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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Dead and aborted towns of Tazewell County

Judging from the number of “likes” and “shares” on Facebook and Twitter, a great deal of interest was generated by the column last month on Pekin’s mysterious and ephemeral suburb of “Hong Kong,” marked on an 1857 wall map of Tazewell County but appearing on no other map nor in any other known historical document.

Hong Kong, of course, is far from the only toponym that has vanished from the map. In April 1979, the late local historian Fred W. Soady Jr. prepared a “Preliminary Master List of Settlements in Tazewell County, Illinois” for the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. Soady’s list includes many place names that have long since disappeared, some of the settlements existing for a short time before dying out, others flourishing for a good while before succumbing to trends and pressures of migration and economics. The town of Circleville south of Pekin is a better known example of a town that was founded early in Tazewell County, flourished for many years (being on an old stage coach route), but later faded and died.

In other cases, the places on Soady’s list are still inhabited today but were renamed at some point. As this column has discussed in the past, the old neighboring settlements of Fond du Lac (Fondulac) and Blue Town merged to become Hilton, which later was renamed East Peoria. Other nearby settlements we’ve discussed include Wesley City, which later adopted the name of Creve Coeur, while North Pekin formerly was called Radio City.

As for the village of Mackinaw, which was Tazewell County’s first county seat, its original name was “Mackinawtown.” Soady’s list includes an entry for “MACKINAW TOWN” (two words), with a note saying, “oldest name (1827-28) for MACKINAW.” However, an old copy of a plat in the TCGHS archives, probably drawn during the 1850s from an original plat legally filed and recorded in the 1830s, shows the name as “Mackinawtown” (one word).

The copy of the Mackinawtown plat, along with another copy of a plat for the “Town of Mackinaw” (made from an original plat filed May 26, 1830, with Tazewell County Recorder of Deeds Isaac Perkins) are among the old land records and plats in the TCGHS archival collection. One set of historical hand-drawn copies of Tazewell plats in the TCGHS collection was preserved by being interleaved long ago among the map plates of an old 1855 “Mitchell Universal Atlas” (published by Charles DeSilver) that was donated to the TCGHS in 1990. These plats, most of them drawn in the 1850s, are of towns and settlements with familiar names – such as Tremont, Delavan, Dillon, Groveland, Armington, Morton, Spring Lake, Hopedale, Washington – or else show additions to area towns, such as the Colts, Haines, and Cincinnati Additions to Pekin, or the Semples and Dorseys Additions to Washington, or Bacons Addition to Groveland.

Several of these plats, however, are of settlements that no longer appear on our maps, or may never have appeared on any map or in any atlas or plat book. We have already mentioned Circleville, which no longer exists, and Wesley City, now called Creve Coeur. The Wesley City plat inserted in the “Mitchell Universal Atlas” is chiefly remarkable for showing a grid of streets and lots that is obviously and purely a fantasy of the plat owners, and is frankly impossible geographically, for the plat fails to account for Creve Coeur’s hills, gullies, and hollers.

A number of these plats are of settlements that probably never got off the ground – “aborted towns” that never made it past the planning stage of the land speculators – or perhaps only existed for a short time, or later were merged into neighboring settlements. Among these “dead” and “aborted” towns of Tazewell County shown in this collection of plats are Liberty (surveyed July 22, 1835, plat filed June 17, 1836), Spring Garden (plat recorded by its proprietor S. A. Bumstead), Hancock (surveyed October 1836), Madison, Hamilton (surveyed August-September 1836), Cleveland (plat filed Feb. 15, 1836), Montpelier (surveyed Sept. 8-9, 1836), and Danforth (located along the old T & P railroad, surveyed by William S. Morgan for proprietors E. W. Cantwell and W. F. Evans).

The town of Cleveland, on Peoria Lake, existed – or would have existed – about where East Peoria’s Walmart is located today. Soady’s preliminary list of Tazewell County toponyms suggests that Liberty may have been another name for Dillon, which, however, has its own plat in this collection separate from the Liberty plat. Soady’s list also suggests that Danforth may have been renamed Tullamore. But Spring Garden, Hancock, Madison, Cleveland, and Montpelier do not appear on Soady’s list.

One of the “aborted” towns in this collection of plats was to be named Cincinnati. Like the proposed town of Cleveland, it was to bear an Ohio place name – many pioneer settlers of Tazewell County in general and Pekin in particular came from Ohio. The plat owners of the prospective town of Cincinnati were Jonathan Tharp and Jesse Dillon. Tharp is famous locally for settling in 1824 at a spot that is now the foot of Broadway in Pekin, where the former Franklin School now stands. The published works on Pekin’s history mention that two rival groups of Pekin settlers wished to establish a town here along the Illinois River. While one group, including Nathan Cromwell, Isaac Perkins, and William Haines, proposed a town with streets running perpendicular to and parallel with the river, Tharp and Dillon proposed their town with streets running north-south and east-west.

Tharp and Dillon filed their plat for the town of Cincinnati on July 11, 1830 (Soady’s list says Tharp laid out the plat in 1827). Cromwell, Haines, and their associates drew up their own town plans in 1829 and also formalized a plat in 1830, apparently in such a hurry to file it that they didn’t have time to think of a name – they called their desired settlement simply “Town Site” and only came up with the name “Pekin” later in 1830. Meanwhile, the plans of Tharp and Dillon failed to bear fruit. Instead, their proposed town was recast as the Cincinnati Addition to Pekin, the northern border of which was Broadway, with Tharp’s home lot (No. 160) at the northwest corner of the Addition. The “Mitchell Universal Atlas” collection includes a cartographer’s fragile template and accompanying legal description for a plat of “Cincinnati,” as well as a later plat copy of Cincinnati Addition which was drawn and recorded May 28, 1857 – tellingly, the plat copy of Cincinnati “Addition” is in fact still titled “Town of Cincinnati.”

Although the town of Cincinnati never came to fruition, “Cincinnati” is, of course, still an extant Tazewell County toponym – it’s the name of the township located to the south of Pekin Township.

The photo gallery below features selections from the “Mitchell Universal Atlas” collection of plats, all images courtesy of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.

#9jaway, #bbnaija, #bet9ja, #blue-town, #cincinnati-addition, #circleville, #creve-coeur, #fondulac, #hilton, #hong-kong, #jonathan-tharp, #mackinaw, #mackinawtown, #mitchell-universal-atlas, #nathan-cromwell, #plats, #tazewell-county-history, #wesley-city, #william-haines

The ‘prehistory’ of East Peoria

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in March 2014 before the launch of this blog . . .

The ‘prehistory’ of East Peoria

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On several occasions, this column has taken a look at the early history of white European settlement of the Illinois River Valley in our area, outlining the stories of the first French explorers and the interaction of white settlers with the native peoples of the region.

One of the books in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room, entitled “The Centennial History of East Peoria,” edited by Daniel LaKemper and published in 1984, commences its story in the same way, telling of the explorers Marquette and Joliet, La Salle and Tonti, and the construction of the ephemeral Fort Crevecoeur early in 1680. That is the inevitable starting point for any history of a community in our area, but it’s especially fitting in the case of a history of East Peoria, since some investigators have made a compelling case that Fort Crevecoeur was probably located at a spot now within the city limits of East Peoria.

That era, however, is not specifically a period of East Peoria’s history, which strictly speaking did not begin until the 1880s. From the days of La Salle until then, the intervening two centuries saw the activities of French fur traders, the migrations and warfare of American Indian tribes, clashes between European colonial powers, the founding of the United States, and conflict between white Americans and the native peoples that ended with the wholesale clearance of all Indians from Illinois, opening the territory to unimpeded white settlement.

As this column has previously related, the first trickle of white American settlement in what was to become Tazewell County started with the arrival of William Blanchard and Nathan Dillon. Within a few years the trickle became a flood, and communities and farmsteads were planted throughout the county. Blanchard is a significant figure not only in the county’s history but in the history of East Peoria, since he was apparently the county’s first white settler and first made his residence in what would become Fondulac Township. Blanchard’s marriage to Elizabeth Donohue in 1825 was the first marriage in the township. A few years later, in 1831, the family of David Schertz arrived from Alsace-Lorraine and settled on a farmstead of 160 acres along Farm Creek. Schertz’s cabin was located around the spot where Central Junior High School was later built.

Fast forward another two decades or so, and we find a new town being platted in the area that had been settled by Blanchard – this was the town of “Fondulac” (named for Fondulac Township), platted on June 14, 1855. The plat of Fondulac “showed three streets – Mill Street, Main Street, and Depot Avenue – along with a saw mill, a cording mill, and part of the Peoria & Oquawka Railroad. It is assumed that this Main Street is the current Main Street – the area covered running from the four corners north to Farm Creek,” says “The Centennial History of East Peoria,” page 7.

About nine years after the platting of Fondulac, another town, called “Bluetown” was surveyed and platted during the winter and spring of 1864 in the area settled by the Schertz family, around East Washington Street. The Centennial History (page 7) says, “At least three explanations as to the origin of the name ‘Bluetown’ have been advanced. Following the custom in their homeland of Alsace, many of the early settlers wore blue smocks. Also, because the land was marshy and prone to floods many of the houses were built high, some on stilts, and supposedly painted blue to combat corrosion. The other suggestion was that many of the houses belonged to a mining company that bought a quantity of blue paid (sic) and painted the workers homes with that color. According to Irene (Schertz) Herbst, David Schertz’s great-granddaughter, ‘It was definitely not named for any buildings painted blue.’ It was named by Joseph Schertz and those early Alsatians, who ‘always wore blue smocks at their work.’”

In addition to Fondulac and Bluetown, another little community in the area briefly existed during this period – “Coleville,” a settlement located between Fondulac and Bluetown. It grew up around the mansion of the Riverboat Captain Almiron S. Cole, which formerly existed where First United Methodist Church was later built, at the corner of Washington and Almiron streets. Cole and his family had arrived in the future East Peoria in 1835.

The towns of Fondulac and Bluetown were the parents, so to speak, of East Peoria. As the Centennial History says on page 9, two decades after the platting of Bluetown, the citizens of Bluetown and Fondulac on July 1, 1884, decided to incorporate their towns as a single new community – the Village of Hilton. The proposition to incorporate passed by a vote of 30-12. The village’s name presumably was chosen due to the presence of the Hilton Coal & Iron Mining Co., which was located at the east end of town. The following month, on Aug. 4, the village elected its first board of trustees, which was headed by Nicholas as village board president.

Hilton was to exist for only five years, however, for in October of 1889, the village changed its name to East Peoria.

#almiron-cole, #blue-town, #bluetown, #coleville, #east-peoria, #fondulac, #hilton, #nathan-dillon, #preblog-columns, #tazewell-county-history, #wiliam-blanchard