Knox County Early History

Part V. Townships and Towns


by Terry Hogan


Knox County was well on its way to doing something with itself.  A county government was formed. Townships were formed. Henderson was laid out and soon became Knoxville.  Henderson/Knoxville was designated the county seat, and the "trappings" of county government began to come to Knoxville.  A jail was built; a courthouse was built; and town lots increased in value.  But in the battle for the railroad, the neighboring (and competing) town, full of those New York "Yankees", prevailed and won the railroad.   It looked to be, and clearly became, a threat to the success of Knoxville.


But there was life beyond Galesburg and Knoxville.  Other towns were formed in other townships.  Other lives were led.  Knox County was more than Galesburg and Knoxville.  Some sites appeared to be thoughtfully laid out with careful selections.  Others just seemed to appear. But they did generally appear to have one thing in common - a railroad.    


In 1837, the brief description of Knox County published by Mitchell (1837), Illinois in 1837,   mentions Knoxville with its 200 inhabitants as being the county seat. Beyond that, it mentions only two other towns in Knox County' "…Hendersonville and Galesboro' are small villages, a few miles from Knoxville."  But we know life existed beyond.


Knox County was laid out in townships in accordance with the established procedures for the Military Tract. In 1878, Chapman published a history of Knox County that included a retrospective history of these townships.  Given that it was written over 125 years ago and it looked back in time from that vantage, it gives us a view of early Knox County. This historical review was augmented by Bateman's (1899) history.


Probably a good place to start is to review the townships in Knox County.  Starting from the northwest corner and moving east and then returning back (like a typewriter action), we find four townships in  a row and 5 rows:


Rio                       Ontario  Walnut Grove        Lynn

Henderson                   Sparta           Copley                   Victoria

Galesburg                    Knox             Persifer          Truro 

Cedar                           Orange   Haw Creek            Elba

Indian Point                Chestnut Maquon          Salem


Given the previous review of Galesburg and Knoxville (Part IV), the Galesburg and Knox townships will be largely excluded from this discussion.  In this article, the townships in bold (above) will be reviewed.  The remaining townships will be addressed in the next article.


Indian Point Township - Abingdon and St. Augustine

Indian Point was described as being mostly prairie with undulating land.  It sounds much like an early description made for the entire county.  Indian Point is located in the southwest corner of Knox County. Abingdon and St. Augustine, hugged the northern and southern township boundaries, respectively. They are found in the 1878 history of Knox County.  Both are located along the CB&Q railroad line.  The township name is attributed to a point of timber that extended from Cedar Fork.  Indians frequently camped along the edge of this timber, even well after the settlement by European settlers.  John C. Latimer is attributed to being the first, or one of the first permanent settlers in the township, establishing a residence in Section 6 in 1833. Other early arrivals in Indian Point included Stephen Howard, John Lomax, John Howard Sr., Reverend John Crawford, William Steward, Henry Russell, Daniel Meek, John Dowdy, Meryweather Brown, Anthony Bowers, and Alexander Latimer (Chapman, 1878).


St. Augustine, first occupied in 1835, was named after the "apostle of Africa." This "old St. Augustine" was located in Fulton County.  However, the CB&Q railroad didn't pass close enough to old St. Augustine so the town moved a little north to the railroad.  The "new St. Augustine" was laid out in 1854. The new site was about 1/2 mile north of the old site, putting it in Section 32 of Indian Point Township. 


On April 29, 1897, a large fire destroyed nearly 2/3 of the business district of St. Augustine.


Cedar Township- Abingdon, Saluda, Louisville and Cherry Grove

Abingdon is also found in this township as it straddles the line between Cedar and Indian Point.  It is the only town shown in Cedar Township in the 1899 Knox County map. But there used to be other settlements, named Louisville, Saluda and Cherry Grove. 


Louisville was located about three miles north of Abingdon. Louisville was laid out by John S. Garrett on the southwest quarter of Section 16. It was platted on September 30, 1836. For a period of time, it was the primary gathering place in the township and supported several local elections. By 1855, Abingdon's growth had cast a shadow over Louisville and it is no more today.


Saluda was located north and east of Abingdon, not far from where Lake Bracken is today.  It sat along the CB&Q railroad line, just west of Lake Bracken.  It left behind a rail sign showing "Saluda", and the hardroad fill located along the end of Lake Bracken is known locally as the "Saluda fill".


But the earliest settlement was Cherry Grove, named for the presence of a wild cherry tree grove in the area.  From the old history, it is not clear to me where Cherry Grove was located, although mention of a Cherry Grove Seminary in Section 29 might be a clue. That would put it a little north and west of Abingdon. (Perhaps a reader can help out with this?)


Abingdon was the survivor. It was laid out in 1836 by Abraham Davis Swarts. Swarts came from Abingdon, Hartford County, Maryland, which presumably accounts for the source of the town's name.  In 1837, lots were auctioned and at least 40 were sold. Abingdon was incorporated as a city in 1857.

Prior to 1850, Cedar and Indian Point were treated as a single voting precinct and they were jointly known as Cherry Grove.  The name's origin relates to a large grove of wild cherry trees that used to be present in the area. Efforts to name a township as Cherry Grove failed as another township in the state had already laid claim to the name.


Early residents to Cedar Township were reported to be Reverend Hiram Palmer in 1828, Abraham Swartz in 1829, and Jonathan Latimer in 1832. History records that the Latimer family had no door for their log cabin.  They were forced to rely on a bed-tick filled with straw, hung across the opening.  Wolves found this to be a minor impediment, so the family was forced to burn a fire in the cabin all night long to prevent the wolves from entering the cabin.  Another wolf story for the township is about one William Bevans who was confronted by wolves in 1834.  He used his ax to keep the wolves at bay, but while defending himself, the soft soap he was carrying was spilled. The wolves became interested in eating the soap, and Bevans was able to leave and return safely home.


The land had been prairie and was subject to frequent prairie fires.  With the decline of prairie and prairie fires, the land's character was changed by the growth of timber where tall prairie grass once stood.  This impact was not uncommon in Knox County, with the decline of the prairie grass with its extensive root system.  By plowing under the prairie grass, the soil became available for both native trees and trees that farmers brought into the area for planting.


Cedar Township would become the home of Lake Bracken, constructed by the Chicago Burlington and Quincy railroad in the early 1920’s for the purpose of providing a reliable water supply for the needs of the railroad, including the steam locomotives.  The stream bottom was cleared of trees, and an earthen dam was constructed to collect and retain the water from Brush Creek.


Henderson Township- Henderson

Henderson is located along the western boundary of Knox County, north of the Galesburg Township. Henderson is located in the township.  It is recorded that Henderson Township was the first township in Knox County to be inhabited by European settlers.  In February 1828, Daniel and Alexander Robertson settled there. Indians, of course, were present, tilling fields of corn, prior to western settlement.


Henderson Township, like so many of the other townships in Knox County, was subject to the threats of prairie fires.  One such fire was detected by Harmon Greathouse Brown, Peter Frans and Ben Bruington while out hunting. They ceased hunting, returned home, and spent the entire night fighting the fire.


Henderson Grove with its timber and stream played an important role in the early settlement of the area as "Log City" was located there.  Log City was the early, temporary home of those New York Yankees who would lay out and occupy Galesburg and establish what is now known as Knox College in Galesburg Township to the immediate south. 


Henderson village is the only community to have been started in the township.  It was laid out on June 11, 1835 by Parnach Owen for Calvin Glass. It was incorporated in 1838 on a vote of 28 to 0.   In the early days, Henderson appeared to have a great future.  It supported five stores and between 1840 and 1850 it had over 30 coopers who made pork and whiskey barrels that were shipped around the state.  With the arrival of the railroads to other nearby towns, Henderson began to decline, but was saved by the construction of the Rio branch of the CB&Q.


Henderson was the site of some good old fashioned spirits. Not good humor, but good drink.  In 1839, Ben Campbell established a distillery.  In 1841, Calvin Glass opened up a still in the saw mill that he operated.  The still was able to produce ten barrels a day. It burned that year, however.  In 1842, two gentlemen by the name of Poyer and Wickes built a still a little north of Henderson.  It was even bigger than Calvin Glass's operation as it could produce a whopping 20 barrels of good spirit per day.  It also burned in about a year.


Rio Township- Rio

Rio is located in the northwest corner of Knox County and has the town of Rio. Joseph Rowe is recorded as being the first settler in Rio Township. Other early settlers included Reece Jones, Joseph Halliday, Abe Jones and John Cresswell.  Rio constructed a fort, named Fort Aggie, in response to the perceived threat of the Black Hawk War.  Fort Aggie remained until it was torn down in 1836.  The lumber from the fort was used for constructing a barn at the approximate location of the old fort. Joseph Hahn was the recycler of the Fort. The fort got its unusual name as an honor to Mrs. Cresswell.  Mrs. Cresswell taught the first school in the township at her home.


The township name evolved from the early 1850's interest in the war with Mexico.  The Rio Grande became a popular subject in conversation as the new southern border with Mexico.  Lewis Coe is recorded as taking the idea of the name to the meeting of the Court, but decided that the Spanish word for river (Rio) was sufficient without the Grande.  The Court agreed and the township was named in 1851.  Prior to that time, the general area was simply known as the "North Prairie".


Rio village was laid out in 1871 and was first named "Coburg", in honor of Nelson and Lewis Coe who were early settlers.  The post office was originally called North Prairie and Nelson Coe was the first postmaster. It should be remembered that in early Illinois history, the names of post offices did not necessarily match the names of the towns they served.  It is strange, but true.


Chestnut Township- Hermon and Bridgeport

Chestnut Township is located east of Indian Point, in the southwestern corner of Knox County.  Spoon River passes through the township.  Hermon is mentioned in the Chapman history, and both Hermon and Bridgeport are shown in the 1899 (Bateman) township map.  Early settlers came to Chestnut Township in the 1833-1834 period, including Anson Dolf and John Terry.  William McFarland was reported to arrive in 1839.  The 1899 Knox County history shows that two railroads passed through the township, the narrow gauge, Fulton County line and the Iowa Central line. The first road in the township was the "old state road" that ran from Peoria to Oquawka.


The earliest settlers had to travel to Troy in Fulton County or to Knoxville for a post office.  But in 1848, a post office was placed in Hermon.  The mail was delivered once a week to Hermon from Knoxville.  Like so many communities, Hermon had an earlier name.  It was originally known as Harrisonville. 


Hermon was platted in 1842, but grew very slowly. By 1850, it had only 84 lonely souls.  The name change from Harrisonville to Hermon occurred in 1848, with the arrival of the post office. (Often the arrival of a post office created a name problem, as there often was another town with a post office in the state with the same name, requiring a post office name change.)


Orange Township- DeLong

Orange Township is located directly north of Chestnut Township and has the village of DeLong.  The 1898 map shows the passage of the Fulton Co. Narrow Gauge Railroad through the township and through DeLong.  Narrow gauge railroads were cheaper and easier to construct than the more standard track, but it created a fundamental problem of equipment incompatibility.  Early European settlers in the early 1830s included Joseph Wallace, James Ferguson, and Samuel Mather.   Chapman (1878) attributes Wallace as being the first, settling in 1830.


Knox Township- East Galesburg

As Knoxville was discussed at some length in an earlier part of this series, it will not be discussed here.  But East Galesburg deserves a mention.  It wasn't always East Galesburg.  It was laid out on November 8, 1890 by C. B. Randall.  Oddly enough, it was named Randall. It was put where it was because of the Santa Fe railroad and brickmaking occurring there.   Bateman's (1899) history places the population of Randall to have been about 800.  The name change came about due to the railroad that changed the station name from Randall to East Galesburg.  The town name remained Randall for a period of time, but was ultimately changed, presumably to make life a little more logical. In 1892, East Galesburg had a weekly paper, called the East Galesburg Tribune.  It was printed in Galesburg on the presses of the Galesburg Plaindealer.


Sparta Township- Wataga 

Sparta Township is located north of Knox Township and northeast of Galesburg.  Wataga is located on the CB&Q railroad.  It also became a two railroad town with the formation of the Galesburg and Great Eastern Railroad that ran to Victoria and Etherley in Copley Township.  Sparta was named for the ancient Greek town.  The name for the township is attributed to a suggestion by Amos Wilmot.  Wilmot was an early settler of the township and came from Connecticut.  Other early settlers included Hezekiah Burford and the three Robbins brothers- Cyrus, Ley and Reuben.


Wataga fell under the influence of a large presence of Swedes, and also by the presence of coal available in relatively shallow seams.  In the 1800's many farmers mined coal after the harvest was in.  Frequently shallow mines were dug into ravines or stream backs, following the near-surface coal seam.  Around 1856, it is reported that about 250 men were busy at about 40 "banks" mining coal.  About 100,000 bushels of coal were mined and sold. The 1898 history reported the presence of two coal shaft mines in the Wataga area. One was by the Illinois Carbon Coal Company that wasn't being operated and the Sparta Steam Shaft that was located about a half mile southwest of Wataga.


Coal has been an issue for this area from time to time as coal operators look to develop strip mines for the taking of coal.  However, the coal tends to be high in sulfur and high sulfur coal markets have shrunk with more stringent environmental regulations.  Ironically, with even more stringent regulations, more sulfur dioxide scrubbers are being built on coal-fired power plants that will allow them to once-again burn high sulfur coal. This may bring the coal companies back to the farmers’ doors once again.   


I have a particular fondness for Wataga as many of my ancestors settled in or near Wataga and are buried in the Wataga Cemetery.    The small Lutheran Church in Wataga had Swedish origins and was built on land donated by the Williamson family.  A review of early plats will show much of the land in Sparta was owned by Swedes or descendants of Swedes.  Probably much of this Swedish presence can be reasonably attributed to the Swedish Settlement at nearby Bishop Hill.


Wataga was platted in 1854 by H. M. Holoyoke, Silas Willard and Clark M. Carr. It was incorporated in 1863 and re-incorporated in 1874.  Holoyoke was the first resident, the first postmaster and built the first store.  In 1856 the railroad depot was built as was the Wataga House.  The Wataga Mill was constructed in 1856, but was damaged by an explosion. The mill was bought and sold over the next 20 or so years, having various owners including two brothers, William Williamson and M. O. Williamson.  The latter moved to Galesburg, became the president of a Galesburg bank and became Treasurer of the State of Illinois.   


Ontario Township- Oneida

Ontario Township is located north of Sparta Township and east of Rio Township. Ontario was named in 1850 by its inhabitants.  It is recorded that many of the residents were from New York and that the name of the township was after the Great Lake of that name.  Early residents of the township were reported to include Alexander Williams in 1833, Isaac Wetmore, and G. W. Melton. Early family names in the area included Wetmores, Champ's, Cranes, Camps, Mosher, Hollister, Savage, and Powell.   Many of the early settlers were from Oneida County in New York, presumably accounting for the naming of Oneida, located in the southeast corner of the township, along the CB&Q tracks. 


If you have been paying attention, you will have noticed that many of the towns in the townships are along the railroads.  This shows the economic importance that the railroad once had in Illinois.  If the railroad would not build to the town, often towns would build or relocate to the railroad.  An odd bit of trivia is noted in the 1899 history - with one exception, all the roads in Ontario Township are constructed along section lines.


Oneida was platted on September 1, 1854. By Christmas, it had become a railroad station and this was quickly followed by the construction of a hotel. Despite this, only eight families lived in Oneida at the end of 1854.  Oneida was incorporated as a village in 1859 and as a city in 1869.



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).


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.