Illinois makes it to 10: the state’s first incorporated cities

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Following up on our recent accounts of how Pekin became an incorporated town in 1837 and an incorporated city in 1849, this week we’ll scan a wider vista as we study the incorporated municipalities of Illinois.

The city of Pekin is just one of 1,299 Illinois incorporated municipalities, of which there are three kinds: villages, towns, and cities. Given the usual definitions of those terms, one might assume that the kind of municipality depends on population and geographical size – villages being little, towns being mid-sized, cities being largest. But size has almost nothing to do with it.

For example, Melrose Park near Chicago is a village, but has a population of about 25,000, while the southern Illinois municipality of Nason in Jefferson County is a city, but has only 236 residents, making it the smallest city in Illinois. Meanwhile, both Topeka in Mason County, population 71, and Normal in McLean County, population 54,264, are towns. The largest town in Illinois is Cicero, population 82,992, and the smallest town is Bentley in Hancock County, population 34.

The kind of municipality isn’t a matter of size. Rather, they are three forms of municipal government. The main difference is that villages and towns are governed by boards of trustees, while cities are governed by mayors and city councils. The city form of government may be aldermanic, commission, or mayor/managerial.

Remarkably, there are only three counties in Illinois that have no cities: Calhoun County, which has only five villages, all incorporated in the 1880s and 1890s; Henderson County, which has only eight villages; and Putnam County, which has only six villages.

But Tazewell County has five cities: Pekin, incorporated Aug. 21, 1849; Washington, first incorporated Feb. 10, 1857; East Peoria (formerly called Hilton), first incorporated July 1, 1884; Delavan, first incorporated April 17, 1888, and the youngest of our county’s cities, Marquette Heights, incorporated June 27, 1956.

As noted previously, the 1870 Illinois constitution eliminated the option of “town” as a possible choice when a settlement opts for incorporation, so afterwards there could be no new towns. Many Illinois municipalities started out as villages or towns, later adopting a city form of government, but many have remained villages and a few – only 19 – have decided to stick with their original town charters. Most municipalities (including Pekin) re-incorporated under the 1872 general law of incorporation.

Under current incorporation law, a locale must have at least 200 people to incorporate as a village and at least 2,500 to incorporate as a city. Even if the population later shrinks, the municipality need not give up its form of government, but the choice to unincorporate is sometimes made when a municipality declines.

Most of our municipalities were established after Illinois became a state in 1818, but a few settlements were incorporated when Illinois was a territory – and Illinois’ earliest incorporated settlement was Kaskaskia, the former territorial capital and first state capital, which received its original town charter from King Louis XV of France in 1725 during the colonial period.

Almost a year before Illinois statehood, Kaskaskia was incorporated as a town on Jan. 6, 1818. The following year the state capital was moved to Vandalia, and poor abandoned Kaskaskia eventually was almost completely destroyed by a flood in April 1881, when the Mississippi River changed its course. The 2000 federal census showed only nine people left in the bayou that is all that remains of the first state capital.

Another Illinois city, Golconda in Pope County, was already around by 1816 when Pope County was established. Originally called Sarahsville, the residents opted for the name “Golconda” on Jan. 24, 1817, and they received a town charter on March 1, 1845, becoming a city some time later. Thus, one must not interpret the date of incorporation as the same as the date of founding, because usually a community or settlement existed for several years, even a long time, before finally incorporating.

Of those municipalities that later became cities, Pekin was the 17th municipality to be incorporated since Illinois became a territory — but the earliest one of them to become an incorporated municipality was Shawneetown in Gallatin County, which became a village on Dec. 8, 1814, a town on Feb. 27, 1847, and a city on Feb. 22, 1861.

Old Pekin historical publications say Pekin was the 10th incorporated city in Illinois, a claim that can be confirmed by consulting Illinois state records and old published county histories.

The very first incorporated city in Illinois was Cairo in Alexander County, which was granted a city charter on Jan. 9, 1818. In those days, however, Cairo was really only a city on paper. The site was chosen for a city because, as the charter states, the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers was thought an economically auspicious location. In those days, there seemed little grounds to hope for prosperity in a city on the shores of Lake Michigan (the railroad was still a new invention, and the St. Lawrence Seaway was yet future), and Illinois depended on the Mississippi for the movement of people and goods. Nevertheless, no one would be interested in living in the planned and platted city of Cairo for many more years to come. A new settlement at the site was founded in the 1830s, and so Cairo was given a second city charter on March 4, 1837.

Shown is a detail from an 1819 Illinois state law that lists several pre-statehood laws that had been passed by the Illinois Territorial Legislature. One of them, approved Jan. 9, 1818, was “an act to incorporate the city and bank of Cairo” — thus making Cairo at the southern tip of Illinois, then only a proposed city, the first incorporated city in Illinois.

If not for Cairo’s 1818 charter, the honor of being Illinois’ first incorporated city would go to (where else?) Chicago, which became a city on March 4, 1837, the same date as Cairo’s second charter. Chicago was originally incorporated as a town on Aug. 12, 1833. Coming in close behind Chicago as Illinois’ third city is Alton in Madison County, which incorporated as a city on July 31, 1837 (but became a town before Chicago did, on Jan. 30, 1821).

The fourth and fifth cities of Illinois were Quincy and Springfield, but were incorporated by the Illinois General Assembly on the same day, Feb. 3, 1840. Springfield, which incorporated as a town on April 2, 1832, had recently been designated as Illinois’ third state capital. It officially received its city charter on April 6, 1840.

Illinois’ sixth incorporated city was Nauvoo in Hancock County, which served as the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) until the Mormon War. Nauvoo became a city on Feb. 1, 1841.

Next in order came Galena in Jo Daviess County, the home of President Ulysses S. Grant, which was incorporated as a town on Jan. 7, 1835. The path that Galena was forced to take to acquire its first city charter was marred by political tumult and controversy involving a runaway town board. The General Assembly approved a city charter for Galena on Feb. 15, 1839, stipulating that the Galena town board had to place the proposed charter before their residents for a vote. The board members, however, usurped the role of the State Supreme Court and claimed some of the charter’s provisions were unconstitutional. Flouting state law, the board passed a resolution declaring that they would never obey the law requiring them to hold a town referendum on the charter. Legal action immediately ensued, leading to the state’s high court issuing a writ of mandamus (Latin, “we command”) on Nov. 16, 1840, ordering the Galena board to let their constituents vote on the charter. The board again rebelled. The scandal finally was ended by the exasperated people of Galena themselves, who voted out the old board on April 5, 1841. The new board members immediately agreed to hold the vote on the charter, which was approved by a vote of 196-34 on April 26, 1841. So Galena finally became a city. (The full account of Galena’s tortuous path to cityhood may be read in H.F. Kett’s 1878 History of Jo Daviess County.)

After the fireworks of Galena’s city charter battle, Peoria much more quietly became the eighth incorporated city in Illinois on April 21, 1845. Almost four years elapsed until Illinois got its ninth city: Rock Island, incorporated on Feb. 12, 1849. Six months later, in August of 1849, Pekin voted to adopt a city charter, making Pekin the 10th incorporated city in Illinois.

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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.

#act-to-legalize-the-incorporation-of-pekin, #illinois-bicentennial, #pekin-becomes-a-town, #pekin-history, #pekin-incorporation-snafu, #pekins-first-town-charter, #william-h-bates

Bernard Bailey (1812-1903), Pekin’s first mayor

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

Bernard Bailey, Pekin’s first mayor

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last time we reviewed the story of how Pekin became an incorporated city in 1849. When the residents of Pekin formally adopted a city charter on Aug. 20, 1849, Pekin opted for a mayor/alderman form of government.

The earliest published history of Pekin is found in the Sellers & Bates 1870 Pekin City Directory. On page 28 of that volume, we read, “The election for city officers occurred on the 24th of September, 1849, and resulted in the election of the following named officers: Mayor – Bernard Bailey. First Ward – John Atkinson. Second Ward – David P. Kenyon. Third Ward – Wm. S. Maus. Fourth Ward – Jacob Riblet.”

The Bailey name is an old one in Pekin – part of Pekin is known as Bailey Addition, and Lake Arlann (Meyers Lake) formerly was called Bailey’s Lake. However, Bernard Bailey does not appear to have been a member of that Bailey family. The 1880 “History of Peoria County” says he was born in Maryland on March 26, 1812, the son of Vincent and Susanna (Bernard) Bailey. He first came to Tazewell County, Illinois, around 1830, where he worked as a school teacher and worked at his father’s ox mill. Settling in Pekin, he went into the grocery business and did some wagon making, saving enough money to become a lawyer.

Shown are the federal letters patent signed by President Andrew Jackson confirming the purchase of land in Tazewell County on April 15, 1833, by Bernard Bailey of Pekin, who later was elected Pekin’s first mayor on Sept. 24, 1849. IMAGE FROM U.S. GENERAL LAND OFFICE ARCHIVES VIA ANCESTRY.COM

Bailey then left Pekin, moving to Mercer County, Illinois, and then south to Louisiana, the native state of his wife Arabella Gilmore. In East Baton Rouge Parish, he tried his hand at sugar and cotton planting, until in 1848 he returned to Pekin, being elected mayor the following year.

Originally Pekin’s mayor and aldermen were elected to serve one-year terms, with elections taking place in the spring. Because the first mayor and city council were elected in the autumn, however, they could only serve about seven months before the next election. The 1870 City Directory says the second city election was on April 15, 1850, and Mayor Bailey and three of the four aldermen were reelected (Atkinson losing his reelection bid to Peter Weyhrich, who later would serve a term as Pekin’s mayor in 1858-1859).

Before Pekin could vote to incorporate as a city, a hasty enumeration of the town’s inhabitants had to be conducted to verify that Pekin had at least 1,500 residents. However, immigration and prosperity was fueling a population boom during Mayor Bailey’s two terms. The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial says, “Only a year later, Pekin’s population had increased by more than 20% to 1,840, many of the new arrivals being German immigrants. Bailey was re-elected Mayor (the terms then being one year) and all seemed to be going well.”

“That did not last long, however,” the Sesquicentennial continues.

It was at this point that the fledgling city government experienced its first “hiccup.” The 1887 Pekin City Directory, page 30, briefly explains:

“On the 9th of October, 1850, it was resolved by the Council that the Mayor be requested to resign his office, that the city may elect a Mayor who will attend to the duties of his office. On the 25th of October, Mayor Bailey sent in his written resignation which, on motion, was accepted.”

It should be noted that the 1870 City Directory mistakenly switched the calendar dates of the council resolution and Bailey’s resignation. That error was corrected in the 1887 edition, but the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial repeats the 1870 City Directory’s mistake.

The standard reference works on Pekin’s early history do not tell us why Mayor Bailey was not “attending to the duties of his office,” but Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 723, includes a brief reference to Bernard Bailey that may or may not shed some light on that question:

“In the month of October, 1848, the Tazewell Mirror was purchased from John S. Lawrence by John Smith, now of Princeton, Ill. In 1850 Smith sold to Bernard Bailey, but repurchased the Mirror in 1851 in company with Adam Henderson.”

Could Mayor Bailey have been distracted from his civic duties in 1850 by his struggle to operate a newspaper? Whatever the answer to that question, after Bailey’s resignation, a special election was held on Nov. 25, 1850, and Abram Woolston (mistakenly called Woolstein in the 1879 “History of Tazewell County”) was elected to serve the remainder of Bailey’s term. Since Mayor Bailey’s election in 1849, a total of 48 men and one woman (Laurie Barra, 2011-2015) have held the office of Mayor of Pekin. There have been three mayors in Pekin’s history who have served more than one term: Charles Diusdieker (1895-1996, 1911-1915), J. Norman Shade (1939-1954, 1959-1966), and David Tebben (1995-2003, 2007-2008).

After owning the Mirror for six months, Bailey sold out and moved to Peoria. There he bought an interest in the Peoria Republican newspaper, later going into the boot and shoe business. In 1856 he was elected Justice of the Peace. He and his wife had 11 children. Pekin’s first mayor lived to the age of 91, dying at Peoria Hospital on Aug. 22, 1903. He was buried in Springdale Cemetery in Peoria.

#abram-woolston, #bernard-bailey, #charles-duisdieker, #david-tebben, #dr-william-s-maus, #illinois-bicentennial, #laurie-barra, #mayor-j-norman-shade, #pekin-history, #pekins-first-mayor, #peter-weyhrich

How Pekin became the 10th incorporated city in Illinois

This is a revised version of one of our “From the Local History Room” columns that first appeared on 28 Jan. 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

How Pekin became a city

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Pekin has been Tazewell County’s leading community and the continuous seat of county government about as long as Pekin has been a city. But our city had not a few birth pangs in its earliest days, and during Pekin’s first two decades or so the community’s future was often in doubt.

As stated in the Nov. 5, 2011, “From the History Room” column, the 1824 arrival of Jonathan Tharp three years before the formation of Tazewell County was the seed from which Pekin would grow. However, things got off to a slow start, and by 1830 only eight white families lived in the settlement that was given the name “Pekin” that year.

Pekin’s fortunes were then on the rise, however, and in the spring of 1831 the county’s officials obtained permission from the state to temporarily move the county’s government operations from Mackinaw to Pekin – an interim decision until a state-appointed commission had determined where the permanent county seat should be.

Four years later, on July 2, 1835, Pekin’s voters chose to formally incorporate as a town and the community held its first town election on July 9, 1835, to install “a board of five trustees of the Town of Pekin” to serve one-year terms. The vote results were: D. Mark, 24; D. Bailey, 24; Samuel Wilson, 17; Joshua C. Morgan, 22; S. Pillsbury, 24; and S. Field, 12. In the words of Pekin’s early historian W.H. Bates, “On the 11th of the same month, the Board of Trustees was organized, J.C. Morgan being elected President, and Benjamin Kellogg, Jr., Clerk.” (1870 Pekin City Directory, p.13)

Just one year later, however, Pekin suffered one of its many early setbacks, when the above mentioned state-appointed commission decided that county seat was to be moved from Pekin to Tremont. Pekin’s Board President J.C. Morgan moved to Tremont at that time and resigned from the Pekin town board on June 27, 1836.

Undaunted by the loss of county seat status, Pekin carried on with its annual town elections and its population steadily increased. Calamity struck in late 1843, however, when a deadly scarlet fever epidemic swept over the community, which then numbered about 800 residents.

This detail from page 27 of the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory shows W. H. Bates’ account of the vote and local census that enabled Pekin to become an incorporated city in August of 1849.

It would be more than a decade before Pekin found itself on surer footing. As the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial says, “After years of misfortunes, epidemics, wars, droughts, and general weariness, Pekin seemed due for a change of luck. It came, and 1849 was the turning point. The population had risen to 1,500, and the town’s residents voted unanimously to organize under a city charter (dated August 20, 1849). On September 24, Bernard Bailey was elected mayor, heading a council of four aldermen: John Atkinson, David Kenyon, William Maus, and Jacob Riblet.”

Maus, incidentally, was one of the town’s doctors, and he had attended to the sick during the scarlet fever epidemic of 1843-1844. He had previously treated Pekin’s cholera victims during the July 1834 epidemic.

In the 1870 Pekin City Directory, W. H. Bates details the process of how Pekin became a city. To begin with, Bates says the county seat was moved from Tremont back to Pekin in 1848. But Illinois state records show that it was 1849, the same year Pekin incorporated as a city, and “1849” is handwritten — perhaps by Bates himself — on the page of the library’s copy of the 1870 City Directory.

Bates then relates that on Aug. 7, 1849, the town board approved a resolution to take a census of Pekin “preparatory to city organization under the general act of incorporation allowing towns of fifteen hundred inhabitants the privilege of adopting the Springfield or Quincy charters if a majority of the inhabitants, upon due notice, vote in favor of it.” (Springfield and Quincy had themselves both received their city charters from the Illinois General Assembly on Feb. 3, 1840.)

Only two days later, on Aug. 9, 1849, the census results were reported to the board, and, having found that Pekin contained at least 1,500 people, it was “ordered that two weeks’ notice, to be published in the ‘Mirror,’ for an election, to be held on the 20th of August, 1849, to vote for or against the City of Pekin.”

With the unanimous vote on Aug. 20, the “City of Pekin” was born, with a mayor/alderman form of government. Bates says Pekin was only the 10th incorporated city in the State of Illinois. Records show that it had been only six months since the state’s ninth city, Rock Island, was incorporated.

#bernard-bailey, #county-seat, #dr-william-s-maus, #illinois-bicentennial, #j-c-morgan, #joshua-c-morgan, #pekin-becomes-a-city, #pekin-becomes-a-town, #preblog-columns, #w-h-bates

William H. Bates’ list of Pekin’s ‘firsts’

This is a slightly revised version of one of our “From the Local History Room” columns 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.

William H. Bates’ list of Pekin’s ‘firsts’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, May 4, at 11 a.m., the Pekin Public Library will present the fifth video in its Illinois Bicentennial Series in the Community Room. As people in the U.S. and Europe observe the 73rd anniversary of “V-E Day” (the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945), the video will be “We Were There: World War II.” The video is an Alliance Library System oral history that was filmed at the Pekin Public Library, Eureka Public Library, and Illinois State Library in 1992. Afterwards, the Pekin Public Library’s oral history production that recorded personal memories of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will be shown. Admission is free and the public is invited.

This subject of this week’s column deals with matters of peace rather than war. As this column has noted more than once, William H. Bates (1840-1930) was the first to publish a history of Pekin, which was included in several editions of the old Bates Pekin City Directories starting in 1870. Since Bates’ historical account was itself a landmark in Pekin’s history, it’s only fitting that one of the chief features of his account is that it highlights several of Pekin’s “firsts.” This week we’ll review Bates’ tally of Pekin’s firsts, which begins with:

The first election: According to Bates, the first local election took place in August 1826 at the Dillon home, where Nathan Dillon and his kin had settled. The area was then under the jurisdiction of Peoria County, for Tazewell County was not to be established by the Illinois General Assembly until the following year. “We are not informed who received a majority of the votes nor the number polled, but the day was a gala one and of sufficient importance to be commemorated by a banquet,” Bates writes.

The first death: After white Americans began to make permanent settlements in what would become Tazewell County, the first recorded death was that of Ezekiel Turner, who was struck by lightning in February 1825. To make a coffin, Turner’s companions felled a straight walnut tree, cut the trunk in half along its length, and then hollowed out the trunk.

The first settler: The first white settler in what would become Pekin was Jonathan Tharp of Ohio, who built a log cabin in 1824 on a bluff above the Illinois River at a spot that today is near the foot of Broadway, not far from where Pottawatomi Chief Shabbona and his family soon after set up their wigwams.

The first white child: On March 10, 1827, Joseph, son of Jonathan Tharp, was the first white child born in what would become Pekin.

The first steamboat: The first steamboat to visit Pekin chugged up the river early one morning in the late fall of 1828, the never-before-heard noises giving many of the sleepy settlers a real fright. Jonathan Tharp’s father Jacob thought the sounds signaled the end of the world, Bates says.

The first store: Pekin’s first store was opened in 1830 by Absalom Dillon, followed by David Bailey’s store later the same year. Also in 1830 was:

The first hotel or tavern, which was opened by Gideon H. Hawley, and:

The first church: Pekin’s first church building was erected by the Methodists on Elizabeth Street between Third and Capitol. The Rev. Joseph Mitchell was the congregation’s first regular pastor.

The first brick house: Pekin’s original homes were log cabins and wood frame houses, but by the 1830s some settlers began to build brick homes. The first one was the Mark residence at the corner of Court and Second streets. “We are not informed as to the time when it was built, but from the fact that it was raised to its present height in 1835, we presume it was erected as early as 1833,” Bates says.

Shown is the home of Pekin pioneer Jacob Tharp, who came here from Ohio in 1825. Tharp’s dwelling, located where the St. Joseph’s Parish Center is today, was one of the first two-storey brick houses in Pekin according to “Pekin: A Pictorial History.” According to W. H. Bates, the Mark residence was the first brick house.

The first town election: After the establishment of Pekin as a town, the first town election took place on July 9, 1835. Five men were elected as town trustees: D. Mark, D. Bailey, Samuel Wilson, J.C. Morgan and S. Pillsbury, with Morgan being elected as president of the town’s board of trustees.

The first bank: Bates writes, “The first Bank or Banking house in Pekin, was a branch of the Bank of Illinois, which was established in 1839 or 1840. John Marshall, of Shawneetown, President of the parent bank, was President; Charles Wilcox, Cashier; and William Docker, Clerk. It was located in the rear of Mark’s store, on Second street. About all that remains of the Bank to-day is the old safe, now used by P. A. Brower, in the office of the Illinois River Packet Company, on Front street.”

The first town seal: Pekin’s first seal was “an eagle of a quarter of a dollar of the new coinage,” formally adopted by the town board on Dec. 29, 1840.

The first distilleries: Formerly a major industry in Pekin, the first two alcohol distilleries in Pekin were located, Bates writes, “one immediately south of where the present alcohol works are situated; the other on the ground occupied by the Reisinger distillery of to-day. The latter outliving its usefulness as a distillery was converted into a slaughter-house, in which capacity it remained until the 9th of May, 1849, when, having become, in the opinion of the people, a nuisance, it was destroyed by a mob . . . .”

The first steam mill: Pekin’s first steam mill was built in April 1845 by Benjamin Kellogg near the river between Margaret and Ann Eliza streets. Kellogg’s business was destroyed by a fire in the fall of 1849.

The first jail: Pekin’s first jail — which Bates calls “the first calaboose” — was built in November 1849 for the cost of $48. The “calaboose” served the city until 1868, when it was destroyed by a fire started by some of its inmates.

The first mayor: After being incorporated as a city on Aug. 20, 1849, Pekin elected its first mayor and aldermen on Sept. 24 that year. Pekin’s first mayor was Bernard Bailey, who was also the first mayor to resign, being pressured by the city council to leave in October 1850 “that the city may elect a Mayor who will attend to the duties of his office.”

The first railroad: The last “first” that Bates included in his account was the beginning of Pekin’s first railroad. “On the 4th day of July, 1859, the first rail was laid and the first spike driven on the prospective Illinois River Railroad. . . . The leading citizens participated in celebrating the new enterprise on such an auspicious day as the Fourth of July. The road was never really completed until it passed into the hands of the present company, when the name was changed, and it is now the flourishing and well-managed Peoria, Pekin and Jacksonville Railroad.”

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When Pekin was only a town

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

For the first 19 years of its existence, from 1830 to 1849, Pekin was a pioneer town, with much of the character that is associated with the Wild West rather than a modern semi-rural Midwestern city. A Native American village even thrived near the new town until 1833, first located on the ridge above Pekin Lake and later on the south shores of Worley Lake.

However, as Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates tells in the 1870-71 Pekin City Directory, it was in that first period of Pekin’s history that the crucial groundwork was laid for Pekin’s civic development.

Thus, Bates tells us that Pekin’s nascent economy got a boost in Pekin’s first year with the opening of two stores – one belonging to Absalom Dillon and the other to David Bailey – and a hotel or tavern operated by Pekin co-founder Gideon Hawley. Religion in the new town also made its debut in 1830, with the construction of Rev. Joseph Mitchell’s Methodist Church on Elizabeth Street between Third and Capitol.

The following year, Thomas Snell built the town’s first school house, located on Second Street between Elizabeth and St. Mary. Thomas’ son John was the school teacher. The same year, Thomas built Pekin’s first warehouse.

The most significant of 1831’s milestones for Pekin was the transfer of the county seat from Mackinaw to Pekin. When the Illinois General Assembly created Tazewell County in early 1827, Mackinaw was designated as the county seat because it was near what was then the geographical center of Tazewell County. But Pekin’s location as a port on the Illinois River meant Pekin was less remote than Mackinaw. That greater accessibility gave Pekin better prospects.

Another thing that may have played a role in the decision to move the county seat was a memorable extreme weather event: the incredible “Deep Snow” of Dec. 1830, a snowfall and sudden freeze that had turned life on the Illinois prairie into a desperate fight for survival. Pekin was closer to other, larger towns and settlements than Mackinaw, and therefore safer for settlers.

With such considerations in mind, the county’s officials decided to relocate to Pekin even though Illinois law still said Mackinaw was the county seat.

Pekin remained the de facto county seat for the next five years. During that time, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Samuel D. Lockwood presided over the Circuit Court in Tazewell County. Court at first took place in the Snell school house, but later would convene in the Pekin home of Joshua C. Morgan, who simultaneously held the offices of Circuit Clerk, County Clerk, Recorder of Deeds, Master in Chancery, and Postmaster. That house was later the residence of Pekin pioneer doctor William S. Maus.

The Black Hawk War, Illinois’ last conflict with its Native American population, broke out in 1832. The war lasted only a few months. It began disastrously for the Illinois militia with the debacle at Stillman’s Run in northern Illinois, where the untrained and undisciplined militia recruits quickly succumbed to panic and fled, leaving behind the few brave men in their number to be butchered and scalped. As Bates sardonically put it, “The balance of the command, so history hath it, saved their scalps by doing some exceedingly rapid marching to Dixon on the Rock River.” Among the fallen was Pekin co-founder Major Isaac Perkins.

The town of Pekin itself was not directly affected by the fighting, although the townsfolk did build a stockade around the Snell school house as a precaution, renaming it Fort Doolittle. The fort never had to be used, however, which was a very good thing, because, as Bates commented, it “was so constructed, that in case of a siege, the occupants would have been entirely destitute of water.”

Despite the war’s inauspicious start, the Illinois troops quickly gained the upper hand and Sauk war leader Black Hawk (Makataimeshekiakiak) was forced to give up the struggle. The outcome of the war was the greatest calamity for the remaining Indian tribes of Illinois, who beginning in 1833 were almost to a man forcibly relocated to reservations west of the Mississippi – including the Pottawatomi and Kickapoo bands who lived in Tazewell County. Tazewell County’s Pottawatomi were soon joined by the harried remnants of their kin from Indiana, whom state militia soldiers forced to march west from their homes in Indiana in 1838 along a route that is remembered as the Pottawatomi Trail of Death.

In July 1834, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera struck Pekin, causing the deaths of several pioneers, including Thomas Snell and the wife of Joshua C. Morgan. The victims were hastily interred in the old Tharp Burying Ground, the former site of which is now the parking lot of the Pekin Schnucks grocery store.

Given the challenges and upheavals of the first five years of Pekin’s existence, it should not be surprisingly to learn that there are no surviving records of the town’s elections prior to 1835. On July 9, 1835, the townsfolk elected five men as Trustees: David Mark, David Bailey, Samuel Wilson, Joshua C. Morgan, and Samuel Pillsbury. Two days later, Pekin’s newly elected Board of Trustees organized itself, choosing Morgan as its president and Benjamin Kellogg Jr. as clerk.

One of the first acts of the new board was passing an ordinance on Aug. 1, 1835, specifying the town’s limits. At the time, Pekin’s boundaries extended from the west bank of the Illinois River in Peoria County eastward along a line that is today represented by Dirksen Court, reaching out as far as 11th Street, then straight south along to 11th to Broadway, then westward along Broadway back across the Illinois River to Peoria County. It is noteworthy that land in Peoria County has been included within the limits of Pekin ever since 1835.

This detail from an 1864 map of Pekin has been cropped to match the town limits of Pekin as they stood in 1835 — extending from the west bank of the Illinois River eastward to what is today 11th Street, and from Broadway north to what is today Dirksen Court. Many of the 1864 streets did not yet exist in 1835, of course.

Pekin’s first Board of Trustees continued to meet until June 27, 1836, when the county seat was formally relocated by Illinois law to Tremont, where a new court house had been built. Pekin then elected a new board on Aug. 8, 1836, the members of which were Samuel Pillsbury, Spencer Field, Jacob Eamon, John King, and David Mark. King was elected board president and Kellogg was again elected clerk.

Board members served one-year terms in those days, so Pekin held elections every year. Getting enough board members together for a quorum was evidently a real challenge. The board addressed that problem by passing of an ordinance on Jan. 4, 1838, stipulating that any board member who was more than 30 minutes late for a board meeting would forfeit $1 of his pay.

Another notable act of Pekin’s board around that time was a resolution of Dec. 29, 1840, adopting “an eagle of a quarter of a dollar of the new coinage” as the official seal of the town of Pekin.

On Dec. 29, 1840, the Pekin Board of Trustees officially adopted an American eagle like the one shown on this mid-19th century quarter as the seal of the Town of Pekin.

Throughout these years, Pekin continued to see economic developments. The first bank in town, a branch of the Bank of Illinois, was established in 1839 or 1840 at the rear of a store on Second Street. There was not yet a bridge across the Illinois River, but ferries were licensed to operate. Alcohol distilleries also were established in the area that is still Pekin’s industrial district, and around those years Benjamin Kellog also built the first steam mill near the river between Margaret and Anna Eliza streets.

In spite of a scarlet fever epidemic in winter of 1843-44, these economic developments were signs of Pekin’s continuing growth and progress, notwithstanding the loss of the county seat to Tremont. The pioneer town was poised to attain the status and rank of a city.

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Jacob Tharp’s memoir of Pekin’s founding

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The founding of Pekin was due to the influx of settlers of central Illinois during the 1820s, in the decade following Illinois statehood. This area’s newcomers in that wave of settlement were first attracted to Fort Clark (Peoria), but before long pioneers were establishing homesteads up and down the Illinois River valley in Peoria’ vicinity.

Pekin, as it well known, began with Jonathan Tharp’s homestead of 1824 on a ridge above the Illinois River, at what is now the foot of Broadway near downtown Pekin. Within a year, Tharp had been joined by several other settlers, including his own father Jacob Tharp (1773-1871) and brother Northcott Tharp, and his friend Jesse Eggman, all of whom arrived in 1825 and built cabins near Jonathan’s.

Most of what we know of Pekin’s “pre-history” during the 1820s comes from three sources: the 1860 diary of Jacob Tharp, William H. Bates’ 1870 account of Pekin’s history that he first published in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, and Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.”

The 1860 diary of Pekin pioneer Jacob Tharp (1773-1871), shown here, is one of the most important primary sources for the history of Pekin’s founding.

Jacob Tharp’s diary contains the earliest surviving reference to Pekin as “the Celestial City,” referring to the old pioneer tradition that Pekin had been named after Peking (Beijing), China. A transcript of Tharp’s diary was itself published on pages 565-562 of Chapman’s history, and Tharp’s account was substantially reproduced in the 1949 Pekin Centenary and the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volumes. Following are excerpts from Tharp’s diary, drawn from Chapman’s county history:

“. . . After a streak of bad luck, in 1825, [I] left Ohio, where I then resided, and traveled through Indiana with one ox-team, a span of horses, and a family of twelve persons, reaching the site of Pekin just before Christmas.

“Jonathan Tharp, my son, built the first house ever erected in the city of Pekin, in 1824, on the spot now occupied by Joshua Wagenseller’s residence. Jonathan’s farm embraced the land now covered by our heaviest business houses.

“At the time of my arrival, Jonathan was the only occupant. Their neighbors were Major Nathan Cromwell, living on the Hawley farm; Gideon Hawley, living on the Mackinaw side of Sand Prairie; Seth Wilson, living on John Young’s farm; John and Geo. Clines, between that place and Tremont; the Woodrows and John Summers, living in the Woodrow settlement; the Dillon family, after whom that township was named; the Hodgsons, friends and relatives of the Dillons; old Benj. Briggs, afterwards Sheriff; James Scott, who with Wilson, acted as constable in those days; and Wm. Eads, who was the first miller in this section of the State. He ran a ‘horse-mill,’ and ground only corn. On New Year’s day, 1827, I went to Fort Clark, now Peoria, where I found a few cabins occupied by John Hamlin, James Dixon, and others. Hamlin had a little store, and I bought groceries, coffee selling at 37 ½ cents per pound. On my way home I contracted for mast-fed pork at $2.50 per hundred. I soon built my cabin, placing it about half way between Joshua Wagenseller’s house and the present landing at the river.

“In the summer of 1827, the first consignment of goods was sent to Pekin, by one [Mordecai] Mobley, the land auctioneer. I received them, and so won the honor of being the first commission merchant. Most of the goods, however, went on to Mackinaw, which was the first shire-town. Pekin at this early day, was reported to be the best commercial point on the Illinois river. All goods came up from St. Louis, which was the great basis of supplies for the settlers.

“The Government surveys were made previous to 1828. This year we were cheered by a close neighbor, a Mr. Hinkle, who came to put up a trading house for Absalom Dillon. The goods came before the house was finished, and so my smoke-house was used for the first store. This season the Methodists established a mission, and their first service was held in Hawley’s house, on Sand Prairie. In the fall of 1828, Absalom and Joseph Dillon moved to Pekin, and ‘camped out’ for a while. Major Cromwell came in 1829, and bought out Dillon’s stock in trade, when those gentleman returned to the country. In the same year, Hawley and William Haines built cabins in our town. The inhabitants then consisted of Cromwell, Hawley, Haines, Dr. John Warner, the two Hiatts, Jonathan Tharp and myself. Mr. Clark made a raft of hewed puncheons, and started the ferry, placing a stake just below the present ferry landing to mark his claim.

“When the land sales were held at Springfield, there were several claimants for the Pekin town-site. On the first day of the sale the bidding ran high, and the land was knocked down to William Haines at $20.00 dollars an acre; but he did not comply with the regulations of the sale, and on the second day the same tract was sold for one hundred dollars per acre. The buyer again failed to comply, and the tract was once more offered on the third day. A man in Springfield, named Harrington, had in the meantime a deadly quarrel with Major [Isaac] Perkins, one of the principal claimants, growing out of some delicate question. Those were chivalrous days, and he determined on revenge. So he placed himself near the auctioneer, armed to the eyebrows, and when the coveted tract was put up, he bid one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre, and swore he would blow out any man’s brains who offered a higher bid. Major Perkins was stalking around the room, armed for battle and hunting blood. There was immense excitement, and death was felt in the atmosphere, but the tract was knocked down to Harrington. He complied with the regulations and walked out feeling sublime, but the Major and his friends captured the usurper, conveyed him to a room and persuaded him to make out deeds for the prize. From these papers the original title is derived.”

“In the spring of 1830, the proprietors surveyed and laid out the town, Perkins, Hawley, Haines and Cromwell being the active agents. Cromwell did the surveying. About this time Perkins sold out to Thomas Snell, from Cincinnati, Ohio. The gentlemen were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city. The elder Hiatt had a claim upon the Lake shore, but when the land sales occurred he forgot to bid, and Carpenter bought his tract, also buying eighty acres on the east side of said tract. The proprietors of the future city included these two tracts in the town-site. Mr. Hiatt was appeased with a pony purse of seventy-five or eighty dollars.

“After some property sales, the foreign owners were bought out and the entire city owned, body and soul, by five persons, namely: William Haines, Thomas Snell, Nathan Cromwell, William Brown, and David Bailey. The surveys were finally completed, and it was found that the lots had cost just twenty-eight cents apiece. The advertisement for the gale of lots was immediately made, to take place in April, 1830. The deed of partition was drawn up before the sale, and is the one now on record.”

Many additional details on Pekin’s founding were recorded in four pages of the original handwritten minutes of the stockholder meetings of the company that founded Pekin. From these minutes we learn that on Dec. 28, 1829, 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, according to the minutes, 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. Isaac Perkins made the motion to vote on the town’s name, and three names were proposed: Pekin, Port Folio, and Portugal. According to old pioneer tradition, Nathan Cromwell’s wife Ann Eliza had proposed the name of “Pekin,” and that name garnered the most votes – and thus Pekin was born.

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