Life in Illinois

Edward Coles

Coles set up his initial 80-acre farm homestead in the southwest corner of Section 4 of Pin Oak Township. Prairieland Farm eventually grew to over 400 acres. The area became known at the time as Ridge Prairie.

Coles actually lived in James Mason’s home in Edwardsville rather than on Prairieland Farm. He hired Ralph Crawford, Robert Crawford, and Tom Cobb to work the farm along with Manuel. He employed Kate Crawford as the cook.

James Mason house

James Mason’s house in Edwardsville, where Edward Coles lived. MCHS photograph.

As Register of Lands at the land office in Edwardsville, Coles administered the orderly sale of lands on behalf of the federal government. The two-man operation located in an office on Main Street included Coles as Register of Lands and Benjamin Stephenson as Receiver of Public Monies. Stephenson collected money from land sales for the Edwardsville Land District. A businessman and president of the Bank of Edwardsville, Stephenson owned 35 slaves. Three months after Coles moved into the office, Stephenson moved out, setting up a new office in “Buncombe” (sometimes referred to as “New Town”).

Manuel and Sukey

Sukey and the children legally remained Coles’ property while Manuel paid off Coles’ purchase of his indenture. But their arrangement with Coles afforded them some autonomy. The family moved as a unit to St. Louis in September 1819. There Manuel could earn a higher wage to pay off Coles more quickly. Soon the family fell on hard times. Their infant daughter, born in August, died in November. The family experienced other hardships but eventually gained their freedom.1

Ralph and Kate Crawford

Ralph Crawford died of fever in September 1819.

Coles gifted a quarter section (160 acres) of unimproved land each to Kate Crawford, Robert Crawford, and Tom Cobb, in what is now Knox County (then part of Madison County). However, all three, along with Kate Crawford’s children, initially remained living and working on Coles’ farm. In the farm’s second and third seasons, Coles paid for all the farm expenses including stock, tools, and food. Robert Crawford, Tom Cobb, and Kate Crawford got half the sales rather than a wage. Unfortunately the farm failed to show a profit.

Robert Crawford, Tom Cobb, and more about Kate Crawford

As previously mentioned, Crawford and Cobb each received a quarter section of unimproved land from Coles but initially stayed on Prairieland Farm working for Coles. When the farm failed to show a profit, the two men left Coles’ farm for more lucrative work; however, both returned to Prairieland Farm in 1822.

Tom Cobb died in his early forties after falling into a public well. Robert Crawford and his widowed sister-in-law Kate Crawford continued as tenant farmers at Prairieland Farm. They married in December 1826.

In the 1830s, the couple sold their land holdings from Coles in Knox County and purchased land in Pin Oak Township. They moved off Prairieland Farm, but Robert Crawford continued working as Coles’ agent and manager. Crawford also pursued a parallel career as a preacher and became known as “Uncle Bobby” Crawford. He pastored Mt. Zion Baptist Church (also known as Ridge Prairie Church) and participated in the Wood River Baptist Association, an early coalition of black Baptist churches. In 1843, the Crawfords sold their land in Pin Oak Township and moved to East Litchfield in Montgomery County, Illinois. Thomas, Kate Crawford’s partially paralyzed adult son from her first marriage, went with them.

Polly Crawford and Nancy Gains

Polly Crawford and Nancy Gains didn’t work for Coles on Prairieland Farm. Instead they found other employment in Edwardsville. Gains died of fever in her late teens or early twenties. Crawford married Michael Lee in 1822. They had three daughters. The family eventually moved to Decatur, Illinois.


1What we know about Manuel and Sukey’s children: Daughter Frankey got married and lived near St. Louis on the Illinois side of the river. By age fourteen, Wilson became indentured to a St. Louis brickmaker. Alfred went on an expedition to the South Sea.