The life and death of Major Isaac Perkins

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in August 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

The life and death of Major Isaac Perkins

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Among the pioneer settlers of Tazewell County was a man named Isaac Perkins. Though little remembered today, he was a figure not only in the county’s early history but also played a role in the founding of Pekin and took part in an important formative event in Illinois history. In this column, we will sketch Perkins’ life with the help of publications in the library’s Local History Room collection and materials supplied by Cathie Butler Pipkins of Olympia, Wash., a descendant of Isaac Perkins’ youngest son James.

Isaac Perkins was born in 1795 in Livingston County, Kentucky, one of the seven children of Solomon and Elizabeth (Miller) Perkins. Solomon was born in western North Carolina in the 1750s and died around 1809 in southern Illinois. He is mentioned in early Illinois history as the first permanent settler in the Cave-in-the-Rock area of southern Illinois in the early 1800s.

On Nov. 7, 1813, in Pope County, Ill., Isaac, then 18 years old, married Jane Barker (1797-1862), daughter of Lewis Barker, a neighbor of Solomon Perkins who, like Solomon, had been born in North Carolina and settled in Livingston County, Kentucky, before coming to Cave-in-the-Rock. During the War of 1812, Barker had served as a captain in the Wabash Territory Illinois Militia, and in 1818 he was elected the first Illinois state senator for Pope County. In that year, Barker’s son-in-law Isaac Perkins served as a Justice of the Peace in Franklin County, Illinois. Isaac and his wife Jane had eight children. In the 1820s, Solomon Perkins’ sons Elisha and Isaac moved to the future Tazewell County, arriving about a year after pioneer settler Nathan Dillon. Elisha’s wife Susannah was a sister of Isaac’s wife Jane.

In his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 205, Charles C. Chapman says, “In 1824 Nathan Dillon was followed by his brothers with their families, who settled on the creek around him. Then came George and Isham Wright to Hittle’s Grove, Esau and William Orendorff to Sugar Creek, Isaac Perkins, Hugh Woodrow, William Woodrow, Samuel Woodrow, John Summers, Jacob and Jonathan Tharp, Peter Scott and others, came into Sand Prairie in 1824.”

Chapman elsewhere mentions the appointment of Isaac Perkins as a county election judge for Sand Prairie precinct, and that Isaac’s brother Elisha built one of the first mills in Sand Prairie Township. It was Elisha who laid out the now vanished town of Circleville in the northeast corner of the township. Upon their arrival in Sand Prairie, Isaac and Elisha had built crude cabins in Section 1. Elisha remained in that location, while Isaac acquired extensive land not only in Sand Prairie but also at the future site of Pekin.

In 1825, Isaac served as a Justice of the Peace for Peoria County, when then included the territory that would become Tazewell County. After the creation of Tazewell in 1827, Isaac was the county’s first Recorder of Deed, and the very first legal document in the Recorder’s office, dated July 6, 1827, bears his name (A digital image of this document may be seen at http://www.tcghs.org/photo0500.htm).

In 1829, Isaac was one of the four original plat deed owners of Pekin. The other three plat owners were Gideon Hawley, William Haines and Nathan Cromwell. It was Cromwell’s wife Ann Eliza who chose the name “Pekin” for the Town Site on the Illinois River that the four men had platted out. Ann Eliza was a sister of Isaac Perkins’ wife Jane Barker and Elisha Perkins’ wife Susannah Barker. Nathan Cromwell, reportedly with the assistance of his wife Ann Eliza, named the city streets in the original town of Pekin after the wives and daughters of the first settlers here. Susannah Street was named for Elisha Perkins’ wife (although in his list of Pekin’s feminine-named streets, Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 Tazewell County history garbled Isaac with his brother Elisha).

The early publications on Pekin and Tazewell history usually refer to Isaac as “Major Isaac Perkins.” Genealogical researchers of the Perkins family plausibly explain that he probably acquired that rank from an otherwise unknown tour of duty with the Illinois State Militia. Isaac’s only known military service, however, was as a Private in the Black Hawk War of 1832, when he served in the 5th Illinois Regiment Brigade of Mounted Volunteers under the command of Major Isaac Stillman and Major David Bailey.

Stillman and his men, including Perkins, engaged Black Hawk’s forces on May 14, 1832, in the first battle of the Black Hawk War, known as the Battle of Sycamore, or better remembered as Stillman’s Run, which took place at a location about midway between Dixon and Rockford in Ogle County. Chapman tells the story of the battle on pages 258-261 of his 1879 history. Having unwittingly made camp near Black Hawk’s warriors, Stillman’s ill-trained and undisciplined men were immediately thrown into a panic and complete disarray, and the battle, such as it was, quickly became a chaotic retreat (hence the mocking name, “Stillman’s Run”). Black Hawk’s warriors easily slaughtered, scalped and beheaded the few soldiers who attempted to make a stand. Among them was Private Isaac Perkins. His youngest child, James, was then only three months old.

Coming upon the gory scene the next day was a state militia brigade led by a 23-year-old captain named Abraham Lincoln, who with his men gathered the remains of the fallen and buried in a common grave at the battle site, near a creek that consequently was named Stillman’s Creek. In 1901, a monument was erected at the site, which today is at the east end of the town of Stillman Valley.

See also “Eyewitness Accounts of Stillman’s Defeat

StillmansRunMonument

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#cathie-butler-pipkins, #circleville, #isaac-perkins, #pekin-history, #preblog-columns, #stillman-valley, #stillmans-run

Courthouse time capsule refreshes memories of Pekin’s founding

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Quite a lot has happened in Pekin in the 192 years since Jonathan Tharp built his log cabin at a spot that is today the foot of Broadway. Many of those events have been documented in books, newspapers, and photographs, but most have been forgotten – and even what has been recorded often suffers from gaps of detail that might be of interest to us today but didn’t seem important enough to our ancestors to record.

Last month’s opening of the Tazewell County Courthouse 1914 time capsule, however, is enabling local historians to refresh many of our memories of the county’s and Pekin’s history. Among those refreshed memories are forgotten details of the story of Pekin’s founding which never made it into the history books.

One of those details is the fact that if a crucial vote of stockholders had turned out differently, we might today be living in the city of “Port Folio.”

That and other fascinating details are found in a four-page document that was one of several items included in the 1914 time capsule but not listed among the contents of the courthouse cornerstone printed in the “Historical Souvenir” published for June 21, 1916 dedication ceremonies. Apparently it was decided to include this document and several other items only after the “Souvenir” was already printed. When the time capsule was opened last month, this document was found within a stationery envelope of Pekin attorney John T. Elliff. Typed on the envelope was this description of the document’s provenance: “The within paper left in the office of the late William Don Maus and now in possession of John T. Elliff, Atty., Pekin, Ill.” William Don Maus (1836-1901) — not to be confused with Pekin’s pioneer physician Dr. William S. Maus (1817-1872) — had come to Tazewell County with his father in 1847. William Don Maus moved to Pekin in 1854 and became an attorney in 1857, later serving as a county judge in the 1860s.

The document in question dates from 1830 and contains handwritten minutes from the stockholder meetings of the company that founded Pekin. The minutes were taken at meetings held from Dec. 28, 1829, to Jan. 19, 1830, and then formally attested and signed in March 1830. The information in the minutes substantially corroborates the accounts of our city’s founding that may be read in the standard published works on Pekin’s history. Some of the specific traditions about Pekin’s founding are not substantiated by the minutes, while other quite interesting details mentioned in the minutes go unmentioned in the standard Pekin histories.

To illustrate that point, let’s first review what Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates (who seems to have selected most of the contents of the 1914 cornerstone time capsule) had to say about Pekin’s founding in his account which was printed in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, pages 9-10.

“At the land sales at Springfield in the fall of 1828, the ‘Town Site’ was purchased by Maj. Cromwell for a company composed of himself, William Haines, William Brown, Thomas Snell, Peter Menard, Dr. Warner, A. Herndon and —- Carpenter, of Sangamon county, and the purchase was divided into twelve parts. The question as to who should possess so important a piece of ground as the present location of Pekin created considerable excitement and the feeling rose to such a pitch at the land sale that pistols were drawn and bloodshed seem (sic) inevitable. The parties above mentioned, were successful, however, and the matter was amicably adjusted. . . .

“In 1829 a survey of ‘Town Site’ was made by William Hodge of Blooming Grove, then County Surveyor. The compass run without variation and, in the absence of a surveyor’s chain, the town lots were measured with a string.

“The survey made, and the town laid out, Mrs. Cromwell being called upon, exercised her share of woman’s rights in that early day by christening the embryo city of the new Celestials, PEKIN. Why she thus named it the legendary history of the days gone by fail to record, and we can only surmise that in the plenitude of her imagination she looked forward to the time when it would equal in size that other Pekin – the Chinese City of the Sun.”

Many of the details in Bates’ account are supported by the testimony of the minutes, but many other things of which Bates tells aren’t mentioned in the minutes at all. For example, the names of company members Cromwell, Haines, Brown, Menard, and Carpenter appear in the minutes (which give Carpenter’s first name as William), but Bates’ account doesn’t mention other settlers who have long been known to have been important members of the company, such as Major Isaac Perkins and Gideon Hawley (called “Isaac Pirkins” and “Gidian Holley” in the minutes).

As for the skirmish at the land sale, related in Jacob Tharp’s 1860 diary as well as the 1949 Pekin Centenary and 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volumes, perhaps understandably no reference to it appears in the company minutes, nor is there any mention of the purchase being divided into 12 parts. The minutes merely state that the land be surveyed and laid out into lots, and that Major Nathan Cromwell was appointed “to survey said parcels of land, and lay it off into Town plat and forme (sic) as the Commisioners (sic) present did devise and agree upon.” The minutes record the surveying of “Town Site,” calling for the hiring of “Chain carriers and Stakers” to “afsist and Compleet said Survey,” but the name of the actual surveyor, William Hodge, isn’t mentioned, nor is anything said in the minutes of the unavailability of a surveyor’s chain making necessary the use of string.

This image, photographed by the author with the assistance of David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, shows a detail of page two of the minutes of the settlers' company that founded Pekin telling how the town got its name. IMAGE COURTESY OF TAZEWELL COUNTY COURTS ADMINISTRATOR COURTNEY EETEN

This image, photographed by the author with the assistance of David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, shows a detail of page two of the minutes of the settlers’ company that founded Pekin telling how the town got its name. IMAGE COURTESY OF TAZEWELL COUNTY COURTS ADMINISTRATOR COURTNEY EETEN

The minutes are especially valuable for providing specific dates for key events in the process of Pekin’s founding. Later sources generally give only the year or the season of the year in which these events took place, and sometimes these sources even give the wrong year. The minutes make clear, however, that it was on Dec. 28, 1829, that Cromwell was appointed to survey and stake out the proposed town, and Cromwell reported on Jan. 18, 1830, that “the survey of Said Town, is Compleeted (sic) and the Stakeing (sic) nearly done.” On Jan. 19, 1830, the company’s commissioners met again to decide on the name of the new town and to arrange the sale of lots to be announced in several newspapers throughout the Midwest. That same day, the commissioners directed Cromwell to have the town plat “recorded according to law,” and then chose two of its members as officers of the corporation. Brown was named treasurer as well as the land agent for the stockholders, and Haines was named secretary.

Perhaps the most remarkable fact mentioned in these minutes, however, is the account of the naming of Pekin on Jan. 19. This passage of the minutes is worth quoting in full (spelling, capitalization, and punctuation as in the original):

“on motion of Isaac Pirkins, to Chainge the name of Town Site to Some other name. the votes where Called to decide, whether – Pekin – Port-Folio – or PortuGall – Should be the name of the contemplated Town. and after the votes being legally takeing and Counted, it appeared that a large majority announced the name of said Town to be forever hereafter Known by the name of Pekin.”

The minutes say nothing about Ann Eliza Cromwell choosing the name “Pekin,” but given the unanimity of the early sources that “Pekin” was her idea, there is no reason to doubt that tradition. The early sources and standard histories say nothing, however, about “Pekin” being just one of three possible choices – and consequently we don’t know who wished the new town to be named “Port-Folio” or “PortuGall” (Portugal).

How very different Pekin’s history would have been had “Port Folio” or “Portugal” beat out “Pekin.” There would never have been a Pekin professional baseball team named “the Celestials,” no Chinese-themed downtown theater, and instead of the “Pekin Chinks” and “Pekin Dragons,” we might instead be rooting for the Port Folio Financials or the Portugal Galos (Roosters).

Full images of the 1830 minutes document, along with a complete transcription of the document’s cursive script, may be examined below. The Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society will also feature the document and a transcription in its monthly newsletter.

Shown are the first and fourth pages of the 1829-1830 minutes detailing the actions taken by Pekin's first settlers to organize and found a new town in Tazewell County. IMAGE COURTESY OF TAZEWELL COUNTY COURTS ADMINISTRATOR COURTNEY EETEN

Shown are the first and fourth pages of the 1829-1830 minutes detailing the actions taken by Pekin’s first settlers to organize and found a new town in Tazewell County. IMAGE COURTESY OF TAZEWELL COUNTY COURTS ADMINISTRATOR COURTNEY EETEN

Shown are the second and third pages of the 1829-1830 minutes detailing the actions taken by Pekin's first settlers to organize and found a new town. On page 2 is the account of the vote that gave the town the name of Pekin. IMAGE COURTESY OF TAZEWELL COUNTY COURTS ADMINISTRATOR COURTNEY EETEN

Shown are the second and third pages of the 1829-1830 minutes detailing the actions taken by Pekin’s first settlers to organize and found a new town. On page 2 is the account of the vote that gave the town the name of Pekin. IMAGE COURTESY OF TAZEWELL COUNTY COURTS ADMINISTRATOR COURTNEY EETEN

Town Site  Tazwell County, Ill., December 28th – 1829.,

	In Conformity to appointment William
Carpenter, William Haines, and Isaac Pirkins, being
a majority of the Commifsioners appointed by the stock
-holders of the property Known by the name of Town Site
Meet and proceeded to buisinefs as followes.

1 – first, ordered that the lands, and parcels of lands, be
  surveyed and laid out into Town lots.
2 – appointed Nathan Cromwell to survey said parce
  -ls of land, and lay it off into Town plat and forme
  as the Commisioners present did devise and agree upon
  and ordered that the necefsary Chain carriers and
  Stakers be employed to afsist and Compleet said
  Survey.
3 – That in Compliance with an article, signed
  by said stockholders, regulating themselves
  in the further prosecution of their joint interests
  ordered and appointed the 18th day of January 1830
  to be the day for the Said proprietors to meet and
  adopt Sutch measurers as a majority of them
  present may think Consistent with the best interest
  of the proprietors of said property.

  Adjorned
  Till January    Signed
  18th 1830 meeting
                      First

Monday  January 18th 1830.  Town Site

1 – Persuent to ajournement the Stockholders of
  the property Called Town Site, meet at the place and time
  appointed and proceeded to buisinefs as followes –
      William Haines
      Isaac Pirkins       Commisioners present
  reporte as followes, that the survey of Said Town, is Compleeted
  and the Stakeing nearly done, designating the plan of the
_____________

Town, with a plat of the same.

	on motion of William Brown, the proprietors present
proceeded to buisinefs – after Some explination, and inves
-tigation, it was agree to adjorne to Tuesday the nineteenth
inst at ten in the morning. at Town Site.

2 – Tuesday, January 19th 1830
  Persuant to ajornement the Stockholders meet and prosee
-ded to buisinefs.
3 – on motion of Isaac Pirkins, to Chainge the name
  of Town Site to Some other name. the votes where Called
  to decide, whether – Pekin – Port-Folio – or PortuGall – Should
  be the name of the contemplated Town.
	and after the votes being legally takeing and Counted,
  it appeared that a large majority announced the name
  of said Town to be forever hereafter Known by the name
  of Pekin.
4 – on motion of Sgt. Griffin, for Peter Menard, to offer for
  Sale the lots of the Town of Pekin, it was ordered that the
  Same be offered for Sale on the fourteenth day of Aprile
  next at the Town of Pekin. Tazwell County Ill. And that the
  Same be published in a paper Edited at Sprinfield Sangamo
  county, in one at Gelena. Jo davis County - in one at Vandalia
  Fayett County Ill., in one of the papers at Saint Louis – in one
  at Nashville Tennesee – in one Louisville Kentuckey, in one
  at Indianoplis, in one at Da ton Ohio, the Same to be
  inserted in the Springfield and Saint Louis papers till the
  twelfth of aprile next – the Editors of the other mention
  -ed papers to give three insertions and send their accou
  -nts to Springfield for pament.
5 – on motion of Nathan Cromwell to record the Town
  of Pekin, it was ordered that the Town plat of Pekin be
  recorded according to law.
6 – on motion of William Brown – for Treasuer –
  William Brown was nominated and duly appointed, and auther
  -rised to receive all moneys notes and other property that
_____________

  may be paid for lots purchaised of Said proprietors.
7 – on motion of Gidian Holley, for Secetary –
  William Haines was nominated. And duly appointed
  and autherrised to Keep a regular record of all buisi
  -nefs and papers belonging to the proprietors of Said Town
  of Pekin, and account for the Same, makeing a dividend
  of all moneys, notes, and other property, that Shall be
  received in payment for the use of said proprietors.
  every two months. the same to be subject to the dispo
  sition of each and every proprietor for Settlement
  at Some regular appointed time.
    The Treasuer and Secetary Shall have a reasonable
  Compensation for their Services.
8 – on motion of William Haines, for agent –
  William Brown, was nominated by William Haines, and
  Duly appointed agent for the Stockholders of Pekin
9 – on motion of Gidian Holley for defraying
  the expences that Should a crew by Surveying and
  plating said Town, and the Chaining and Stakeing out
  said Town – it was ordered that the persons thus enga
  -ged Should exhibit there bills for the same to the
  Proprietors for payment the day of Sale.
10 – on  motion of William Haines for granting pre em
  -tions, Orrin Hamlin, David Bayley were allowed to
  Select lots and build on the Same and hold Said lots
  as a right of preemption, the Same to be Considered and
  valued by the price of Simmilar lots sold at the Sale.
[11 – on motion] of William Brown to adjorne - ,
                               t we adjorne till the thirteenth day
                               ten in the morning at the Town
[of Pekin.]

[Signed]                Nathan Cromwell
                               Clerk for the above meetings
_____________

March      1830, Tazwell County, Ill.

	We the undersigners do hereby Cirtify that all
the within written preambles and adoption have
been duly and regularly Subscribed in conformity, to
the full intent and meaning of an article of an agree
-ment entered into by the joint Stockholders of the
property, or Town of Pekin, and that the Same had
at the time of its doing been unanimously adapted
by us, the owners and part proprietors of Said Town
and that amajority then and there did adopt all
and every one of the within articles.    intestimony
we hereunto Subscribe our names –

			Nathan Cromwell
			William Brown
			Isaac Perkins

#ann-eliza-cromwell, #isaac-perkins, #nathan-cromwell, #pekin-founding, #pekin-history, #port-folio, #portugall, #tazewell-county-courthouse-time-capsule, #william-don-maus, #william-h-bates, #william-s-maus

Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

This is a slightly revised version of one of our “From the Local History Room” columns that first appeared in May 2015 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Three years ago a book was published about a little known episode and an all-but-forgotten individual in Pekin’s history – an episode that helped confirm Illinois as a free state. The book was among the publications honored at the 2015 annual awards luncheon of the Illinois State Historical Society held April 25, 2015, at the Old State Capitol in Springfield.

Entitled “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley,” it was written by local historian Carl M. Adams and illustrated by Lani Johnson of Honolulu, Hawaii. Adams, formerly of Pekin, then resided in Germany (but now is in Maryland), and was unable to attend the awards banquet in Springfield, so he asked his friend Bill Maddox, a retired Pekin police office and former city councilman, to receive the award on his behalf. Maddox is one of Adams’ collaborators and over the years has helped Adams in organizing his research.

Russell Lewis, former president of the Illinois State Historical Society, is shown with Bill Maddox of Pekin, following ceremony on April 25, 2015 in Springfield. At the ceremony, Maddox received an award on behalf on Carl Adams, whose book on Nance Legins-Costley was among those honored that day. PHOTO BY PEKIN PUBLIC LIBRARY ASSISTANT JARED OLAR

Carl Adams, author of “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley.” IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

Adams has previously published two papers on the same subject: “The First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A Biographical Sketch of Nance Legins (Cox-Cromwell) Costley (circa 1813-1873),” which appeared in the Autumn 1999 issue of “For the People,” newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association; and, “Lincoln’s First Freed Slave: A Review of Bailey v. Cromwell, 1841,” which appeared in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 101, no. 3/4, Fall-Winter 2008. In contrast to those papers, however, Adams’ 87-page book “Nance” distills the fruit of his many years of historical research, presenting Nance’s story in the form of a biography suitable for a middle-school audience and ideal for a junior high or middle school classroom.

Though Nance’s story is little known today, during and after her own lifetime her struggles to secure her freedom were well known in Pekin, and Nance herself came to be a well regarded member of the community. As this column had previously discussed (Pekin Daily Times, Feb. 11, 2012), Nance obtained her freedom as a result of the Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell, which Abraham Lincoln argued before Justice Sidney Breese on July 23, 1841. It was the culmination of Nance’s third attempt in Illinois courts to secure her liberty, and it resulted in a declaration that she was a free person because documentation had never been supplied proving her to have been a slave or to have agreed to a contract of indentured servitude. Breese’s ruling is also significant in Illinois history for definitively settling that Illinois was a free state where slavery was illegal.

IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

Another significant aspect of this case is indicated in an 1881 quote from Congressman Isaac Arnold that Adams includes in his book. Arnold wrote, “This was probably the first time he [Lincoln] gave to these grave questions [on slavery] so full and elaborate an investigation . . . it is not improbable that the study of this case deepened and developed the antislavery convictions of his just and generous mind.”

Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates was also opposed to slavery and deeply admired Lincoln. Bates also knew Nance Legins-Costley, and, five years after Lincoln’s assassination, Bates made sure to include her in his first published history of Pekin, the historical sketch that Bates wrote and included in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, page 10. There we find a paragraph with the heading, “A Relic of a Past Age”:

“With the arrival of Maj. Cromwell, the head of the company that afterwards purchased the land upon which Pekin is built, came a slave. That slave still lives in Pekin and is now known, as she has been known for nearly half a century, by the citizens of Pekin, as ‘Black Nancy.’ She came here a chattle (sic), with ‘no rights that a white man was bound to respect.’ For more than forty years she has been known here as a ‘negro’ upon whom there was no discount, and her presence and services have been indispensible (sic) on many a select occasion. But she has outlived the era of barbarism, and now, in her still vigorous old age, she sees her race disenthralled; the chains that bound them forever broken, their equality before the law everywhere recognized and her own children enjoying the elective franchise. A chapter in the history of a slave and in the progress of a nation.”

Remarkably, Bates doesn’t mention how Nance obtained her freedom, nor does he mention Lincoln’s role in her story. He doesn’t even tell us her surname. That’s because the details were then well-known to his readers. Later, her case would get a passing mention in the 1949 Pekin Centenary, while the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial would provide a more extended treatment of the case. But in none of the standard publications on Pekin history is personal information on Nance and her family included.

“What I did figure out,” Adams said in an email, “was that all the stories of Nance were positive up until the race riots in Chicago in 1918-1919 followed by a rebirth of the Klan in Illinois, and stories of Nance and her family disappeared, before the age of radio and TV.”

Since she had been forgotten and scant information was available in the standard reference works on Pekin’s history, Adams had to scan old census records, court files, coroner’s reports and newspaper articles to reconstruct the story of Nance’s life and the genealogy of her family. He learned that Nance was born about 1813, the daughter of African-American slaves named Randol and Anachy Legins, and that she married a free black named Benjamin Costley. Nance and Ben and their children appear in the U.S. Census for Pekin in 1850, 1860, 1870, and even 1880 (though the 1880 census entry is evidently fictitious). The 1870-71 Pekin City Directory shows Benjamin Costley residing at the southwest corner of Amanda and Somerset up in the northwest corner of Pekin. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ben and Nance’s log cabin was adjacent to the old Bailey Estate, the land of Nance’s last master, David Bailey, one of the principals of the 1841 case in which Nance won her freedom.

On this detail from an 1872 map of Pekin, from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County,” a star indicates the location of the home of Benjamin Costley and Nance Legins-Costley and their children.

In his email, Adams explains the challenge of “writing about the first slave freed by Lincoln, when no one even knows her last name. OK. How does one do that? Genealogy. It is close to impossible to trace the genealogy of a slave. Now what? Trace the genealogy of the people who claimed to own her soul. It took six genealogies minimum to figure out where Nance was and when back to the time of her birth. I did what Woodward and Bernstein did with ‘All the President’s Men’ – follow the money and the paper trail that followed the money, that’s how.”

Telling of how he became interested in Nance’s story and how he eventually came to write his book, Adams said, “In 1994 my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I was unemployed, and in debt and depressed because of all this. To distract my self-pity, I took an interest in Nance and slavery – who could be worse off than they? I tried free-lance writing, but in Greater Peoria, I couldn’t make a living at it. So research on a totally new story about A. Lincoln had to be a part-time, part-time, part-time ‘hobby,’ as my wife called it. That is why it took so long: five years of research packed into a 15-year period.”

“Nance deserves her place in history because of what she did, not what the others did,” Adam said. “At the auction on July 12, 1827, she just said ‘No.’ By indentured servitude law, the indenture was supposed to ‘voluntarily’ agree to a contract to serve. When Nathan Cromwell asked if she would agree to serve him she just said ‘no,’ which led to a long list of consequences and further legal issues in court.

“What makes her historically important was when she managed to get to the Supreme Court twice. In my history fact-check only Dred Scott had managed to do that and he lost. Then I discovered with primary source material that Nance had actually made it to the Supreme Court three times. The third time was never published nor handed down as a court opinion when the judge found out she was a minor just before age 14. This was truly phenomenal, unprecedented and fantastic for that period of history.”

As Ida Tarbell said of Nance in 1902, “She had declared herself to be free.”

Adams’ book may be previewed and purchased on Amazon.com or through the website www.nancebook.com.

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Seth Kinman’s presidential gift

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

During the summer, this column took the opportunity to feature a number of historical artifacts that were preserved in the Tazewell County Courthouse’s 1914 cornerstone time capsule. This week we’ll take a look at two more artifacts from the courthouse’s cornerstone – a pair of printed cards featuring a California “mountain man” named Seth Kinman (1815-1888).

One of the cards shows a photograph of Kinman himself, looking a lot like Kinman’s contemporary John “Grizzly” Adams (1812-1860), a much better known California mountain man who inspired a 1974 feature film and a 1977-78 NBC television series entitled “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.” The other card shows a unique piece of furniture – an elk horn chair that Kinman presented as a gift to President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 26, 1864. As sharp as the antlers of the chair’s back and arms appear to be, it seems the president would have had to take extra special care if he ever tried to sit on it. Presumably the piece was meant to be decorative only.

The two cards identify Kinman as “the California Hunter and Trapper,” but tell us nothing else about him, nor do they provide any clues that might explain why these two curious photo cards were selected for inclusion in the Tazewell County Courthouse time capsule.

The explanation may be found on page 25 of the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, where we find the following colorful anecdote related by Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates, under the heading “’FIRST-CLASS’ HOTELS”:

“The year 1848 witnessed the establishment of two ‘first-class’ hotels. The ‘Eagle,’ which stood on the site now occupied by the Bemis House [Note: the site is near the corner of Court and Front streets in Riverfront Park], was kept by Seth Kinman, who afterwards acquired considerable celebrity as a hunter and trapper in the far west, and by presenting buck horn and bear claw chairs, of his own make, to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson . . .

“The manner of welcoming guests to these hotels was somewhat peculiar, as the following instance will illustrate: A traveler came off a boat one day, and went to the Eagle Hotel. There had been a little western ‘scrimmage’ at the ‘Eagle’ the night before, and though things had not yet been put in order, the proprietor, Seth Kinman, was sitting in front of the door, playing his favorite tune, the ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ with the greatest self-satisfaction. The stranger, stopping, said to Seth: ‘Are you the proprietor here?’ Seth, without resting his bow, replied, ‘Wall, I reckon I be, stranger.’ ‘Do you keep tavern?’ ‘Of course I do; keep tavern like h-ll,’ said Seth, fiddling away with all his might. ‘Just pile in; hang your freight up on the floor, and make yourself at home. The boys,’ continued Seth, ‘have been having a little fun, but if there’s a whole table or plate in the house, I’ll get you some cold hash towards night.’ The stranger didn’t like the place, and took his departure, leaving the ‘proprietor’ still enjoying his violin.”

Additional biographical information on Kinman may be found in various articles published online, including an extensively researched biographical article at the Wikipedia online encyclopedia website. These sources tell us that Kinman arrived in Tazewell County with his father in 1830, later heading out to Humboldt County, Calif., around the time of the California Gold Rush. Cultivating the life and somewhat eccentric image of an uncouth and brutal wilderness hunter, mountain man, and teller of tall tales (mostly about his own adventures, or alleged adventures), Kinman would become something of a national celebrity. Besides his 1864 visit to Lincoln’s White House, Kinman claimed to have witnessed the president’s assassination the following year, and contemporary newspaper accounts say he took part in Lincoln’s funeral cortege. Kinman afterwards operated a hotel in Table Bluff, Calif., where he died after accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

Kinman was known to hand out copies of the photo cards such as were preserved in the courthouse cornerstone, and the pair of cards from the cornerstone presumably were given by Kinman to Bates, who oversaw the selection of artifacts for the 1914 time capsule.

#abraham-lincoln, #seth-kinman, #tazewell-county-courthouse-time-capsule, #william-h-bates

Tales of Tazewell’s Underground Railroad

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2015 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Tales of Tazewell’s Underground Railroad

Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last week we surveyed the history of the pre-Civil War slavery abolition movement in Pekin, spotlighting local abolitionists such as Dr. Daniel Cheever of Pekin and the Woodrow brothers, Samuel and Hugh.

As we saw previously, Cheever engaged in Underground Railroad activities from his home at the corner of Capitol and Court streets, (and whose farm near Delavan was a depot on the Underground Railroad, by which runaway slaves were helped to escape to freedom and safety in Canada. At the same time, the Woodrow brothers were early Pekin settlers (Catherine Street was named for Samuel’s wife and Amanda Street was named for Hugh’s) who later lived in Circleville south of Pekin, where they aided runaway slaves at their homes.

In his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” Charles C. Chapman devotes an entire chapter of his book – chapter IX – to the running of the Underground Railroad in Tazewell County, on which the “freight” were human beings. As Chapman explains, abolitionists in Illinois frequently encountered fierce and violent opposition from pro-slavery settlers.

Those whose moral convictions spurred them to assist runaway slaves also risked punishment, since both federal and state law prescribed stiff penalties not only for anyone who helped a runaway slave gain his freedom but also for anyone who refused to help recapture runaways.

Pro-slavery men complained bitterly of the violation of the law by their abolition neighbors, and persecuted them as much as they dared: and this was not a little. But the friends of the slaves were not to be deterred by persecution,” Chapman writes.

Here are some of Chapman’s stories of Tazewell County’s Underground Railroad, from pages 317-319 of his history:

“The main depot of the U. G. Road in Elm Grove township was at Josiah Matthews’, on section 24. Mr. Matthews was an earnest anti-slavery man, and helped to gain freedom for many slaves. He prepared himself with a covered wagon especially to carry black freight from his station on to the next. On one occasion there were three negroes to be conveyed from his station to the next, but they were so closely watched that some time elapsed before they could contrive to take them in safety. At last a happy plan was conceived, and one which proved successful. Their faces were well whitened with flour, and with a son of Mr. Matthews’ went into the timber coon-hunting. In this way they managed to throw their suspicious neighbors off their guard, and the black freight was safely conducted northward.

“One day there arrived a box of freight at Mr. Matthews’, and was hurriedly consigned to the cellar. On the freight contained in this box there was a reward of $1,500 offered, and the pursuers were but half an hour behind. The wagon in which the box containing the negro was brought was immediately taken apart and hid under the barn. The horses, which had been driven very hard, were rubbed off, and thus all indications of a late arrival were covered up. The pursuers came up in hot haste, and, suspecting that Mr. Matthews’ house contained the fugitive, gave the place a very thorough search, but failed to look into the innocent-looking box in the cellar. Thus, by such stratagem, the slave-hunters were foiled and the fugitive saved. The house was so closely watched, however, that Conductor Matthews had to keep the negro a week before he could carry him further. This station was watched so closely at times that Mr. Matthews came near being caught, in which case, in all probability, his life would have been very short.

The homestead of Josiah Matthews, southwest of Tremont in Elm Grove Township, is shown in thise detail from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.” Matthews was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at his home he secretly helped fleeing African-American slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

“Mr. Uriah H. Crosby, of Morton township, was an agent and conductor of the U.G.R.R., and had a station at his house. On one occasion there was landed at his station by the conductor just south of him, a very weighty couple, — a Methodist minister and wife. They had a Bible and hymn book that they might conduct religious exercises where they found an opportunity along the way. On conducting them northward Mr. Crosby was obliged to furnish each of them an entire seat, as either of them were of such size as to well fill a seat in his wagon. The next station beyond was at Mr. Kern’s, nine miles. He arrived there in safety, and his heavy cargo was transported on to free soil — Canada.

“The next passenger along the route that stopped at Crosby station arrived on election day. A company had passed on northward when a young man hastily came up. He had invented a cotton gin, and was in haste to overtake the others of the party as they had the model of his invention. He was separated from them by fright. J. M. Roberts found this young man in the morning hid away in his hay-stack, fed him, and sent his son, Junius, with him in haste to Mr. Crosby’s. On his arrival Conductor Crosby put him in his wagon, covered him with a buffalo robe, and drove through Washington and delivered him to Mr. Kern, who took him in an open buggy to the Quaker settlement. He overtook his companions.

The homestead of Uriah Crosby, northwest of Morton in Morton Township, is shown in this detail from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.” Crosby was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at his home he secretly helped fleeing African-American slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

“One of the saddest accidents that ever occurred on the U.G. Road in Tazewell county was the capture of a train by slave hunters. Two men, a woman and three children, were traveling together. The woman and children could journey together only from Tremont toward Crosby station, as they had only one buggy. The negro men concluded to walk, but stopped on the way to rest. Waiting as long as they dared for the men to come up, Messrs. Roberts started on with the women and children, but had not gone far before they were stopped by some slave hunters and their load taken from them. The mother and her three children, who were seeking their liberty, were taken to St. Louis and sold, as the slave hunters could realize more by selling them than by returning them to the owner and receiving the reward.

“When the two men came up it was thought best to take them on by a different route, the people determining they should not be captured. J. M. Roberts arranged to take them on horseback to Peoria lake. Several men accompanied them, riding out as far into the water as they could, and by a preconcerted signal parties brought a skiff to them, into which the men were taken and conveyed across the river and sent on the Farmington route in safety. All other routes were too closely watched.”

#dr-daniel-a-cheever, #hugh-woodrow, #illinois-bicentennial, #j-m-roberts, #josiah-matthews, #junius-roberts, #mr-kern, #preblog-columns, #samuel-woodrow, #underground-railroad, #uriah-h-crosby

Free State of Illinois: Gov. Coles calls for emancipation

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Previously in our ongoing Illinois Bicentennial series, we saw how the controversy over slavery affected the history and development of Illinois from the formation of the Northwest Territory in 1787 right up to Illinois statehood in 1818. In fact, the dispute between Illinois’ pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers played a role both in the breaking off of the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory in 1809 and in the race to achieve statehood for Illinois prior to Missouri.

This week we’ll recall how the issue flared up again during the tenure of Illinois’ second state governor Edward Coles (1786-1868).

About two years after Illinois became a state, the U.S. Congress agreed to admit Missouri and Maine to the Union simultaneously under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which sought to defuse tensions between America’s pro-slavery and abolitionist parties by keeping the numbers of new “slave states” and “free states” balanced. The Missouri Compromise stipulated that slavery would be illegal in any new states formed from the areas of the Louisiana Purchase north of Parallel 36°30′ North.

Looking ahead, we can see that although the issue of slavery continued to simmer in the next three decades, at the national level the Missouri Compromise had moved the issue to the back burner. This arrangement endured until 1854, when Congress passed Illinois Sen. Stephen A. DouglasKansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and made slavery possible north of Parallel 36°30′ North.

Douglas’ rival Abraham Lincoln sharply criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act in his Peoria speech on Oct. 16, 1854, an important step on the road that would take Lincoln to the White House. The resulting outrage over the act on the part of the free states and the abolitionists led to the dreadful violence of “Bleeding Kansas” and, ultimately, to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and the final abolition of slavery in 1865.

In the great conflict over slavery, Illinois was ranged with the free states. As noted before, Article 6 the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had outlawed slavery in any territories or states that later would be formed from the Northwest Territory. But in its early history Illinois’ place among the slave states was somewhat dubious and precarious. Most of Illinois’ early settlers came from slave states and territories, and from 1796 to 1806 there were repeated attempts to legalize slavery in the Indiana and Illinois territories.

Although the pro-slavery forces in Illinois failed to legalize slavery, effectively the practice of slavery still went on in Illinois due to an indentured servitude law that made it possible for slave owners to pressure their slaves to agree to continue to serve their masters after coming to Illinois. In Jan. 1818, the Illinois Territorial Legislature sought to emphasize to Congress that Illinois would be a free state by approving a bill that would have reformed labor contracts to eliminate the practice of indentured servitude. However, Gov. Ninian Edwards (1775-1833), himself a wealthy aristocratic slave-owner, vetoed the bill, claiming it was unconstitutional – the only time Edwards ever exercised his veto power as territorial governor.

After Illinois achieved statehood, pro-slavery forces continued to strive to legalize it. In anticipation of Illinois’ admission to the Union, the territory framed a state constitution in Aug. 1818 – but it is significant that Illinois’ first constitution had a “loophole” of which pro-slavery leaders soon tried to avail themselves in order to legalize slavery. On the question of slavery, the 1818 constitution said, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state otherwise than for the punishment of crimes.

In his 1933 history, “Illinois: the Heart of the Nation,” former Ill. Gov. Edward Dunne explained the loophole in Illinois’ first constitution in these words (pp. 240, 260, 262, emphasis added):

“The section of the constitution relative to slavery and prohibiting it in the state, as amended and finally passed, was a compromise between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery members of the convention. In effect, it practically admitted that the former indentured laws of the territory practically amounted to slavery, but provided that the children of indentured persons were to become free. Under that provision, no indentures made outside the state could be enforced within the state, but the constitution failed to bind the state not to make a revision of the constitution which would admit slavery. Notwithstanding that the constitution failed to have any provision in strict accordance with the Ordinance of 1787 relative to slavery, it was accepted and approved by Congress, . . .

“Slavery had already been introduced into the state. Slaves and indentured servants, who were in almost as abject a condition of service as slaves, were numerous in Illinois at the time this constitution was adopted and, noting the word ‘hereafter’ in the constitution, there was a rush to have indentured articles approved before the constitution went into effect. . . .

“To have framed a constitution favoring slavery, or one making no declaration on the subject, would have invited a denial by Congress of the application for statehood. Therefore, some declaration against slavery was necessary, but reserving a method of reopening the question, was devised and carried in the convention . . . .”

As expected, Dunne wrote, “That opportunity soon arose and was promptly seized by the pro-slavery element in the state.

It happened following the election of Virginia-born Edward Coles as Illinois’ second governor. In Virginia, Coles held a large estate and owned at least 20 slaves, and he served as President James Madison’s private secretary from 1809 to 1815 with a special assignment as ambassador to Russia. By 1814, Coles had come to oppose slavery, corresponding with ex-President Thomas Jefferson on the subject that year.

Edward Coles, 2nd Illinois governor, 1822-1826

After returning from his diplomatic work in Europe, Madison appointed Coles registrar of the federal land office in Edwardsville, Ill. After arranging matters at his Virginia estate, Coles struck out west for Illinois. On the way down the Ohio River, Coles made the decision to set his slaves free. “He promised them each emancipation from slavery,” Dunne wrote, “and 160 acres of land and help for farming, and they, of course, joyfully accepted their freedom and every one of them agreed to accompany him to Edwardsville. Before landing in Illinois Coles gave each of his slaves a written certificate of freedom and all settled around his home near Edwardsville.

Two years later, Coles and three other men entered the race to succeed Shadrach Bond as governor of Illinois. The other gubernatorial candidates were Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joseph Phillips, Associate Justice Thomas C. Brown, and Gen. James B. Moore – Phillips and Brown ran on pro-slavery platforms, while Coles and Moore were anti-slavery. Even though pro-slavery voters outnumbered those opposed to slavery, Coles managed to secure his election because the pro-slavery vote was split almost equally between Phillips and Brown, while Moore only won a few hundred votes.

Coles decided to force the issue of slavery on his very first day as governor in 1822, calling in his inaugural address before the Illinois General Assembly in Vandalia for the immediate emancipation of all slaves or indentured servants in Illinois. The pro-slavery members of the General Assembly responded by making plans to call for a new constitutional convention, with the unstated intention of crafting a constitution that would enshrine slave-owning as a right.

The resolution to put the question of calling a new convention to the people for a vote narrowly passed the Illinois House of Representatives by the slimmest of margins, and under extremely questionable circumstances. Initially the resolution failed by one vote when Nicholas Hansen of Pike County switched sides and voted against the resolution. But Hansen’s own election to the House had been marred by a vote-counting dispute – so his outraged pro-slavery colleagues expelled Hansen from the House and replaced him with his opponent in the election, John Shaw, who then obediently voted in favor of the resolution.

Even though the majority of Illinois voters and members of the General Assembly favored slavery, Dunne observed that, “The high-handed, arbitrary and unfair methods pursued by the House in evicting Hansen and securing thereby a two-thirds vote for the convention, disgusted many fair-minded citizens who had been tolerant of slavery.” Furthermore, although those who sought a new constitutional convention had the goal of turning Illinois from an officially free to an officially slave state, they were not forthright about their intentions, and that cynical approach probably cost them support.

Consequently, despite the numerical advantage and the initial momentum of those who wanted to call a constitutional convention, in the end their effort was resoundingly defeated on Aug. 2, 1824, by a vote of 6,640 to 4,972, “after a campaign of exceeding violence, lasting about eighteen months,” Dunne wrote. It had been an ugly fight, but Gov. Coles and his anti-slavery allies, including the influential journalists Morris Birkbeck and Daniel P. Cook (eponym of Cook County), managed to prevent the prospect of a pro-slavery constitution.

In retrospect, it can be seen that the very fate of the nation hung upon the outcome of Illinois’ convention battle – for if Illinois had switched from free to slave, the proponents of slavery would have gained permanent control of the U.S. Senate, “and no law thereafter could have been passed by Congress limiting or restricting slavery in the United States,” Dunne wrote.

The 1818 constitution limited governors to a single term, so Coles left office in 1826. Though he was able to defeat the convention movement, he was otherwise impotent against the pro-slavery General Assembly, which rejected all of his nominees to state office and ignored his legislative recommendations. Afterwards Coles was sued by the State for freeing his slaves without paying bonds of $200 to vouch for the good behavior of each freed slave. Even though he’d free his slaves before entering Illinois, the State initially won the politically-motivated suit – Coles would have had to pay $2,000, a great financial blow, but Coles appealed to the state Supreme Court and won on appeal.

Wearied by his bitter political experiences in Illinois, Coles returned to the East, finally settling in Philadelphia. His was gravely disappointed by his son Robert, who became a slave-owner and fought for the Confederacy – but he did live to see the abolition of slavery and emancipation of all slaves in the U.S. in the 1860s.

In 1929, a bronze portrait of Gov. Coles was erected in his memory in Valley View Cemetery in Edwardsville. Also, in recognition of Coles’ commitment to the abolition of slavery, the State of Illinois Human Rights Commission offers the Edward Coles Fellowship, a scholarship for law students.

#abolitionism, #abraham-lincoln, #daniel-pope-cook, #gen-james-b-moore, #gov-edward-coles, #illinois-bicentennial, #illinois-constitution, #joseph-phillips, #kansas-nebraska-act, #missouri-compromise, #morris-birkbeck, #ninian-edwards, #northwest-ordinance, #northwest-territory, #peoria-speech, #rep-john-shaw, #rep-nicholas-hansen, #shadrach-bond, #slavery, #stephen-a-douglas, #thomas-c-brown

The abolitionists of Pekin and the formation of the Union League

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

The abolitionists of Pekin and the formation of the Union League

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, Aug. 3, at 11 a.m., in the Pekin Public Library Community Room, the library will have a showing of two videos about Pekin’s first astronaut Lt. Commander (ret.) Scott Altman. The videos are a part of the library’s Illinois Bicentennial Series.

First will be a 35-minute video of Altman’s keynote address at an April 1996 meeting of the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce. Afterwards will be a showing of the footage of Altman’s recent induction into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Astronauts’ Hall of Fame, a video 20 minutes in length.

While the Bicentennial Series videos next week exemplify the astounding technological progress of the modern age, this week’s “From the Local History Room” column looks back to an important aspect of the push for moral and cultural progress in Illinois. This will we will take a trip back to the days of the slavery abolition movement, which made its mark in Pekin and Tazewell County, as it did in many other communities in the Northern States. The “Pekin Centenary 1849-1949” volume presents an enlightening narrative of that important time in our local history.

As we have seen from earlier columns in our Illinois Bicentennial Series, although Illinois was a “free” state, pro-slavery sentiment was predominant throughout southern and central Illinois. In our area, according to the Centenary (p.15), “Pekin was a pro-slave city for years. Some of the original settlers had been slave-owners themselves, and the overwhelming sentiment in Pekin was Democratic. Stephen A. Douglas, not Abraham Lincoln, was the local hero, although Lincoln was well-liked, and had some German following.

Lincoln, of course, was one of Illinois’ leading abolitionist attorneys and politicians, and in 1841 he argued and won a case before the Illinois Supreme Court that secured the freedom of “Black Nance,” a Pekin resident who was the former slave of Nathan Cromwell, whose wife Ann Eliza had chosen Pekin’s name. On Oct. 6, 1858, Lincoln and his fellow abolitionist politician, U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull, came to Pekin and addressed a large crowd in the court house square. (Trumbull would later co-author the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery.)

It was largely due to the influx of German immigrants into Pekin, many of whom had fled religious persecution in their home countries, that abolitionist sentiment began to flourish in our city. Many Baptists were abolitionists, and in 1853 a German congregation of Baptists organized in Pekin – the origin of Pekin’s Calvary Baptist Church.

Among Pekin’s abolitionist leaders, according to the Pekin Centenary, was Dr. Daniel Cheever, who engaged in Underground Railroad activities from his home at the corner of Capitol and Court streets (and whose farm near Delavan was a depot on the Underground Railroad), by which runaway slaves were helped to escape to Canada. Other early Pekin settlers active in the abolitionist movement were the brothers Samuel and Hugh Woodrow (Catherine Street was named for Samuel’s wife, and Amanda Street was named for Hugh’s). The Woodrows aided runaway slaves at their homes in the vanished village of Circleville south of Pekin.

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Illinois cities such as Pekin and Peoria were divided between the pro-slavery element, who favored the Confederacy, and the abolitionist and pro-Union element. In the early days of the war, a secessionist organization calling itself the “Knights of the Golden Circle” (which was something of a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan) boldly worked in support of secession and slavery. The Centenary says the Knights were “aggressive and unprincipled,” and “those who believed in the Union spoke often in whispers in Pekin streets and were wary and often afraid.”

This detail from an 1877 “aerial view” map of Pekin shows the building, marked by the number 55, where the Union League was organized on June 25, 1862.

To counter the dominance of the Knights and promote the cause of the Union, a secret meeting was held on June 25, 1862, above Dr. Cheever’s office at 331 Court St., where 11 of Pekin’s early settlers formed the Union League to promote the cause of Union and abolition. The anti-slavery Germans of Pekin quickly became active in the League. Soon a chapter of the Union League was organized in Bloomington, and then an important chapter in Chicago, where John Medill, founding publisher of the Chicago Tribune, was a leading member.

Very soon the Union League had “swept the entire North and became a great and powerful instrument for propaganda and finance in support of the War” (Pekin Centenary, p.21). After the war, the League became a Republican Party social club, but would carry on its abolitionist legacy through support of civil rights for African Americans.

The 11 founding members of the Union League were the Rev. James W. N. Vernon, Methodist minister at Pekin; Richard Northcroft Cullom, former Illinois state senator; Dr. Daniel A. Cheever, abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor; Charles Turner, Tazewell County state’s attorney; Henry Pratt, Delavan Township supervisor; Alexander Small, Deer Creek Township supervisor; George H. Harlow, Tazewell County circuit clerk; Jonathan Merriam, stock farmer who became a colonel in the Union army; Hart Montgomery, Pekin postmaster; John W. Glassgow, justice of the peace; and Levi F. Garrett, Pekin grocery store owner and baker.

The building where these 11 men gathered in June 1862 was later the location of the Smith Bank and Perlman Furniture in downtown Pekin. Perlman Furniture burned down in 1968 and a few years later Pekin National Bank was built on the site. Plaques commemorating the Union League’s founding are displayed inside and on the outside of the bank building.

A historical plaque on the outside wall of Pekin National Bank at the corner of Court and Capitol streets in downtown Pekin marks the site where the Union League of America was founded. IMAGE COURTESY OF ILLINOIS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY

#abolitionism, #abraham-lincoln, #alexander-small, #ann-eliza-cromwell, #black-nance, #charles-turner, #dr-daniel-cheever, #first-slave-freed-by-abraham-lincoln, #george-h-harlow, #hart-montgomery, #henry-pratt, #hugh-woodrow, #illinois-bicentennial, #james-w-n-vernon, #john-medill, #john-w-glassgow, #jonathan-merriam, #knights-of-the-golden-circle, #levi-f-garrett, #lyman-trumbull, #nathan-cromwell, #pekin-national-bank, #perlman-furniture-co, #preblog-columns, #richard-northcroft-cullom, #samuel-woodrow, #stephen-a-douglas, #teis-smith-bank, #union-league