By Jared Olar
All available records indicate that when the founders of Pekin gave their town its name in 1830, they had in mind the renowned Chinese city of Peking (Beijing). Their new settlement on the east bank of the Illinois River would soon become the seat of government of Tazewell County, which had been established in 1827.
But why was the county given the name “Tazewell”?
The earliest history of Tazewell County, published by Charles C. Chapman in 1879, informs us (page 209), “The county was named in honor of Hon. John Tazewell, United States Senator from the State of Virginia. There is a county in that State which also bears the same name, these being the only two in the United States.”
That’s straightforward enough, although it doesn’t explain why a new Illinois county would be named after a Virginia senator. Chapman’s statement has an even more serious problem, however – there was no Virginia senator named “John Tazewell.”
There were, in fact, two Virginia senators surnamed “Tazewell,” who were father and son – Henry Tazewell (1753-1799), who served in the U.S. Senate from 1794 until his death, and Henry’s son Littleton Waller Tazewell (1774-1860), who served in the U.S. Senate from 1824 to 1832. Since Tazewell County was formed while Littleton W. Tazewell was a senator, no doubt he was whom Chapman had in mind when he said the county was named for a U.S. senator from Virginia. (Tazewell County in Virginia was named after Henry Tazewell, the father.)
Gladys M. Dubson’s 1939 Illinois State University master’s thesis, “Historical and Economic Survey of Tazewell County, Illinois, 1663-1939,” which is part of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection, says (page 2) that it was Littleton Waller Tazewell “for whom Tazewell County, Illinois, was named.” Dubson includes several paragraphs of biography and genealogy of Littleton W. Tazewell. In addition, John Drury’s 1954 “This is Tazewell County, Illinois,” pages 3-4, says, “The new county on the Illinois River was named after Littleton Waller Tazewell, a leading American lawyer and political leader of the time. When the county was organized in 1827, Tazewell was serving in the United States senate, being chairman of that body’s committee on foreign relations. In later years, Tazewell was elected governor of Virginia. During most of his public career he had been a strong opponent of President Jackson’s policies. He died in 1860.”
In this column, we have previously noted that originally, when Illinois legislators made plans to form a new county out of Peoria County, the proposed name was Mackinaw County, not Tazewell County. In fact, the bill that was approved by the Illinois House of Representatives in January 1827 was named, “An Act Creating Mackinaw County.” The Illinois Senate, however, amended the title to read, “An Act Creating Tazewell County,” and it was in that form that the bill passed the Senate on Jan. 31, 1827.
It was Pekin pioneer settler Gideon Henkel Rupert (1799-1877), who soon after his arrival in the future Tazewell County was able to become a successful businessman and landowner – and the wealthiest man in Pekin – who is credited with convincing the Illinois Senate to name the new county after Senator Tazewell of Virginia.
Littleton W. Tazewell had no connection with the county that was to be named after him, so why would Rupert want his county named for Tazewell rather than bear a local Native American place name such as “Mackinaw”? It probably had something to do with the fact that both Rupert and Tazewell were Virginians. Rupert was born in New Markey in Shenandoah County, Virginia. Tazewell was one of the most prominent Virginians of his day, and a renowned and admired speaker whose oratorical skills rivaled those of his fellow U.S. Senator Daniel Webster, so it was probably pride in his native state that explains Rupert’s desire to see the new county named for Senator Tazewell.
A copy of Norma Lois Peterson’s 311-page biography of Tazewell County’s namesake Littleton Waller Tazewell, published in 1983, recently was graciously donated by the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society to the library’s Local History Room collection.