the others combined.
When wood was used as fuel large tracts of land were
reserved from sale to be used in connection with the industry. All this land
was given over to the state when Illinois Territory became a state, on
condition that it should never sell any part of the land. But later on the
central government authorized the state to sell some of the land. An Act of
Congress May 24, 1828, authorized the sale of 30,000 acres.
Another Act of January 19, 1832, authorized the sale of an additional 20,000
The proceeds of these sales were to be applied to whatever the state should
direct. The total amount of land reserved was 180,766 acres. I have been unable
to find whether all the land was sold or not, but there is today in that
locality some land known as the “reservation.” I do not know how much there is
of it or to whom the title belongs. I do not know when all the land was sold or
whether some of it still belongs to the state. These facts my material does not
So far in this paper I have discussed various phases
of the salt industry and manufacture. There is one phase that I have left for
the last, but not without a purpose. This is the question of slavery in
connection with the manufacture of salt.
Philip Francis Renault, as agent for the company
of St. Phillips, introduced the first slaves into the Illinois country.
In 1720 he purchased five hundred slaves in St. Domingo and transported them to
Illinois to work in the mines. However, mining did not prove successful here
and many were employed in Missouri and Iowa, while a portion of them were
purchased by the French settlers, and the offsprings of these formed a great
part of the slave population of Illinois down to the time of the election of
The Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the Northwest
Territory, of which Illinois was a part. This caused the settlers some little
trouble and they complained and threatened to move to Missouri, so to pacify
them it was agreed that those then holding slaves could continue to hold them.
In 1805 the Legislature of Indiana passed a law which
permitted the bringing in of slaves to work “within the tract of land reserved
for use of the salt works near Shawneetown.” They could not be permanently held
here but were hired to persons by their owners for a certain length of time.
This law provided
that slaves over fifteen years of age might be brought in from slave states and
within thirty days the owners might enter into an agreement with the said slave
by which the slave agreed to work in Illinois for a stated time for a
consideration, if within the thirty days the slave refused to enter into such
an agreement the owner had thirty days in which to return him to a slave state.
It seems as though this was especially favorable to the salt works on the
Saline River Reservation and evidently many slaves were employed there. Some of
the men of today living in the region of the salt works say that at one time
nearly all the work was done by slaves. Certain it is that some slaves
were employed there. Timothy Guard purchased some slaves in Tennessee and
brought them in to work there. One of these slaves, Elliot by name, purchased
his own freedom, and later that of some of his relatives. Mr. Elliot’s son is
now living near Equality and has yet his manumission papers in Timothy Guard’s
own hand writing. I do not know whether he actually paid $1,000.00 or whether
he was given his freedom when he had earned that much for Mr. Guard, and was
given it as a consideration for working in Illinois. It is probably the latter
which he did, for he Would likely have no chance to earn any money himself. But
for his brothers and mother he paid cash because he was then free to earn his
own money and the price he paid was much smaller than for himself.
The Constitution of 1818 provided that no slaves should be
brought in, thereafter, except such as should be used under a contract to
labor at the salt works near Shawneetown. The contract was limited to one year,
but it was renewable. However, no slaves were to be brought in after 1825. The
constitution further provided that any violation of this act would “effect the
emancipation of such person from his obligation of service.” All indentures
entered into without fraud or collusion prior to making of the constitution, according
to laws of the territory, were to be held valid and the persons so “indented”
were to be held to a fulfillment of the agreement in the contract. Indentures
made after 1818 were not valid unless the person indenting himself was in a
state of freedom at the time of making the contract. Indentures made by negroes
and mulattoes were valid for year. These last two statements might lead one to
think that there were white person[s] indented, but I was unable to find any
record of such.
The interpretation of the constitutional provision was
elastic enough to include the Big Muddy Saline
“within the tract reserved for the salt works near Shawneetown” and slaves were
used at that saline.
Slave labor, under these restrictions, was not so able or
economical as one at first glance might think: The lessee had to pay a liberal
hire, board and clothe, and give medical attention to the slaves; was
responsible for safe keeping, and had to return them to their owners before the
expiration of each year to prevent their constitutional emancipation.
They could return them under a new contract, but each time they had to actually
be returned to their owners and then brought back from the slave states. This
was expensive and a great waste of time and money.
Because of this I do not believe there were so very many slaves used. There may
have been several free negroes indented themselves.
In the two counties of Randolphand Gallatin in 1820 there were precisely
five hundred slaves. After 1825
slavery was entirely prohibited and those negroes working the salt works were
either indented or were paid wages same as any one else.
In this paper I have, with the materials at hand, tried to
trace out the history of one of the earliest and largest industries of the
pioneers of the southern part of the state. Today there remains only a few
signs of the once great enterprise, and the traveler passing through the region
could easily miss them.
The paper is by no means complete, nor do I claim to
be accurate in every detail. I have done what I could with the materials at
hand. Perhaps if I had had more time I might have gained much information from
interviews with certain men at Shawneetown and Equality. Perhaps an interview
with Mr. Elliot would reveal much concerning slavery. But I have done as best I
can with the materials at hand.