In a land called Egypt

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

One of the publications in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection is a short book – almost a booklet – of eight chapters covering 48 pages. Written by Dewitt County Presbyterian pastor named Singleton B. Bedinger and published in 1973, the book is entitled, “Little Egypt: A Brief Historical Sketch of Southern Illinois.”

The relevance of Southern Illinois history to Pekin’s local history is probably not immediately apparent, but Bedinger succinctly states the relevance on page 9, where he says, “Egypt was the first part of Illinois to be settled.” Taking an overview of the history of white European settlement of Illinois in the years following the Revolutionary War, we find that Illinois was settled from the south up, and thus the first capital of the state of Illinois was Kaskaskia in Southern Illlinois. Consequently, many of the first settlers of Tazewell County in the 1820s had come from Southern Illinois, the region of the state that has long been known as “Egypt.”

As this column first discussed three years ago, among the early Tazewell County settlers with Southern Illinois connections were the brothers Elisha Perkins and Major Isaac Perkins, one of the co-founders of Pekin and Tazewell County’s first Recorder of Deeds. (See “The life and death of Major Isaac Perkins,” in the Aug. 3, 2013 Pekin Daily Times, page B2) As we recalled then, Isaac’s father Solomon was the first permanent settler in the Cave-in-Rock area of southern Illinois in the early 1800s. One of Solomon’s neighbors in Cave-in-Rock was Capt. Lewis Barker, first Illinois state senator for Pope County, Ill. Solomon’s son Isaac married Capt. Barker’s daughter Jane Barker in Pope County, Ill., in 1813. Jane’s sister Susannah married Isaac’s brother Elisha. Jane and Susannah streets in Pekin are named after them.

One of the first matters Bedinger addresses in his book is why Southern Illinois is known as “Egypt.” According to Bedinger, one popular explanation is that the name arose from the hardship and near famine that threatened the pioneer settlers of Illinois following “the Great Snow” of 1830-31. Lacking food due to crop failures, Illinois pioneers had to buy grain in Southern Illinois, which had escaped the effects of the cold and snow. The story goes that these hungry settlers compared their plight to the biblical story of the sons of Jacob having to go down to Egypt to buy grain during a seven-year famine, and so Southern Illinois became their “Egypt.”

But Bedinger says this popular account is unhistorical. In fact, the name comes from the 1818 founding of the city of Cairo, named after the modern capital of Egypt. Looking upon the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Cairo’s founders apparently were reminded of the Nile Delta. Pioneers soon began to give other towns in the area names like Karnak, Thebes, and Goshen. All of this was well before the Great Snow of 1830-31.

Bedinger also argues that Little Egypt was connected to the invention of an old nickname for Illinois – “The Sucker State.” Bedinger writes (pages 10-11):

“One would expect the inhabitants of Little Egypt to be called Egyptians, but generally such was not the case. Instead they were called suckers and there are several theories about this. The most likely explanation is that the term originated in the northwest part of Illinois. Men would go there to work in the lead mines during the summer months. Because Galena was situated in Indian territory and was headquarters for the mining industry, the miners from the south usually would travel upstream on the Mississippi River instead of overland. The fish known as the sucker would reach the vicinity about the same time as the miners. It was not unusual to hear someone say, ‘Here come the men from Southern Illinois; it’s time to fish for suckers.’ If the fish arrived first, someone would say, ‘Here come the suckers; now look for the Southern Illinoisans.’”

This aquatint illustration by Karl Bodmer, from the book “Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834,” shows Cave-in-Rock on the Ohio River. The brothers Isaac and Elisha Perkins and their wives, Jane and Susannah Barker, lived in the Cave-in-Rock area of Southern Illinois before settling in Tazewell County and taking part in the founding of Pekin in 1829-30.

#egypt, #elisha-perkins, #isaac-perkins, #pekin-history, #pekin-streets, #singleton-b-bedinger, #sucker-state, #tazewell-county-history

The lost town of Circleville

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

The lost town of Circleville

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In a recent Local History Room column, we reviewed the history of Green Valley, which is the largest community in Sand Prairie Township. However, as noted in that column, prior to the founding of Green Valley, the title of largest community in the township belonged to Circleville.

Those who might wish to visit Circleville today will search for it in vain – the village is long gone, the land upon which once stood houses and businesses and streets ploughed under. The community was located a few miles southeast of South Pekin. Circleville Road, which used to be East Street in Circleville, is still there, but other than that all that remains of Circleville today is the Prettyman Burial Ground, the old cemetery that was located just south of town. If you’d like to pay your respects to those buried there, you can follow these directions, found at the Illinois Ancestors website:

“Starting from Pekin, at Koch and 14 street, travel south on 14th for about 6 miles, to Townline Road. Turn east (left) on Townline to Pfanz Rd. and travel 1/2 a mile. Travel south (right) on Pfanz Rd. for about  1/2 a mile. The cemetery will be on the left in the middle of a cornfield between Pfanz and Circleville Roads. Or you may take Route 29 south from Pekin to Townline Rd. Then east on Townline.”

If you do visit the Prettyman Burial Ground, don’t forget to wear your clod-stompers.

The previous column on Green Valley’s history quoted a passage about Circleville from page 13 of ”Green Valley, Illinois, Celebrates 125 Years! – 1872-1997.” Here again is what it says about Circleville, which was located in Section 1 of Sand Prairie Township, at the township’s northeast corner:

“This was the first town in the township. It was a stagecoach stop on the old stage line from Springfield to Pekin. As the inn was on rather high ground overlooking the Mackinaw bottom and surrounding prairie, when it came time for the stage to arrive the innkeeper would go upstairs, look out the window to see the coach, then rush downstairs to put potatoes on to boil for the meal. Another story was the open well where they used to cool the beer during the summer. One time someone placed the beer in a sack and when they went to draw it out of the well, the sack broke and the beer fell into the well.”

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 617,” has the following to say about the first settlers of Section 1 of the township, including the founding inhabitants of Circleville. We recently reviewed the life and death of one of those settlers, Major Isaac Perkins:

“Elisha and Major Isaac Perkins settled on sec. 1, about 1824. Both of these gentlemen were active, enterprising pioneers, and were prominent in the early history of the county. Major Perkins was killed in the famous battle of Stillman’s Run, during the Black Hawk war. Isaac [sic – Elisha] moved to Iowa about twenty-five years ago. They came here from near Shawneetown, Ill. Gideon Hawley came from the East and settled on the section with the Perkins’. He died on the farm where Jas. Hamson now lives . . . Jno. Sommers was from North Carolina; he erected his cabin on section 1 . . . John Vancil was among the first to come; he settled on section 9, and is the only one of the earliest pioneers of this township now living. He resides in the town of Circleville. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1798. When he was but two years of age, his parents moved to Kentucky. Here he remained until he was nineteen years old, when he was married to Miss Nancy Tuley, who was born in North Carolina, Jan. 20, 1800. Her parents also moved to Kentucky when she was a child. Shortly after their marriage they came to Illinois, and to Tazewell county.”

On page 620 of his history, Chapman in passing mentions the founding of Circleville:

“There are two towns in the township. One of them, Circleville, is located upon section 1. It was laid off Aug. 7, 1837, by Spencer Field and E. M. Perkins. It will be seen, therefore, that Circleville is one of the oldest towns in the county.”

Circleville is perhaps best remembered as the home of the Berry Gang, a group of horse thieves and cattle rustlers who committed numerous crimes in Tazewell County during the lawless and violent 1860s. The core of the gang were four brothers of the Berry family, William (“Bill”), Isaac (“Ike”), Emanuel (“Man”) and Simeon (“Sim”). The story of their crimes and how the law caught up with them, leading to Bill Berry’s lynching in Pekin on July 31, 1869, is told at length in the book “Lynch Law,” written by retired Pekin police officers Jim Conover and James Brecher. The book includes photographs taken around 1939 of two buildings of Circleville that were key locations in the story – McFarland’s Saloon, where the Berry gang plotted an ambush of the lawmen who were seeking to arrest then, and Ditmon’s Grocery and Tobacco across the street from the saloon. Both structures, which were on East Street (Circleville Road) are long gone, and even by 1939 had long been abandoned.

What happened to Circleville that caused it to die? It could be that the bad reputation and painful memories from the Berry Gang days made it the sort of place where people preferred not to live and businessmen preferred not to invest money. Be that as it may, this pioneer prairie community thrived while it was on the old stage coach line, but during the golden age of railroads, communities that hoped to prosper needed a railroad. Being bypassed by the rail lines, in time Circleville dwindled and faded away.


The layout of the streets and lots of old Circleville are shown in this plat map. The Prettyman Burial Ground is indicated by the cross at the bottom.

#berry-gang, #circleville, #elisha-perkins, #green-valley, #isaac-perkins, #preblog-columns, #tazewell-county-history

Lincoln at law in Tazewell County

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Earlier this year, “From the Local History Room” explored one of Abraham Lincoln’s historically significant legal cases, involving an African-American woman from Pekin named Nance Legins-Costley, who secured her freedom through the 1841 case of Bailey v. Cromwell which Lincoln successfully argued before the Illinois Supreme Court.

That, of course, was but one of the many local cases in which Lincoln was retained as an attorney. As is well known in the local area, Lincoln’s career as a central Illinois attorney frequently brought him to Tazewell County’s courthouses in Tremont and Pekin, and many of the pioneer settlers of Pekin and Tazewell County had personal dealings with Lincoln, often because he was legal counsel for one side or the other in a legal dispute. In a pair of related Tazewell County cases, Lincoln was the attorney first for one side and afterwards for the other.

This pair of cases are Hall v. Perkins and Perkins v. Hall, actions pertaining to disputes over the sale of land, promissory notes, breach of contract, and debt collection which began in 1841 and concluded in 1853. Showing up in these court documents, which are transcribed and discussed in chapter 5 of volume one of a four-volume set, “The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases,” are the names of Tazewell County or Pekin pioneers Samuel Hall, Elisha Perkins, William Wilmot, Samuel Baily, and Benjamin S. Prettyman. Elisha Perkins, founder of the now vanished town of Circleville south of Pekin, one of the principals in these cases, was a brother of Pekin co-founder Isaac Perkins.

Abraham Lincoln in a daguerreotype taken in Springfield in 1846. ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY, SPRINGFIELD

Abraham Lincoln in a daguerreotype taken in Springfield in 1846.

Here’s the background of these cases as explained by “The Papers of Abraham Lincoln,” vol. 1, ch. 5, pp.60-61:

“In 1838, Samuel Hall was looking for land to purchase in Tazewell County, Illinois. Elisha M. Perkins had acquired a substantial amount of property there in the 1830s and was in the process of selling much of it. On December 27, 1838, Perkins sold about sixty-five acres in Tazewell County and two town blocks of Circleville, Illinois, to Hall for $1,150. Hall agreed to give Perkins $650 in cash and two promissory notes – one for $200 due in one year and one for $300 due in two years. To guarantee that he would give Hall a deed to the property within one year, Perkins also gave Hall a bond. According to the terms of the bond, if Perkins failed to deliver the deed, he would have to pay Hall a $2,500 penalty.

“Eighteen months later, Hall had not paid either of his promissory notes, and Perkins had not given Hall a deed for the land. In May 1840, Hall sued Perkins in an action of attachment to obtain the $2,500 penalty but dismissed the case one year later in April 1841. At the next term of court, in September 1841, Perkins retained William H. Wilmot and Samuel P. Baily and sued Hall in the Tazewell County Circuit Court. Perkins sued Hall in an action of assumpsit to recover the two promissory notes and $237.75 on a separate account.”

An action of “assumpsit” refers to an attempt to recover damages for a failed contract that is not under seal. “The Papers of Abraham Lincoln” says “assumpsit” was the most commonly used legal action in pre-Civil War America. The suits and counter suits of Perkins and Hall, however, are remarkable because of how long they dragged on in the courts, even coming before the Illinois Supreme Court. As “The Papers of Abraham Lincoln” says (vol. 1, ch. 5, pp.87-88):

“While most debt-related lawsuits concerning promissory notes ended within a court term or two, the legal controversy between Perkins and Hall lasted slightly more than fourteen years. In its length and complexity, the dispute illuminates the many different options open to attorneys pleading . . .

“Lincoln’s role was also unique in this series of lawsuits. While Lincoln occasionally argued opposing sides of issues in different lawsuit, in the several cases involving Perkins and Hall and the same promissory notes, he represented Perkins in the circuit court and supreme court in the 1840s, then represented Hall in the circuit court in the 1850s. In both cases, Lincoln won and lost. In the 1840s case, Lincoln helped to secure a favorable judgment for Perkins but lost the appeal at the Illinois Supreme Court. In the 1850s case, he lost a sizable judgment as Hall’s attorney but successfully argued for a new trial and helped to mitigate the size of the judgment against his client.”

#abraham-lincoln, #circleville, #elisha-perkins, #samuel-hall, #tazewell-county-history