William W. Sellers, publisher and politician

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in July 2012 before the launch of this weblog.

William W. Sellers, publisher and politician

By Jared L. Olar
Library assistant

The foundation of Pekin’s historical record was laid in 1870, with the publication of the Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory. As noted more than once in this column, included in that directory was a “History of Pekin, from its earliest settlement to the present time.”

The 1870 directory billed itself as “the first history and directory of the city.” The conjunction “and” is important – it was not the first city directory (that was the 1861 Roots directory), but it does contain the first published history of Pekin. If not for the Sellers & Bates directory, our knowledge of Pekin’s early history would be greatly impoverished.

But just who were “Sellers & Bates, Printers,” to whom researchers into our local history owe such a great debt? We first answered the “Bates” part of that question in the March 17, 2012 Pekin Daily Times, in the column, “William H. Bates of Pekin, ‘the historian of the city.’

Bates was the younger half of the printing and publishing partnership of Sellers & Bates. Sellers was William W. Sellers of Pekin, a newspaper publisher and Republican politician (there was no clear line separating the two roles in those days, even as the line between journalism and politics is obscured in our day) who enjoyed a fair degree of local prominence.

The entries for William Sellers and his printing firm, Sellers & Bates, in the 1870 Pekin City Directory which his business produced and published.

Sellers briefly appears in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” p.723, in Chapman’s account of Tazewell County’s early newspapers. One of them was the Tazewell County Republican, of which Chapman writes, “. . . Wm. W. Sellers got a hold of it, in 1863 or ’64. He made it a red-hot Republican organ and one of the best papers published in the Northwest. He was a shrewd able writer and could turn the English language into a two-edge sword when in a wordy conflict with an opponent. He conducted it until his death, which occurred Dec. 15, 1872. It was then conducted by his administrators for a short time, when Jacob R. Riblett and Wm. H. Bates purchased it.

Shown is an advertisement for the Tazewell County Republican newspaper from the 1870 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory. The Tazewell County Republican was owned and published by William W. Sellers.

The reference to Sellers’ death in 1872 explains why Sellers’ name dropped from the title of subsequent editions of the Pekin City Directory. The business partnership of Sellers & Bates was ended by Sellers’ untimely death, after which Bates continued to publish the directories alone.

The “Atlas Map of Tazewell County, Illinois” was published about 1873. The atlas includes several lengthy biographies of the “Old Settlers of Tazewell County,” all of them laden with fulsome praise of their subjects. On page 43 is a biography of Sellers that reads more like a funeral eulogy than a proper biography, but which nevertheless records all of the highlights of his life.

Sellers, the biography says, “was born May 19, 1833, in Mercersburg, Franklin county, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of a family of six children of Michael and Phoebe (Walker) Sellers. He is descended from one of the old and prominent families of eastern Pennsylvania. His early culture was received in the schools of his native town. His rare and eminent natural qualities, coupled with his active and studious mind, led him on to that success which, as a public man and journalist, he acquired in his after career.

Sellers went into journalism in the early 1850s as assistant editor of the Chambersburg Repository, but at age 22 he moved to McConnellsville, Pa., and became the owner and publisher of the Fulton Republican. “He was married July 8, 1856, in Indianola, Iowa, to Miss Lide Smith, with whom he first became acquainted in his native town.” They had five children. After their marriage, they returned to McConnellsville, where Sellers continued to publish the Fulton Republican. He also was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature.

Sellers settled in Pekin in November 1863 and soon after purchased the Tazewell County Republican. “The county was largely democratic at this time, but owing to the herculean labors of this gifted journalist, we may largely account for the political revolution of 1872, when we find, for the first time in its political record, that the county was republican,” his biography says.

Sellers was elected mayor of Pekin in 1865, but he resigned in the fall of 1866 after winning election as a representative in the Illinois General Assembly. Besides the elective offices he held, the biography states that Sellers also “was appointed, by President Grant, postmaster of the city of Pekin, which position he held until his death, which occurred at his residence on the 15th of December, 1872. His amiable and accomplished wife is still continuing the paper which was so ably conducted by her husband.

Somewhat remarkably for that era, after Sellers’ death, President Grant appointed Sellers’ widow as “postmistress of Pekin.” “The appointment meets the approbation of the citizens of Pekin, and it is well conducted through her management,” the biography says.

In tribute to Sellers’ journalism, his biography comments, “It is a well-established fact in the minds of our intelligent citizens, that the press is the most potent agency for good or evil in Christendom. The same is true in state or municipal affairs. Every city owes its progress, in a great measure, to its press. Newspapers are now becoming the vehicle of thought, as well as the means of heralding the virtues of every people and the beauties of every locality to the world. In respect to these facts, Pekin was indeed benefited by the short but incessant labors of William W. Sellers.

This color advertisement for Sellers & Bates Printers, a Pekin business located in an upstairs office on the south side of Court Street four doors east of Third Street, features the business trademark. Sellers & Bates produced the 1870 Pekin City Directory, in which this ad was run.

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How did Pekin get its name?

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in December 2011 before the launch of this blog . . .

How did Pekin get its name?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The question of how Pekin got its name is shrouded in a haze of mystery and legend, but the resources of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room can help bring the question into better focus.

All the standard reference works on the history of Pekin and Tazewell County affirm that Pekin was named in 1830 by Ann Eliza Cromwell, wife of Major Nathan Cromwell, one of Pekin’s earliest settlers. However, early accounts disagree about the year she gave Pekin its name.

Local historian Fred W. Soady’s 1960 paper, “In These Waste Places,” says, “After the completion of the plat of the new town in 1830, Mrs. Nathan Cromwell, for reasons still obscure, gave the city the name of PEKIN, and thus it has remained to the present,” adding in a footnote, “It is speculated, and a common legend in Pekin, that the city was so named by Mrs. Cromwell on the belief that the site was exactly opposite the site of Peking, capital of China.”

The first known published sketch of Pekin’s history is found in the 1870 Pekin City Directory of W.W. Sellers & W.H. Bates, which says: “In 1829 a survey of ‘Town Site’ was made by William Hodge of Blooming Grove, then County Surveyor . . . The survey made, and the town laid out, Mrs. Cromwell being called upon, exercised her share of women’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.”

During the 1800s, “Pekin” was the standard English-language spelling of the Chinese capital, Peking or Beijing.

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” substantially repeats the same account, though he dates Hodge’s survey to 1827 (apparently a printer’s error for 1829). “Doubtless with a prophetic eye [Mrs. Cromwell] could see a brilliant future for their town in the not far distant time, and, therefore, gave to it the name of Pekin, we suppose after the celestial city of that name,” Chapman comments.

The story that Pekin was named after Peking (Beijing) appears to be an authentic tradition handed down by Pekin’s original settlers. Chapman quotes from the 1860 diary of Jacob Tharp, who came to Pekin in 1825. In his diary, Tharp gives an account of how the town’s proprietors (including Major Cromwell) surveyed and laid out the original town in 1830, and comments, “The gentlemen were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city.” His comment seems to be the earliest allusion to the story that Pekin was named for China’s Celestial City Beijing. “The Celestial City” has long been one of our city’s appellatives.

However, these old accounts do not mention the “common legend” to which Soady refers, that Mrs. Cromwell believed Pekin was on the opposite side of the earth from Peking. Perhaps that legend is only a later embellishment of the original tradition. It is worth noting, however, that Pekin, Ill., and Beijing are at about the same latitude on the globe – about 40 degrees for Pekin, about 39 degrees for Beijing.

Our city is not the only U.S. community with that name, nor was it the first. For example, Pekin in Washington County, Indiana, got its name around the same time as Pekin, Ill. There is also a small eastern Ohio community called Pekin, located near Minerva in Brown Township, Carroll County. Ohio’s Pekin may have received its name prior to 1815, judging from a statement in the 1921 “History of Carroll and Harrison Counties, Ohio.” Is it just a coincidence that Pekin, Ohio, is also at about the same latitude (39 or 40 degrees) as Pekin, Ill., and Beijing, China?

Several of our city’s first settlers came from or through Ohio – but did any of them know about Ohio’s Pekin? Could that have been what suggested the name to Ann Eliza Cromwell? It might be a worthwhile project for a contemporary researcher of our local history to investigate that question.

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Early historical accounts indicate that Pekin, Ill., was named for the capital of China, Beijing or Peking. During the 1800s, a common English-language spelling of China’s capital was “Pekin,” as shown in this detail of a map from an 1874 grade school geography textbook, “Monteith’s Independent Course — Elementary Geography,” by James Monteith, page 62.

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