Peter Weyhrich, Pekin’s pioneer German settler

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in October 2014 before the launch of this weblog.

Peter Weyhrich, Pekin’s pioneer German settler

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

As mentioned before in this column, the first Pekin city directory was published in 1861. One of the Pekin Public Library’s copies of the 1861 directory is a precious and fragile edition that was formerly owned by none other than Pekin’s own pioneer historian William H. Bates, who prepared the first formal history of Pekin for inclusion in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory.

The pages of Bates’ copy of the 1861 directory are amply annotated in Bates’ own hand. These notes were probably added while Bates was working on later editions of the city directory. One of the notes, on page 70 of the 1861 directory, has to do with an early Pekin city official named Peter Weyhrich Sr.

On that page is a list of the directors of the Pekin and Cincinnati Union District Schools, who were elected to three-year terms. In 1861, the school directors were “Peter Weyhrich, sr.,” whose term of office was to expire in August 1861; William Stanbery, who term was to expire in August 1862; and John Haas, whose term was to expire in August 1863. A handwritten note in Bates’ copy of this directory at bottom of this page says, “Peter Weyhrich, sr., was the pioneer German settler of Pekin.”

Thus, we see that Weyhrich, who arrived in Pekin in 1831 or 1832, held the special place in Pekin’s history as the first of a great wave of German immigrants who would choose Pekin as their new home in America during the 1800s. To be sure, Weyhrich was not the only person of ethnic German descent to arrive during those earliest years of Pekin’s history, but he was the first of them who had been born in Germany. By the latter half of the 1800s, the number of German settlers in Pekin was so large that the city had more than one German-language newspaper and many businesses had signs in their windows telling people that German was spoken there.

Peter Weyhrich Sr. was born in 1806 in Hesse-Darmstadt. A biographical sketch of the life of Peter’s nephew Adam is included in the 1894 “Portrait and Biographical Record of Tazewell and Mason Counties,” on pages 565-566. The sketch says Adam’s grandfather (identified in Weyhrich family histories as Peter’s father) Jacob Weyhrich, a native of Hesse-Darmstadt, settled in Tazewell County in 1828 and was later followed by other members of his family. Peter had arrived in Pekin by 1832, but Adam didn’t emigrate until the 1850s, at or around the same time that his father Philip Weyhrich, Peter’s brother, decided to join Jacob and Peter in America.

Beginning his new life in America in Pekin, the early city directories indicate that Peter was active in the community’s life and commerce. He served as Pekin’s mayor in 1858 and 1859. Peter also took part in the formation of Pekin’s first railroad companies, according to Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.” Most of the Weyhrich family, however, acquired land in Sand Prairie Township to the south of Pekin. Peter died Jan. 2, 1879, and is buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin.

This detail of the map of Sand Prairie Township south of Pekin from the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell shows land owned by the Weyhrich family, a pioneer Pekin family that included Pekin’s first German-born settler, Peter Weyhrich.

Early Tazewell County history tells of another Peter Weyhrich, but that Peter – apparently another nephew of the elder Peter – is only mentioned due to the sensational circumstances surrounding and following his death. Chapman tells the story briefly in two paragraphs on pages 298-299 of his Tazewell County history:

“Peter Weyhrich, an old resident of Sand Prairie, died very suddenly Wednesday night, June 20, 1877. The sudden death and incidents attending it caused grave suspicion of foul play. A jury was impanelled and a post-mortem examination made of the deceased, and the stomach sent to Chicago for examination, where it was decided that he came to his death by poison. Mrs. [Anna E.] Weyhrich, wife of the deceased, was arrested and tried for the murder. The case was taken from this to Logan county and tried the last week in March, 1878. States Attorney [William L.] Prettyman and J. B. Cohrs prosecuted, and Messrs. Roberts & Green defended.

“The trial was a long and tedious one, and the prisoner was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years in the penitentiary. A motion for a new trial was made and denied, when an appeal to the Supreme Court was taken. This tribunal reversed the decision and remanded the case for a new trial, which took place in July, 1878, and resulted in her acquittal.”

As an aside, the prosecutor J. B. Cohrs is none of than Illinois State Sen. John B. Cohrs, a Pekin attorney whose life was previously treated in this space, and whose wife was active in the founding of the Ladies’ Library Assocation, predecessor of the Pekin Public Library.

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Bernard Bailey (1812-1903), Pekin’s first mayor

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

Bernard Bailey, Pekin’s first mayor

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last time we 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, who later would serve a term as Pekin’s mayor in 1858-1859).

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. Since Mayor Bailey’s election in 1849, a total of 48 men and one woman (Laurie Barra, 2011-2015) have held the office of Mayor of Pekin. There have been three mayors in Pekin’s history who have served more than one term: Charles Diusdieker (1895-1996, 1911-1915), J. Norman Shade (1939-1954, 1959-1966), and David Tebben (1995-2003, 2007-2008).

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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