Redrawing the Tazewell County line

This is a slightly revised version of one of our “From the Local History Room” columns that first appeared in March 2013 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Redrawing the Tazewell County line

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In the “From the Local History Room” column that ran March 9, 2013, we recalled the story of the old rivalry between Pekin and Tremont as the two communities contended for the honor and status of being the governmental seat of Tazewell County. It was due largely to that struggle that Tazewell County acquired its present geographical boundaries. As we noted previously, the county originally was much larger than it is today.

The trimming and shaving of Tazewell County during the 1830s and 1840s was just the last part of the process by which the county acquired its permanent shape on the map. When the Illinois General Assembly first created Tazewell County in 1827, the county was much larger than it is today. The frequent change in the county’s borders up to the year 1839 (prior to the Tremont-Pekin struggle) can be tracked by consulting the maps of Illinois found in one of the volumes in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room: a 63-page booklet published by the State of Illinois in 1991 with the title, “Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties.”

The county boundaries of Illinois as they stood in 1827 are shown in this map from the State of Illinois’ 1991 booklet, “Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties.” Originally, Tazewell County also included all of Woodford, over half of McLean, and parts of Mason, Logan, DeWitt, and Livingston counties.

This booklet presents the development of the counties of Illinois beginning in 1790, when the land that would become the State of Illinois was a part of the Northwest Territory. In that year, there were only two counties in Illinois: Knox County (not to be confused with today’s Knox County which borders Peoria County on the west), which included most of the eastern half of Illinois and parts of Indiana, and St. Clair County, which took up about the southwestern third of Illinois. The Illinois River served as the northwestern boundary of St. Clair County and part of the northwestern and western border of Knox County. Most of present Tazewell County was then a part of Knox County, with about a fourth of Tazewell including in St. Clair County.

By 1801, Illinois was a part of the Indiana Territory, and the county lines had been moved, with almost all of Illinois (including the future Tazewell County) encompassed by St. Clair County. The southern quarter of Illinois was assigned to Randolph County. Knox County, however, was almost edged out of Illinois altogether. Most of Knox County was in Indiana, and just a narrow strip along the eastern border of what would become the State of Illinois was all that remained of Knox in Illinois.

Eight years later, in 1809, Knox County was no more – Illinois had but two counties, Randolph in the south and St. Clair in the north. In only three years, however, the territorial counties had been re-envisioned, with the southern quarter of Illinois divided among St. Clair, Randolph, Gallatin and Johnson counties, and the northern three-quarters of the territory (including Tazewell) assigned to Madison County.

Apart from some border adjustments of the southernmost counties, that basic arrangement remained until 1815, when two new counties were created: White County in southern Illinois, and Edwards County, which was formed out of the eastern half of Madison County by drawing of straight north-south line right through the middle of the Illinois Territory. The remaining territory of Madison County included the area that would later become Tazewell County.

By 1817 – just a year before Illinois became a state – the northern three-fourths of the Illinois Territory were taken up by three large counties: Crawford County in the east (which was most of the former Edwards County), Madison County in the west (which was most of the former Madison County), and a new county named Bond, created by slicing a perfect north-south strip from Madison County. Most of Tazewell County was included in Bond County, while the western part of Tazewell was in Madison County. The western border of Bond County passed right through the future site of Pekin.

Four years later, in 1821, the fledgling State of Illinois redrew the county borders in the northern three-fourths of its territory, reducing Bond County to a tiny rump of its former area and creating several new counties. One of them, Sangamon County, extended from Sangamon County’s present southern border as far north as the northern border of Putnam County at the Illinois River. Within Sangamon’s boundaries was the future Tazewell County – and in the summer of 1824, along the northwestern border of Sangamon County at the Illinois River, Jonathan Tharp built his log cabin where the city of Pekin would later arise.

In 1825, Sangamon County was reduced in size, with its northern half being separated from Sangamon and administered from the newly created Peoria County. This unorganized territory was not a part of Peoria County, but it also was not a county in its own right and was administered from Peoria.

Finally, on Jan. 31, 1827, the State of Illinois created Tazewell County out of lands that not only included the whole of the present Tazewell County, but also encompassed territory from the former Fayette County (which territory is today the western half of McLean County) as well as the whole of the future Woodford County and parts of Mason, Logan and De Witt counties.

Tazewell’s first reduction in size came with the creation of McLean County on Dec. 25, 1830. At that time, Tazewell acquired most of its current eastern border. Tazewell’s territory then still included a good part of what would become Woodford and Mason counties as well as a northern slice of the future Logan County.

Tazewell County would retain that shape and size for much of the following 10 years, after which the Pekin-Tremont rivalry reduced Tazewell to its permanent boundaries.

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#illinois-bicentennial, #illinois-counties, #pekin, #preblog-columns, #tazewell-county-history, #tremont

How did Pekin get its name?

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in December 2011 before the launch of this blog . . .

How did Pekin get its name?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The question of how Pekin got its name is shrouded in a haze of mystery and legend, but the resources of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room can help bring the question into better focus.

All the standard reference works on the history of Pekin and Tazewell County affirm that Pekin was named in 1830 by Ann Eliza Cromwell, wife of Major Nathan Cromwell, one of Pekin’s earliest settlers. However, early accounts disagree about the year she gave Pekin its name.

Local historian Fred W. Soady’s 1960 paper, “In These Waste Places,” says, “After the completion of the plat of the new town in 1830, Mrs. Nathan Cromwell, for reasons still obscure, gave the city the name of PEKIN, and thus it has remained to the present,” adding in a footnote, “It is speculated, and a common legend in Pekin, that the city was so named by Mrs. Cromwell on the belief that the site was exactly opposite the site of Peking, capital of China.”

The first known published sketch of Pekin’s history is found in the 1870 Pekin City Directory of W.W. Sellers & W.H. Bates, which says: “In 1829 a survey of ‘Town Site’ was made by William Hodge of Blooming Grove, then County Surveyor . . . The survey made, and the town laid out, Mrs. Cromwell being called upon, exercised her share of women’s rights in that early day by christening the embryo city of the new Celestials, PEKIN. Why she thus named it the legendary history of the days gone by fail to record, and we can only surmise that in the plenitude of her imagination she looked forward to the time when it would equal in size that other Pekin – the Chinese City of the Sun.”

During the 1800s, “Pekin” was the standard English-language spelling of the Chinese capital, Peking or Beijing.

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” substantially repeats the same account, though he dates Hodge’s survey to 1827 (apparently a printer’s error for 1829). “Doubtless with a prophetic eye [Mrs. Cromwell] could see a brilliant future for their town in the not far distant time, and, therefore, gave to it the name of Pekin, we suppose after the celestial city of that name,” Chapman comments.

The story that Pekin was named after Peking (Beijing) appears to be an authentic tradition handed down by Pekin’s original settlers. Chapman quotes from the 1860 diary of Jacob Tharp, who came to Pekin in 1825. In his diary, Tharp gives an account of how the town’s proprietors (including Major Cromwell) surveyed and laid out the original town in 1830, and comments, “The gentlemen were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city.” His comment seems to be the earliest allusion to the story that Pekin was named for China’s Celestial City Beijing. “The Celestial City” has long been one of our city’s appellatives.

However, these old accounts do not mention the “common legend” to which Soady refers, that Mrs. Cromwell believed Pekin was on the opposite side of the earth from Peking. Perhaps that legend is only a later embellishment of the original tradition. It is worth noting, however, that Pekin, Ill., and Beijing are at about the same latitude on the globe – about 40 degrees for Pekin, about 39 degrees for Beijing.

Our city is not the only U.S. community with that name, nor was it the first. For example, Pekin in Washington County, Indiana, got its name around the same time as Pekin, Ill. There is also a small eastern Ohio community called Pekin, located near Minerva in Brown Township, Carroll County. Ohio’s Pekin may have received its name prior to 1815, judging from a statement in the 1921 “History of Carroll and Harrison Counties, Ohio.” Is it just a coincidence that Pekin, Ohio, is also at about the same latitude (39 or 40 degrees) as Pekin, Ill., and Beijing, China?

Several of our city’s first settlers came from or through Ohio – but did any of them know about Ohio’s Pekin? Could that have been what suggested the name to Ann Eliza Cromwell? It might be a worthwhile project for a contemporary researcher of our local history to investigate that question.

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Early historical accounts indicate that Pekin, Ill., was named for the capital of China, Beijing or Peking. During the 1800s, a common English-language spelling of China’s capital was “Pekin,” as shown in this detail of a map from an 1874 grade school geography textbook, “Monteith’s Independent Course — Elementary Geography,” by James Monteith, page 62.

#ann-eliza-cromwell, #beijing, #celestial-city, #china, #fred-soady, #pekin, #pekin-history, #pekin-ohio, #peking

Pekin was encircled by the Whiskey Ring

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

Pekin was encircled by the Whiskey Ring

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The era of Prohibition during the 1920s is remembered as a time of speakeasies, bootlegging and larger-than-life gangster kingpins. Not as well-remembered, however, is an earlier time when a vast and lucrative bootlegging conspiracy operated in the United States.

Known as the Whiskey Ring, this criminal enterprise got its start in St. Louis about 1870, spreading to several other major cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and New Orleans, also putting down roots in Peoria and Pekin. It was aided and abetted by corrupt political officials both high and low. Among the leading conspirators was none other than Gen. Orville E. Babcock, private secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant (though the president himself was never implicated).

In the 1949 Pekin Centenary, we read, “The power of the ring was said to be tremendous in a wide area with headquarters at St. Louis, and something of its potency here in Pekin is indicated by the incident in which a revenue man was reportedly arrested by local authorities and held in custody on a trumped up charge while a boat-load of whiskey was cleared off the dock and hidden away.”

Alcohol was not illegal in those days — quite the contrary, it was a booming business. However, during the Civil War the federal government had imposed heavy taxes on whiskey to help finance the war effort, and the tax remained in force even after the war’s end. Before the war, whiskey cost only 25 cents a gallon, but the federal tax of $2 a gallon sharply increased the cost of doing business. Added to that were local taxes and fees, such as the doubling of Pekin’s liquor license fee from $100 to $200 per year in 1870 (as recorded in the 1887 Pekin City Directory).

It wasn’t too long before many distillers began to come up with ways to evade the tax, chiefly through bribery, smuggling and bootlegging.

“Officials were party to the secret alliances which made it possible for some whiskey makers to present false reports, with the effect of paying taxes on as little as one-third of their actual whiskey shipments. In 1870 the vast bootleg conspiracy received some attention, although it continued until 1874, using less bold methods,” says the Pekin Centenary.

“On the other hand,” continues the Centenary’s account, “there was nothing bashful about the business of emptying the vast city cisterns built for fire protection here in Pekin, and filling them with highly inflammable bootleg whiskey instead of water. Liquor was also cached in corn shocks, and kegs were sealed and sunk in the Illinois river, here and at Peoria and other locations. Hundreds of those invaluable kegs were recovered by federal agents dragging the river later.”

Powerful and well-connected though they were, the ringleaders of the conspiracy could not escape justice forever. On May 10, 1875, U.S. Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow, using secret agents from outside his own department (since he couldn’t trust his own men), coordinated a series of raids and broke up the ring. Due to Gen. Babcock’s closeness to the president, Bristow did not inform Grant of the operation.

According to the Centenary, “(T)he break-up finally came with wholesale arrests all over the state. It is recorded that Pekin people at that time saw whole carloads of prisoners hauled through to St. Louis to face a Federal court. Actually, however, no one of importance was ever sent to jail, as only a few ‘mediocrities’ took the punishment and the whole thing passed over; but at any rate the ‘whiskey ring’ was broken and the millions of dollars being sidetracked from the U.S. treasury into private hands, while never recovered, was at least discontinued.”

In fact, although Babcock managed to secure an acquittal, 110 people were convicted in federal court and more than $3 million in diverted taxes were recovered by the federal government.

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This Feb. 1876 drawing from “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” depicts a hearing in St. Louis, Mo., at the start of the trial of Gen. Orville E. Babcock, private secretary of President Ulysses S. Grant. Babcock was one of the ringleaders of the Whiskey Ring tax fraud conspiracy, but was acquitted in federal court.

#pekin, #preblog-columns, #whiskey-ring