Let’s say you’re a French colonial fur trader, and a resident of the Illinois Country in the late 1600s. In order to get here, you had to paddle a birch bark canoe loaded with several hundred pounds of trade goods all the way from Montreal.
Now it’s winter, and the snow has drifted deep outside your snug cabin at your fur trade post. The temperatures have dropped well below zero, much colder than it ever got in your native Provence. So what do you do now, during the short January days?
It turns out the winter months, not known as the most temperate or comfortable time of year in the Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, was a favored traveling time for the Europeans who began arriving in these parts more than 300 years ago.
Given that Gor-Tex and down parkas from L.L. Bean wouldn’t be invented for another three centuries, why was January and February the prime colonial travel season in Illinois?
The answer is a simple four-letter word: bugs. Illinois during most of the year was afflicted with a dismayingly large collection of biting insects including flies, mosquitoes, wasps and hornets, and a huge collections of others that made life on the Illinois prairie miserable between the last frost of spring and the first frost of late autumn. About the only way to make sure the critters wouldn’t suck every last drop of blood out of man or beast was to wait until everything froze solid.
Even given the primitive state of cold weather gear of the era, it was far preferable to deal with frostbite rather than hordes of biting insects.
The early settlers divided Illinois prairies into two classes, dry and wet. Wet prairies were your basic marshes—a marsh being a swamp without trees—which were prime breeding grounds for not only mosquitoes but also the biting flies that made such an impression on so many early travelers.
According to John Madson in Where the Sky Began, there can be up to ten million insects to each acre of the kind of tallgrass prairie that covered Kendall County 300 years ago, and continued to cover it until the first pioneer farmers began planting fields of corn in the late 1820s.
A dismayingly large number of insect species are native to Illinois, but the ones that most tormented early travelers and settlers were the biting and stinging flies that swarmed over and around the area’s wet prairies and the various species of mosquitoes. A fairly large percentage of Kendall County was considered wet prairie, especially in Bristol Township and in the marshy areas along Morgan, Rob Roy, and AuxSable creeks.
Madson again: “I’ve suffered sorely enough from mosquitoes in the Everglades and Louisiana swamps, but never so sorely as on the wet prairies of southern Minnesota.”
Madison’s southern Minnesota prairies are almost identical to the kind that predominated here in the Fox Valley until the last half of the 19th Century. Starting soon after settlement and extending into the first quarter of the 20th Century, virtually all of them were drained.
In 1722, Jean Francois Nicolas Becquet, newly arrived at Fort de Chartres in modern southern Illinois, sent a letter to his mother back in France relating the hardships of the his journey up river from New Orleans, including being afflicted with biting insects: “The trip up the Mississippi was the worse journey I have ever known. I am convinced that the rain, the waters of the Mississippi, and the endless biting and stinging insects that abound there, could provide a more accurate image of hell than any fire.”
Almost a century later, things hadn’t improved much at all. One Illinois settler who sent greetings back to his family in Vermont in 1821 reported: “I became acquainted this year with the prairie flies about which I had heard so much in Vermont. The smallest kind are a beautiful green about twice the size of a common housefly. Another kind is about twice as large as these, of a slate color. These, this season, in riding on the prairies, would entirely cover a horse and when fastened they remain until killed by smoke or by being skinned off by a knife, and then the horse will be covered with blood. The only way of riding a horse by day is by covering a horse completely.”
The flies were so vicious they even had major impacts on Illinois’ native wildlife. According to M.J. Morgan in Land of Big Rivers: French and Indian Illinois, 1699-1778, the flies, during their most prolific season, forced even buffalo to leave their normal stomping grounds and seek relief elsewhere. “On account of the green-headed flies,” Morgan said one observer reported, buffalo left the Wabash valley to range west and north of the Illinois River during the summer months.
In the summer of 1683, while on the way from Canada to the Illinois Country, Louis-Henri de Baugy, a political and business rival of LaSalle’s, wrote a letter to his brother in France in which he noted, rather matter-of-factly, that it was likely the Iroquois would attack the French post at La Rocher—Starved Rock—the next year and he might well be killed. That, he wrote, did not trouble him so much, however. What did trouble him was looking forward to further travel by canoe, during which the flies “tormented a person so cruelly that one did not know what to do.”
Thomas Hulme, an Englishman who traveled through east central Illinois in 1818, noted the biting flies were a danger to travelers’ horses. “Our horses were very much tormented with flies, some as large as the English horse-fly and some as large as the wasp; these flies infest the prairies that are unimproved about three months oin the year, but go away altogether as soon as cultivation begins.
Illinois historian William Pooley observed in 1905 that the dense swarms of biting flies also had an impact on the pace of settlement of Illinois. “Excessively warm weather and numerous flies sometimes so worried immigrants that they resorted to night traveling, being unable to make progress during the day.”
As Clarence W. Alford, speaking of the state’s early settlers, put it in The Centennial History of Illinois, “His livestock was viciously attacked by several kinds of horse-flies, black flies, or buffalo gnats, and cattle flies, while his own peace of mind and his health were endangered by mosquitoes, three varieties being carriers of the malaria germ.
Illinois’ mosquitoes and flies—the green-headed fly (probably today’s green-eyed horsefly) was remarked on by most travelers who left accounts—were not only vicious in their own right, but to add to the torment also carried diseases. In particular, mosquitoes transmitted malaria, which the pioneers called the ague (pronounced A’gue). The ague was so common that the settlers divided it into several varieties: Dumb ague, shaking ague, chill fever, and others. Common symptoms began with yawning, followed by a feeling of lassitude, fingernails turning blue, and then feeling cold until the victim’s teeth chattered noisily. After an hour or so, body warmth returned, increasing until fever raged with terrible head and back aches. The spells came to an end with an extremely heavy sweat.
The disease returned on a regular basis although it became less and less strong throughout a person’s life and wasn’t usually fatal, although it could be. Juliette Kinzie who wrote such a charming memoir of pioneer Illinois, died in 1870 when her New York druggist accidentally gave her morphine instead of quinine, probably for an ague attack, at the age of 64.
Tales of explorers, missionaries, and settlers traveling the Illinois prairies during the area’s fierce winters are rife. They didn’t do it because they wanted to, but it was either that or look forward to scraping the flies off your horse—and probably yourself, too—with a sharp knife.
Today, we still travel a lot during our Illinois winters, but it’s not because the insects are making us do it. And travel nowadays is usually by comfortable automobile or high-flying airplane with our destinations being somewhere in the sunny southland.
But sometimes, like when we’re stopped in traffic or hustling to make a connecting flight, it’s worthwhile to reflect on where and how far we’ve come—and why—as we look forward to where we’re headed.