"For as Geography without history seemeth a carkasse without motion,
So history without Geography wandreth as a Vagrant
Without a certaine habitation."

John Smith, 1627

  November 2, 1917         May 14, 2016

November 2, 1917         May 14, 2016

About Elisabeth M. Hanson

This three-part East-Central Illinois Study was researched, graphics-designed, and explanatory text written, with the intent of reaching the interested lay reader. The author, a pre-computer-age graphic artist, cartographer, and statistics student, brings a unique perspective to her exacting investigations of the legendary black-soil-prairie region of east-central Illinois and its historical context. Elisabeth M. Hanson grew up in a singular academic household. Her father, M. F. Miller (1875–1965), soils professor and dean of agriculture at the University of Missouri, was an early student of the soils of the East-Central Basin, and a disciple of Cornell’s land ethicist, Liberty Hyde Bailey. Her mother, Grace Ernst Miller, was a botanist of the short-grass prairie of Nebraska, and a devoted graduate student of Nebraska’s charismatic “Father of American Taxonomy,” Charles Bessey. From her father, the author learned the unique look of pure loess soil in a road cut; from her mother, the look of sideoats grama, a grass of the dry prairie. Such early orientations would help to motivate her interests many years later.

Although the author, with physicist husband, came to the Illinois Grand Prairie region from the Los Alamos Manhattan Project laboratory directly after World War II, it was not until 1967 (more than twenty years later) that she made an astonishing discovery. Her paternal grandmother, who died in Ohio before World War I, had, in fact, spent the first five years of her life, 1839–1844, as a pioneer child, just fifteen miles west of the author’s home.

With a driving and sustained curiosity, then, about the natural and human-related sequence of events that created the characteristics of the region where she lived, and, later, to communicate to the lay reader a multidisciplinary understanding of them, the author chose a significant area for close study, and went to professionals at the Illinois State Surveys and the University of Illinois for guidance. She analyzed, and often interpreted cartographically, primary records at the Archives in Indiana and Ohio, and at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. She and her husband served fifteen years as hands-on stewards in area prairie restorations. They canoed rivers of the study area, where they found long-forgotten and overgrown historic sites.

Applying a bent for intuitively informative visuals, the author began her study by compiling maps that overlaid first purchases of government land onto a background of the prairie-timber dichotomy, as delineated by the first government surveys, thus demonstrating land preferences of the earliest pioneers. Eventually she wrote text to explain this and ensuing visuals that clearly showed informative correlations between cartographically-expressible variables.  Finding it impractical to study events in a small area without understanding their part in the larger, related region, the author often enlarged the scope of study to include the southern half of “the Lands northwest of the River Ohio”—Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

The often-challenging task of translating her old-style, pen-and-ink-with-zipatone graphics into computer form for this publication was undertaken by Steven J. Holland and Megan Washburn, and by Heidi Richter and Kirsten Dennison at Precision Graphics.