Knox County Early History

Part II Changes on the Horizon


by Terry Hogan


Military Tract

In many ways, Knox County, or what was to become Knox County, was in the right spot and the right time.  It was part of the Military Tract that was set up to provide land grants to veterans of the War of 1812. And unlike the willy-nilly descriptions of land that were established in the Northeast and the South, the Military Tract was laid out into quarter section, section, township, and range that would have several advantages.  This provided an assurance of a greater precision as to the size and boundaries of land ownership.  Titles to land were issued based on these descriptions. The so-called bounty lands were issued to the veterans 10 years before Knox County was settled. Compared with the chaos of overlapping and conflicting land claims in neighboring Kentucky, it was a great step forward.  But even this had its problems.


Some of the federal land grants to veterans were never exercised. Many of the veterans paid little attention to the land granted to them.  It must have seemed like land on the other side of the world, having little personal value to them. Many of the titles were, in time, sold for taxes. These tax titles were often bought and sold several times by speculators.  Despite these repeated sales, the land laid empty and unused. Others were sold quickly to eastern land speculators, site unseen, at greatly undervalued prices.  This laid the groundwork for the conflict on land ownership that would arise from the early settlers who moved ahead of the edge of civilization. They tended not to worry about land ownership by paper.  They staked out land, cleared and cultivated, built a cabin and called in theirs.  When the title owners appeared on site, either a veteran or a land speculator, conflicts of rights were inevitable. Some of these disputes would rise all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even today, there are a number of these original land grant titles bearing President Monroe's apparent signature.


At times, land speculators or innocent folk who had bought titles from the land speculators arrived to claim their land and found it occupied and having been occupied for years.  These "squatters" who knew their neighbors and had helped one another, did not warmly greet the strangers with a land title in their hands. It wasn't uncommon for these new arrivals to learn that it was in their best interest to sell the land to the "squatters" for what was considered a fair price, as determined by the local community (composed mostly of squatters).


At other times, the land conflicts were not the result of conflicting squatters and legitimate land deeds.  The confusion and uncertainty created opportunities for the unscrupulous as well. These sometimes were called "land sharks" (Chapman, 1878). Locally, according to history, the worst offender was a Toliver Craig who made his living by forging land patents and deeds. He practiced this deceit from about 1847 to 1854 in Knox and Fulton counties. Amazingly, he recorded 40 forged deeds in Knoxville in one day (Chapman, 1878).  He was arrested in New York in 1854 by H. M Bogess of Monmouth and taken to Cincinnati for trial. Craig took arsenic in an attempted suicide, but survived. He was later released on bail, where the story ends. One can speculate that he failed to return for the trial.


Despite this periodic conflict and the occasional fraud, fields were laid out as were roads. Given the land ownership and the layout of the land, Knox County became a land of squares and rectangles in both fields and roads. There were two exceptions for these laid out roads. The first exception is for very old roads, like the Galena Trail, that were well established before the Military Tract.  These roads, it is claimed, started out as buffalo trails that the Indians followed. Later the Euorpeans followed the Indian trails, and so forth. The second exception is the more recent Interstate system that went its own way to connect major cities, which would later be bypassed with beltways.


Early Settlers

Prior to the War of 1812, immigrants had to make it west by their own best means.  Steamboats, trains, canals, and Great Lakes shipping was not in place.  Travel was largely by foot and horseback. Leaving home, whether that was the Northeast, or the South, meant just that - leaving home.  Those leaving and those left behind knew it was unlikely that they would see each other again.  Illinois was a different world and a very long way away. For some, Illinois was entered by the southwest back door in the form of St. Louis.  Despite being west of Illinois, it sat on the Mississippi which even by then was being used for transportation of some goods and the brave travelers. Often the Illinois River became a pathway for these St. Louis adventurers to travel to the northeast. 


Knox County's early settlers can be generalized into two types, with the caveats of all generalizations - there were clearly exceptions.  Many of the early settlers came from the New England States and often traveled overland and by water via a northerly route.  The founders of Knox College and Galesburg fall nicely into this category.  The second category were those early immigrants who came west from the more southerly states, generally crossing the Appalachians and coming through Kentucky, through southern Indiana and into southern Illinois and working their way north. These southern immigrants were generally in the area that was to become Knox County before the New Englanders arrive. These from the southerly route were often referred to, collectively, as "Hoosiers" by those from the Northeast, not withstanding the different contemporary usage of the term.  These Hoosiers referred to the New Englanders as "Yankees". 


The early settlers were clearly mostly southerners, using the rivers as pathways to migrate northward into southern Illinois.  As Calkins (1937) correctly notes, examination of early Illinois maps show most settlements in the south, gradually working their way north, with the notable exceptions of Chicago, Galena, and Peoria. In northern Illinois, many cities have their origins in the 1830s and 1840s.


It is probably not much of an exaggeration to compare the meeting of these two cultures in Knox County as being not very different than the meeting of Mexicans and Canadians somewhere in the central U.S. Language was fundamentally different.  Educational standards and the value placed on education were different.  Concepts of what constituted neighborliness were different. It was a difficult blend for both sides.


The Yankees of Illinois saw the Hoosiers to be "poor whites" and used the term Hoosier to describe all the southerners regardless of whether they were from Indiana or states farther east or south.  Similarly, the Hoosiers called the New Yorkers who staked out Galesburg "Yankees" even though geographically, the term didn't fit them, either.  Calkins (1937) records that when the New Yorkers explained that they were not "Yankees" as they were from New York, the Hoosiers responded "Well, York Yankees is the meanest." 


It was postulated that this north-south conflict of cultures in early Illinois was made worse by the selective economic screening of southerners who moved from the south to Illinois.  Wealthy, educated southerners owned slaves and they had no need nor desire to move from the south to the north.  On the other hand, poor, uneducated white southerners who were too poor to own slaves were often referred to as "po whites", even by slaves.  It was the latter segment of the south that was more inclined to move north. They enjoyed life but did not necessarily seek wealth beyond what was necessary to survive. They had no slaves and no wealth or land to leave behind.  On the other hand, the northerners, not possessed of slaves, could move their wealth more easily and were well educated.  They had trades and professions that by their nature, moved with them. They also valued wealth as power.


These two cultures distrusted one another from the first meeting.  Each carried inherent biases against the other.  As one historian described it, Yankees were viewed as "close, miserly, selfish, dishonest and inhospitable, lacking all the kindlier feelings of humanity."  Perhaps not to be outdone, Hoosiers were viewed to be "lank, lazy, ignorant animals, but little removed from the savage state, content to squat in a log cabin with a large family of ill-fed, ill-clothed, dirty and idle children." (Calkins, 1937).


Sometimes these cultural differences were further intensified by the formation of whole communities formed of their own kind, but located near one another.  This was often promoted by one of two ways.  Frequently immigrants didn't travel as a single family, but as a group of travelers that shared a common identify. It was not uncommon for extended families and neighbors (often the same thing) would decide to pull up roots and move west. They would settle and form a new community in a location and in a manner that tended to resemble their previous lifestyle.  Often this would also be followed by "letters back home that would entice other friends, neighbors, and family to travel west and join them in the land of opportunity. Thus, a town of New Englanders could be formed and be just a few miles from a town of folks with southern roots. These letters back home resulted in what is now called "chain migration" (Davis, 1998).  Similar patterns can be shown for the Swedes, later in the 1850's and 1860's, with the letters being sent "back home" to Sweden. These chain migrations are often a clue for genealogists to use in backtracking their ancestors - where did their neighbors come from? If it was from a largely common area, check it out.


In some cases, spurts of settlement occurred in Illinois by a group settlement approach.  Often these groups of adventurous souls combined physical, mental, and economic resources toward a common, collective goal. This could take a utopian and/or religious bent, like Bishop Hill that was to appear north of Knox County in the 1840's or it could take the role of a religious group wanting to start its own community in the middle of nowhere. A religious town with a religious college, established for $1.25/acre of prairie land.  Such was the birth of Galesburg: an island of like-thinking folks in a sea of prairie grass. The location selected was remarkably distant from any existing means of transportation.  A large tract of land was purchased that provided a large buffer of control.  The founders were from New York, and like most folks, brought the beliefs in religion, culture, education, and general values with them. They had little doubt that their way was the right way, and they owned the land to prove it.


Knox County is formed

On May 15 1830, only about two years after the first European settlers arrived, a public meeting was held at a store/tavern in Henderson Township.  The store was owned by Samuel S. White. The purpose of the meeting was to form a committee to petition for the formation of Knox County.  The store was a small place, being a one-story log cabin, about 16 feet square and consisting of a single room.  Chapman's (1878) history of the event is based on the original minutes of the meeting that was in the possession of F.G. Sanburn of Knoxville and loaned out for the preparation of the history.  Riggs Pennington was made the Chairman and John G. Sanburn was selected as Secretary (perhaps explaining F. G. Sanburn's possession of the minutes.)  Others present at this meeting were Philip Hash, Stephen Osborn, Dr. Charles Hansford, Henry Bell, Jacob Gum, Nicholas Voiles and John B. Gum (Chapman, 1878). The petition was written and another committee was formed to present the petition to the Circuit Court.  On June 10, the judge, concluding that there were at least 350 residents in the area, established Knox County. An election was held on July 3rd, 1830 for three county commissioners. Riggs Pennington, Philip Hash and Dr. Charles Hansford were elected as county commissioners, without opposition. 


Prairie fires  

Before the prairies were put under the plow, prairie fires represented a serious threat to early settlers in autumn.  Fires were of both natural and manmade origins.  Lightning and accompanying wind could drive prairie fires with sufficient speed to overtake travelers and to burn barns and livestock before backfires could be lit. Stories of prairie fires are recorded in the old histories of Knox County.  In 1831, Thomas Maxwell lost his threshed wheat to a prairie fire.  His son, Henry, was burned badly in an attempt to start a backfire.  (A backfire is a fire started in front of the raging prairie fire. The purpose of the second fire is to consume the fuel as it is sucked into the oncoming prairie fire. Another story related to a William Lake who lost his horses, wagon, and milled crop, returning from the mill at Hennepin.  The prairie fire scared the horses and he could not save the team. He jumped from the wagon on to burnt ground.  He later found the horses burnt and his wagon consumed by the flames, two or three miles from the point that he had jumped (Chapman, 1878).


At times, the prairie fires were not an act of nature, but rather an act of man. According to Chapman (1878), despite it being an offense to set the prairie ablaze, it was not an uncommon offense.  The Circuit Court records for December 21, 1845 show David Ogden and Mathew Herbert being indicted for burning prairie. The next day, John Matlock and Nelson Case were also indicted by the Circuit Court for the same offense.


Despite the risk of life and property represented by prairie fires, at least one author could not refrain from trying his best prose to describe a prairie fire at night.  I offer it up on its own two feet:

"Language cannot convey, words cannot express the faintest idea of the splendor and grandeur of such a conflagration during the night. It was as if the pale queen of night, disdaining to take her accustomed place in the heavens, had dispatched myriads upon myriads of messengers to light their torches at the altar of the setting sun until all had flashed into one long and continuous blaze." (Chapman, 1878).


Land changes

With settlement came changes.  The prairie grass fell victim to the steel plow.  The land was divided up into fields.  Fences, homes, barns and outbuilding were constructed at the cost of the timber growing along the slopes of nearby creeks and streams.  Ownership of these timber-bearing lands was often over-looked if the land was unoccupied.  Wolves were hunted, often communally, to eliminate the threat to domestic livestock. The deforestation of the stream banks not only eliminated or greatly reduced the habitat for many species, but it also increased the silt load and bank erosion of the streams and rivers.  This effect was compounded with the loss of the prairie and the replacement of barren soil after harvest.  Streams became more "flashy", subject to flooding and periods of greater low flow.  Fish and aquatic invertebrate species suffered and declined as silt deposited on the riffled areas.  Darters were often eliminated from what had been clean, clear streams, degraded by silt. 


Mills and mill dams were constructed to meet the needs of the farmers.  The changing of flowing streams to standing water also caused a shift in aquatic species. Towns and villages were formed.  Raw sewage was piped into streams to carry the filth off to downstream neighbors. One needs to look no further than Galesburg and Cedar Fork to see this early form of sewage treatment - "out of sight, out of mind".


Further changes would be caused by the introduction of the railroads to Knox County.  Manmade lakes to provide water for the thirsty steam locomotives would be constructed both by the CB&Q and the Santa Fe. With the railroads, would be the beginning of farm consolidation as crops and livestock could be grown on grander scale and shipped to Chicago for more distant markets.


Civilization and Organization

With the formation of Knox County, the holding of the first elections, and the filling of slots of local government, the ground work was set for civilization and organizations in early Knox County.



Bateman, Newton, et al. 1899. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Knox County. Munsell Publishing Company. Chicago. 968 pages.


Chapman, Chas. 1878. History of Knox County, Illinois. Chicago. 718 pages (reprinted version by Knox County Genealogical Society, Galesburg, IL)


Davis, James. 1998. Frontier Illinois. Indiana University Press. 515 pages.


Mitchell, A. 1837 Illinois in 1837; A sketch descriptive of the situation, boundaries, face of the country, prominent districts, prairies, rivers, minerals, animals, agricultural productions, public lands, plans of internal improvement, manufactures etc. Philadelphia. 143 pages.