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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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.

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

Eliza Farnham’s ‘Life in Prairie Land’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This column usually features resources from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection. These are items that remain in the library and may not be checked out. But this week we’ll turn our attention to a book in the library’s regular collection – a biographical narrative titled “Life in Prairie Land,” published in 1846 by an early feminist and abolitionist writer from New York State named Eliza W. Farnham.

The book describes Farnham’s experiences living in Illinois during the 1830s, a period when most of the state was a part of America’s wild frontier. Her book’s relevance to the history of Tazewell County and Pekin may be discerned from the following passage on page 24, in which Farnham tells the story of her arrival in central Illinois in 1836:

“We worried on through the flood of water that was pouring down the bed of the Illinois and submerging its banks, till the night of the fifth day brought us to the landing place of our friends in the town of Pokerton. It was at that time the county seat of one of the largest and wealthiest counties in the state. Its name is faintly descriptive of its inhabitants in a double sense: one of their favorite recreations being a game at cards, which is indicated by the first two syllables of this name. . . .”

The county to which Farnham referred is none other than Tazewell County, and “Pokerton” is the disdainful monicker that Farnham invented for Pekin. It’s clear from the way Farnham describes Pekin and its residents that she was greatly unimpressed by Pekin, which was then hardly more than an undeveloped frontier village.

"Life in Prairie Land" (1846), by Eliza W. Farnham, reprinted in 1988 by University of Illinois Press, tells of the author's experiences while living in Tazewell County during the 1830s.

“Life in Prairie Land” (1846), by Eliza W. Farnham, reprinted in 1988 by University of Illinois Press, tells of the author’s experiences while living in Tazewell County during the 1830s.

Born Eliza Wood Burhans (but later called Eliza Woodson) on Nov. 17, 1815, at Rensselaerville, N.Y., she was the fourth of five children of Cornelius and Mary (Wood) Burhans. Farnham, still unmarried when she came to Tazewell County, had left New York to live with her sister Mary for a while. Mary and her husband, John M. Roberts, an abolitionist involved in the Underground Railroad, settled near Groveland in 1831, on a homestead that they named Prairie Lodge. Another likely reason Eliza moved to Groveland was to be near a young man she’d met back East, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a Vermont lawyer who had purchased land near Groveland in the summer of 1835. Eliza and Thomas married on July 12, 1836, settling in Tremont, which became the county seat that very year. (Remarkably, she never mentions Tremont by name in her book, not even using an alias of her own invention.)

The Farnhams lived in Tazewell County until the spring of 1839. While here, Eliza experienced the double sorrow of the death of her sister Mary in July 1838, followed two weeks later by the death of her own firstborn child during an epidemic. In her book, Farnham tells of her meditations on her bereavement that in time led her to move from her youthful atheist views to “a religious state of mind.”

The Farnhams brief stay in Tazewell County ended when Thomas organized a trip to Oregon, exploring the possibility of leading a group of settlers to the Pacific Northwest. Eliza stayed behind in Groveland and Peoria while her husband led the expedition. Upon his return in August 1840, the couple moved back to New York. So ended her experiences of “Life in Prairie Land.”

Farnham would go on to write several articles and books, and in particular was an advocate of feminism (she held that women were morally and biologically superior to men). She also became matron of the women’s half of Sing Sing Prison in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., where she implemented a series of reforms that were oriented toward rehabilitation of the inmates. Due to strong opposition to her reforms, she resigned her position in 1848.

That same year, her husband Thomas died in San Francisco, Calif., which necessitated her own move to California to settle his estate. Those years in California were unhappy ones – she suffered the loss of two of her children, and her second marriage in 1852 to William Fitzpatrick ended with her divorcing him in 1856. Farnham returned to New York for a few years, promoting her feminist views, then moved back to California for a while, then back to the East to advocate for the abolition of slavery. In 1863, as a volunteer nurse at Gettysburg, she contracted tuberculosis. She died Dec. 15, 1864, in New York City and was buried in the Quaker Cemetery at Milton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

#abolitionism, #eliza-farnham, #feminism, #groveland, #life-in-prairie-land, #pokerton, #tremont