William H. Bates’ list of Pekin’s ‘firsts’

This is a slightly revised version of one of our “From the Local History Room” columns that first appeared in February 2015 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

William H. Bates’ list of Pekin’s ‘firsts’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, May 4, at 11 a.m., the Pekin Public Library will present the fifth video in its Illinois Bicentennial Series in the Community Room. As people in the U.S. and Europe observe the 73rd anniversary of “V-E Day” (the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945), the video will be “We Were There: World War II.” The video is an Alliance Library System oral history that was filmed at the Pekin Public Library, Eureka Public Library, and Illinois State Library in 1992. Afterwards, the Pekin Public Library’s oral history production that recorded personal memories of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will be shown. Admission is free and the public is invited.

This subject of this week’s column deals with matters of peace rather than war. As this column has noted more than once, William H. Bates (1840-1930) was the first to publish a history of Pekin, which was included in several editions of the old Bates Pekin City Directories starting in 1870. Since Bates’ historical account was itself a landmark in Pekin’s history, it’s only fitting that one of the chief features of his account is that it highlights several of Pekin’s “firsts.” This week we’ll review Bates’ tally of Pekin’s firsts, which begins with:

The first election: According to Bates, the first local election took place in August 1826 at the Dillon home, where Nathan Dillon and his kin had settled. The area was then under the jurisdiction of Peoria County, for Tazewell County was not to be established by the Illinois General Assembly until the following year. “We are not informed who received a majority of the votes nor the number polled, but the day was a gala one and of sufficient importance to be commemorated by a banquet,” Bates writes.

The first death: After white Americans began to make permanent settlements in what would become Tazewell County, the first recorded death was that of Ezekiel Turner, who was struck by lightning in February 1825. To make a coffin, Turner’s companions felled a straight walnut tree, cut the trunk in half along its length, and then hollowed out the trunk.

The first settler: The first white settler in what would become Pekin was Jonathan Tharp of Ohio, who built a log cabin in 1824 on a bluff above the Illinois River at a spot that today is near the foot of Broadway, not far from where Pottawatomi Chief Shabbona and his family soon after set up their wigwams.

The first white child: On March 10, 1827, Joseph, son of Jonathan Tharp, was the first white child born in what would become Pekin.

The first steamboat: The first steamboat to visit Pekin chugged up the river early one morning in the late fall of 1828, the never-before-heard noises giving many of the sleepy settlers a real fright. Jonathan Tharp’s father Jacob thought the sounds signaled the end of the world, Bates says.

The first store: Pekin’s first store was opened in 1830 by Absalom Dillon, followed by David Bailey’s store later the same year. Also in 1830 was:

The first hotel or tavern, which was opened by Gideon H. Hawley, and:

The first church: Pekin’s first church building was erected by the Methodists on Elizabeth Street between Third and Capitol. The Rev. Joseph Mitchell was the congregation’s first regular pastor.

The first brick house: Pekin’s original homes were log cabins and wood frame houses, but by the 1830s some settlers began to build brick homes. The first one was the Mark residence at the corner of Court and Second streets. “We are not informed as to the time when it was built, but from the fact that it was raised to its present height in 1835, we presume it was erected as early as 1833,” Bates says.

Shown is the home of Pekin pioneer Jacob Tharp, who came here from Ohio in 1825. Tharp’s dwelling, located where the St. Joseph’s Parish Center is today, was one of the first two-storey brick houses in Pekin according to “Pekin: A Pictorial History.” According to W. H. Bates, the Mark residence was the first brick house.

The first town election: After the establishment of Pekin as a town, the first town election took place on July 9, 1835. Five men were elected as town trustees: D. Mark, D. Bailey, Samuel Wilson, J.C. Morgan and S. Pillsbury, with Morgan being elected as president of the town’s board of trustees.

The first bank: Bates writes, “The first Bank or Banking house in Pekin, was a branch of the Bank of Illinois, which was established in 1839 or 1840. John Marshall, of Shawneetown, President of the parent bank, was President; Charles Wilcox, Cashier; and William Docker, Clerk. It was located in the rear of Mark’s store, on Second street. About all that remains of the Bank to-day is the old safe, now used by P. A. Brower, in the office of the Illinois River Packet Company, on Front street.”

The first town seal: Pekin’s first seal was “an eagle of a quarter of a dollar of the new coinage,” formally adopted by the town board on Dec. 29, 1840.

The first distilleries: Formerly a major industry in Pekin, the first two alcohol distilleries in Pekin were located, Bates writes, “one immediately south of where the present alcohol works are situated; the other on the ground occupied by the Reisinger distillery of to-day. The latter outliving its usefulness as a distillery was converted into a slaughter-house, in which capacity it remained until the 9th of May, 1849, when, having become, in the opinion of the people, a nuisance, it was destroyed by a mob . . . .”

The first steam mill: Pekin’s first steam mill was built in April 1845 by Benjamin Kellogg near the river between Margaret and Ann Eliza streets. Kellogg’s business was destroyed by a fire in the fall of 1849.

The first jail: Pekin’s first jail — which Bates calls “the first calaboose” — was built in November 1849 for the cost of $48. The “calaboose” served the city until 1868, when it was destroyed by a fire started by some of its inmates.

The first mayor: After being incorporated as a city on Aug. 20, 1849, Pekin elected its first mayor and aldermen on Sept. 24 that year. Pekin’s first mayor was Bernard Bailey, who was also the first mayor to resign, being pressured by the city council to leave in October 1850 “that the city may elect a Mayor who will attend to the duties of his office.”

The first railroad: The last “first” that Bates included in his account was the beginning of Pekin’s first railroad. “On the 4th day of July, 1859, the first rail was laid and the first spike driven on the prospective Illinois River Railroad. . . . The leading citizens participated in celebrating the new enterprise on such an auspicious day as the Fourth of July. The road was never really completed until it passed into the hands of the present company, when the name was changed, and it is now the flourishing and well-managed Peoria, Pekin and Jacksonville Railroad.”

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When Pekin was only a town

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

For the first 19 years of its existence, from 1830 to 1849, Pekin was a pioneer town, with much of the character that is associated with the Wild West rather than a modern semi-rural Midwestern city. A Native American village even thrived near the new town until 1833, first located on the ridge above Pekin Lake and later on the south shores of Worley Lake.

However, as Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates tells in the 1870-71 Pekin City Directory, it was in that first period of Pekin’s history that the crucial groundwork was laid for Pekin’s civic development.

Thus, Bates tells us that Pekin’s nascent economy got a boost in Pekin’s first year with the opening of two stores – one belonging to Absalom Dillon and the other to David Bailey – and a hotel or tavern operated by Pekin co-founder Gideon Hawley. Religion in the new town also made its debut in 1830, with the construction of Rev. Joseph Mitchell’s Methodist Church on Elizabeth Street between Third and Capitol.

The following year, Thomas Snell built the town’s first school house, located on Second Street between Elizabeth and St. Mary. Thomas’ son John was the school teacher. The same year, Thomas built Pekin’s first warehouse.

The most significant of 1831’s milestones for Pekin was the transfer of the county seat from Mackinaw to Pekin. When the Illinois General Assembly created Tazewell County in early 1827, Mackinaw was designated as the county seat because it was near what was then the geographical center of Tazewell County. But Pekin’s location as a port on the Illinois River meant Pekin was less remote than Mackinaw. That greater accessibility gave Pekin better prospects.

Another thing that may have played a role in the decision to move the county seat was a memorable extreme weather event: the incredible “Deep Snow” of Dec. 1830, a snowfall and sudden freeze that had turned life on the Illinois prairie into a desperate fight for survival. Pekin was closer to other, larger towns and settlements than Mackinaw, and therefore safer for settlers.

With such considerations in mind, the county’s officials decided to relocate to Pekin even though Illinois law still said Mackinaw was the county seat.

Pekin remained the de facto county seat for the next five years. During that time, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Samuel D. Lockwood presided over the Circuit Court in Tazewell County. Court at first took place in the Snell school house, but later would convene in the Pekin home of Joshua C. Morgan, who simultaneously held the offices of Circuit Clerk, County Clerk, Recorder of Deeds, Master in Chancery, and Postmaster. That house was later the residence of Pekin pioneer doctor William S. Maus.

The Black Hawk War, Illinois’ last conflict with its Native American population, broke out in 1832. The war lasted only a few months. It began disastrously for the Illinois militia with the debacle at Stillman’s Run in northern Illinois, where the untrained and undisciplined militia recruits quickly succumbed to panic and fled, leaving behind the few brave men in their number to be butchered and scalped. As Bates sardonically put it, “The balance of the command, so history hath it, saved their scalps by doing some exceedingly rapid marching to Dixon on the Rock River.” Among the fallen was Pekin co-founder Major Isaac Perkins.

The town of Pekin itself was not directly affected by the fighting, although the townsfolk did build a stockade around the Snell school house as a precaution, renaming it Fort Doolittle. The fort never had to be used, however, which was a very good thing, because, as Bates commented, it “was so constructed, that in case of a siege, the occupants would have been entirely destitute of water.”

Despite the war’s inauspicious start, the Illinois troops quickly gained the upper hand and Sauk war leader Black Hawk (Makataimeshekiakiak) was forced to give up the struggle. The outcome of the war was the greatest calamity for the remaining Indian tribes of Illinois, who beginning in 1833 were almost to a man forcibly relocated to reservations west of the Mississippi – including the Pottawatomi and Kickapoo bands who lived in Tazewell County. Tazewell County’s Pottawatomi were soon joined by the harried remnants of their kin from Indiana, whom state militia soldiers forced to march west from their homes in Indiana in 1838 along a route that is remembered as the Pottawatomi Trail of Death.

In July 1834, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera struck Pekin, causing the deaths of several pioneers, including Thomas Snell and the wife of Joshua C. Morgan. The victims were hastily interred in the old Tharp Burying Ground, the former site of which is now the parking lot of the Pekin Schnucks grocery store.

Given the challenges and upheavals of the first five years of Pekin’s existence, it should not be surprisingly to learn that there are no surviving records of the town’s elections prior to 1835. On July 9, 1835, the townsfolk elected five men as Trustees: David Mark, David Bailey, Samuel Wilson, Joshua C. Morgan, and Samuel Pillsbury. Two days later, Pekin’s newly elected Board of Trustees organized itself, choosing Morgan as its president and Benjamin Kellogg Jr. as clerk.

One of the first acts of the new board was passing an ordinance on Aug. 1, 1835, specifying the town’s limits. At the time, Pekin’s boundaries extended from the west bank of the Illinois River in Peoria County eastward along a line that is today represented by Dirksen Court, reaching out as far as 11th Street, then straight south along to 11th to Broadway, then westward along Broadway back across the Illinois River to Peoria County. It is noteworthy that land in Peoria County has been included within the limits of Pekin ever since 1835.

This detail from an 1864 map of Pekin has been cropped to match the town limits of Pekin as they stood in 1835 — extending from the west bank of the Illinois River eastward to what is today 11th Street, and from Broadway north to what is today Dirksen Court. Many of the 1864 streets did not yet exist in 1835, of course.

Pekin’s first Board of Trustees continued to meet until June 27, 1836, when the county seat was formally relocated by Illinois law to Tremont, where a new court house had been built. Pekin then elected a new board on Aug. 8, 1836, the members of which were Samuel Pillsbury, Spencer Field, Jacob Eamon, John King, and David Mark. King was elected board president and Kellogg was again elected clerk.

Board members served one-year terms in those days, so Pekin held elections every year. Getting enough board members together for a quorum was evidently a real challenge. The board addressed that problem by passing of an ordinance on Jan. 4, 1838, stipulating that any board member who was more than 30 minutes late for a board meeting would forfeit $1 of his pay.

Another notable act of Pekin’s board around that time was a resolution of Dec. 29, 1840, adopting “an eagle of a quarter of a dollar of the new coinage” as the official seal of the town of Pekin.

On Dec. 29, 1840, the Pekin Board of Trustees officially adopted an American eagle like the one shown on this mid-19th century quarter as the seal of the Town of Pekin.

Throughout these years, Pekin continued to see economic developments. The first bank in town, a branch of the Bank of Illinois, was established in 1839 or 1840 at the rear of a store on Second Street. There was not yet a bridge across the Illinois River, but ferries were licensed to operate. Alcohol distilleries also were established in the area that is still Pekin’s industrial district, and around those years Benjamin Kellog also built the first steam mill near the river between Margaret and Anna Eliza streets.

In spite of a scarlet fever epidemic in winter of 1843-44, these economic developments were signs of Pekin’s continuing growth and progress, notwithstanding the loss of the county seat to Tremont. The pioneer town was poised to attain the status and rank of a city.

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