Above: Left, A 60-gallon salt kettle. Right, Peter White of Equality, Illinois
The salt springs, wells and salt licks on the Saline River, near the Illinois town of Equality were known and used by Native Americans before the coming of the English. During the early years of the 19th century, a flourishing salt industry grew up in the area. The salt making process was very primitive. Large iron kettles, holding from 45 to 90 gallons were used to boil the brackish water. Long trenches were dug in the ground and lined with rock. The kettles were set over these trenches. A chimney was constructed at one end of the trench and a wood fire was kept constantly burning under the kettles, to evaporate the brine. Most of the labor was performed by Blacks and mulattoes, some of whom were enslaved despite an Illinois prohibition on slavery. In the 1870’s, the industry fell into decay.
George W. Smith, a professor at Southern Illinois University, visited Equality in 1903, when remnants of the old works were still visible and he was able to interview persons with memories of the industry. Among the persons he talked with was Peter White, whose photograph is show above. Smith writes: “I called to see Uncle Peter White (colored) now 70 years old. Uncle Pete was brought up in the immediate vicinity of the salt works. In 1844, when he was 10 years old, he and three other children were kidnapped and taken into Arkansas and sold into slavery for $800.” [They were subsequently rescued and returned to Illinois.] Uncle Peter’s memory is good, and I gathered some valuable information from him.” Smith published an article about the salines in the 1904 Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society. I read this article for the 59th volume of the LibriVox Short Nonfiction Collection. The photographs are from Prof. Smith’s History of Southern Illinois (1912), Vol. 1, pp. 473 and 482,
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