William W. Sellers, publisher and politician

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in July 2012 before the launch of this weblog.

William W. Sellers, publisher and politician

By Jared L. Olar
Library assistant

The foundation of Pekin’s historical record was laid in 1870, with the publication of the Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory. As noted more than once in this column, included in that directory was a “History of Pekin, from its earliest settlement to the present time.”

The 1870 directory billed itself as “the first history and directory of the city.” The conjunction “and” is important – it was not the first city directory (that was the 1861 Roots directory), but it does contain the first published history of Pekin. If not for the Sellers & Bates directory, our knowledge of Pekin’s early history would be greatly impoverished.

But just who were “Sellers & Bates, Printers,” to whom researchers into our local history owe such a great debt? We first answered the “Bates” part of that question in the March 17, 2012 Pekin Daily Times, in the column, “William H. Bates of Pekin, ‘the historian of the city.’

Bates was the younger half of the printing and publishing partnership of Sellers & Bates. Sellers was William W. Sellers of Pekin, a newspaper publisher and Republican politician (there was no clear line separating the two roles in those days, even as the line between journalism and politics is obscured in our day) who enjoyed a fair degree of local prominence.

The entries for William Sellers and his printing firm, Sellers & Bates, in the 1870 Pekin City Directory which his business produced and published.

Sellers briefly appears in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” p.723, in Chapman’s account of Tazewell County’s early newspapers. One of them was the Tazewell County Republican, of which Chapman writes, “. . . Wm. W. Sellers got a hold of it, in 1863 or ’64. He made it a red-hot Republican organ and one of the best papers published in the Northwest. He was a shrewd able writer and could turn the English language into a two-edge sword when in a wordy conflict with an opponent. He conducted it until his death, which occurred Dec. 15, 1872. It was then conducted by his administrators for a short time, when Jacob R. Riblett and Wm. H. Bates purchased it.

Shown is an advertisement for the Tazewell County Republican newspaper from the 1870 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory. The Tazewell County Republican was owned and published by William W. Sellers.

The reference to Sellers’ death in 1872 explains why Sellers’ name dropped from the title of subsequent editions of the Pekin City Directory. The business partnership of Sellers & Bates was ended by Sellers’ untimely death, after which Bates continued to publish the directories alone.

The “Atlas Map of Tazewell County, Illinois” was published about 1873. The atlas includes several lengthy biographies of the “Old Settlers of Tazewell County,” all of them laden with fulsome praise of their subjects. On page 43 is a biography of Sellers that reads more like a funeral eulogy than a proper biography, but which nevertheless records all of the highlights of his life.

Sellers, the biography says, “was born May 19, 1833, in Mercersburg, Franklin county, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of a family of six children of Michael and Phoebe (Walker) Sellers. He is descended from one of the old and prominent families of eastern Pennsylvania. His early culture was received in the schools of his native town. His rare and eminent natural qualities, coupled with his active and studious mind, led him on to that success which, as a public man and journalist, he acquired in his after career.”

Sellers went into journalism in the early 1850s as assistant editor of the Chambersburg Repository, but at age 22 he moved to McConnellsville, Pa., and became the owner and publisher of the Fulton Republican. “He was married July 8, 1856, in Indianola, Iowa, to Miss Lide Smith, with whom he first became acquainted in his native town.” They had five children. After their marriage, they returned to McConnellsville, where Sellers continued to publish the Fulton Republican. He also was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature.

Sellers settled in Pekin in November 1863 and soon after purchased the Tazewell County Republican. “The county was largely democratic at this time, but owing to the herculean labors of this gifted journalist, we may largely account for the political revolution of 1872, when we find, for the first time in its political record, that the county was republican,” his biography says.

Sellers was elected mayor of Pekin in 1865, but he resigned in the fall of 1866 after winning election as a representative in the Illinois General Assembly. Besides the elective offices he held, the biography states that Sellers also “was appointed, by President Grant, postmaster of the city of Pekin, which position he held until his death, which occurred at his residence on the 15th of December, 1872. His amiable and accomplished wife is still continuing the paper which was so ably conducted by her husband.”

Somewhat remarkably for that era, after Sellers’ death, President Grant appointed Sellers’ widow as “postmistress of Pekin.” “The appointment meets the approbation of the citizens of Pekin, and it is well conducted through her management,” the biography says.

In tribute to Sellers’ journalism, his biography comments, “It is a well-established fact in the minds of our intelligent citizens, that the press is the most potent agency for good or evil in Christendom. The same is true in state or municipal affairs. Every city owes its progress, in a great measure, to its press. Newspapers are now becoming the vehicle of thought, as well as the means of heralding the virtues of every people and the beauties of every locality to the world. In respect to these facts, Pekin was indeed benefited by the short but incessant labors of William W. Sellers.

This color advertisement for Sellers & Bates Printers, a Pekin business located in an upstairs office on the south side of Court Street four doors east of Third Street, features the business trademark. Sellers & Bates produced the 1870 Pekin City Directory, in which this ad was run.

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The first railroads of Tazewell County

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, Sept. 7, at 11 a.m., in the Pekin Public Library Community Room, the library will have a showing of a video about Pekin trains, featuring footage of the old Chicago & Illinois Midland Railroad. The video, which is about 30 minutes in length, is a part of the library’s Illinois Bicentennial Series.

During the first few decades following Illinois’ admission to the Union in 1818, the new state’s growth in population and wealth was in large part driven by steam power. Initially, as indicated in last week’s From the History Room column, men and goods were transported along the waterways and canals of Illinois using riverboats, whether steamers or packet boats.

But steam-powered rail (invented in Britain in 1804, three years before Robert Fulton’s first steamboat) would soon challenge and then eclipse steamboats as the preferred means of long-distance transportation of good and people. While Illinois’ steamboats were restricted to rivers, railroad tracks could be laid across long stretches of country, crossing rivers and streams and even climbing through mountain passes.

The early rail lines of Tazewell County are highlighted in yellow on this county map from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.”

The groundwork for the railroad’s eclipse of riverboat transportation in Illinois was laid at a time when river transportation was preeminent. In Tazewell County, interest in laying down a rail line had already arisen by the mid-1830s, but the first attempts to build a railroad in our county were abortive. Here how those efforts are described on page 732 of Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County”:

“Among the very first charters granted to railroads, perhaps the second one, by the State of Illinois, was the one granted to the Pekin & Tremont Railroad. This company was incorporated by the Legislature, Jan. 13, 1835. Madison Allen, Harlan Hatch, J. L. James, John H. Harris, George W. Brodrick and Aronet Richmond were constituted a body corporate, with capital stock of $50,000, for the purpose of building said road. It ran, according to the charter, from Pekin to Tremont, in this county. The company was given the power ‘to erect and maintain toll houses along the line.’ The road bed was graded and track partially laid, but the hard times of 1837 and the failure of the grand internal improvement scheme of the State put a stop to further progress on the P. & T. road. About a year after the P. & T. road was chartered a grander scheme was undertaken, and the Legislature incorporated the Pekin, Bloomington & Wabash Railroad, Feb. 16, 1836. This was a continuation eastward of the P. & T. road. Considerable enthusiasm was at first manifested in regard to the matter, but, like many other railroad schemes, it was never carried out.”

Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates told of continued efforts to get a railroad line to Pekin in his narrative of Pekin’s early history that was included in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory. The following excerpts from Bates’ narrative demonstrate that Pekin’s city officials were willing to commit great sums of public funds to railroad projects, which were necessarily massive and expensive undertakings.

“On the 3d of June, 1853, the City Council ‘engaged to use its means and credit to the amount of one hundred thousand dollars to co-operate with the city of Canton, Fulton county, to secure the construction of the Mississippi and Wabash Railroad,’ provided said road was located so as to pass through the city of Pekin.” (Bates, page 32)

“On the 8th of September [1856], the Council ‘Resolved, That the city of Pekin, as a stockholder in the Mississippi Railroad Company, give their consent to the consolidation of the Mississippi and Wabash Railroad Company with the Pekin and Bloomington Railroad Company.’ . . . On the 23d of October the city decided by a vote of three hundred and one votes for and five against, to subscribe one hundred thousand dollars to the capital stock of the Illinois River Railroad.” (Bates, page 36)

For all that trouble, it wasn’t until 1859 – less than two years before the Civil War – that Pekin finally saw rails being laid. The city’s leaders thought that was worth celebrating, so Pekin’s Fourth of July celebrations that year included a joyous – and hopeful – inaugural ceremony of the driving of the first spike, as Bates tells:

“On the 4th day of July, 1859, the first rail was laid and the first spike driven on the prospective Illinois River Railroad. This was a gala day, full of momentous events for the future, and the birth-day of unnumbered hopes and anticipations yet to be realized. 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.” (Bates, page 38)

Not only because it cost so much to build and operate a railroad, but also due to the interruption of the Civil War, most of Tazewell County’s railroad companies did not become fully operational until the latter 1860s. What had begun as the abortive Pekin & Tremont Railroad Company in Jan. 1835 later was taken up as a part of the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railway in Aug. 1869, a road that stretched 202 miles from Indianapolis to Pekin (later being extended to Peoria).

Similarly, the Illinois River Railroad Company, whose first spike in Pekin was driven on July 4, 1859, eventually became the Peoria, Pekin & Jacksonville Railroad Company. Chapman’s Tazewell County history includes historical accounts of that company as well as the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railway and five other railroad companies that had lines through Tazewell County: the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, the Pekin, Lincoln & Decatur Railway, the Toledo, Peoria & Warsaw Railroad, the Illinois Midland, and the Chicago, Pekin & Southwestern Railroad.

The investors, directors, and employees of these railroad companies were among the preeminent men of Tazewell County and central Illinois – such as Benjamin S. Prettyman, Teis Smith, John B. Cohrs, James M. James, Gordis R. Cobleigh, or Columbus R. Cummings. A review of the names on the boards of directors of the early railroad companies will, not surprisingly, show many of the same names showing up on the lists of city mayors, aldermen, and successful businessmen and local attorneys.

#benjamin-prettyman, #columbus-r-cummings, #gordis-r-cobleigh, #illinois-bicentennial, #james-m-james, #john-b-cohrs, #pekin-railroads, #railroads, #tazewell-county-railroads, #teis-smith, #william-h-bates

Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

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

Trials of the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Three years ago a book was published about a little known episode and an all-but-forgotten individual in Pekin’s history – an episode that helped confirm Illinois as a free state. The book was among the publications honored at the 2015 annual awards luncheon of the Illinois State Historical Society held April 25, 2015, at the Old State Capitol in Springfield.

Entitled “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley,” it was written by local historian Carl M. Adams and illustrated by Lani Johnson of Honolulu, Hawaii. Adams, formerly of Pekin, then resided in Germany (but now is in Maryland), and was unable to attend the awards banquet in Springfield, so he asked his friend Bill Maddox, a retired Pekin police office and former city councilman, to receive the award on his behalf. Maddox is one of Adams’ collaborators and over the years has helped Adams in organizing his research.

Russell Lewis, former president of the Illinois State Historical Society, is shown with Bill Maddox of Pekin, following ceremony on April 25, 2015 in Springfield. At the ceremony, Maddox received an award on behalf on Carl Adams, whose book on Nance Legins-Costley was among those honored that day. PHOTO BY PEKIN PUBLIC LIBRARY ASSISTANT JARED OLAR

Carl Adams, author of “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley.” IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

Adams has previously published two papers on the same subject: “The First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A Biographical Sketch of Nance Legins (Cox-Cromwell) Costley (circa 1813-1873),” which appeared in the Autumn 1999 issue of “For the People,” newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association; and, “Lincoln’s First Freed Slave: A Review of Bailey v. Cromwell, 1841,” which appeared in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 101, no. 3/4, Fall-Winter 2008. In contrast to those papers, however, Adams’ 87-page book “Nance” distills the fruit of his many years of historical research, presenting Nance’s story in the form of a biography suitable for a middle-school audience and ideal for a junior high or middle school classroom.

Though Nance’s story is little known today, during and after her own lifetime her struggles to secure her freedom were well known in Pekin, and Nance herself came to be a well regarded member of the community. As this column had previously discussed (Pekin Daily Times, Feb. 11, 2012), Nance obtained her freedom as a result of the Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell, which Abraham Lincoln argued before Justice Sidney Breese on July 23, 1841. It was the culmination of Nance’s third attempt in Illinois courts to secure her liberty, and it resulted in a declaration that she was a free person because documentation had never been supplied proving her to have been a slave or to have agreed to a contract of indentured servitude. Breese’s ruling is also significant in Illinois history for definitively settling that Illinois was a free state where slavery was illegal.

IMAGE PROVIDED BY CARL ADAMS

Another significant aspect of this case is indicated in an 1881 quote from Congressman Isaac Arnold that Adams includes in his book. Arnold wrote, “This was probably the first time he [Lincoln] gave to these grave questions [on slavery] so full and elaborate an investigation . . . it is not improbable that the study of this case deepened and developed the antislavery convictions of his just and generous mind.”

Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates was also opposed to slavery and deeply admired Lincoln. Bates also knew Nance Legins-Costley, and, five years after Lincoln’s assassination, Bates made sure to include her in his first published history of Pekin, the historical sketch that Bates wrote and included in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, page 10. There we find a paragraph with the heading, “A Relic of a Past Age”:

“With the arrival of Maj. Cromwell, the head of the company that afterwards purchased the land upon which Pekin is built, came a slave. That slave still lives in Pekin and is now known, as she has been known for nearly half a century, by the citizens of Pekin, as ‘Black Nancy.’ She came here a chattle (sic), with ‘no rights that a white man was bound to respect.’ For more than forty years she has been known here as a ‘negro’ upon whom there was no discount, and her presence and services have been indispensible (sic) on many a select occasion. But she has outlived the era of barbarism, and now, in her still vigorous old age, she sees her race disenthralled; the chains that bound them forever broken, their equality before the law everywhere recognized and her own children enjoying the elective franchise. A chapter in the history of a slave and in the progress of a nation.”

Remarkably, Bates doesn’t mention how Nance obtained her freedom, nor does he mention Lincoln’s role in her story. He doesn’t even tell us her surname. That’s because the details were then well-known to his readers. Later, her case would get a passing mention in the 1949 Pekin Centenary, while the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial would provide a more extended treatment of the case. But in none of the standard publications on Pekin history is personal information on Nance and her family included.

“What I did figure out,” Adams said in an email, “was that all the stories of Nance were positive up until the race riots in Chicago in 1918-1919 followed by a rebirth of the Klan in Illinois, and stories of Nance and her family disappeared, before the age of radio and TV.”

Since she had been forgotten and scant information was available in the standard reference works on Pekin’s history, Adams had to scan old census records, court files, coroner’s reports and newspaper articles to reconstruct the story of Nance’s life and the genealogy of her family. He learned that Nance was born about 1813, the daughter of African-American slaves named Randol and Anachy Legins, and that she married a free black named Benjamin Costley. Nance and Ben and their children appear in the U.S. Census for Pekin in 1850, 1860, 1870, and even 1880 (though the 1880 census entry is evidently fictitious). The 1870-71 Pekin City Directory shows Benjamin Costley residing at the southwest corner of Amanda and Somerset up in the northwest corner of Pekin. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ben and Nance’s log cabin was adjacent to the old Bailey Estate, the land of Nance’s last master, David Bailey, one of the principals of the 1841 case in which Nance won her freedom.

On this detail from an 1872 map of Pekin, from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County,” a star indicates the location of the home of Benjamin Costley and Nance Legins-Costley and their children.

In his email, Adams explains the challenge of “writing about the first slave freed by Lincoln, when no one even knows her last name. OK. How does one do that? Genealogy. It is close to impossible to trace the genealogy of a slave. Now what? Trace the genealogy of the people who claimed to own her soul. It took six genealogies minimum to figure out where Nance was and when back to the time of her birth. I did what Woodward and Bernstein did with ‘All the President’s Men’ – follow the money and the paper trail that followed the money, that’s how.”

Telling of how he became interested in Nance’s story and how he eventually came to write his book, Adams said, “In 1994 my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I was unemployed, and in debt and depressed because of all this. To distract my self-pity, I took an interest in Nance and slavery – who could be worse off than they? I tried free-lance writing, but in Greater Peoria, I couldn’t make a living at it. So research on a totally new story about A. Lincoln had to be a part-time, part-time, part-time ‘hobby,’ as my wife called it. That is why it took so long: five years of research packed into a 15-year period.”

“Nance deserves her place in history because of what she did, not what the others did,” Adam said. “At the auction on July 12, 1827, she just said ‘No.’ By indentured servitude law, the indenture was supposed to ‘voluntarily’ agree to a contract to serve. When Nathan Cromwell asked if she would agree to serve him she just said ‘no,’ which led to a long list of consequences and further legal issues in court.

“What makes her historically important was when she managed to get to the Supreme Court twice. In my history fact-check only Dred Scott had managed to do that and he lost. Then I discovered with primary source material that Nance had actually made it to the Supreme Court three times. The third time was never published nor handed down as a court opinion when the judge found out she was a minor just before age 14. This was truly phenomenal, unprecedented and fantastic for that period of history.”

As Ida Tarbell said of Nance in 1902, “She had declared herself to be free.”

Adams’ book may be previewed and purchased on Amazon.com or through the website www.nancebook.com.

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Revisiting ‘Pekin, Incorporated’ — Pekin’s first incorporation needed a ‘do-over’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In recent installments of our ongoing Illinois Bicentennial series, we have recalled the first 19 years of Pekin’s history, when Pekin passed from a pioneer settlement to a formally incorporated town, finally being incorporated as a city in 1849 and electing its first mayor.

This week we’ll take a closer look at Pekin’s “incorporation” as a town and a city.

During Illinois’ times as a territory and then a newly-minted state, towns and villages would be founded by settlers or land agents working individually or in a company who would hire a surveyor to make a plat of the proposed town that would be legally recorded. If the settlement proved successful and enduring, before long the inhabitants would seek to organize their town as a corporation, a legal status that confers the right to elect a local government with collective rights.

We have previously told of how Pekin’s first settlers surveyed the lots of their proposed “Town Site” and then voted on Jan. 19, 1830, to name their town “Pekin.” The certified plat of the original town of Pekin is dated April 2, 1830. From 1831 to 1836, Pekin served as the interim county seat of Tazewell County while a state commission deliberated on the location of Tazewell’s permanent county seat. During the five years following Pekin’s founding, Pekin did not elect its own governmental officials, because the town was unincorporated – local government for Pekin existed at the county and township levels, but not at the municipal level.

As we’ve recalled, Pekin pioneer historian William H. Bates tells of the incorporation of Pekin as a legally constituted “town” in his 1870 narrative of Pekin’s early history that he included in the 1870-71 Pekin City Directory. On page 13, Bates quotes from the original record of Pekin’s first town election “of which we can glean any authentic account.” Here is the wording of the election record:

July 9th, 1835, agreeable to notice given according to law, in the Court House, in the Town of Pekin, Tazewell County, Illinois, for the purpose of electing Five Resident Freeholders of the Town of Pekin, as Trustees of the same, who shall hold their office for one year and until others are chosen and qualified.”

The language of this record indicates that Pekin was by then an incorporated town, for only an incorporated town or village could lawfully elect a board of trustees under Illinois law.

But as a matter of fact, contrary to what the people of Pekin then believed, their town was not legally incorporated at the time of their first election. Technically the election of July 9, 1835, and its results were invalid – as were all the governmental acts of Pekin from then until Jan. 19, 1837. On that date, the Illinois General Assembly passed and approved, “An act to legalize the incorporation of Pekin” (See “Incorporation Laws of the State of Illinois 1836-37,” pages 3-4).

The wording of the act explains that “the citizens of the town of Pekin, in the county of Tazewell, did, on the second day of July, A. D. 1835, meet and determine, by vote, that they would become incorporated, according to the provisions of an act entitled ‘An act to incorporate such towns as may wish to be incorporated,’ approved March 1st, 1831.” Nevertheless, “by accident or mistake, the certified statement of the polls of said meeting was lost and have (sic – has) not been filed and recorded in the clerk’s office of the county commissioners’ court in said county as the said act directs.

The act then goes on to declare that the town of Pekin shall not be considered to be an illegally incorporated town – i.e., no one would be prosecuted or sued over what had happened, nor would the town board be disbanded. The act retroactively “declared legal and valid” all of the official acts of Pekin’s board of trustees since July 2, 1835. Finally, the town of Pekin was “hereby declared an incorporated town under the above recited act, any omission or mistake in the incorporation of said town to the contrary notwithstanding.

This detail from an 1837 book of Illinois incorporation laws shows part of an act approved by the Illinois General Assembly on Jan. 19, 1837, legalizing the incorporation of Pekin as a town. Pekin had voted to incorporate on July 2, 1835, but the vote results were never legally recorded, so the Legislature had to unsnarl Pekin from a legal predicament.

Consequently, although the people of Pekin intended to incorporate on July 2, 1835, in point of law Pekin did not really become an incorporated town until Jan. 19, 1837 (the seventh anniversary, as it happened, of the date that the original settlers of the town voted for the name “Pekin” for their town). If it weren’t for that mistake, Pekin would have become an incorporated town 16 days before Peoria did.

Incidentally, the law of March 1, 1831, under which Peoria and Pekin were incorporated stipulated that settlements having populations of at least 150 persons could incorporate as either a village or a town. The option of incorporating as a “town” was removed by the new 1870 Illinois constitution – ever since then, municipalities may only incorporate as villages or cities. According to Illinois Secretary of State records, there are only 19 incorporated towns remaining in Illinois (including Topeka in Mason County, Normal in McLean County, and Astoria in Fulton County).

Pekin’s failed attempt at incorporation in 1835 is entirely unmentioned in the old standard works on Pekin’s history, perhaps because by the time Bates compiled his first Pekin history no one was around anymore who could have remembered what had happened – or perhaps Bates and his fellow Pekinites were too embarrassed to tell the story for posterity. We can only wonder how this serious omission came to light, who first brought it to the town board’s attention, and how they reacted to the news that all the board’s votes and deliberations since July 1835 were only so much wind.

In any case, because of the snafu in July 1835, Pekin, although now officially incorporated, did not officially receive its town charter (that is, its constitution) from the state until Feb. 23, 1839, when the Illinois General Assembly approved “An act to extend the corporate powers of the town of Pekin” that spelled out the legal powers, rights, obligations, and electoral procedures of the Pekin town board of trustees.

As of early May of this year, the Illinois Secretary of State’s online index of local governments mistakenly gave Feb. 23, 1839 as the date of Pekin’s original incorporation – but that is the date of Pekin’s first charter, not the actual date of incorporation, which took place Jan. 19, 1837 (and should have happened on July 2, 1835).

From the date of Pekin’s original town charter, about 10½ years elapsed until Pekin re-incorporated as a city, legally complying with the terms of a state law passed by the General Assembly on Feb. 10, 1849, which gave towns or villages with a population of at least 1,500 persons the option of incorporating as cities under the charters of Springfield or Quincy.

That time Pekin’s officials took care not to repeat the goof-up of July 2, 1835, and so Pekin was lawfully incorporated as a city on Aug. 21, 1849, electing its first mayor and city council the following month, on Sept. 24.

Pekin functioned under its first city charter until March 4, 1869, when the General Assembly passed an act that granted Pekin a new charter of incorporation. Under the original city charter, the mayor and aldermen served one-year terms, and the city was divided into four wards, with one alderman per ward. The 1869 charter added two more wards and stipulated that each of the six wards would be represented by two aldermen each.

The 1869 charter lasted only five years, because Pekin re-incorporated under yet another city charter following the new 1870 state constitution. Under the new charter, adopted on April 20, 1874, and certified by the state on Aug. 10 of that year, the mayor and aldermen served two-year terms. The 1874 charter would serve Pekin until 1910, when the city abolished the aldermanic form of city government and reorganized under a city commission form of government.

The commission form lasted until 1995, when Pekin’s residents voted in favor of the current city manager form of government.

#act-to-legalize-the-incorporation-of-pekin, #illinois-bicentennial, #pekin-becomes-a-town, #pekin-history, #pekin-incorporation-snafu, #pekins-first-town-charter, #william-h-bates

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.”

#benjamin-kellogg-jr, #bernard-bailey, #calaboose, #david-mark, #ezekiel-turner, #gideon-hawley, #illinois-bicentennial, #jacob-tharp, #jonathan-tharp, #nathan-dillon, #pekin-railroads, #pekins-first-town-seal, #preblog-columns, #rev-joseph-mitchell, #shabbona, #william-h-bates

Officers of the Pekin Zouaves

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On the last page of the very first Pekin City Directory, published by Omi E. Root of Peoria in 1861, is an entry for an “independent company of volunteer militia” called the “Pekin Zouaves.” This is how Root’s Directory describes this militia company:

“Organized May 16th, 1861. Number of members, 60. Annual days of parade, 22d February, 10th May, 4th July, 10th September, and 8th January. The following commissioned officers were elected, May 28th, 1861, for six years: G. W. Baker, Captain; H. P. Finigan, First Lieutenant ; L. B. Greenleaf, Second Lieutenant ; W. M. Olmsted, Third Lieutenant. C. R. Cummings, Orderly Sergeant ; appointed by the captain for one year.”

The reason this militia company was formed was one of the most important events in U.S. history – the Confederate States of America’s attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, which sparked the U.S. Civil War. Soon after, militia companies were established throughout the remaining United States to prepare to aid in the Union’s war efforts against the Confederacy, and the Pekin Zouaves were one of those companies.

But why was this company called “Zouaves”? The original Zouaves were a French army light infantry corps organized in 1830 – at first the French Zouaves were all Algerians from North Africa, and consequently their uniforms were Middle Eastern or Turkish in style. Romantically imitating the French Zouaves, other nations also established their own companies of soldiers wearing Zouave-style uniforms, including militia companies in Illinois and Missouri during the early months of the Civil War.

At the website www.infantry8thmo.org/HTMhistory.html is a “Brief History: 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry (US) – The ‘Fighting American Zouaves.’” Following are excerpts from the “Brief History” (emphasis added):

“As a result of a direct order from President Lincoln to alleviate the prejudice against the Irish, the 8th Missouri Infantry was organized in St. Louis from June 12 to August 14, 1861. Over 600 Irish boatmen & deck hands left the St. Louis riverfront to fight under the command of Captain Morgan L. Smith. Originally from New York, he and his brother, Captain Giles A. Smith, also recruited troops from Bloomington, Illinois. The 8th MO uniform was that of the American Zouaves.

“The Peoria Zouave Cadets were organized in Peoria, Illinois 3/23/1861. They recruited up to war strength and left for St. Louis on 6/19/1861 but, upon their arrival, there was a disagreement and about half returned to Illinois to join the 17th Illinois. An under-strength company calling themselves the Pekin Zouaves from Pekin, Illinois, sent about 30 recruits from Peoria to St. Louis, and filled up the company. They mustered in as Company H. Neither company provided the ‘Zouave influence’ for the company since they were already being referred to as the ‘American Zouave Regiment.’ Company L sharpshooters were recruited in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

“The 8th MO served the duration of the Civil War and fought decisive battles under Generals Grant and Sherman. They became well known for their tenacity, displaying Zouave fighting techniques on the battlefield. Generals Grant and Sherman write about the 8th Missouri in their Memoirs. General Grant’s son, Frederick Dent Grant, writes in ‘At the Front With Dad’ about slipping into the Battle of Vicksburg at age 13 with the 8th Missouri. Eleven soldiers in 8th MO were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during the Siege of Vicksburg.”

As this column has noted previously, one of the members of the Pekin Zouaves was none other than Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates (1840-1930). Of the five original officers of the Pekin Zouaves, Capt. G. W. Baker is listed on page 13 of the 1861 Pekin City Directory as “BAKER, GEORGE W. F., ambrotype and photographic gallery, cor. Court and Second ; bds. Tazewell House.” Thus, Baker was, like Henry Hobart Cole, one of Pekin’s early photographers.

This photograph from the collection of Steven Schmit of Richmond, Va., shows Civil War veteran William H. Bates of Pekin wearing his old “Zouave” uniform.

First Lieut. H. P. Finigan was Henry P. Finigan, a Catholic Ulster-born Pekin attorney, land and real estate agent, and grain merchant. Finigan with his wife Margaret and Margaret’s parents together escaped the Irish Potato Famine and settled in Pekin. Henry’s date of birth is uncertain, because when he registered for the draft in June 1863, his age was written down as 31, but the 1870 U.S. Census says he was 34 at that time (that census also mistakenly gives his middle initial as “B.” rather than “P.”).

Second Lieut. L. B. Greenleaf was Luther Berge Greenleaf, born in Connecticut in 1834 or 1836, died August 1902 in Onarga, Ill. The 1861 Pekin City Directory says he was then a law student. His Onarga newspaper obituary says although he studied law, he instead became a journalist in Peoria, later moving to Kansas for a while, then finally settling down in Onarga.

Third Lieut. W. M. Olmsted was William M. Olmsted (1802-1872), who in 1861 was a clerk at Stephen Roney’s Hardware, 33 Court St., at the corner of Court and Second. Olmsted later was promoted to the rank of captain during the civil war. His grave in Lakeside Cemetery is one of the old Oak Grove Cemetery burials.

Lastly, Orderly Sgt. C. R. Cummings was none other than Columbus R. Cummings (1834-1897), a prominent Pekin businessman and land owner who subsequently served as Pekin’s 20th mayor (1875-1876), later moving to Chicago, where he became a Gilded Age railroad tycoon and banker. It was the heirs of C. R. Cummings’ great estate who in 1916 gave the Pekin public schools an athletic field with the stipulation that it should be named after the estate manager James M. James (1849-1918).

#capt-george-w-f-baker, #civil-war, #columbus-r-cummings, #james-morris-james, #lieut-william-m-olmsted, #lieut-henry-p-finigan, #lieut-luther-b-greenleaf, #pekin-zouaves, #william-h-bates, #zouaves

News of Pekin’s first riot

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In recent weeks, this column recalled two local historical events that may be called “the worst and the first.” The Little Mine Riot of 1894 was Tazewell County’s worst riot, while Pekin’s first riot happened in 1851.

In both cases, the riot involved a group of workers, but the similarity between the two riots begins and ends there. In 1894, it was an acrimonious dispute between miners and the mine’s owners, but in 1851 it was simply a case of a steamboat’s deck hands drinking to excess.

The standard histories of Pekin and Tazewell County offer much more information about the Little Mine Riot than of the 1851 riot in Pekin. We know many of the details of the Little Mine Riot, but of the 1851 riot we know only the date (the Fourth of July), that the group of rioters was large, and that they worked off their fines on a chain gang doing maintenance on Pekin’s streets.

Pekin historian William H. Bates wrote the first-ever historical sketch of Pekin about 19 years after the riot of 1851, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he doesn’t even provide the name of the steamboat, let alone the exact number of rioters who were arrested. Much later, Pekin old-timer Emil Schilling said there were about 30 or 40 rioters – but it seems it would have been an unusually large steamboat to have had that many deck hands.

These gaps in Pekin’s historical record can be filled in with information found in a newspaper report of the riot of 1851. No doubt news of the riot made the papers in Tazewell County. Even without radio, television, or the Internet, within days rumors and hearsay of the riot would have spread throughout central Illinois. And so, less than two weeks later, Tazewell County’s neighbors in McLean County were able the read the following report in the Bloomington Pantagraph of July 16, 1851:

“Considerable of a riot occurred at Pekin on the 4th inst. It seems that the hands belonging to the steamer Lucy Bertram got on a spree while she was lying at that place, whereupon they assaulted some of the citizens, but no very serious damage was done. Eighteen of the crew were immediately taken before the mayor to be tried for rioting. Seventeen of them were convicted and fined $55. One was acquitted, one paid the fine, one gave security, and the balance were placed upon the streets to work out their fines.”

This article on Pekin’s first riot, from the July 16, 1851 Bloomington Pantagraph, was provided by Ken Lacey of the Manito Historical Society.

This report – a copy of which was graciously provided by Ken Lacey of the Manito Historical Society – provides the steamboat’s name (the Lucy Bertram) as well as the number of deck hands arrested (18 – a good deal less than 30 or 40), even informing us of the disposition of the charges against the 18 deck hands. Only 15 of the hands had to work on the chain gang to pay off their fines of $55 each (quite a considerable sum in those days).

These are the kinds of details that naturally fade from memory with the passage of time. The inflation of the number of deck hands from 18 to 30 or 40 is the kind of thing that, like a tall tale, grows in the telling and retelling.

#little-mine-riot, #pekin-history, #pekins-first-riot, #william-h-bates