Monday, May 2, 2011
The Victorian author Anthony Trollope, writing in his non-fiction travelogue North America, 1863, devoted a chapter to his ill-fated visit to Cairo, Illinois.
Trollope did not have a good time in Cairo, and he didn't have much nice to say about the population: "Fever and ague universally prevail. Men and women grow up with their lantern faces like spectres. The children are prematurely old; and the Earth, which is so fruitful, is hideous in its fertility... No faces looked out at the windows of the houses, no forms stood in the doorways. A few shops were open, but only in the drinking-shops did I see customers. In these, silent muddy men were sitting, not with drink before them, as men sit with us, but with the cud within their jaws, ruminating. Their drinking is always done on foot. They stand silent at a bar, with two small glasses before them. Out of one they swallow the whisky, and from the other they take a gulp of water, as though to rinse their mouths. After that, they again sit down and ruminate."
Curiously, he notes that the area called Cairo lay in a broader general area popularly known as "Egypt". What was the purpose for the Egyptian motif in the region's nomenclature? No one seems to know now, nor did they then. As Trollope notes: "Who were the founders of Cairo I have never ascertained. They are probably buried fathoms deep in the mud, and their names will no doubt remain a mystery to the latest ages."
The truth is somewhat less flowery. Cairo was founded in 1818 by a fellow named John G. Comegys of Baltimore, Maryland, but it wasn't until 1837 that it really amounted to anything, under the leadership of a Bostonian named Darius B. Holbrook. Prior to Mssrs. Holbrook and Comegys, the area had a few false starts. Lewis & Clark had explored it in November, 1803. Before that, a Frenchman named Charles Juchereau de St. Denys had operated a tannery here in 1702 but soon his enterprise was wiped out by Cherokee. And before that, a French Catholic Priest named Father Louis Hennepin camped here in the Spring of 1660. Seems like only yesterday.