Revisiting ‘Pekin, Incorporated’ — Pekin’s first incorporation needed a ‘do-over’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In recent installments of our ongoing Illinois Bicentennial series, we have recalled the first 19 years of Pekin’s history, when Pekin passed from a pioneer settlement to a formally incorporated town, finally being incorporated as a city in 1849 and electing its first mayor.

This week we’ll take a closer look at Pekin’s “incorporation” as a town and a city.

During Illinois’ times as a territory and then a newly-minted state, towns and villages would be founded by settlers or land agents working individually or in a company who would hire a surveyor to make a plat of the proposed town that would be legally recorded. If the settlement proved successful and enduring, before long the inhabitants would seek to organize their town as a corporation, a legal status that confers the right to elect a local government with collective rights.

We have previously told of how Pekin’s first settlers surveyed the lots of their proposed “Town Site” and then voted on Jan. 19, 1830, to name their town “Pekin.” The certified plat of the original town of Pekin is dated April 2, 1830. From 1831 to 1836, Pekin served as the interim county seat of Tazewell County while a state commission deliberated on the location of Tazewell’s permanent county seat. During the five years following Pekin’s founding, Pekin did not elect its own governmental officials, because the town was unincorporated – local government for Pekin existed at the county and township levels, but not at the municipal level.

As we’ve recalled, Pekin pioneer historian William H. Bates tells of the incorporation of Pekin as a legally constituted “town” in his 1870 narrative of Pekin’s early history that he included in the 1870-71 Pekin City Directory. On page 13, Bates quotes from the original record of Pekin’s first town election “of which we can glean any authentic account.” Here is the wording of the election record:

July 9th, 1835, agreeable to notice given according to law, in the Court House, in the Town of Pekin, Tazewell County, Illinois, for the purpose of electing Five Resident Freeholders of the Town of Pekin, as Trustees of the same, who shall hold their office for one year and until others are chosen and qualified.”

The language of this record indicates that Pekin was by then an incorporated town, for only an incorporated town or village could lawfully elect a board of trustees under Illinois law.

But as a matter of fact, contrary to what the people of Pekin then believed, their town was not legally incorporated at the time of their first election. Technically the election of July 9, 1835, and its results were invalid – as were all the governmental acts of Pekin from then until Jan. 19, 1837. On that date, the Illinois General Assembly passed and approved, “An act to legalize the incorporation of Pekin” (See “Incorporation Laws of the State of Illinois 1836-37,” pages 3-4).

The wording of the act explains that “the citizens of the town of Pekin, in the county of Tazewell, did, on the second day of July, A. D. 1835, meet and determine, by vote, that they would become incorporated, according to the provisions of an act entitled ‘An act to incorporate such towns as may wish to be incorporated,’ approved March 1st, 1831.” Nevertheless, “by accident or mistake, the certified statement of the polls of said meeting was lost and have (sic – has) not been filed and recorded in the clerk’s office of the county commissioners’ court in said county as the said act directs.

The act then goes on to declare that the town of Pekin shall not be considered to be an illegally incorporated town – i.e., no one would be prosecuted or sued over what had happened, nor would the town board be disbanded. The act retroactively “declared legal and valid” all of the official acts of Pekin’s board of trustees since July 2, 1835. Finally, the town of Pekin was “hereby declared an incorporated town under the above recited act, any omission or mistake in the incorporation of said town to the contrary notwithstanding.

This detail from an 1837 book of Illinois incorporation laws shows part of an act approved by the Illinois General Assembly on Jan. 19, 1837, legalizing the incorporation of Pekin as a town. Pekin had voted to incorporate on July 2, 1835, but the vote results were never legally recorded, so the Legislature had to unsnarl Pekin from a legal predicament.

Consequently, although the people of Pekin intended to incorporate on July 2, 1835, in point of law Pekin did not really become an incorporated town until Jan. 19, 1837 (the seventh anniversary, as it happened, of the date that the original settlers of the town voted for the name “Pekin” for their town). If it weren’t for that mistake, Pekin would have become an incorporated town 16 days before Peoria did.

Incidentally, the law of March 1, 1831, under which Peoria and Pekin were incorporated stipulated that settlements having populations of at least 150 persons could incorporate as either a village or a town. The option of incorporating as a “town” was removed by the new 1870 Illinois constitution – ever since then, municipalities may only incorporate as villages or cities. According to Illinois Secretary of State records, there are only 19 incorporated towns remaining in Illinois (including Topeka in Mason County, Normal in McLean County, and Astoria in Fulton County).

Pekin’s failed attempt at incorporation in 1835 is entirely unmentioned in the old standard works on Pekin’s history, perhaps because by the time Bates compiled his first Pekin history no one was around anymore who could have remembered what had happened – or perhaps Bates and his fellow Pekinites were too embarrassed to tell the story for posterity. We can only wonder how this serious omission came to light, who first brought it to the town board’s attention, and how they reacted to the news that all the board’s votes and deliberations since July 1835 were only so much wind.

In any case, because of the snafu in July 1835, Pekin, although now officially incorporated, did not officially receive its town charter (that is, its constitution) from the state until Feb. 23, 1839, when the Illinois General Assembly approved “An act to extend the corporate powers of the town of Pekin” that spelled out the legal powers, rights, obligations, and electoral procedures of the Pekin town board of trustees.

As of early May of this year, the Illinois Secretary of State’s online index of local governments mistakenly gave Feb. 23, 1839 as the date of Pekin’s original incorporation – but that is the date of Pekin’s first charter, not the actual date of incorporation, which took place Jan. 19, 1837 (and should have happened on July 2, 1835).

From the date of Pekin’s original town charter, about 10½ years elapsed until Pekin re-incorporated as a city, legally complying with the terms of a state law passed by the General Assembly on Feb. 10, 1849, which gave towns or villages with a population of at least 1,500 persons the option of incorporating as cities under the charters of Springfield or Quincy.

That time Pekin’s officials took care not to repeat the goof-up of July 2, 1835, and so Pekin was lawfully incorporated as a city on Aug. 21, 1849, electing its first mayor and city council the following month, on Sept. 24.

Pekin functioned under its first city charter until March 4, 1869, when the General Assembly passed an act that granted Pekin a new charter of incorporation. Under the original city charter, the mayor and aldermen served one-year terms, and the city was divided into four wards, with one alderman per ward. The 1869 charter added two more wards and stipulated that each of the six wards would be represented by two aldermen each.

The 1869 charter lasted only five years, because Pekin re-incorporated under yet another city charter following the new 1870 state constitution. Under the new charter, adopted on April 20, 1874, and certified by the state on Aug. 10 of that year, the mayor and aldermen served two-year terms. The 1874 charter would serve Pekin until 1910, when the city abolished the aldermanic form of city government and reorganized under a city commission form of government.

The commission form lasted until 1995, when Pekin’s residents voted in favor of the current city manager form of government.

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