The naming of Tazewell County

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

All available records indicate that when the founders of Pekin gave their town its name in 1830, they had in mind the renowned Chinese city of Peking (Beijing). Their new settlement on the east bank of the Illinois River would soon become the seat of government of Tazewell County, which had been established in 1827.

But why was the county given the name “Tazewell”?

The earliest history of Tazewell County, published by Charles C. Chapman in 1879, informs us (page 209), “The county was named in honor of Hon. John Tazewell, United States Senator from the State of Virginia. There is a county in that State which also bears the same name, these being the only two in the United States.”

That’s straightforward enough, although it doesn’t explain why a new Illinois county would be named after a Virginia senator. Chapman’s statement has an even more serious problem, however – there was no Virginia senator named “John Tazewell.”

There were, in fact, two Virginia senators surnamed “Tazewell,” who were father and son – Henry Tazewell (1753-1799), who served in the U.S. Senate from 1794 until his death, and Henry’s son Littleton Waller Tazewell (1774-1860), who served in the U.S. Senate from 1824 to 1832. Since Tazewell County was formed while Littleton W. Tazewell was a senator, no doubt he was whom Chapman had in mind when he said the county was named for a U.S. senator from Virginia. (Tazewell County in Virginia was named after Henry Tazewell, the father.)

Tazewell County in Illinois was named for U.S. Senator Littleton Waller Tazewell of Virginia, depicted here in a portrait in the collection of the Library of Virginia in Richmond.  The portrait is reproduced on the cover of Norma Lois Peterson's 1983 biography of Senator Littleton.

Tazewell County in Illinois was named for U.S. Senator Littleton Waller Tazewell of Virginia, depicted here in a portrait in the collection of the Library of Virginia in Richmond. The portrait is reproduced on the cover of Norma Lois Peterson’s 1983 biography of Senator Littleton.

Gladys M. Dubson’s 1939 Illinois State University master’s thesis, “Historical and Economic Survey of Tazewell County, Illinois, 1663-1939,” which is part of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection, says (page 2) that it was Littleton Waller Tazewell “for whom Tazewell County, Illinois, was named.” Dubson includes several paragraphs of biography and genealogy of Littleton W. Tazewell. In addition, John Drury’s 1954 “This is Tazewell County, Illinois,” pages 3-4, says, “The new county on the Illinois River was named after Littleton Waller Tazewell, a leading American lawyer and political leader of the time. When the county was organized in 1827, Tazewell was serving in the United States senate, being chairman of that body’s committee on foreign relations. In later years, Tazewell was elected governor of Virginia. During most of his public career he had been a strong opponent of President Jackson’s policies. He died in 1860.”

In this column, we have previously noted that originally, when Illinois legislators made plans to form a new county out of Peoria County, the proposed name was Mackinaw County, not Tazewell County. In fact, the bill that was approved by the Illinois House of Representatives in January 1827 was named, “An Act Creating Mackinaw County.” The Illinois Senate, however, amended the title to read, “An Act Creating Tazewell County,” and it was in that form that the bill passed the Senate on Jan. 31, 1827.

It was Pekin pioneer settler Gideon Henkel Rupert (1799-1877), who soon after his arrival in the future Tazewell County was able to become a successful businessman and landowner – and the wealthiest man in Pekin – who is credited with convincing the Illinois Senate to name the new county after Senator Tazewell of Virginia.

Littleton W. Tazewell had no connection with the county that was to be named after him, so why would Rupert want his county named for Tazewell rather than bear a local Native American place name such as “Mackinaw”? It probably had something to do with the fact that both Rupert and Tazewell were Virginians. Rupert was born in New Markey in Shenandoah County, Virginia. Tazewell was one of the most prominent Virginians of his day, and a renowned and admired speaker whose oratorical skills rivaled those of his fellow U.S. Senator Daniel Webster, so it was probably pride in his native state that explains Rupert’s desire to see the new county named for Senator Tazewell.

A copy of Norma Lois Peterson’s 311-page biography of Tazewell County’s namesake Littleton Waller Tazewell, published in 1983, recently was graciously donated by the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society to the library’s Local History Room collection.

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The early days of Mackinaw

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

The early days of Mackinaw

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The village of Mackinaw in eastern Tazewell County occupies a special position in the county’s history. As this column has noted previously, Mackinaw was the first seat of government for Tazewell County, and the first county courthouse was erected in Mackinaw.

One of the most important sources for the history of those days is Charles C. Chapman’s “History of Tazewell County.”  Also among the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room sources that tell of Mackinaw’s history is “Mackinaw Remembers 1827-1977,” edited by Gladys Garst. The story of Mackinaw’s founding is told on the first two pages of that book, along with a glance back at the prehistory of the Mackinaw area.

“The proof and importance of marks in our Indian cultural heritage,” this volume says, “lies in the fact that Dr. W. H. Holmes, Curator, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, stated the following about the cache discovered in 1916 on the James Tyrrell farm northeast of Mackinaw: ‘Undoubtedly, they represent the most skillful work in stone flaking that has yet been found in this country.’ Thirty-five bifaces (a particular cut) from the Mackinaw cache are on exhibit at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. Three are in McLean County Historical Society Museum in Bloomington, and one is owned by Mr. Stuart Ruch of Champaign. These are thought to be from the Hopewell culture (100 BC to AD 300). Irvin Wyss and Ivan Lindsey are two local men who were digging when they found the cache. Many artifacts have been found by others. Ernest Fuehring has a display in the Mackinaw Federal Savings and Loan Building.”

The most obvious marks of Mackinaw’s Indian cultural heritage are the village’s name and the name of the Mackinaw River. As a rule, the names of rivers and notable natural geographical features tend to be older than the names of towns or cities.  Naturally that is the case with the village of Mackinaw. It may be a surprise to learn, however, that the village did not derive its name from the river.

According to “Mackinaw Remembers,” “It is an accepted fact [the village of Mackinaw] bears the name of Chief Mackinaw or Mackinac of the Kickapoo tribe . . . Some say Mackinaw means ‘little chief.’ It is listed in Illinois State History, No. 4, p. 57, 1963, by Virgil K. Vogel, pamphlet series of Illinois State Historical Society, as meaning turtle. It is taken from the language of the Ojibways.”

The river’s name, however, is an abbreviated form of “Michilimackinac,” a name which some people continued to use even as late as 1846. “In 1681 Father Marquette mentions the Michilimackinac River in his log. It is so-spelled on some maps published in 1822 in the Atlas of Indian Villages of Illinois, compiled by Tucker and Temple,” says “Mackinaw Remembers.”

“Mackinaw Remembers” also has this to say about the Native American peoples living in the area in the early 1800s: “The Indians left a definite mark in our area. War clouds just prior to the War of 1812 made feisty Kickapoos even more restless. They burned settlements on their move toward Lake Peoria. One band of them took up quarters with some Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa on the Mackinaw River. The peaceful Potawatomi far outnumbered the other tribes. Their chief was named Shimshack. Chief Mackina of the Kickapoos eventually became friendly; however, he and the tribes left with the mass evacuation of Indians in Illinois in 1832.”

Chapman’s Tazewell County history also includes some anecdotes of Chief Mackinaw, or “Old Machina” as Chapman calls him, and notes that his people, the Kickapoo, “dwell in the western and southwestern part of the county” (page 195).

“For some years after the first settlers came wigwams were scattered here and there over the county . . . Another extensive camping ground was on the Mackinaw river, near the present town of Mackinaw. Old Machina was the chief of this band. The Kickapoos had made a treaty shortly previous to the coming of the first settler, by which the whites acquired all their land. When the whites came, however, to settle and occupy the land the Kickapoos were angry, and some of them felt disposed to insult and annoy the settlers. When John Hendrix came to Blooming Grove the Indians ordered him to leave. Not long afterwards they frightened away a family which settled on the Mackinaw. Old Machina ordered one family away by throwing leaves in the air. This was to let the bootanas (white men) know that they must  not be found in the country when the leaves of autumn should fall. In 1823, when the Orendorffs came, Old Machina had learned to speak a little English. He came to Thomas Orendorff and with a majestic wave of his hand said: ‘Too much come back, white man: t’other side Sangamon’” (page 195-196).

Fanny Herndon, one of the “Snowbirds” (the survivors of “the Deep Snow” during the extremely harsh winter of 1830-31), “related stories of earlier settlers mentioning the many tepees here. She told of an Indian trail which came in the village [of Mackinaw] from the northeast, went past the west side of the Bryan Zehr place, and led to the present home of Clifford Rowell. It continued southwest along the bluffs.

The formal founding of the village of Mackinaw is almost coeval with the establishment of Tazewell County in 1827. Originally when Illinois legislators made plans to form a new county out of Peoria County, the proposed name was Mackinaw County, not Tazewell County. In fact, the bill that was approved by the Illinois House of Representative in January 1827 was named, “An Act Creating Mackinaw County.” The Illinois Senate, however, amended the title to read, “An Act Creating Tazewell County,” and it was in that form that the bill passed the Senate on Jan. 31, 1827. Gideon Rupert of Pekin is credited with the choice to name the county after Rupert’s fellow Virginian Littleton Waller Tazewell, U.S. Senator from Virginia.

The legislation erecting Tazewell County also fixed the county seat at Mackinaw, which then was near the center of the county. William H. Hodges, County Surveyor, was hired to lay off the town of Mackinaw, and the sale of town lots was then advertised for three weeks in the Sangamon Spectator. It was decided that the county court house – a relatively simply log structure –was to be built “at or near the spot where the commissioners drove down a stake, standing nine paces in a northeastern direction from a white oak blazed on the northeastern side.” That was Lot 1, Block 11, where the Eddy Smith family lived in 1977. The Mackinaw courthouse served the county for only three years, from 1828 to 1831. Then followed the rivalry between Pekin and Tremont for the honor of county seat which this column has previous described.

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Shown is an artist’s rendering of the log house that served as Tazewell County’s courthouse when Mackinaw was the county seat from 1828 to 1831.

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