The names of Illinois’ counties

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In the last few weeks we have recalled how Tazewell County was founded and named, and how the county boundaries were redrawn during the 1830s and 1840s. As we noted previously, Tazewell County was named for a Virginia state governor and U.S. Senator named Littleton Waller Tazewell.

But what of the names of the other 101 counties of Illinois? Where did they get their names? Starting today and continuing over the next few weeks, we’ll present the counties of Illinois in order of their founding, telling the years they were established and the origins or meanings of their names. Most of our state’s counties were named for notable men of U.S. and Illinois history.

St. Clair County was established in 1790 when Illinois was a part of the Northwest Territory. It was named for Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair (1737-1818), first governor of the Northwest Territory.

Randolph County was established in 1795 during the time when Illinois was part of the Northwest Territory. It was named after Edmund Randolph (1753-1813), the first U.S. Attorney General as well as a U.S. Secretary of State.

Three counties were founded in 1812, three years after the formation of the Illinois Territory: Gallatin County, named for Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), the fourth U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (and the one who served the longest); Johnson County, named for Richard Mentor Johnson (c.1780-1850), ninth U.S. vice president and a U.S. senator from Kentucky; and Madison County, named for President James Madison (1751-1856).

In 1814, Edwards County was formed, named after Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards (1775-1833) who later served as Illinois’ third state governor. The city of Edwardsville, county seat of Madison County, is also named after Ninian Edwards.

White County was formed the following year, being named for Isaac White (1776-1811), an Illinois settler who joined the Indiana Territorial Militia and was slain at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The next year, in 1816, Crawford County was founded, named after William H. Crawford (1772-1834), ninth U.S. Secretary of War and seventh Secretary of the Treasury.

Also founded in 1816 were Jackson and Monroe counties, named for Presidents Andrew Jackson and James Monroe (it was Monroe who would admit Illinois to the Union two years later), and Pope County, named for Illinois Territorial Delegate Nathaniel Pope who played a central role in getting Illinois admitted as a state. Then in 1817, Bond County was formed, being named for territorial congressional delegate Shadrach Bond (1773-1832), who would be elected the first Illinois state governor just one year later.

Three new counties were formed in the preparation for Illinois’ admission to the Union as the 21st state in 1818, which explains the very patriotic names they were given: Franklin County, named after the famous Founding Father Benjamin Franklin; Union County, named in honor of the national Union of the states; and Washington County, named for the first U.S. President George Washington.

This map, from the “Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties,” shows the boundaries of Illinois’ counties at the dawn of statehood in 1818.

The year after Illinois statehood, 1819, saw the creation of four new counties: Alexander County, named for William M. Alexander, a pioneer settler of Illinois who was elected to the Illinois General Assembly; Clark County, named for George Rogers Clark who led the Illinois Campaign during the Revolutionary War; Jefferson County, named for Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president; and Wayne County, named for Gen. Anthony Wayne (1745-1796), who fought in the Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War.

In 1821, the state legislature created seven new counties: Fayette, Greene, Hamilton, Lawrence, Montgomery, Pike, and Sangamon. The county seat of Fayette County is Vandalia, second Illinois state capital (1820-1839). The current state capital, Springfield, is also the Sangamon County seat of government.

Fayette County was named in honor of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), a French aristocrat who won the enduring love of the American people by aiding the nascent U.S. army during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette later was a leader of the French Revolution, whose hopes to create an American-style republic in France were dashed by the violent insanity of the Reign of Terror and the rise of the self-crowned despot Napoleon. Lafayette returned to tour the U.S. in 1824-25, visiting with Illinois Gov. Edward Coles and other Illinois dignitaries at Kaskaskia, the former state capital, on April 30, 1825. When the U.S. entered World War I to support the British and French in 1917, the U.S. Expeditionary Force formally proclaimed their arrival in France with the words, “Lafayette, we are here!”

Greene County was named for Nathanael Greene (1742-1786), a Revolutionary War major general. Hamilton County was named after Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (Hamilton’s son William, a pioneer settler of Springfield and Peoria, was one of the dignitaries who met Lafayette at Kaskaskia in 1825).

Lawrence County was named for Capt. James Lawrence (1781-1813), commander of the U.S.S. Chesapeake in the War of 1812, remembered for his command, “Don’t give up the ship!” Montgomery County was named for Gen. Richard Montgomery (1738-1775), a Revolutionary War leader who led a failed American invasion of Canada.

Pike County is named after the explorer Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), after whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named. Finally, Sangamon County is named for the Sangamon River that flows through it. “Sangamon” comes from a Pottawatomi term, Sain-guee-mon, meaning a place where food is plentiful.

Four more counties were added in 1823: Edgar County, named for John Edgar (c.1750-1832), a very wealthy settler who served as an Illinois delegate to the Northwest Territory’s legislature; Fulton County, named after Robert Fulton, the famous inventor of the steamboat, which greatly aided Illinois commerce and transportation; Marion County, named in honor of Revolutionary War Gen. Francis Marion (c.1732-1795); and Morgan County, named after Revolutionary War Gen. Daniel Morgan who later served as a U.S. Congressman for Virginia.

That brings us to the eve of the arrival of Pekin’s first pioneer settler Jonathan Tharp in 1824 (the future site of Pekin was then in Sangamon County), which is a convenient place for us to pause. Next week we’ll continue with the three counties founded in 1824 – Clay, Clinton, and Wabash counties.

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War returns to Illinois

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Following the conclusion of George Rogers Clark’s Illinois Campaign in 1779 during the Revolutionary War, peace would reign over the wider Illinois Country for the next three decades.

During that period, off to the east the Ohio Country was the theater of numerous battles during the Northwest Indian War, and while Native Americans from Illinois joined in the fighting in Ohio, Illinois itself was not a field of battle.

That long peace, during which several Ohio tribes began cultural accommodation with white Americans, would be broken a mere three years after the 1809 formation of the Illinois Territory, with the outbreak of the War of 1812, at which time war returned to Illinois.

But given the state of affairs in the territories of Indiana and Illinois in the years leading up to the United States’ declaration of war against Britain, it was inevitable that Illinois would also be caught up in bloodshed.

Illinois was caught up in war at that time as a consequence of an important treaty that Indiana Territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison had negotiated with a number of Indian tribes of Indiana and Illinois in 1809 – the same year that the U.S. Congress separated the Illinois Territory from Indiana and erected it as a separate territory.

Throughout his time as territorial governor of Indiana, Harrison had pursued a consistent policy of negotiating treaties to open up more Native American land for European-American settlement. One of the most important of his treaties was the Treaty of Fort Wayne (also known by the nicknames of the Ten O’Clock Line Treaty or the Twelve Mile Line Treaty), initially signed Sept. 29, 1809, only seven months after the Illinois Territory was separated from Indiana.

Through this treaty, the U.S. acquired 3 million acres of land in Indiana and Illinois – but the treaty caused great unrest among the Native American tribes of these territories, soon leading to war. The difficulty was that at the outset, three important tribes, the Kickapoo, the Wea, and the Miami, were absolutely opposed to selling any more of their land near the Wabash River. Contrary to President James Madison’s wishes, Harrison adopted a divisive strategy of making an agreement with tribes who were willing to sell their land, then using their agreement to pressure unwilling tribes to sign the treaty.

Harrison’s strategy was successful – the Pottawatomi persuaded the Miami to sign, Miami Chief Pacanne then persuaded the Wea to sign, and the Wea then persuaded the Kickapoo to sign. Thus the Treaty of Fort Wayne was finalized by the spring of 1810.

However, many of the Shawnee as well as members of different tribes rejected the treaty. In August 1810, a Shawnee chief named Tecumseh, who opposed any further Indian accommodation with white encroachment and aspired to bring about an independent Native American nation in the Old Northwest, brought 400 warriors to a meeting with Gov. Harrison at Vincennes, Ind. At the meeting, Tecumseh pronounced the new treaty to be illegitimate and warned that any attempt by whites to settle the newly acquired lands would be met with war, in which Tecumseh said he would seek an alliance with Britain.

This led to the outbreak of Tecumseh’s War in 1811, a two-year conflict that overlapped with the War of 1812. The most memorable – and first regular battle – of the war was the Battle of Tippecanoe on Nov. 6, 1811. In response to Tecumseh’s plans to wage war, Harrison led an army on a mission to destroy Prophetstown, Ind., capital of Tecumseh’s confederacy. Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa, an influential Indian holy man known as “the Prophet,” then attempted a surprise attack on Harrison’s camp, but Tenskwatawa was defeated, and Harrison’s men destroyed Prophetstown the following day. Harrison’s victory gave him his nickname of “Tippecanoe” – a reputation he would ride all the way to the White House in the presidential election of 1840.

With the aid of British arms, Tecumseh maintained the struggle until he was finally defeated and slain during the War of 1812 at the Battle of the Thames on Oct. 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, Canada. One of the United States’ chief purposes for declaring war on Britain in 1812 was to conquer and annex Canada – the American victory at the Battle of the Thames temporarily gave the U.S. control of western Ontario, and also destroyed Tecumseh’s Indian confederacy. (A warrior who fought alongside Tecumseh at this battle was an Ottawa-born Pottawatomi named Shabbona, who would live for a while at Pekin, Ill., in the latter 1820s and very early 1830s.)

With the outbreak of war against Britain and Britain’s Native American allies, Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards became convinced that the Indian tribes of Illinois would enter the war on Britain’s side. Edwards came to that conviction following the massacre at the Battle of Fort Dearborn (Chicago) on Aug. 15, 1812, where the Pottawatomi and Winnebago obtained a complete victory and burned down the fort. Among the slain at Fort Dearborn was well-known Indian agent and scout William Wells, an adopted member of the Miami tribe (in which he had the name “Apekonit”), son-in-law of Miami chief Little Turtle who had fought the U.S. during the Northwest Indian War.

Ninian Edwards (1775-1833) was the first and only territorial governor of Illinois, serving from 1809 to 1818, and the third state governor of Illinois, serving from 1826 to 1830.

Aiming to prevent Native American alliances with Britain, in Oct. 1812 Edwards personally led a small force from southern Illinois north to Peoria Lake, attacking and destroying a few Kickapoo and Pottawatomi villages, including villages of Pottawatomi chiefs Gomo and Black Partridge in the area of Upper Peoria Lake, and that of Kickapoo chief Pemwotam (the latter’s village being located on Peoria Lake in present day Fondulac Township, Tazewell County).

In a second attack, Edwards sent Capt. Thomas Craig to Peoria Lake, where Craig attacked the French settlers and their Native American neighbors and relatives living at La Ville de Maillet (Peoria). Even though the French were U.S. citizens, because they were on good terms with the Pottawatomi Craig claimed they were supplying the Indians with guns – so he set fire to La Ville de Maillet, slaughtering many inhabitants and taking the survivors prisoner, taking them downriver to Alton. These atrocities were later condemned by Congress and the French survivors were compensated for their losses.

This diagram-map from S. DeWitt Drown’s “Peoria Directory for 1844” shows the layout and land-ownership of the old French-American village of La Ville de Maillet (Peoria) in 1812, just before it was destroyed by Illinois militia during the War of 1812. Many of the residents were slain in the attack, but some escaped while most survivors were taken prisoner and carried down to Alton, Ill.

Edwards’ unprovoked attacks angered the U.S. government because the Indians of Peoria Lake were considered to be friendly, some of their chiefs having declined to join Tecumseh’s confederacy (Black Partridge had even helped the Kinzie family escape at the Battle of Fort Dearborn). As a result, the native tribes of this area became hostile to all white settlers, Black Partridge became a British ally, and Gov. Edwards, now out of favor with President James Madison’s administration, found it advisable to move to Kentucky until the end of the war.

The following year, Illinois militiamen and U.S. troops returned to the ruins of La Ville de Maillet, where they drove out all Native Americans and built Fort Clark (named for Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark) at what is now the corner of Water and Liberty streets in Peoria. Fort Clark was the nucleus of the present day city of Peoria.

As for Gov. Edwards, once the War of 1812 had ended, he managed to get himself reappointed as Illinois Territorial Governor in 1815. In the next three years, Edwards oversaw the process of turning Illinois from a territory into a state. We’ll tell that story next time.

The map from Gov. Edward Dunne’s 1933 “History of Illinois,” vol. I, shows the Illinois counties and the locations of Native American tribes in 1812.

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The French settlement of Peoria Lake

By Jared L. Olar
Library assistant

French colonists were the first Europeans to settle in the Illinois Country – including the future Tazewell and Peoria counties. The Illinois Country passed from French to British control in 1763, and then to American control in 1783. However, as we have seen in our review of the early history of our state, regardless of which national government claimed the lands of the future state of Illinois, they remained a sparsely populated area, inhabited chiefly by Native American tribes and relatively small groups of French colonists.

During the Revolutionary War, Britain’s attention was fixed upon its rebellious colonists in eastern North America, which gave George Rogers Clark of Virginia the opportunity he needed to capture the Illinois Country for his home state in 1778-1779 – with the help of Indian tribes and French colonists.

It was against the background of Clark’s Illinois Campaign that a group of French colonists and fur traders in 1778 established a village on the west shore of Peoria Lake – the area of the broadening of the Illinois River known to the native tribes as Pimiteoui. The village was located about where an Indian village had been in the days of Marquette and La Salle and afterwards. The site had also been the location of a French fort named Fort St. Louis du Pimiteoui, built by Henry Tonti in 1691, but a French presence was not continuous from Tonti’s day until Clark’s Illinois Campaign. The village of 1778 was the predecessor of the present city of Peoria.

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 193, briefly tells the story of this village in these words:

“The next attempt to settle this section of Illinois [after La Salle’s expedition] was made at the upper end of Peoria lake in 1778. The country in the vicinity of this lake was called by the Indians Pim-i-te-wi, that is, a place where there are many fat beasts. Here the town of Laville de Meillet, named after its founder, was started. Within the next twenty years, however, the town was moved down to the lower end of the lake to the present site of Peoria. In 1812 the town was destroyed and the inhabitants carried away by Captain Craig. In 1813 Fort Clark was erected there by Illinois troops engaged in the war of 1812. Five years later it was destroyed by fire.”

The French predecessor of the city of Peoria is more accurately spelled “La Ville de Maillet,” meaning “Maillet’s village.” According to Peoria Historical Society records, the town’s founder was a French trader named Robert Maillet, who built a cabin for himself and his family near the outlet of Peoria Lake in 1761. The small village that grew up around Maillet’s cabin moved upriver to the future site of Peoria in 1778, growing to become a town and flourishing as a trading link between Canada and the French settlements on the Mississippi until the War of 1812. During that war, the town was destroyed in an attack that American militia forces of the Illinois Territory launched against the Indian tribes around Peoria Lake. Although the townsfolk were U.S. citizens, they were taken prisoner and carried off to southern Illinois – but a few returned after the War of 1812.

Shown is an artist’s conception of La Ville de Maillet, predecessor of the city of Peoria, as it may have appeared on the eve of its wanton destruction by Illinois Territorial militia during the War of 1812. Tazewell County’s first permanent settlers of European descent included refugees from the sack of La Ville de Maillet. ILLUSTRATION BY KAY MARSHALL-SMART COURTESY OF THE PEORIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Nehemiah Matson’s 1882 book “Pioneers of Illinois” includes the following eyewitness descriptions of La Ville de Maillet:

“In 1820 Hypolite Maillet, in his sworn testimony before Edward Cole, register of title land-office at Edwardsville, in relation to French claims, said that he was forty-five years old, and born in a stockade fort which stood near the southern extremity of Peoria Lake. In the winter of 1788 a party of Indians came to Peoria to trade, and, in accordance with their former practice, took quarters in the fort, but getting on a drunken spree they burned it down. In the spring of 1819, [when] Americans commenced a settlement here at Peoria, the outlines of the old French fort were plain to be seen on the high ground near the lake, and a short distance above the present site of the Chicago and Rock Island depot. . . .

“According to the statements of Antoine Des Champs, Thomas Forsyth, and others, who had long been residents of Peoria previous to its destruction in 1812, we infer that the town contained a large population . . . The town was built along the beach of the lake, and to each house was attached an outlet for a garden, which extended back on the prairie.

“The houses were all constructed of wood, one story high, with porches on two sides, and located in a garden surrounded with fruit and flowers. Some of the dwellings were built of hewed timbers set upright, and the space between the posts filled in with stone and mortar, while others were built of hewed logs notched together after the style of a pioneer’s cabin. The floors were laid with puncheons, and the chimney built with mud and sticks. When Colonel Clark took possession of Illinois in 1778 he sent three soldiers, accompanied by two Frenchmen, in a canoe to Peoria to notify the people that they were no longer under British rule but citizens of the United States.

“Among these soldiers was a man named Nicholas Smith, a resident of Bourbon county, Kentucky, and whose son, Joseph Smith (Dod Joe), was among the first American settlers of Peoria . . . Mr. Smith said Peoria at the time of his visit was a large town, built along the beach of the lake, with narrow, unpaved streets, and houses constructed of wood. Back of the town were gardens, stock-yards, barns, etc., and among these was a wine-press, with a large cellar or under-ground vault for storing wine. There was a church with a large wooden cross raised above the roof, and with gilt lettering over the door. There was an unoccupied fort on the bank of the lake, and close by it a wind-mill for grinding grain. The town contained six stores or places of trade, all of which were well filled with goods for the Indian market.”

The destruction of La Ville de Maillet was not the end of early French settlement in our area, for several of the French former inhabitants of La Ville de Maillet returned to Peoria Lake after the war, setting up a trading post and small settlement near the Illinois River in what was to become Tazewell County.

Next week we will review the story of that French trading post.

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Illinois in the Old Northwest

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

As we saw in this column last time, the vast Illinois Country – encompassing far more than the land of the future state of Illinois – passed from British to American control as a result of Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark’s Illinois Campaign of 1778-1779.

But Clark, as a patriotic citizen of Virginia, didn’t seize the Illinois Country simply to increase the size of the nascent United States of America. As a Virginian, Clark achieved his conquests on behalf of his native state – he had this vast territory organized as “Illinois County,” a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry – of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame – appointed Col. John Todd as the military commandant and first county administrator, governing from the county seat at Kaskaskia (future first capital of the state of Illinois). As a reward for the help they gave Clark during his campaign, Virginia granted full citizenship to the French Canadiens and Indians of Kaskaskia and Vincennes (in the future state of Indiana).

While Clark’s exploit effectively neutralized the threat of Britain opening a western front against the United States during the Revolutionary War, nevertheless the leaders of the other 12 states – who also harbored hopes and ambitions to expand their states westward – resented Virginia’s land-grab.

So it was that in 1784 Virginia’s leaders were persuaded to cede Illinois County to the government of the U.S., which was then organized and loosely linked under the Articles of Confederation, which was the constitution of the U.S. prior to 1789. Virginia’s Illinois County thus ceased to exist after a mere six years. Not only Virginia but every state gave up their expansionist dreams and agreed to allow the Congress of the confederated states to determine what was to be done with the newly acquired lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.

Congress made that determination for the area north of the Ohio River on July 13, 1787, when the Congress of the U.S. Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance, erecting the Northwest Territory, a vast area encompassing the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. The Northwest Ordinance – the one lasting achievement of the Confederation Congress – set up a process to enable parts of the Northwest Territory to be formed into smaller territories that could then later become new states of the union. The new territory’s first governor, appointed in 1788, was Arthur St. Clair (1737-1818), who had served as President of the Confederation Congress when the Northwest Ordinance was passed.

Arthur St. Clair was President of the Confederation Congress of the United States and was appointed first governor of the Northwest Territory, which encompassed the lands that became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The Northwest Territory was made up of land that the British king had set aside as the Indian Reserve – a region for Native Americans forbidden to American colonists of European descent. Despite the king’s proclamation, however, settlement in the Indian Reserve still went on. When the United States secured their independence in 1783, Britain ceded all of that territory west to the Mississippi to the new nation, and the movement of land-hungry settlers soon increased, inexorably dispossessing the native peoples.

Nevertheless, Britain continued to maintain forts in the Northwest Territory. With British help the Indians of the Ohio and Illinois countries valiantly resisted American control of the Northwest Territory during a 10-year conflict known as the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795). In 1785, a group of nine tribes and tribal confederations in the Northwest Territory – including tribes from Illinois – banded together for mutual defense, forming the Western Confederacy. The confederacy included warriors from the Huron, Shawnee, Lenape (Delaware), Miami, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Cherokee, the Council of Three Fires (Ojibway, Ottawa, and Pottawatomi), and the Wabash Confederacy (whose members included the Piankeshaw). The Western Confederacy’s objective was to maintain the Ohio River as the boundary between themselves and American settlers.

Little Turtle, a chief of the Miami, was one of the main leaders of the Western Confederacy during the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795).

Most of the fighting in this war took place within the future state of Ohio, but the prospects for further European-American settlement in the Illinois Country depended on the war’s outcome. The most memorable event during this conflict was the Battle of the Wabash on Nov. 4, 1791 – more usually known as St. Clair’s Defeat or the Battle of a Thousand Slain. Historian Landon Jones has dubbed this battle “the most decisive defeat in the history of the American military.”

As the Northwest Indian War continued, in the fall of 1791 Northwest Territorial Gov. St. Clair mustered a force of 2,000 poorly-trained men for a planned attack on Kekionga, capital of the Miami tribe, located near modern Fort Wayne, Ind., but by the start of November desertion and supply problems had shrunk St. Clair’s forces to about 1,120. On Nov. 3, St. Clair’s army encamped near modern Fort Recovery, Ohio, and the headwaters of the Wabash River. Meanwhile the Western Confederacy’s chiefs – Little Turtle (Mihšihkinaahkwa) of the Miami, Blue Jacket (Weyapiersenwah) of the Shawnee, and Buckongahelas of the Lenape – gathered a force of 1,000 Indians, and on Nov. 4 they led a surprise pre-dawn attack on St. Clair’s camp, inducing a panic in the U.S. Army’s troops that quickly turned into a total rout. When the battle was over, a thousand of St. Clair’s men were dead and only 24 of the survivors were uninjured, while the Western Confederacy lost only 50 warriors – the greatest victory Native Americans would ever achieve against the U.S.

Following this setback, the U.S. mustered a new, well-trained army, and the tide of war turned in the U.S.’s favor. The Western Confederacy was decisively defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794 – and Britain declined to help Blue Jacket’s fleeing warriors. The following year, the native tribes of the Northwest Territory signed the Treaty of Greenville, recognizing U.S. control of the Northwest Territory and giving the U.S. most of Ohio and a part of the Illinois Country (including important sections of land at the future sites of Chicago and Peoria and the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers). The same year, Britain signed the Jay Treaty, agreeing to give up their forts in the Northwest Territory.

With the end of the Northwest Indian War, the Ohio Country was rapidly flooded with new American settlers, and the way was prepared for inevitable expansion into Native American lands in the future states of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. As Ohio’s population soared, the Northwest Territory was divided: on July 4, 1800, only five years after the war’s end, the Indiana Territory was formed, encompassing territory that included the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, part of Minnesota, and half of Michigan. The first territorial governor was future War of 1812 hero and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, who negotiated numerous treaties with the Indians while he was governor. The remainder of the old Northwest Territory, encompassing a part of Michigan, would continue to be known as “the Northwest Territory” for only three more years – in 1803, the state of Ohio was admitted to the Union, and the rest of the Northwest Territory was reassigned to the Indiana Territory.

As a part of the Indiana Territory, Illinois was included in three counties – Knox County (made up of Indiana and eastern Illinois), Randolph County (southern Illinois), and St. Clair County (the remainder of Illinois as well as Wisconsin and Minnesota). The Illinois Country was then peopled mainly by Native Americans and relatively small groups of French settlers, but territorial leaders and land speculators were laying the groundwork for further westward expansion. In the period from 1773 to 1819, a series of land purchases and treaties were made with the Illini, Piankeshaws, Kaskaskias, and Kickapoos that extinguished Native American title to most of the lands of future state of Illinois, opening the land to further European-American settlement. The future Tazewell County was included in the lands ceded to the U.S. by an Aug. 13, 1803 treaty with the Kaskaskias and a July 30, 1819 treaty with the Kickapoos (in the year after Illinois became a state).

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Virginia conquers the Illinois Country

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The British had possession of the Illinois Country for a mere 12 years when the unrest began in the Thirteen Colonies that soon would break out into the American War of Independence – the Revolutionary War – which would last for eight years, ending with Britain’s recognition of the independence of the United States of America in 1783.

Naturally, most of the action in the war took place within the 13 colonies that had declared themselves to be independent states. In the years 1778 and 1779, however, an officer in the militia of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark (1752-1818), led a small and swift military force which executed a daring campaign that wrested control of the Illinois Country from Britain. As we saw previously, Britain’s hold on the sparsely-populated Illinois Country was then still rather tenuous, and neither the Indians nor the French settlers living there nurtured strong ties of loyalty to Britain.

This lithograph of Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark was printed in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.”

Clark himself almost lived long enough to see Illinois statehood, and it is thanks to Clark and his men that Illinois and its neighboring states are parts of the United States of America today. (Clark County in southeastern Illinois, on the Indiana border, established in 1819, is named in honor of George Rogers Clark.) However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Clark was fighting as much for his home state of Virginia as he was for the newly-minted confederacy of upstart English colonies that were claiming the dignity of sovereign states – states that each had hopes and plans for their own westward expansion in the Indian Reserve.

Consequently, when Clark completed the conquest of the Illinois Country, he immediately organized it as a new – and immensely vast – county of the Commonwealth of Virginia: Illinois County, which included not only Illinois but also Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, with the county seat at Kaskaskia, an arrangement that, as we shall see next time, was to last a mere five years.

The story of Clark’s Illinois Campaign was told in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” pages 51-55, in these words:

“The hero of the achievements by which this beautiful land was snatched as a gem from the British Crown, was George Rogers Clark, of Virginia. He had closely watched the movements of the British throughout the Northwest, and understood their whole plan; he also knew the Indians were not unanimously in accord with the English, and therefore was convinced that if the British could be defeated and expelled from the Northwest, the natives might be easily awed into neutrality. Having convinced himself that the enterprise against the Illinois settlement might easily succeed, he repaired to the capital of Virginia, arriving Nov. 5, 1777. While he was on his way, fortunately, Burgoyne was defeated (Oct. 17), and the spirits of the colonists were thereby greatly encouraged. Patrick Henry was Governor of Virginia, and at once entered heartily into Clark’s plans. After satisfying the Virginia leaders of the feasibility of his project, he received two sets of instructions, — one secret, the other open. The latter authorized him to enlist seven companies to go to Kentucky, and serve three months after their arrival in the West. The secret order authorized him to arm these troops, to procure his powder and lead of General Hand at Pittsburg, and to proceed at once to subjugate the country.

“With these instructions Col. Clark repaired to Pittsburg, choosing rather to raise his men west of the mountains, as he well knew all were needed in the colonies in the conflict there. He sent Col. W. B. Smith to Holstein and Captains Helm and Bowman to other localities to enlist men; but none of them succeeded in raising the required number. The settlers in these parts were afraid to leave their own firesides exposed to a vigilant foe, and but few could be induced to join the expedition. With these companies and several private volunteers Clark commenced his descent of the Ohio, which he navigated as far as the falls, where he took possession of and fortified Corn Island, a small island between the present cities of Louisville, Ky., and New Albany, Ind. Here, after having completed his arrangements and announced to the men their real destination, he left a small garrison; and on the 24th of June, during a total eclipse of the sun, which to them augured no good, they floated down the river. His plan was to go by water as far as Fort Massac, and thence march direct to Kaskaskia. Here he intended to surprise the garrison, and after its capture go to Cahokia, then to Vincennes, and lastly to Detroit. Should he fail, he intended to march directly to the Mississippi river and cross it into the Spanish country. Before his start he received good items of information: one, that an alliance had been formed between France and the United States, and the other, that the Indians throughout the Illinois country and the inhabitants at the various frontier posts had been led by the British to believe that the ‘Long Knives,’ or Virginians, were the most fierce, bloodthirsty and cruel savages that ever scalped a foe. With this impression on their minds, Clark saw that proper management would cause them to submit at once from fear, if surprised, and then from gratitude would become friendly, if treated with unexpected lenity. The march to Kaskaskia was made through a hot July sun, they arriving on the evening of the 4th of July, 1778. They captured the fort near the village and soon after the village itself, by surprise, and without the loss of a single man and without killing any of the enemy. After sufficiently working on the fears of the natives, Clark told them they were at perfect liberty to worship as they pleased, and to take whichever side of the great conflict they would; also he would protect them against any barbarity from British or Indian foe. This had the desired effect; and the inhabitants, so unexpectedly and so gratefully surprised by the unlooked-for turn of affairs, at once swore allegiance to the American arms; and when Clark desired to go to Cahokia on the 6th of July, they accompanied him, and through their influence the inhabitants of the place surrendered and gladly placed themselves under his protection.

“In the person of M[onsignor] Gibault, priest of Kaskaskia, Clark found a powerful ally and generous friend. Clark saw that, to retain possession of the Northwest and treat successfully with the Indians, he must establish a government for the colonies he had taken. St. Vincent, the post next in importance to Detroit, remained yet to be taken before the Mississippi valley was conquered. M. Gibault told him that he would alone, by persuasion, lead Vincennes to throw off its connection with England. Clark gladly accepted this offer, and July 14th, in company with a fellow-townsman, Gibault started on his mission of peace. On the 1st of August he returned with the cheerful intelligence that everything was peaceably adjusted at Vincennes in favor of the Americans. During the interval, Col. Clark established his courts, placed garrisons at Kaskaskia and Cahokia, successfully re-enlisted his men, and sent word to have a fort (which proved the germ of Louisville) erected at the falls of the Ohio.

“While the American commander was thus negotiating with the Indians, [Col. Henry] Hamilton, the British Governor of Detroit, heard of Clark’s invasion, and was greatly incensed because the country which he had in charge should be wrested from him by a few ragged militia. He therefore hurriedly collected a force, marched by way of the Wabash, and appeared before the fort at Vincennes. The inhabitants made an effort to defend the town, and when Hamilton’s forces arrived Captain Helm and a man named Henry were the only Americans in the fort. These men had been sent by Clark. The latter charged a cannon and placed it in the open gateway, and the Captain stood by it with a lighted match and cried out, as Hamilton came in hailing distance, ‘Halt!’ The British officer, not knowing the strength of the garrison, stopped, and demanded the surrender of the fort. Helm exclaimed, ‘No man shall enter here till I know the terms.’ Hamilton responded, ‘You shall have the honors of war.’ The entire garrison consisted of one officer and one private.

“On taking Kaskaskia, Clark made a prisoner of Rocheblave, commander of the place, and got possession of all his written instructions for the conduct of the war. From these papers he received important information respecting the plans of Col. Hamilton, Governor at Detroit, who was intending to make a vigorous and concerted attack upon the frontier. After arriving at Vincennes, however, he gave up his intended campaign for the winter, and trusting to his distance from danger and to the difficulty of approaching him, sent off his Indian warriors to prevent troops from coming down the Ohio, and to annoy the Americans in all ways. Thus he sat quietly down to pass the winter with only about eighty soldiers, but secure, as he thought, from molestation. But he evidently did not realize the character of the men with whom he was contending. Clark, although he could muster only one hundred and thirty men, determined to take advantage of Hamilton’s weakness and security, and attack him as the only means of saving himself; for unless he captured Hamilton, Hamilton would capture him. Accordingly, about the beginning of February, 1779, he dispatched a small galley which he had fitted out, mounted with two four-pounders and four swivels and manned with a company of soldiers, and carrying stores for his men, with orders to force her way up the Wabash, to take her station a few miles below Vincennes, and to allow no person to pass her. He himself marched with his little band, and spent sixteen days in traversing the country from Kaskaskia to Vincennes, passing with incredible fatigue through woods and marshes. He was five days in crossing the bottom lands of the Wabash; and for five miles was frequently up to the breast in water. After overcoming difficulties which had been thought insurmountable, he appeared before the place and completely surprised it. The inhabitants readily submitted, but Hamilton at first defended himself in the fort. Next day, however, he surrendered himself and his garrison prisoners-of-war. By his activity in encouraging the hostilities of the Indians and by the revolting enormities perpetrated by those savages, Hamilton had rendered himself so obnoxious that he was thrown in prison and put in irons. During his command of the British frontier posts he offered prizes to the Indians for all the scalps of the Americans they would bring him, and earned in consequence thereof the title, ‘Hair-Buyer General,’ by which he was ever afterward known.

“The services of Clark proved of essential advantage to his countrymen. They disconcerted the plans of Hamilton, and not only saved the western frontier from depredations by the savages, but also greatly cooled the ardor of the Indians for carrying on a contest in which they were not likely to be the gainers. Had it not been for this small army, a union of all the tribes from Maine to Georgia against the colonies might have been effected, and the whole current of our history changed.

“In October, 1778, after the successful campaign of Col. Clark, the assembly of Virginia erected the conquered country, embracing all the territory northwest of the Ohio river, into the County of Illinois, which was doubtless the largest county in the world, exceeding in its dimensions the whole of Great Britain and Ireland. To speak more definitely, it contained the territory now embraced in the great States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. On the 12th of December, 1778, John Todd was appointed Lieutenant-Commandant of this county by Patrick Henry, then Governor of Virginia, and accordingly, also, the first of Illinois County.”

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