By Jared L. Olar
One of the most valuable and useful features of Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” is that it includes chronological lists and even election vote tallies of the counties elected officials and appointed office holders. In those lists, the name of one particular early settler of Tazewell County appears several times: the Hon. Thomas C. Reeves (1813-1896).
Reeves first appears on page 615 of Chapman’s history, in the “Officials of Pekin City” list, where we find him as Fourth Ward Alderman in 1859, and then in 1864 as the 11th Mayor of Pekin (the city mayor served single-year terms in those days). On pages 616-617, Reeves is listed as Pekin’s City Assessor in 1857 and 1864. Further on in Chapman’s book, on page 713 we find Reeves serving four times as Tazewell County Sheriff, first from 1854 to 1856, then from 1858 to 1860, and finally two consecutive terms from 1870 to 1874.
Sheriff Reeves last appears in Chapman’s history on page 716, in the tally of Tazewell County election returns. On that page we find the vote tallies for the election of Nov. 5, 1872, when Reeves, a Republican, defeated his opponents J. S. Briggs, a Liberal Republican, and William Knott, the Democrat. The Republican Party had suffered a split that year resulting in the formation of a third party, the Liberal Republicans, but despite the split in the Republican vote, the county was so solidly Republican that Knott garnered a mere 262 votes, while Reeves handily defeated Briggs by a vote of 2,545 to 1,941. (Incidentally, as we shall see further on, Reeves was himself the very first member of the Republican Party in Tazewell County.)
Reeves’ successful career in Pekin and Tazewell County politics would indicate that he was a highly accomplished and capable man. That is borne out by the biographical sketch of his life that was included in the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County,” which features laudatory biographies and genealogies of the “Old Settlers” of Tazewell County. Reeves’ biography is found on page 43 of the Atlas Map volume, which also, on page 121, shows the location of Reeves’ extensive farmstead in Sections 11 and 12 of Spring Lake Township, due east of the town of Hainesville (today known as Parkland).
The biographical sketch identifies Reeves as “a native of Rowan county, North Carolina. He was born December 15, 1813, and is the sixth of a family of twelve children of James and Deborah (Chum) Reeves.” The father, James Reeves, had been born near Salisbury, Maryland, but moved to Rowan County as a young man. In the spring of 1815, James led his family “over the Cumberland mountains to middle Tennessee, and settled on Stone river, where he improved a large farm near the town of Murfreesboro.”
The sketch explains that, although James Reeves relied on slave labor for his farm work, his conscience as an Episcopalian Christian was troubled by slavery, so he freed his slaves and took his family to the free state of Illinois, “not being desirous of raising his large family under the influence of slavery.” The Reeves family – including the son Thomas – arrived in Springfield on Christmas Day 1829, wintering in Sangamon County, then heading north to Tazewell County, where they arrived on March 3, 1830. James established their farmstead on the Mackinaw River near Wagenseller’s Bridge. James’ wife Deborah died in 1831, and James died in the spring of 1856.
The biographical sketch then turns to James’ son Thomas:
“Thomas C. Reeves, the subject of this sketch, received his early education in the schools of Tennessee, what at that time were rather meagre. He assisted in carrying on the farm until the death of his mother, after which he became an apprentice to learn the carpenter trade, which business he followed about twenty-six years. . . . Mr. T. C. Reeves also learned the millwright trade.
“In 1835 he returned from Springfield to Tazewell county, which has since been the arena of his career. In February, 1840, he was married to Miss Mary Jane, the only daughter of Benjamin N. Doolittle. By that union they had four children, one of whom died in infancy; their second daughter is the wife of William Delany. Mr. Reeves assisted to build some of the first houses in the town of Tremont. Mrs. Reeves died in the spring of 1861. Mr. R. was subsequently married to Miss Caroline Jones, of Peoria county. Said marriage occurred in December, 1865. By that union they had one son.
“In speaking of the political record of Mr. Reeves, we find him, from his earliest youth, a supporter of the principles of the whig party. His first vote for president was for General Harrison in the contest of 1836. He voted for every whig candidate for president up to the dissolution of that party. In 1854 Mr. Reeves was elected, by a large majority, sheriff of Tazewell county, and re-elected to the same office in 1858. After the expiration of the latter term, Mr. Reeves retired for awhile to private life.
“In October, 1852, he commenced keeping hotel at the Tazewell House, and kept the same up to the time of being elected to the sheriff’s office in 1858. In the spring of 1860 he bought out a dry goods store in Pekin, and besides carrying on the store he turned his attention to grain buying, closing up that business after one year’s trial, and devoted his attention to the grocery business. Two years after he opened a boot and shoe store, and did considerable business in the way of manufacturing those articles. He subsequently devoted his attention to merchant tailoring and the drug business. It is said that he kept the two largest establishments of the latter class of business ever kept in Pekin.
“On the formation of the republican party he was the first to identify himself with its principles in Tazewell county. He voted twice for Abraham Lincoln, with whom he was personally acquainted; and during the war Mr. Reeves was a firm supporter of the Union cause. In the fall of 1870, the people of Tazewell county, for the third time, elected Mr. Reeves to the office of sheriff, and re-elected him to the same office in 1872. He is still the present incumbent. He is the only man whom the citizens of Tazewell county have honored with four terms of the sheriff’s office. Since his residence in the city of Pekin he has, at different times, served as alderman, marshal, and assessor of the city. In 1864 he was elected mayor of Pekin, filling that office with ability and general satisfaction to all. The many official positions to which he has been called by the franchises of his fellow-citizens, will of itself attest the warm appreciation in which he is held by the people with whom he had been so long associated.”
The sketch concludes with a very positive description of Reeves’ appearance, personality, and character. We must turn to other sources to learn about the remainder of Reeves’ life. Despite his long and successful career in local business and politics, for an unknown reason at some point in the latter 1870s Reeves decided to leave Illinois and strike out west. The 1880 U.S. Census shows him as a farmer in Fremont, Kansas, with his second wife Caroline, 33, and their son James T. Reeves, 13.
Reeves died in Kansas in 1896 at the age of 82. His son James died at the age of 44 on Jan. 22, 1911, and his widow, James’ mother, survived them both until 1922. All three are buried in Rosean Cemetery in Emporia, Kansas.
For more information on the genealogy of Thomas C. Reeves and other branches of the Reeves family, see The Reeves Project.