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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How Pekin became the 10th incorporated city in Illinois

This is a revised version of one of our “From the Local History Room” columns that first appeared on 28 Jan. 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

How Pekin became a city

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Pekin has been Tazewell County’s leading community and the continuous seat of county government about as long as Pekin has been a city. But our city had not a few birth pangs in its earliest days, and during Pekin’s first two decades or so the community’s future was often in doubt.

As stated in the Nov. 5, 2011, “From the History Room” column, the 1824 arrival of Jonathan Tharp three years before the formation of Tazewell County was the seed from which Pekin would grow. However, things got off to a slow start, and by 1830 only eight white families lived in the settlement that was given the name “Pekin” that year.

Pekin’s fortunes were then on the rise, however, and in the spring of 1831 the county’s officials obtained permission from the state to temporarily move the county’s government operations from Mackinaw to Pekin – an interim decision until a state-appointed commission had determined where the permanent county seat should be.

Four years later, on July 2, 1835, Pekin’s voters chose to formally incorporate as a town and the community held its first town election on July 9, 1835, to install “a board of five trustees of the Town of Pekin” to serve one-year terms. The vote results were: D. Mark, 24; D. Bailey, 24; Samuel Wilson, 17; Joshua C. Morgan, 22; S. Pillsbury, 24; and S. Field, 12. In the words of Pekin’s early historian W.H. Bates, “On the 11th of the same month, the Board of Trustees was organized, J.C. Morgan being elected President, and Benjamin Kellogg, Jr., Clerk.” (1870 Pekin City Directory, p.13)

Just one year later, however, Pekin suffered one of its many early setbacks, when the above mentioned state-appointed commission decided that county seat was to be moved from Pekin to Tremont. Pekin’s Board President J.C. Morgan moved to Tremont at that time and resigned from the Pekin town board on June 27, 1836.

Undaunted by the loss of county seat status, Pekin carried on with its annual town elections and its population steadily increased. Calamity struck in late 1843, however, when a deadly scarlet fever epidemic swept over the community, which then numbered about 800 residents.

This detail from page 27 of the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory shows W. H. Bates’ account of the vote and local census that enabled Pekin to become an incorporated city in August of 1849.

It would be more than a decade before Pekin found itself on surer footing. As the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial says, “After years of misfortunes, epidemics, wars, droughts, and general weariness, Pekin seemed due for a change of luck. It came, and 1849 was the turning point. The population had risen to 1,500, and the town’s residents voted unanimously to organize under a city charter (dated August 20, 1849). On September 24, Bernard Bailey was elected mayor, heading a council of four aldermen: John Atkinson, David Kenyon, William Maus, and Jacob Riblet.”

Maus, incidentally, was one of the town’s doctors, and he had attended to the sick during the scarlet fever epidemic of 1843-1844. He had previously treated Pekin’s cholera victims during the July 1834 epidemic.

In the 1870 Pekin City Directory, W. H. Bates details the process of how Pekin became a city. To begin with, Bates says the county seat was moved from Tremont back to Pekin in 1848. But Illinois state records show that it was 1849, the same year Pekin incorporated as a city, and “1849” is handwritten — perhaps by Bates himself — on the page of the library’s copy of the 1870 City Directory.

Bates then relates that on Aug. 7, 1849, the town board approved a resolution to take a census of Pekin “preparatory to city organization under the general act of incorporation allowing towns of fifteen hundred inhabitants the privilege of adopting the Springfield or Quincy charters if a majority of the inhabitants, upon due notice, vote in favor of it.” (Springfield and Quincy had themselves both received their city charters from the Illinois General Assembly on Feb. 3, 1840.)

Only two days later, on Aug. 9, 1849, the census results were reported to the board, and, having found that Pekin contained at least 1,500 people, it was “ordered that two weeks’ notice, to be published in the ‘Mirror,’ for an election, to be held on the 20th of August, 1849, to vote for or against the City of Pekin.”

With the unanimous vote on Aug. 20, the “City of Pekin” was born, with a mayor/alderman form of government. Bates says Pekin was only the 10th incorporated city in the State of Illinois. Records show that it had been only six months since the state’s ninth city, Rock Island, was incorporated.

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Bernard Bailey, Pekin’s first mayor

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in March 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .

Bernard Bailey, Pekin’s first mayor

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Previously this column reviewed the story of how Pekin became an incorporated city in 1849. When the residents of Pekin formally adopted a city charter on Aug. 20, 1849, Pekin opted for a mayor/alderman form of government.

The earliest published history of Pekin is found in the Sellers & Bates 1870 Pekin City Directory. On page 28 of that volume, we read, “The election for city officers occurred on the 24th of September, 1849, and resulted in the election of the following named officers: Mayor – Bernard Bailey. First Ward – John Atkinson. Second Ward – David P. Kenyon. Third Ward – Wm. S. Maus. Fourth Ward – Jacob Riblet.”

The Bailey name is an old one in Pekin – part of Pekin is known as Bailey Addition, and Lake Arlann (Meyers Lake) formerly was called Bailey’s Lake. However, Bernard Bailey does not appear to have been a member of that Bailey family. The 1880 “History of Peoria County” says he was born in Maryland on March 26, 1812, the son of Vincent and Susanna (Bernard) Bailey. He first came to Tazewell County, Illinois, around 1830, where he worked as a school teacher and worked at his father’s ox mill. Settling in Pekin, he went into the grocery business and did some wagon making, saving enough money to become a lawyer.

Shown are the federal letters patent signed by President Andrew Jackson confirming the purchase of land in Tazewell County on April 15, 1833, by Bernard Bailey of Pekin, who later was elected Pekin’s first mayor on Sept. 24, 1849. IMAGE FROM U.S. GENERAL LAND OFFICE ARCHIVES VIA ANCESTRY.COM

Bailey then left Pekin, moving to Mercer County, Illinois, and then south to Louisiana, the native state of his wife Arabella Gilmore. In East Baton Rouge Parish, he tried his hand at sugar and cotton planting, until in 1848 he returned to Pekin, being elected mayor the following year.

Originally Pekin’s mayor and aldermen were elected to serve one-year terms, with elections taking place in the spring. Because the first mayor and city council were elected in the autumn, however, they could only serve about seven months before the next election. The 1870 City Directory says the second city election was on April 15, 1850, and Mayor Bailey and three of the four aldermen were reelected (Atkinson losing his reelection bid to Peter Weyhrich).

Before Pekin could vote to incorporate as a city, a hasty enumeration of the town’s inhabitants had to be conducted to verify that Pekin had at least 1,500 residents. However, immigration and prosperity was fueling a population boom during Mayor Bailey’s two terms. The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial says, “Only a year later, Pekin’s population had increased by more than 20% to 1,840, many of the new arrivals being German immigrants. Bailey was re-elected Mayor (the terms then being one year) and all seemed to be going well.”

“That did not last long, however,” the Sesquicentennial continues.

It was at this point that the fledgling city government experienced its first “hiccup.” The 1887 Pekin City Directory, page 30, briefly explains:

“On the 9th of October, 1850, it was resolved by the Council that the Mayor be requested to resign his office, that the city may elect a Mayor who will attend to the duties of his office. On the 25th of October, Mayor Bailey sent in his written resignation which, on motion, was accepted.”

It should be noted that the 1870 City Directory mistakenly switched the calendar dates of the council resolution and Bailey’s resignation. That error was corrected in the 1887 edition, but the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial repeats the 1870 City Directory’s mistake.

The standard reference works on Pekin’s early history do not tell us why Mayor Bailey was not “attending to the duties of his office,” but Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 723, includes a brief reference to Bernard Bailey that may or may not shed some light on that question:

“In the month of October, 1848, the Tazewell Mirror was purchased from John S. Lawrence by John Smith, now of Princeton, Ill. In 1850 Smith sold to Bernard Bailey, but repurchased the Mirror in 1851 in company with Adam Henderson.”

Could Mayor Bailey have been distracted from his civic duties in 1850 by his struggle to operate a newspaper? Whatever the answer to that question, after Bailey’s resignation, a special election was held on Nov. 25, 1850, and Abram Woolston (mistakenly called Woolstein in the 1879 “History of Tazewell County”) was elected to serve the remainder of Bailey’s term.

After owning the Mirror for six months, Bailey sold out and moved to Peoria. There he bought an interest in the Peoria Republican newspaper, later going into the boot and shoe business. In 1856 he was elected Justice of the Peace. He and his wife had 11 children. Pekin’s first mayor lived to the age of 91, dying at Peoria Hospital on Aug. 22, 1903. He was buried in Springdale Cemetery in Peoria.

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