Little Egypt of Southern Illinois

Revised 16 April 2020 by author Lawrence Eugene Vaughn Jr

Why the region is known as Egypt

“Egypt” has been the longtime nickname for Southern Illinois and – much to the exasperation of purists – some later adapted that name to “Little Egypt.”

The late Barbara Burr Hubbs, longtime Southern Illinois historian and author, said early settlers found the eastern banks of the Mississippi were made fertile by the periodic overflow of a river, just like the Nile valley in Egypt. Hubbs also wrote that developers, who in 1818 bought acreage at the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi, named the area Cairo.

The most commonly accepted theory for the nickname stems from a severe winter in the early 1830s that covered of central and northern Illinois with deep snow. There was no pasture; animals had to be fed grain until late spring. When crops finally were planted in June, an early frost killed them. But Southern Illinois, with a milder climate, had corn.

As northern residents formed wagon trains and headed south to buy corn, they compared themselves to the sons of Jacob in the Bible. The book of Genesis tells the story of their trip into Egypt to buy corn so they could survive.

REF: https://thesouthern.com/lifestyles/a-to-z/egypt-what-s-in-a-name-why-the-region-s/article_a02c36c8-8987-11e0-8f42-001cc4c002e0.html

Tunnel Hill Area Map.png

The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers converge to define the borders of southern Illinois

Like Kentucky, Southern Illinois was mostly a marshy Indian hunting ground without large permanent Indian villages, But, unlike Kentucky, there was a mysterious air to the region. Along the rivers one could see various mounds, in the hills, ancient stone forts, and up the Mississippi itself, the largest mounds of them all near Cahokia. This land was ancient, like Egypt itself.

In 1799, John Badgley, a Baptist missionary to the French and Indian villages in the American Bottoms, went up on top of the bluffs in the area of what’s now Edwardsville, above the vast Mississippi Valley and dubbed the fertile highlands and bottoms the “Land of Goshen.”

The great Mississippi River runs along the western border of these lands, with the Ohio River defining much of the southern edge, Shawnee National Forest on the east, and Kentucky rising in the distant south. The foliage and grasses in the bottom areas of these two great rivers is reminiscent of descriptions of the Nile River and its extensive bottom lands so cherished by ancient biblical Egyptians.

Being a preacher, Badgley knew that the Bible referred to Goshen as the best land of ancient Egypt. Goshen was the land the biblical pharaoh gave to Joseph’s family after they came to Egypt. The Mississippi Valley not only served up a reminder to the Nile, huge Indian burial mounds gave a faint physical resemblance to the pyramids of Egypt. The mounds and ruins of stone forts gave evidence of an ancient culture that had been more advanced than the Indian cultures that inhabited the state at the end of the 18th Century.

Thus, the area became known locally as little Egypt, and the name stuck as travelling merchants viewed the lands and returned home to tell of the beauty and mystery they experienced.

Settling in Illinois

Pioneering farmers from Kentucky and Tennessee began settling the southern counties of Illinois while it was still only a territory. In the second half of the 19th century, the great need for workers in the mills, rail yards and slaughterhouses made northern Illinois, and Chicago in particular, a popular destination for immigrants and freed blacks.

Johnson County is located in the south central portion of Illinois, which was widely known for fertile farmlands, robust fruit production, and coal mining. The county seat is Vienna (pronounced VIE-anna), and the township the Vaughns located in is named Tunnel Hill, for the railroad tunnel located within its borders.

Tunnel Hill Johnson County IL Photo.png

Tunnel Hill Tunnel built by the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad in 1870

It appears that David and Nancy moved their family to Johnson County, Illinois prior to 1842, based on 1842 marriage dates of two of his sons to Johnson County women.

Their oldest child, Mary Polly Vaughn, was born about 1800 in Virginia, and by reviewing the births of her children, we get a clearer idea of when they might have arrived in Tennessee and later in Illinois. She was married to John Jenkins. They married while the Vaughn family was living in Virginia.

They moved with the Vaughn family to Tennessee, to Kentucky for a period, and then to Johnson County, Illinois. The exact dates of the moves are in question, but the census records in that period recorded places of birth. Those dates and locations help us narrow our estimates.

Colbert Vaughn, David and Nancy’s oldest son, was born 1820 in Virginia. He married Rachel Wilson, in 1842 in Johnson County, Illinois. In the 1860 census, he was age 27. All of their children were born in Johnson County, Illinois.

David and Nancy’s son, Hiram James Vaughn, born about 1824 in Tennessee, married Lucinda Newsome, born about 1828 in Tennessee. They married in Johnson County. They stated in the census that David and Nancy were born in Virginia. All their children were born in Johnson County.

In the 1850 census, the John Jenkins family listed the following household members and their ages: John Jenkins, 50, head of household, Mary Polly Jenkins, 43, housekeeping, James Jenkins, 22, John Jenkins, 17, Mary Jenkins, 13, Oliver Jenkins, 12, Nancy Jenkins, 9, Thomas Jenkins, 6, Maria Jenkins, 5, and Nancy E Vaughn, 1.

Thomas, Maria and Nancy were born in Illinois, which puts their arrival in Illinois prior to 1842. John, Mary, Oliver and Nancy were born in Kentucky, placing their residence state as Kentucky from 1833 to 1841, James, the oldest, was born in Tennessee about 1828.

David Vaughn Family Timeline

  • 1778 – Nancy born Virginia (as stated on 1850 & 1860 census)
  • 1779 – David born North Carolina (as stated on 1850 & 1860 census)
  • 1800 – Daughter Mary Polly born Virginia
  • 1809 – Son Lemuel Samuel born in Virginia
  • 1820 – Son Colbert was born Virginia
  • 182+ – David and Nancy moved to Tennessee
  • 1823 – Son John Wesley born in Kentucky
  • 1824 – Son Hiram James born in ennessee
  • 1829 – Grandson James Pryor Jenkins born 10 Jan in Tennessee
  • 1833 – Grandson John M Jenkins born in Kentucky
  • 1838 – Grandson Oliver P Jenkins born in Kentucky
  • 1841 – Grandaughter Nancy Jenkins born in Kentucky
  • 1841 – Daughter Sarah Jane married John Parker, in Johnson County, Illinois
  • 1842 – Son Hiram married Lucinda in 2 July in Johnson County, Illinois
  • 1842 – Son Colbert married Rachel Wilson in Johnson County, Illinois
  • 1844 – Grandson Thomas Jenkins born in Illinois
  • 1850 – U.S. Census shows David and Nancy living near John Jenkins in Illinois-10 Oct
  • 1850 – U.S. Census shows Lemuel, Narcissa and family living in Illinois-10 Oct
  • 1850 – U.S. Census shows Hiram & Lucinda living next door in Illinois-11 Oct
  • 1854 – 1 March Lemuel buys  the NW 1/4 of Section 35, TWP 11 S, R 3E
  • 1860 – Nancy died prior to census date 30 July 1860, Johnson County, Illinois
  • 1870 – David did not appear on the U.S. Census, 18 June 1870
David Vaughn Lineage.png
David Vaughn lineage

So, we summarize from this timeline, that David and Nancy met in Virginia, married, established a home in Virginia, where they raised Mary Polly, Lemuel, and Colbert, before moving to Tennessee between 1820 and 1823, where the next oldest, Roland, was born.

Whether they actually moved from Kentucky into Tennessee has not been determined, but all of Kentucky was once a county in Virginia, and parts of Tennessee were often thought to be in Kentucky, and it may have been they were on Lemuel’s farm at the time of the births, helping with planting.

David and Nancy’s  son, Lemuel, and wife Narcissa, moved to Kentucky and took up land. Daughter Mary Polly, and husband John Jenkins moved first to Tennessee, where James Pryor Jenkins was born, and then to Kentucky where they stayed through 1841, perhaps locating near Lemuel Vaughn.  

Then in 1844, their son Thomas Jenkins was born in Illinois, indicating that the family had completed their relocation to Johnson County, Illinois. David and Nancy’s daughter Sarah Jane, married John Parker, in Johnson County, Illinois in 1841, so it is possible they relocated there in 1840, or before, allowing a portion of time for a courtship.

Lemuel was a very popular name during this time in history, and there are many Lemuel Vaughns to try to sort. In Graves County & Union County, Kentucky there are Lemuel Vaughns in the 1840 census records, but they did not have the correct number of children to match our Lemuel. A solid match for our Lemuel has not been found.

Vaughn Land Patents

The Vaughns entering Land Patents in the southeast corner of Township 11, South, Range 3 East, were Alexander, Colbert, David, Hiram, Lemuel, and Roland. They all filed about the same time; early to mid-1850s, suggesting a multi-family move to new homesteads..

Lemuel filed on a quarter of section 35 in 1853. David. Lemuel and Roland filed patents in the same area in 1854, and David filed again in 1855. Hiram filed an additional patent in 1864. Alexander and Hiram both had plots of land a mile and a half south in Section 12 of Township 13 Range 3 East, but their major holdings were here, adjacent to the rest of the family.

Vaughn Land Patents Johnson County IL.png

Vaughn Family Land Patents in Johnson County, Illinois

David Vaughn Land Patent Document.jpg
Colbert Vaughn land purchase 1857.jpg

Next chapter: Choates of Southern Illinois and Related Families


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