Place Studies…or “Yah Gotta Know the Territory!”

James-SarahYour ancestors lived in and were a part of a community. They may have purchased land, attended school, voted, celebrated life events, gone to war, owned a local business, advertised in the local paper, attended church, or broke the law! And there could be a record of any one of those everyday occurrences in a life. Clues, possible records await, but as the Music Man said, “yah gotta know the territory.”

Family historians often hunt for the most obvious of life event records – birth, marriage, death – but with some knowledge of the place, the life of your ancestors could become far more complete, even colorful! A study of place, within the timeframe of your ancestor(s) life there will very likely yield new discoveries about them.

Last month I wrote about Eva Gillan and her siblings, who in the 1870-80’s attended Illinois Wesleyan College in Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois. Eva’s parents, James and Sarah McClure Gillan, were Irish immigrants from County Antrim, arriving in Philadelphia about 1846, where they stayed about 2 years. According to James’ obit in 1907, the family migrated to Tazewell County, Illinois, “traveling by steamboat down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Pekin [Illinois].”
What no wagon train?! No, the Gillan family traveled from Philadelphia to Pekin, Illinois by waterways (this tidbit found in a county history). This is a researchable moment…was this a common mode of travel in the 1850’s? What records exist of the steamboats and river travel of the time? Maybe passenger records exist. How much would it have cost? How long did it take?

After a few years in Tazewell County, James and Sarah moved to the next county, McLean (1865). James bought a large farm of 600 acres. At that time, McLean County was a prosperous place with a sizable population, flourishing businesses and train service. In 1850, Illinois Wesleyan College was established in Bloomington, Illinois.

From my research, I found that James help establish a school in his area, gave land for a cemetery, served as a county supervisor and Justice of the Peace in McLean County. He and Sarah were literate and educated people who sent at least 5 of their 10 children through school and on to college at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State at Normal….daughters too!

How did I find out the Gillan children went to Illinois Wesleyan…or that James was so active in his community? Hints in daughter, Eva’s obit about her going to Wesleyan and Illinois State. So I contacted both schools and was able to get transcripts and other details on siblings who attended. Schools have archives and I’ve found helpful historians and librarians at schools who are glad to help. The archivist at Wesleyan also sent me a copy of book about the history of not only Wesleyan, but the development of McLean County.

Getting to know McLean County involved contacting the area libraries, courthouses, exploring county history books and genealogy journals and newspapers in the area. The local courthouse, too, yielded land records, estate and death records. I was able to find Gillan relatives and descendants of James or his siblings still living in the area, leading to a fruitful exchange of family research and adding cousins too. There was even a story of James’ horses running off with his buggy in the local press!

James Gillan (wife, Sarah died 1880) lived in Martin township, McLean County from 1865 till his death in 1907. It was a time of great changes in that county and “knowing more about the territory” certainly led to finding more about their lives and who they were too.

Going to College…back in the day…even girls!

Eva Gillan, 1885

Eva Gillan, 1885

In 1870 America, there were only 500 public high schools with enrollment of about 50,000 students (U.S. population was almost 40 million in 1870 as per census data). At that time, enrollment had opened to accept females, mostly to be trained as teachers. Reading, writing and arithmetic curriculums were also expanding to train working class youth in skilled trades to meet the needs of a country fast changing in the second phase of the Industrial Revolution.  more

While secondary schools were growing in many states, many did not have courses that prepared students for college, thus students could not pass entrance exams. Many colleges in that era, offered “preparatory schools,” to fill the gap, but also to expand their college student enrollments. Families of means sent their children to such college based academies, particularly when those schools were close to home.

Eva Gillan, at age 16, was in the Junior class, 1879-1880, of the Preparatory School of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. In the junior year, the curriculum included arithmetic, English grammar, geography, Latin, algebra, English analysis, U.S. History, elocution, English composition, physiology, and criticism.

Two of Eva’s brother’s, David and James also attended Illinois Wesleyan University. James was a freshman in the Preparatory courses during the same period Eva attended. James continued his studies and was later listed in census records as “professor of education,” then a few years later on the Board of Education in Omaha, Nebraska. David Gillan, graduated in 1881. In the Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in 1929, David is shown as having achieved a B.A., and M.A. [1]  David H. Gillan, served as a Methodist Minister in southern California for twenty-five year; he also established a date farm there.

The Academic and Teachers Course, as the preparatory school at Illinois Wesleyan University was called, gave the following description of the course in the university’s 1879 catalog:
“This course is arranged with reference to a thorough preparation for college; also to qualify young men and women for teaching in common and graded schools, and further, to furnish the basis of a business education to those whose time will not allow them to complete a full college course.” [2]

Eva Gillan and two of her sisters, Mary J and Addie Gillan, attended Illinois State University, 1880-1882. In records available for those years, Eva completed course work in reading, spelling, arithmetic, geography, diction, writing, history, drawing, theory and practice (probably related to teaching). [3]

James and Jane McClure Gillan, parents of Eva, Mary, Addie, James M. And David H. Gillan were strong advocates for education for both males and females, as evidenced by sending daughters to college as well as sons. James and Sarah were immigrants from County Antrim, Ireland, both educated and literate. James was instrumental in the establishment of schools in McLean County, Illinois.

Years later, Eva Gillan Samuel, enrolled her three children in the preparatory school, Academy (1907) of Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. She found the high schools in Kansas then did not prepare her children for further education as her father as discovered back in 1879. From the Baker University Catalogue of 1906-1907, in explaining the existence of an academy at Baker University, ‘many localities do not provide academic opportunities for students which prepare them for college course work;” further the statement cites lack of libraries, literary societies, lecture courses and elementary knowledge of grammar, arithmetic, physiology, US history, government and geography required to pass entrance exams for college. The Academy at Baker University had four courses of study: Classical, Philosophical, Scientific, and Literature and Art. Graduation from the Academy ensured acceptance into the Collegiate Department without further examination.’[4]


[1] Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in “Illinois Wesleyan University Bulletin,” Series XXVII, no. 2, June, 1929; Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[2] Annual Catalogue of the Illinois Wesleyan University, 1880-81, Bloomington, Illinois, Bulletin Printing and Publishing Co., 1881, Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[3] Letter from Gardner VanDyke, Registrar, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, 9 Feb 1971 to Bonnie Samuel, Des Moines, Iowa; citing records found in archives for the attendance of Eva Gillan.
[4] Kay Brandt, Reference Librarian, Baker University, Baldwin City, Kansas (BRADT@HARVEY.BAKERU.EDU, 12 March 1997) to Bonnie Samuel, Albuquerque, New Mexico; providing copy of partial 1906-07 Baker University Catalog describing the Academy, pp. 76-81; an email with info on the Academy and findings of enrollment of Raymond, Ferne and Beula Samuel.