Knox County Early History

Part III. Civilization and Organization


by Terry Hogan


With the formation of Knox County in 1830 and the completion of the first election, Knox County took its first steps in becoming civilized and having some local control over its destiny.  Knoxville appeared to be the city on the move and destined for bigger things as the county seat.


It was only four days after the election of the County Commissioners that they held their first meeting. It was held in Henderson Township in the home of John Gum. The house was a one-story double log cabin, with each half having only one room. It became the temporary court house until a log cabin courthouse was constructed in Knoxville. 


Regulation and taxation

Perhaps not surprising, one of the first agenda items for the court was to begin regulating and taxing taverns.  A license was issued to Samuel S. White to operate a tavern, upon the condition that he made a payment of two dollars and the clerk's fee. Beyond that, the court established specific tavern rates for White's establishment:

1/2 pint of whisky                        12.5 cents

1/2 pint of brandy                        18.75 cents

1/2 pint of wine                            25 cents

Meal of victuals                           25 cents

Lodging per person per night                12.5 cents

Corn and oats for horse                12.5 cents

Feed and stabling for horse per night            25 cents


It is reported that White did not anticipate making much money from the Inn, but he did anticipate good money from the sale of alcohol.  In 1848, White left Knox County heading for Oregon.  He had $10,000 to help him on his way (Chapman, 1878).


Post Office

Although mail was expensive and relatively uncommon in Knox County in 1830, the County Commissioners notified the Postmaster General of Knox County's existence. They sought the establishment "…with a mail as soon as may be practicable."     


Election of the Justices of the Peace and Constables 

The County Commissioners apparently didn't want to be accused of dragging their feet.  They divided the county into two districts for the purpose of holding elections for the Justice of the Peace and a constable for each district.  The north district election was held at John B. Gum’s house on August 7. 


A money-making machine 

At least initially, Knox County was a money-making machine. In Knox County's first treasurer’s report, it can be seen that Knox County had an income of $341.32 and expenses of $10.75, leaving the county with a balance of $330.57. 


A County Seat is Born and a Courthouse Constructed

With all this money burning a hole in their pockets, it is not surprising that the County Commissioners decided they needed a real courthouse and a real county seat.  The site was selected; a town was laid out; and the legislature named it "Henderson".  The land was laid out by Andrew Osborn, who was paid $15 for his effort.  Two years later, the town's name was changed to Knoxville.  The legislature authorized the county seat and recognized the county boundaries on January 15, 1831.


What would be a county-seat without a courthouse?  Still gathering no dust, by March 12, 1831, at a special meeting, the Commissioners unveiled their plans to let a contract to the lowest responsible bidder for the construction of a courthouse. William Lewis got the contract for erecting the courthouse building for a cost of $78.  Parnach Owen got the contract to complete the building for $100. The total cost for the first Knox County courthouse was reported to be only slightly more that the balance in the coffers of County Treasure - $395.43.  The costs broken out were:

Erection of Building                                    $78 (according to the bid, no overrun!)

Completion of Building                        $100 (also on budget!)

Six extra windows                               $6

Chinking, daubing and underpinning                    $37.50

Upper floor                                         $18.00

Judge's stand, tables, benches and fitting windows       $43

Stove and pipe                                           $38

Laying floor, stairway and window shutters          $74.93

Total                                                  $395.43

(Chapman, 1878)


On April 23, the first sale of lots for Henderson (soon-to-be Knoxville) was held.  There were 79 lots sold that brought in a total of $1,056.  The highest priced lot sold for $61 and was bought by Riggs Pennington (Bateman, 1899).



If you have a Court, You "Gotta" Have a Jail

How can you have a court, if you don't have a jail?  Another institution had to be added to Knox County. It was, of course, added in Knoxville, not far from the new courthouse.  The jail was bid out at $250 to John G. Sanburn, although he was not paid for the work for a couple of years.  It was of logs and 20 feet square.  It was there for "those who wantonly violate law and order, thus making themselves odious and dangerous to the community.”  The most memorable attempted jail break occurred on a Sunday morning. The jail occupant, a blacksmith by the name of Dingle, set fire to the wooden door in an attempt to escape. He was nearly consumed by the flames before the worshipers responded to the fire alarm (Chapman, 1878).


Expensive Time

For reasons apparently lost to history, the Commissioners who were only charging $5 for a tavern license in 1834, decided to charge $50 for a 3 month license to sell clocks.  Perhaps the Commissioners figured if folks were drinking, they probably didn't need to know what time it was.  Chapman (1878) speculates that the fee was set to prevent clock salesmen from bothering their constituents, perhaps being the equivalent to today's "no call" list.


Brick Court House

As with all good bureaucracies, the time soon came that the log court house, built in 1831, was considered inadequate.  So in only seven years, a contract was awarded to Alvah Wheeler and Zelotes Cooley in the rather startling amount of $15,450 to build a new courthouse to be completed not later than May 1, 1840.  Apparently the original design was found too plain so the design was modified and an extra $725 was authorized to build a cupola.  The courthouse, still standing in Knoxville, is two stories and reported to be 42 feet and 5 inches by 62 feet 5 inches in size, encompassing six rooms and a hallway.  


Following the relocation of the county seat to Galesburg, the courthouse saw service as an opera house and an office building.  Currently, it is the site of the Knox County history museum.


Knoxville as Seen from Afar in 1837

From the above, it can be seen that Knoxville (Henderson) sprung from a vacant prairie in 1831 and had lots being sold almost immediately.  Mitchell (1837) described Knoxville in 1837 as "…pleasantly situated at the head of Haw Creek, a tributary of Spoon river (sic), on a rich and elevated prairie.  It was laid off a few years ago: it contains about 200 inhabitants, and bids fair to become a thriving inland town.  The surrounding district is rich, and settling fast with industrious farmers. Hendersonville and Galesboro' (sic) are small villages, a few miles from Knoxville." 


In 1837, nobody could anticipate that little Galesburg, formed by a band of religious folks from New York would “steal” a railroad and then the county seat from Knoxville. But that is a later story.


Galesburg and Knox College

One cannot fully discuss the history of Galesburg and Knox College, nor is there really a need to.  Both have survived and both have adequate voices representing their past and their present.  For those who want a more detailed treatment of the early history of the establishment of Galesburg and Knox College, a couple of good places to start are Webster's (1912) The Story of Knox College 1837-1912 and   Calkins' (1937) They Broke the Prairie. These two books provided the basis for most of this brief summary.


For this treatment of the early history of Knox County, a brief overview will probably suffice as many of the readers will have heard at least bits and pieces of the story. Galesburg owes its name to George W. Gale, who is considered the founder of Knox College and Galesburg.  The Gale family and the Ferris family (who also played a major role in Galesburg) were related by marriage.  Gale was a minister with a vision for a town and a college that shared a common religious culture.  In New York, Gale and his associates began a campaign to raise money to fulfill his vision.  By the middle of 1835, about $20,000 had been promised to the cause.  But only about $6,000 of that was ever received.  The goal had been to raise $60,000.  Nevertheless, a committee was formed to go west and find a suitable place to make the dream come true.  The committee consisted of Nehemiah West, Thomas Gilbert and T. B. Jarvis.    


The committee was given remarkably clear guidance on what constituted a suitable site.  They were directed to buy at least 20 sections of land. Of the land purchased, 10% was to be timbered and the remaining to be prairie.  The price to be paid was to be $1.25 per acre which was the "going price" for government sold land in the Military Tract at the time (1835).  Of the land purchased, three sections were to be retained that would be used for the college and the town.  The remaining surrounding land was to be divided up and sold for $5 per acre to settlers.  The money raised for selling the other land was to be used for the college.  Money raised from selling lots within the (nonexistent) village was to be used for establishing a Female Seminary. (Webster, 1912).  


In a letter dated February 19, 1836, Nehemiah West describes the land they found and bought to fulfill Gales' dream- "…we selected a location in the county of Knox, lying nearly central between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, in the Military Tract, 150 miles southwest from Chicago and about 40 miles west of Peoria.  We purchased about 20,000 acres, nearly in a square form, mostly prairie." (from Webster, 1912).  He went on to describe the land as "…a fine tract…in a very healthy country, well watered, and supplied with abundance of stone and coal."   


In a post script to the letter, apparently as an afterthought, he adds that the village is named Galesburg and the college will be called "Prairie College". 


The early settlers and associates can be found in the names of many of Galesburg's streets, for example West, Losey, Tompkins, Chambers, Simmons, and Ferris streets.


Such was the way Galesburg was located. But why was it located almost exactly the maximum distance between the Illinois and the Mississippi River? Why a religious town in a sea of prairie that isolated it from the main mode of transportation for the time - navigable rivers?  Calkins (1937) writes that Gale wanted this type of location, "He reasoned that commercial towns would grow up along the rivers, and his city, strategically located to avoid the evils of large industrial cities, would draw its students from those towns and escape the contamination of commerce and the vices of river towns."


But as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men are often laid asunder by the arrival of the railroads. Galesburg was to seek out and achieve the railroad coming to it.  This provided economic growth; a door to the outside world for shipping goods in and out.  It also provided a pathway for immigrants to work on the railroad, stores, homes, farms and industries that were to blossom with the railroad's economic importance. These new arrivals could care less about Gale's dream.  They were Irish, Swedes, Germans, Italians, to name a few, and there were many Catholics and Lutherans among them.  Galesburg grew with the railroad, but deviated from the path laid out by Gale and the founders of Knox College and Galesburg.


But Galesburg flourished with the railroad. 



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


Calkins, Earnest. 1937. They Broke the Prairie. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 451 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.


Webster, Martha. 1912. The Story of Knox College. 1837-1912. Wagoner Printing Company. Galesburg, Illinois.  210 pages.