If you had a time machine, and could return to late 1820s Danville, you would find two frontiersmen keeping store in a small log structure at the west end of Main Street. It wasn’t much of a store, but then Danville wasn’t much of a village. A few crude cabins built among the hazel bushes above the Vermilion River made claim to the Danville title. The Clyman-Beckwith store stocked only the few items settlers couldn’t make or grow. Tin ware, tobacco, gun powder and shot were among those items. A clerk probably assisted in the store, because the owners were often absent on surveying assignments.
The storekeepers were 1700s men. James Clyman was born Feb. 1, 1792, on a farm owned by former President George Washington in Virginia. The Beckwith family Bible records Dan Beckwith first saw the light of day in Pennsylvania on Feb. 3, 1797.
By the time they became partners in the store, the two men had already made names for themselves as pathfinders and surveyors. Before coming to Vermilion County, Clyman had been to the Rocky Mountains, and had laid the historic foundation for later experiences that would link his name with the famous mountain men of the west.
Beckwith was leader of the local militia and had donated land for the village that was named for him. He was county surveyor and Clyman was his deputy. Contemporaries described both men as being more than 6 feet tall and powerfully built. Their attire reflected what was available for wear on the frontier: buckskins, moccasins and coonskin hats. Clyman was not married, but Beckwith was married to Mary Williams, the young sister of fellow Vermilion County pioneer Amos Williams
A survey crew the two worked with might have included axe men, flagmen, chainmen and a cook. Establishing property lines and laying out roads was a source of employment for many men in the lands made available to the public by treaty agreements with the Native Americans. The opening of a federal land office on Danville’s Main Street in 1831 was a boon to the tiny village, and sparked the sale of government land.
In 1831, Illinois Gov. John Reynolds selected James Clyman to mark a road from Vincennes, Ind., to Chicago. He had previously done survey work for the state in the early 1820s. In the summer of 1832, Clyman and Beckwith participated in the Blackhawk War. Clyman served in a company with young Abraham Lincoln and Beckwith commanded the local Vermilion County militia.
On Dec. 1, 1832, Clyman delivered a map to County Clerk Amos Williams illustrating the portion of the Vincennes to Chicago Road that would pass through Vermilion County. The plat was accompanied by a report describing the path of the road. “From Danville north 8 miles the route is through heavy timber, mostly oak,” Clyman noted.
In 1834, Dan Beckwith established the lines of Native American reservations for the federal government. He marked the boundaries of lands preserved by the Potawatomi treaty of 1832 in Indiana. It is recorded, “The reservations were surveyed in the presence of the Indians concerned and General Tipton, agent on the part of the United States, in the month of May 1834, by Major Dan W. Beckwith, surveyor.”
Gen. Tipton eventually would be responsible for rounding up the Potawatomi in Indiana and starting them on the infamous Trail of Death march.
On Dec. 25, 1835, 38-year-old Dan Beckwith died of pneumonia in Danville. He left behind his wife and two young children, Hiram and Melissa. His son, Hiram, would become the premier historian of Vermilion County and the first president of the Illinois State Historic Society. James Clyman dug the grave for his friend who passed away on Christmas Day, and soon resumed the travels that would gain him fame in the west.
Goulding Arnett bought Beckwith’s share of the store he owned with Clyman, and it operated as Clyman & Arnett for a few years. Clyman spent time in Wisconsin and then guided wagon trains west, explored mountain passes, and eventually settled in California. He was 57 years old when he married 27-year-old Hannah McCombs in 1849. They had five children, four of whom died of scarlet fever. The couple also adopted three children.
James Clyman died Dec. 27, 1881, 46 years after he dug the grave for his friend Beckwith in Danville. His papers can be found in historical collections in a number of states. The sword Beckwith carried in the Blackhawk War and the instrument he used to survey in Illinois and Indiana are on display at the Vermilion County Museum.
The survey lines the two frontiersmen established nearly 200 years ago remain true today.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.