Sober voters were rare in early elections

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in July 2013 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Sober voters were rare in early elections

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

We have recently recalled the story of the beginnings of permanent white settlement in Tazewell County. With the establishment of new settlements came the rudiments of governmental structures and civic life – and that means politics and formal elections.

William H. Bates wrote the first published history of Pekin, which was included in the 1870 Pekin City Directory. One of the features of Bates’ history is his compilation of Tazewell County and Pekin “firsts,” and thus on pages 7-8 of the city directory we find the story of what Bates called Tazewell County’s first election. (It would be more accurate to say that it was the first election to be held in what would later become Tazewell County.)

Bates wrote, “The first election was held at the house of Isaac Dillon (sic) on the first Monday in August, 1826, this being, at that time, a part of Peoria county. The election was for Governor and other officers. 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. When the voting was concluded Jesse Dillon went to a neighboring cornfield and procuring an arm-full of roasting-ears, they were boiled, together with a ham, in a fifteen gallon iron kettle, and then served to the assembled crowd of election officers and yeomanry, constituting an out-door feast worthy of the occasion and heartily and thankfully partaken of by the people.”

The 1887 Pekin City Directory, pp.11-12, repeats that account word-for-word, but adds at the end, “Nathan Dillon was elected Commissioner on this occasion.

The story of Nathan Dillon, traditionally known as the first white settler in Tazewell County, was told in a recent Local History Room column, including extensive excerpts from Dillon’s own account of his arrival that had been quoted in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.”

In addition to the story of his pioneer adventures, Dillon also wrote an account of the beginnings of civic institutions and elections in Tazewell County, and Chapman also incorporated that into his county history, on pages 711-712.

Dillon’s recollections begin with his tale of the election at Springfield in August 1822. According to Dillon, whiskey (that is, the excessive consumption of whiskey) was the fuel that powered the engine of state and local elections in those days, as politicians tried to win elections by getting the voters drunk out of their minds. (Perhaps not too different than elections today?)

Dillon said that the candidates, Kinney, Parkinson and Edwards “had a long bench ranged along side of the court-hose, on which they set their liquors. The polls were held in the interior. We all got plenty to drink . . . and a general frolic occurred; but what has surprised me as I have reflected upon these early days, we had no fighting. The great evil was, that every candidate had to fill his portmanteau with whisky, and go around and see and treat every voter and his wife and family with the poisonous stuff, or stand a chance of being defeated. . . .

In the winter of 1823, I emigrated to what is now called Dillon Settlement, in this county, 10 miles from Pekin, and 17 miles from Peoria, where I spent the season in quietude; my nearest neighbor living in Peoria, except one by the name of Avery, who had raised his cabin at Funk’s Fill. But things did not remain in this condition long; for during the same winter the Legislature made a new county, with Peoria for the county-seat, embracing all the country north of Sangamon county. Phelps, Stephen French and myself were appointed Justices of the Pace, for the new county, which extended east as far as Bloomington and north and west to the State line. We sent our summonses to Chicago and Galena, and they were promptly returned by our constables.

March, 1824, we held an election at Avery’s, Wm. Holland, Joseph Smith and myself were elected County Commissioners. The whole county was embraced in one election district. The number of votes polled was 20; had some whisky on the occasion, but it was well tempered, having been imported a long way by water; and we did not succeed in getting on as great a spree as we did at Springfield.”

Dillon’s account ends at that point. Chapman then tells of the August 1826 election – but Chapman’s account is almost a verbatim transcription of Bates’ story from the 1870 Pekin City Directory, even though Chapman didn’t using quotation marks. The only real differences between Bates and Chapman are that Chapman corrects Bates’ mistaken reference to “Isaac” Dillon (which was an error for “Nathan” Dillon), and also adds to Bates’ statement about the feast “thankfully partaken of by the people.”

To that, Chapman added the tongue-in-cheek comment, “nor do we know that whisky was served, yet we cannot say it was not.”

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The founding of Tazewell County

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

After Illinois achieved statehood, new settlers poured into central Illinois throughout the 1820s, making new homes for themselves in and around Fort Clark (Peoria) or clearing land for farms along the eastern shores and bluffs of Peoria Lake and the Mackinaw River basin. Those were the years that saw the arrival of Tazewell County pioneers William Blanchard, Nathan Dillon, and William Holland.

Another of those early settlers was an Ohio resident named Jonathan Tharp (1794-1844), who built a log cabin on a ridge above the Illinois River in 1824 at a spot that is today the foot of Broadway in Pekin. Tharp’s cabin was the seed that would sound sprout and grow into the city of Pekin.

The result of the wave of immigration of those years was that in 1825, a mere seven years after statehood, the State Legislature erected a new county, named for the Peoria tribe of the Illiniwek who had once dwelt in that place.

Tazewell County came along almost on the heels of Peoria County’s founding. As we have often recalled in this column, Tazewell County was established in 1827. It was Illinois’ 38th county – the 23rd county since statehood. At the time, Tazewell County was officially a part of Sangamon County, but was in fact under the governmental administration of Peoria County.

This detail from a map printed in the State of Illinois’ 1991 booklet, “Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties,” shows the original boundaries of Tazewell County as established by the State Legislature in 1827 and 1829. The village of Mackinaw was chosen as the first county seat because it was then near the geographical center of the county.

The original plan was to name the new county “Mackinaw,” after the tributary of the Illinois River that flowed through it (a Kickapoo chief named Mackinaw or Machina also lived with his people in Tazewell County in those years). However, one of the county’s prominent pioneers, Gideon H. Rupert (1799-1877), a Virginia native, intervened to have the proposed bill to establish the county amended, so the new county would instead be named for U.S. Senator Littleton W. Tazewell of Virginia. The first county seat was still named Mackinaw, though.

Following is the account of the founding of Tazewell County as found in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” pages 207-209 (emphasis added):

“Tazewell county was organized by an act of the Legislature January 31st, 1827, with the following boundaries: Beginning at the northeast corner of township twenty, north of the base line, and range three east of the third principal meridian, thence north on said line to the north line of township twenty-eight north, thence west to the middle of the Illinois river, thence down said river to the north line of township twenty north, thence east to the place of beginning.

“In the act organizing the county January 31, 1827, an error occurred in describing the boundaries. This error was corrected by an act re-establishing the boundaries, passed January 22, 1829.

“The territory comprising the county of Tazewell formed part of the counties at the dates named in the several subdivisions of the State prior to the organization of the county, as follows:

“1809 — At this date Illinois Territory was organized, and was subdivided into the counties of Randolph and St. Clair. Tazewell was included in the county of St. Clair.

“1812 — Tazewell formed part of the county of Madison.

“1814 — Tazewell was included in the counties of Madison and Edwards: west of the third principal meridian in Madison, east of the meridian in Edwards.

“1816 — Tazewell was included within the boundaries of Madison and Crawford counties: east of the meridian in Crawford, west in Madison.

“1817 — Tazewell formed part of the counties of Bond and Crawford: west of the meridian in Bond, east in Crawford.

“1819 — Tazewell was included in Clark and Bond counties: west of the meridian in Bond, east in Clark.

“1821 — Tazewell formed part of Fayette and Sangamon counties: west of the meridian in Sangamon, east in Fayette.

“1827 — Tazewell organized January 31st: boundary defective.

“1829 — Tazewell boundaries defined, and error in law of 1827 corrected as above given. County originally created from territory then comprising part of the counties of Sangamon and Fayette:
west of the third principal meridian taken from Sangamon, east of the meridian, comprising 24 townships, taken from Fayette.

“1830 — McLean county was formed by taking off the three ranges east of the meridian and range one west of the meridian.

“1839 — Logan county was created, taking off three townships on the south.

“1841 — The counties of Mason and Woodford were organized, and Tazewell reduced to its present boundaries.

“The commissioners to locate the county seat were Thos. M. Neale, Wm. L. D. Ewing and Job Fletcher. They were by the act of organization required to meet on the third Monday of March, 1827, or within five days thereafter, at the house of Wm. Orendorff, for the purpose of locating the county seat, which, when located, was to be called ‘Mackinaw.’ Until county buildings were erected the courts were required to be held at the house of Wm. Orendorff. Election for county officers at the house of said Wm. Orendorff on the second Monday of April, 1827.

“All that part of Fayette lying east and north of Tazewell was attached to Tazewell for county purposes.

“In the year 1825 the Legislature created Peoria county, and attached to it for all county purposes all of the territory north of town 20 and west of the third principal meridian, thus including all the present county of Tazewell. Nathan Dillon, William Holland and Joseph Smith were chosen County Commissioners for the new county. The former two resided in this county. They held their first meeting at Peoria March 8, 1825.

“When the population of Tazewell was thought to be sufficiently large to regularly organize, an election was held in April, 1827, and Benjamin Briggs, George Hittle, and James Lotta were chosen County Commissioners. The Commissioners at once proceeded to hold a meeting and consummate the organization. This they did at the house of William Orendorff, April 10, 1827. . . .

“The county at this time was very large; even in 1829, when a new boundary was formed, it contained 79 townships. It has been divided for the formation of other counties so often that it has finally been reduced to 19 townships.

“The county was named in honor of Hon. John Tazewell (sic – Littleton), United States Senator from the State of Virginia. There is a county in that State which also bears the same name, these being the only two in the United States.”

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