The Illinois frontier offered abundant opportunity, noted English traveler William Oliver after his journey to America in 1841–42, but life there was hard. Accordingly, Oliver advised the wealthy and comfortable to remain in England and counseled the unprosperous to seek their fortunes in America. Written for the poor who would migrate and published in 1843, his Eight Months in Illinois: With Information to Immigrants sought only to provide pertinent, valid, and practical information about what people might encounter in the frontier state. What Oliver actually accomplished, however, was much more: he imparted invaluable insights into and analyses of American life during an era of sweeping social, economic, and political change.
In his new foreword to this edition, James E. Davis stresses Oliver’s sincere desire to help British immigrants succeed in America. Oliver, Davis notes, “devoted dozens of pages of advice on numerous matters: various routes to Illinois and their advantages and disadvantages, processes of settling, qualities of western houses, costs of obtaining a new farm.” Oliver discussed other practical matters, such as the importance of having sons. He also assured his intended readership that “in the West, distinction of classes is little known and seldom recognized.”
As a document covering the middle west in the 1840s, Eight Months in Illinois: With Information to Immigrants has few equals. Its portrayal of farming and trade in relatively primitive times is historically accurate. It paints a plain picture, laying out the essential facts and presenting the typical incidents that enable us to trace the course of a settler’s simple, diligent, laborious day-to-day life. According to Davis, Oliver depicted “accurate and balanced slices of life in Illinois and America, including nasty insects, crude conditions, and the necessity of work.” And he did so without a trace of anti-American bias.
Eight Months in Illinois with Information to Immigrants was reprinted with emendations in 1924 by Walter Hill.