The Greenbush Vigilantes?
by Terry Hogan
Greenbush formed a mutual aid group to put a stop to horse thieves and counterfeiters in mighty Greenbush. At least one researcher has equated their action to be the formation of a vigilante group. Was this a vigilante group or merely a forerunner of a private security company that protected their members? They formed the Greenbush Mutual Protection Company.
It sounds like an insurance company. It sounds like an organization established for the common good, founded by well-intended leaders of the community. But it has also been characterized as a vigilante organization. It wasn’t either of these. These good citizens of Greenbush were interested in protecting themselves from the evil deeds of others. The Company was formed to serve the members of the company, not the general public. So who was protecting what, and how? Were they defending the law, or were they lawless? Depends. Were your ancestors doing the chasing, or being chased?
For those of you who are geographically challenged, and the three folks who read this article from out-of-state, Greenbush is both a village and a township in neighboring Warren County. Its first post office was “Greenfield” but the name was changed as another Greenfield, Illinois was in existence. Seems like the area had problems with names. One of the major creeks was known as “Nigger Creek” according to the Warren County history published in 1886. According to a current Illinois Atlas and Gazette, it is now known as “Negro Creek.” The other major creek was known as Little Swan Creek, which has been dammed to form Little Swan Lake. Good Choice! But back to the “vigilantes”.
As the “vigilante” allegation might imply, this Greenbush organization was not your black-hooded, torch-bearing, shouting mob of law-abiding citizens. These Greenbush citizens met and formed a “constitution”. The constitution was not secret. It was published by two local newspapers- “Monmouth Atlas” (September 6, 1850) and the “Oquawka Spectator” (September 18, 1850). We might expect that the public press might condemn an organization, formed without a legislated mandate to enforce the law. Instead, we find that an editorial published by the Monmouth Atlas supported the organization’s establishment:
“We regard this movement as a good one, and believe it to be perhaps the only manner in which the horde of thieves and counterfeiters now infecting this portion of the state, can be routed and driven away…. Hardly a day passes that we do not hear of stealing of some sort in our immediate vicinity or near by.”*
The Constitution of the Mutual Protection Company still exists. Much of it is dedicated to form and organization, but a few articles make the organizational intent clear:
“Article 1st. This company shall be called the Mutual Protecting Company, and it shall be their (sic) duty to catch all horse-thieves and counterfeiters that commit any depredations upon said company.”
“Article 5th. There shall be a committee of vigilance consisting of seven, who shall be elected by said company, whose duty it shall be when anything is stolen, or any counterfeit money passed, to draw on the treasure for money and select men to follow said thief or counterfeiter, and the one that lost the property, or had the counterfeit money passed on him, if not too old or sick to be one that goes.”
“Article 6th. Each member of the company, shall at the time he joins said company, pay into the treasury fifty cents, subject to be called upon for fifty cents more in case if it is needed.”
“Article 7th. No man can become a member of this company after he had his property stolen for the purpose of drawing money out of the treasury to gain it.”*
From these excerpts, it is clear that the organization was a mutual support organization, not unlike an insurance company, where the assets, paid by the members, were used by the Company to assist its members in recovering damages from theft and counterfeiting. It offered no coverage or benefit to non-members, except perhaps for the incidental benefit of capturing a thief or counterfeiter that might have otherwise preyed upon a nonmember. It sounds more like an early form of private security firm, than a vigilante group.
So who were these early entrepreneurs who created this mutual aid company? The “Committee of Vigilance” was formed by Reuben Holeman, Stephen Lieurance, Hezekiah Simmons, John Butler, Philip Karnes (or Karns), Peyton (or Payton) A. Vaughan, and John A Waugh. Major John C. Bond was elected the “Captain” (however, Mr. Bond used the title of “President” when signing the report), Alfred Osborn was elected the Treasurer, and William H. Pierce, was elected the Secretary.
John C. Bond was 50 years old and was a farmer, born in Tennessee. Beyond that, he was an Illinois militia member, accounting for the “Major” title, and he served several other elected positions, including Justice of the Peace for Greenbush, and a Warren County Commissioner in 1839. Warren County history records that John C. Bond was one of three men selected to divide the county into townships, which they did in 1853. After township formation, it is reported that he became the first Greenbush Township Supervisor and held that position for 14 years. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the state legislature in 1844, being beaten by only three votes. No mention of his role in the Greenbush Mutual Protecting Company was included in his 1886 published biography.
Alfred Osborn, the Treasurer, was 36 years old and was a successful merchant, operating a mercantile store in Greenbush.
William Pierce, the Secretary, was a school teacher, a farmer, and a shoemaker. He was from Vermont and married Angelina Waldin who was born in Ohio. They had two children: Almiron G. and Charles H.
Reuben Holeman was a successful farmer. He held positions as Assessor, Road Commissioner, Collector, and School Trustee.
Philip Karnes (or Karns- both spellings encountered) was born in Germany and came to the US in 1828. He became a very successful farmer and breeder of Norman horses, Poland-China hogs and shorthorn cattle. His home “…covered 166 feet of ground, two stories in height, with a cellar under the entire building, and it is said to be one of the most splendid farm dwellings in Warren County.” (Chapman, 1866, page 205) The building cost $7,000 when erected.
Peyton (Payton) A. Vaughn was also a successful farmer, owning 370 acres. He, like Karnes, also raised Norman horses and had a “…fine half-blooded Clydesdale” horse. He served as a Road Commissioner and School Trustee.
It is unclear how effective, if effective at all, the Company was in thwarting the evil deeds that apparently were waiting behind every (Green)bush. Perhaps the evil-doers were put off to other townships and other counties by the mere threat of having to confront Major John C. Bond, public agent man (sorry, I tried to resist).
Footnote: *As quoted by Allaman (1987).
References & Readings
Allaman, John L. 1987. “Greenbush Vigilantes: An Organizational Document”. Pages 32-41, in “Western Illinois Regional Studies” Volume 10 (#1).
Chapman Brothers. 1886. Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois.