Dreadful tornado smashes through central Illinois

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Dec. 2013, before the launch of this weblog.

Dreadful tornado smashes through central Illinois

By Jared L. Olar

Local History Specialist

Buildings Twisted and Torn from their Foundations,” the newspaper headline said, describing a “DREADFUL TORNADO” that tore through Washington – the worst one that had ever struck the community in living memory.

It could have been a headline from November 2013 (nine years ago last week), but in fact this was a story published in the 20 May 1858 edition of the Washington Investigator.

That 164-year-old news report was featured in the Jan. 2009 newsletter of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. In this week’s From the Local History Room column, we’ll draw upon the society’s newsletter to help us recall that harrowing event as seen through the eyes of some of Tazewell County’s early settlers.

This detail of a page from a May 1858 edition of the Washington Investigator shows part of a news article about a tornado and storms that hit Washington and other communities in central Illinois that year. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Unlike the twister that left a trail of devastation in Tazewell County on 17 Nov. 2013, the tornado that hit Washington on the night of 13 May 1858, was accompanied by a severe thunderstorm that continued through the early morning hours of May 14, causing extensive flooding throughout the area. Eyewitness accounts from central Illinois residents indicate that the storm system that generated Washington’s 1858 tornado also sent rain, hail, high winds and tornados through many communities in Tazewell and McLean counties.

The severest gale of wind, accompanied with rain and hail, visited our town last Thursday night, that has ever been known to the oldest inhabitants,” says the report in the Washington Investigator.

The report continues:

“About half past 6 o’clock the wind began to blow from the northwest, where a dark, heavy cloud had been hanging for sometime. It continued to increase in intenseness for near a half hour, accompanied with torrents of rains and volleys of hail. A little past seven o’clock it lulled away, the rain in a measure ceased, but devastation and ruin were the visible traces of its angry visit.

“Notwithstanding the fierce wrath of the storm had found its crisis at about seven o’clock, had visited almost every habitation in our town with a destroyer’s merciless intent, leaving them more or less scored and bruised, yet the heavy clouds poured down their torrents of rain, the forked lightning hissed its fiery course in vivid awfulness athwart the sky, the winds howled about the dwellings, thrashing trees and shrubbery with destructive violence till between two and three o’clock Friday morning when a calm began gradually to reign over our storm-scathed village.”

The Washington Investigator’s report then provides an extensive inventory of destruction in Washington and nearby communities – buildings moved off foundations, roofs torn off, doors smashed in, church spires demolished, barns wrecked, board sidewalks ripped up and blown away, fences blown down, bridges destroyed, orchards stripped.

“A small frame house in the east part of [Washington], occupied by Mr Creismann, was carried about ten feet from its foundation, and set down again, before him self and wife could get out of it. . . . A tree standing on the edge of Farm Creek, in the neighborhood of the depot, some two feet in diameter, was twisted off about ten feet from the ground, and the upper portion hurled some distance along the bank. The bridges on the north and south of town have been swept away by the flood; leaving no ingress for teams in either direction. A horse was found dead in the creek just below the flouring mill; supposed to have been blown into the water and drowned.”

At the town of Cruger, the tornado arrived just as a train was pulling into the east end of town, blowing the train off the tracks and dumping it upside-down into a ditch filled with two feet of water, but amazingly only four of the passengers were reported to have been hurt.

The widespread destruction left many people injured. Remarkably, Washington escaped with no fatalities, but reports from elsewhere mentioned persons killed or missing. The Washington Investigator says:

“At Kappa a number of dwellings were torn to pieces. Three persons killed – a man in attempting to save his house from blowing over, was crushed beneath the falling timbers of his house, which contained his wife and child – all killed . . . Two men were killed a short distance from Eureka . . . A rumor reached here, the truth of which we are unable to substantiate, to the effect that a house containing a family of several persons, situated on the prairie, about two miles north of the head of Walnut Grove, was missed from its accustomed locality, when some persons went in search of it. They visited the spot where it had once stood, and found nothing but the fallen chimney. They followed the direction the storm had taken, but no trace of the lost house or its occupants could be discovered.”

Other storm deaths included a number of people who drowned in Peoria Lake – the storm came through while they were boating on the Illinois River. Some of the survivors were rescued by the crew of the Samuel Gaty, “which had lain at Pekin during the heaviest part of the storm” and then came up the river and took aboard “the wrecked passengers of the Obion . . . among which were three ladies – one, Mrs. Tew, of Pekin, was very feeble from long exposure in the water,” according to the Washington Investigator report.

The storm appears to have extended over a territory of more than 25 miles in width,” the report says, “but where it commenced or where it ended in its devastating journey, we have no means of stating at our present writing. The dismay and suffering, loss of life and property, and the consequent lamentation, marks the progress of this sweeping tornado, as one that has scarcely, if ever been equaled in Illinois.

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A thwarted kidnapping: Shipman and Mose – the rest of the story

By Jared Olar

Local History Specialist

In September 2013 and January 2014, we recalled a dramatic story that was recorded in Charles C. Chapman’s “History of Tazewell County, Illinois” (1879) – the stirring account of the kidnapping of a family of free blacks from rural Tazewell County in 1827, and the bold and decisive actions taken by some of the county’s early settlers to rescue the victims.

The story, as Chapman recorded it, tells of how an early Tazewell County settler named Shipman had brought a family of free blacks with him to Illinois. The story in Chapman’s account does not name any of the blacks except the father, who is referred to simply as “Mose.”

The kidnappers struck in the middle of the night, seizing Mose and his family, but before the criminals had gone very far, Moses (who had a double row of sharp teeth) gnawed through his ropes and escaped, making his way back to the settlement and alerting his fellow pioneers. Johnson Sommers, William Woodrow, and Absalom Dillon mounted their horses and gave chase.

The pioneers rode hard in pursuit of the traffickers and managed to intercept them in St. Louis, Missouri, both pursuers and pursued landing on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River at the same time. Chapman’s account concludes:

“. . . Sommers jumped from his horse, gathered up a stone and swore he would crush the first one who attempted to leave the boat, and the men, who could steal the liberty of their fellow men, were passive before the stalwart pioneers.

“One of the pioneers hurried up to the city, and procured the arrest of the men. We do not know the penalty inflicted, but most likely it was nothing, or, at least, light, for in those days it was regarded as a legitimate business to traffic in human beings. The family was secured, however, and carried back to this county, where most of them lived and died. All honor to the daring humane pioneers.”

Quite frustratingly to local historical researchers, Chapman provides no other information on Mose and his family. He does not even tell us who “Shipman” was who had brought Mose and his family to Tazewell County. But subsequent research by members of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society was able to determine that “Shipman” was a Revolutionary War veteran from Kentucky named David Shipman (c.1760-1845) who is recorded as being buried in Antioch Cemetery near Tremont. Shipman’s probate file shows that the full name of “Mose” was “Moses Shipman,” who had adopted his former master’s surname, apparently out of gratitude for David Shipman’s having freed him and his wife and children. Moses and his family must have held David Shipman in great fondness, for when David died without any children, Moses handled the funeral arrangements and then purchased most of David’s possessions at the estate auction. The probate file includes reimbursement for Moses Shipman due to the diligent care he provided for David and David’s wife during their final years.

That still leaves numerous questions unanswered, though – namely, why did David Shipman come to Illinois, how and why did he free his slaves, and who were the other members of Moses Shipman’s family?

Census, marriage, and military records for the mid-19th century tell of several African-American Shipmans living in Tazewell and Peoria counties. No doubt they were related to Moses Shipman, very probably his children. One of them, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, was Pvt. Thomas G. L. Shipman, a Pekin native who served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry as a sharpshooter during the Civil War, giving his life for his country on 31 March 1865 and leaving a widow, Martha, and son, Franklin.

Another African-American Shipman was a woman named Mary Ann, whose son George W. Lee also served in the Colored Infantry during the war, afterwards marrying Mary Jane Costley, one of the children of Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin (but it is unknown if George and Mary Jane had any children, or least any who survived infancy).

While these records tell us a good deal about the African-American Shipmans of Tazewell and Peoria counties, they of themselves offer no confirming evidence that they were children of Moses Shipman, nor do they tell us who their mother was, or how and why David Shipman brought them to Tazewell County.

Research conducted by Susan Rynerson of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society has provided the answers to those questions, and then some.

The most important thing that Rynerson has discovered is that, contrary to the impression left by Chapman’s account, the family of Moses Shipman was not immediately brought back to Tazewell County. Rather, it took the intrepidity and endurance of Moses’ wife Milly, supported by the steadfast advocacy of Tazewell County’s abolitionist settlers, to convince Missouri’s courts that Milly Shipman, her children, and the others who had been kidnapped were free persons.

The full story of the ordeal of Milly Shipman and her children and companions can be learned by studying the 150 pages of the case file of Milly v. Stephen Smith (including papers from three related cases), which is available at the website of the library of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Milly’s 1827 case can be compared to the steadfast efforts of Nance Legins-Costley to secure recognition of her freedom, which at last was obtained through the 1841 case of Bailey v. Cromwell & McNaghton.

From those documents we learn that the kidnapping of the Shipman family was not a random attack of slavers looking for likely victims. It was more in the line of a family dispute involving a potential heir of David Shipman – namely, David’s nephew Stephen Smith of Kentucky, to whom David owed a sum of money. To help pay off that debt, two of David Shipman’s slaves in Shelby County, Kentucky, named Sarah, 27, and Eliza, 15, were seized and sold.

David, however, evidently wanted his slaves to be free, so he and his wife moved to Madison, Indiana, with the rest of his slaves. There on 3 Oct. 1826, David filed and recorded Deeds of Emancipation for the rest of his slaves, i.e., Moses, 30, Milly, 25, their children Allen, 4, Mary Ann, 3, and David, 15 months, and two others named Henry Dick, 16, and William, 12. David Shipman then moved to Tazewell County, Illinois, bringing his newly freed companions with him. (Mary Ann is certainly the Mary Ann Shipman Lee who was mother of Pvt. George W. Lee, while little David Shipman must be the David Shipman who married Elizabeth Ashby of the Fulton County African-American Ashbys.)

David Shipman’s actions were not at all to the liking of his nephew Stephen Smith, who had expected to inherit his uncle’s slaves and planned to sell them in order to obtain money to buy land. When he found out where his uncle had gone, he visited his uncle in Illinois and attempted to take the former slaves with him, but was prevented from doing so.

Smith then gathered a gang of kidnappers and on the night of 4 May 1827 – while everyone was asleep at his uncle’s home at what would later become Circleville in Tazewell County – seized the former slaves and dragged them down to the St. Louis slave market. Smith and his gang managed to grab Moses, Milly, little David, David’s infant brother (probably Charles), as well Henry Dick and William – but as we have seen, Moses escaped and made it back home, alerting his fellow settlers to what had happened.

The rescuing posse intercepted Smith and his gang with their victims on 8 May 1827. The posse members, including Nathan Dillon, quickly filed papers in St. Louis court to prevent Smith from carrying the kidnapping victims to any other jurisdiction. That gave Moses’ wife Milly and her companions time to file a freedom lawsuit that same month. (In one of the documents in the Milly v. Stephen Smith court file, Smith complains about what he saw as the meddling of David Shipman’s Quaker neighbors.)

As historian Lea VanderVelde has related at length in her 2014 book “Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott,” Milly was one of numerous free blacks who petitioned for their freedom in Missouri during the 1800s under the legal rule then reigning in Missouri courts of “once free always free.” That is, even though Missouri was a slave state, their courts in those days did not allow the practice of kidnapping a free black in one state and selling him into slavery in Missouri. Just last month, on June 20 during Juneteenth weekend, a new memorial was unveiled outside the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis, inscribed with the names of every black person who brought a freedom suit in Missouri. Among the names on the memorial under the year 1827 are “Milly, a free mulatto woman,” “Harry Dick, a free negro man,” “William, a free negro boy,” and “David Shipman, a free mulatto boy.

Among the names inscribed on the new St. Louis Freedom Suits Memorial are Milly, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman, four free blacks who were kidnapped from Tazewell County in May 1827 by Stephen Smith, who wished to turn a profit by selling them back into slavery. The new monument was erected and dedicated during the Juneteenth weekend last month, on 20 June 2022.

Milly and the others were held in St. Louis as her case slowly made its way through Missouri’s circuit court as depositions were taken from relevant witnesses in Kentucky and Illinois – with attorneys even traveling to the home of John L. Bogardus in Peoria to take deposition statements. The circuit court erroneously ruled in favor of Smith, claiming that David Shipman was not legally able to free his slaves on account of the money he owed his nephew. However, that judgment was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court 23 Sept. 1829, finding that Shipman’s debt did not bar him from freeing his slaves. The case was then remanded to the circuit court, which confirmed the Supreme Court’s decision on 13 April 1830, and Smith was ordered to repay to Milly and her companions all court costs.

Milly and her children were at last able to reunite with Moses Shipman in Tazewell County. The 1840 U.S. Census shows David Shipman living in Tazewell County as the head of a household that included black persons whom Susan Rynerson has plausibly identified as Moses Shipman and wife Milly and their children Allen, Mary Ann, David, Charles, and Thomas, along with Henry Dick and William.

As I noted above, a few weeks ago we recalled the life of Thomas Shipman and his service in the Civil War. I am indebted to Susan Rynerson for bringing to my attention the fact that on the Tazewell County Veterans Memorial outside the courthouse, Thomas Shipman’s name is listed immediately below Milton S. Sommers, who was a son of Johnson Sommers, one of the men who pursued Stephen Smith to St. Louis and prevented Thomas’ mother and brothers from being sold back into slavery.

This is the first page of the St. Louis freedom suit petition of Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman, free blacks who were kidnapped in May 1827from their home in Tazewell County and dragged down to St. Louis for the purpose of selling them back into slavery. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.
This is the second page of the freedom suit petition of Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman. Significantly, each of the petitioners signed their own names, indicating that their former owner David Shipman had been teaching them how to read and write. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.
This is the first page of an informative petition of Tazewell County settler Nathan Dillon supporting the fact that Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman were free. Dillon also relates how the four were kidnapped by Stephen Smith, nephew of their former master David Shipman. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.
This is the second page of a petition of Tazewell County settler Nathan Dillon supporting the fact that Milly Shipman, Harry Dick, William, and David Shipman were free. IMAGE FROM WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS LIBRARY WEBSITE.

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Pekin’s phantom suburb of Hong Kong

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Probably few Pekin residents have ever heard of the city’s little suburb of Hong Kong. In contrast, however, perhaps most Pekin residents have heard of the old tradition of how Pekin got its name. This week’s “From the Local History Room” will explain how those two topics are connected.

We explored the question of Pekin’s naming about four years ago in the column entitled, “How did Pekin get its name?” (Pekin Daily Times, Dec. 3, 2011, page C2), which included the following quote from late local historian Fred Soady’s 1960 paper, “In These Waste Places”:

“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 . . . 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.”

Pekin is not, of course, “exactly opposite” the site of Beijing (Peking), but is approximately opposite Beijing on approximately the same latitude – Pekin is at about 40 degrees North while Beijing is at about 39 degrees North. In the 1800s and even the early 1900s, “Pekin” was the usual “anglicized” spelling of Peking/Beijing.

The earliest writers on Tazewell County and Pekin history also indicate, with varying certitude, an association of the naming of Pekin with Peking, China. Thus, Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” says Mrs. Cromwell “gave to it the name of Pekin, we suppose after the celestial city of that name.” In his 1870 sketch of Pekin’s history, William H. Bates wrote that “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.”

The earliest historical reference associating Pekin with Peking is the 1860 diary of Pekin pioneer Jacob Tharp (father of Pekin’s first settler Jonathan Tharp), who wrote that the founders of Pekin in 1830 “were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city,” indicating that by 1860 – only three decades after Pekin’s founding – the city’s residents had already taken to associating their home town with its Chinese namesake.

It’s in the context of that old notional association of Pekin, Ill., with China that we should view a remarkable feature found on an early wall map of Tazewell County that was produced in 1857. David Perkins of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society, who has studied and indexed the county’s historical toponyms (place names), recently drew my attention to a particular place name on that map: “Hong Kong.”

The 1857 wall map places “Hong Kong” on the east bank of the Illinois River, due north of the old City Cemetery that once existed at the foot of Koch Street, and about two miles southwest of Pekin’s old downtown. The map displays a complete lack of a gridwork of city streets between Pekin and Hong Kong, which the map shows with nothing more than five or six streets.

This little “suburb” of Pekin is shrouded in mystery. As far as we can tell, no plat map of Hong Kong, Ill., was filed with the Tazewell County Recorder of Deeds, or at least no such plat has survived. The only evidence of this Hong Kong’s existence is this 1857 map. The 1864 M. H. Thompson map of Tazewell County shows no trace of Hong Kong, displaying instead a single road (today South Front Street) and a single building (presumably some kind of factory or distillery or industrial business), nor does little Hong Kong appear on any other early maps or in any other atlases and historical documents. That area has long been Pekin’s industrial district, and Praxair Inc. now occupies a spot at or near the land formerly called Hong Kong.

According to Perkins, despite what the 1857 map says, Hong Kong may never have really existed. It’s possible that a land speculator platted out Hong Kong as a proposed town and tried unsuccessfully to attract settlers and businesses. The little settlement may have existed for a very short time, having a very small population, or perhaps Hong Kong never had a single inhabitant. It may have been nothing more than a name on a map.

The significance of the name, however, may be readily seen. Because Pekin bore a name with Chinese overtones, someone apparently thought it only fitting that there should be another town in the vicinity named for Hong Kong. We may not be able to learn anything definite about Tazewell County’s Hong Kong, but we at least can see that this mysterious name from 1857 – three years before Tharp’s diary – is an additional bit of evidence that the association of Pekin with China goes back to the days of Pekin’s pioneers.


The little settlement of “Hong Kong” is shown in this detail of an 1857 wall map of Tazewell County. The map was formerly displayed in the Kuhfuss & Kuhfuss law offices in downtown Pekin. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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