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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The French settlement of Peoria Lake

By Jared L. Olar
Library assistant

French colonists were the first Europeans to settle in the Illinois Country – including the future Tazewell and Peoria counties. The Illinois Country passed from French to British control in 1763, and then to American control in 1783. However, as we have seen in our review of the early history of our state, regardless of which national government claimed the lands of the future state of Illinois, they remained a sparsely populated area, inhabited chiefly by Native American tribes and relatively small groups of French colonists.

During the Revolutionary War, Britain’s attention was fixed upon its rebellious colonists in eastern North America, which gave George Rogers Clark of Virginia the opportunity he needed to capture the Illinois Country for his home state in 1778-1779 – with the help of Indian tribes and French colonists.

It was against the background of Clark’s Illinois Campaign that a group of French colonists and fur traders in 1778 established a village on the west shore of Peoria Lake – the area of the broadening of the Illinois River known to the native tribes as Pimiteoui. The village was located about where an Indian village had been in the days of Marquette and La Salle and afterwards. The site had also been the location of a French fort named Fort St. Louis du Pimiteoui, built by Henry Tonti in 1691, but a French presence was not continuous from Tonti’s day until Clark’s Illinois Campaign. The village of 1778 was the predecessor of the present city of Peoria.

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 193, briefly tells the story of this village in these words:

“The next attempt to settle this section of Illinois [after La Salle’s expedition] was made at the upper end of Peoria lake in 1778. The country in the vicinity of this lake was called by the Indians Pim-i-te-wi, that is, a place where there are many fat beasts. Here the town of Laville de Meillet, named after its founder, was started. Within the next twenty years, however, the town was moved down to the lower end of the lake to the present site of Peoria. In 1812 the town was destroyed and the inhabitants carried away by Captain Craig. In 1813 Fort Clark was erected there by Illinois troops engaged in the war of 1812. Five years later it was destroyed by fire.”

The French predecessor of the city of Peoria is more accurately spelled “La Ville de Maillet,” meaning “Maillet’s village.” According to Peoria Historical Society records, the town’s founder was a French trader named Robert Maillet, who built a cabin for himself and his family near the outlet of Peoria Lake in 1761. The small village that grew up around Maillet’s cabin moved upriver to the future site of Peoria in 1778, growing to become a town and flourishing as a trading link between Canada and the French settlements on the Mississippi until the War of 1812. During that war, the town was destroyed in an attack that American militia forces of the Illinois Territory launched against the Indian tribes around Peoria Lake. Although the townsfolk were U.S. citizens, they were taken prisoner and carried off to southern Illinois – but a few returned after the War of 1812.

Shown is an artist’s conception of La Ville de Maillet, predecessor of the city of Peoria, as it may have appeared on the eve of its wanton destruction by Illinois Territorial militia during the War of 1812. Tazewell County’s first permanent settlers of European descent included refugees from the sack of La Ville de Maillet. ILLUSTRATION BY KAY MARSHALL-SMART COURTESY OF THE PEORIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Nehemiah Matson’s 1882 book “Pioneers of Illinois” includes the following eyewitness descriptions of La Ville de Maillet:

“In 1820 Hypolite Maillet, in his sworn testimony before Edward Cole, register of title land-office at Edwardsville, in relation to French claims, said that he was forty-five years old, and born in a stockade fort which stood near the southern extremity of Peoria Lake. In the winter of 1788 a party of Indians came to Peoria to trade, and, in accordance with their former practice, took quarters in the fort, but getting on a drunken spree they burned it down. In the spring of 1819, [when] Americans commenced a settlement here at Peoria, the outlines of the old French fort were plain to be seen on the high ground near the lake, and a short distance above the present site of the Chicago and Rock Island depot. . . .

“According to the statements of Antoine Des Champs, Thomas Forsyth, and others, who had long been residents of Peoria previous to its destruction in 1812, we infer that the town contained a large population . . . The town was built along the beach of the lake, and to each house was attached an outlet for a garden, which extended back on the prairie.

“The houses were all constructed of wood, one story high, with porches on two sides, and located in a garden surrounded with fruit and flowers. Some of the dwellings were built of hewed timbers set upright, and the space between the posts filled in with stone and mortar, while others were built of hewed logs notched together after the style of a pioneer’s cabin. The floors were laid with puncheons, and the chimney built with mud and sticks. When Colonel Clark took possession of Illinois in 1778 he sent three soldiers, accompanied by two Frenchmen, in a canoe to Peoria to notify the people that they were no longer under British rule but citizens of the United States.

“Among these soldiers was a man named Nicholas Smith, a resident of Bourbon county, Kentucky, and whose son, Joseph Smith (Dod Joe), was among the first American settlers of Peoria . . . Mr. Smith said Peoria at the time of his visit was a large town, built along the beach of the lake, with narrow, unpaved streets, and houses constructed of wood. Back of the town were gardens, stock-yards, barns, etc., and among these was a wine-press, with a large cellar or under-ground vault for storing wine. There was a church with a large wooden cross raised above the roof, and with gilt lettering over the door. There was an unoccupied fort on the bank of the lake, and close by it a wind-mill for grinding grain. The town contained six stores or places of trade, all of which were well filled with goods for the Indian market.”

The destruction of La Ville de Maillet was not the end of early French settlement in our area, for several of the French former inhabitants of La Ville de Maillet returned to Peoria Lake after the war, setting up a trading post and small settlement near the Illinois River in what was to become Tazewell County.

Next week we will review the story of that French trading post.

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