Knox County Early History

Part VII:  The County Seat Fight


by Terry Hogan


"The seat of justice, Knoxville, is pleasantly situated at the head of Haw creek, a tributary of Spoon river, 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' are small villages, a few miles from Knoxville."  Such was the relationship of Knoxville to its potential economic adversaries as recorded in 1837 (Mitchell).  But time and the workings of man can play havoc on predictions of the future.  Galesburg and Knoxville were to enter into a rivalry that was to last for years, involving legislation, voting, vote fraud, and litigation following litigation.


County seat fights are not unique to Knox County.  Similar fights occurred elsewhere.  In some cases, the fights were a matter of life and death for the towns involved.  Residents' economic wealth was often at stake.  Property values would rise or fall, based on the outcome.  Wounds were cut deep and would take years, or decades to heal.  Even today, it is hard to determine who won and who lost.  It is the matter of the yardstick used to measure the outcome.  As with all good feuds, there is more than one version of the story, but here is one that is generally patterned after Bateman's (1899) account of the events.


Probably most of the folks who have lived in Knox County for a number of years and have interests in local history know something of the feud between Galesburg and Knoxville.  It is generally considered to have been over which town should be the county seat. But in reality, it appears to me that this was only the more visible apparition of a larger contest between the two towns.  They were too close together.  They were economic competitors and they had both recently fought an extended and fearsome battle on who should get the railroad and who should not.   Perceptions of the railroad war vary widely, depending upon where the writer stood.  A history written from Monmouth was much more sympathetic to Knoxville's position than it was to Galesburg.  But, of course, Galesburg was an economic rival to both Knoxville and Monmouth but the latter two were distant enough from each other that they could afford to be allies, in accordance with the sage conclusion that an enemy of my enemy is a friend.


Galesburg ended up with the railroad and it gave Galesburg the economic boost it needed. It grew more rapidly, and with growth, the town's movers and shakers believed it was only destiny that Galesburg should become the county seat.  This, arguably, was further encouraged by the perceived wrongs still unhealed from the railroad war. As the Knox County history of 1899 put it, "But when the young and growing city [Galesburg] had overtaken and passed Knoxville in population, and was seen to be rapidly gaining in trade, its growth aroused ambition on one side and apprehension the other." (Bateman, 1899). 


Calkins (1937) saw the fight between the two towns to be driven by more than just economic interests.  He believed that an older "Éhostility, born of different social and political outlooks, added bitterness and acrimony to this contest."  It is likely that Calkins was referring to the different roots of the two towns.  Knoxville was established first and was therefore largely settled by Southerners ("Hoosiers") who came to Knox County first.  Galesburg was settled later, and was largely controlled by New York "Yankees". Their backgrounds gave them grounds to see most things from a fundamentally different perspective.  Thus economic competition in the realm of railroads and the county seat easily elevated to personal bitterness on both sides.  The tone of the dispute is reflected in a Knoxville newspaper of 1858:  "Our grasping neighbors of the magnificent city of Galesburg seem determined to carry out their threat of swallowing up all their neighbors in their own magnificent whirlpool." (Calkins, 1937). 


Galesburg made several early attempts to wrestle away the county seat from Knoxville. In an 1862 Constitutional Convention, W. Sheldon Gale (Knox County delegate) introduced a proposition that would give County Boards the right to call elections for county seat relocation.  The proposition was passed, but later dropped in a final revision.  A local newspaper, the "Knox Republican" endorsed the proposition.


The following year (1863), a piece of legislation was introduced applying the local rule concept to Knox County, but it was amended to a two year window, and nobody wanted an election within that time span, so that effort also effectively fell to defeat.   


Not easily dissuaded, a bill was introduced and passed by Galesburg advocates in the 1865 session that allowed for Galesburg to become the county seat, if the change was voted on and approved by the voters of the county.  The election was set for April 5, 1865.  Galesburg attempted to influence the outcome of the election by promising a new $75,000 courthouse and a free building site in Galesburg.  It also offered up a new free jail. Both were to be no cost to the county.  Nevertheless, only Galesburg and one other town voted in favor of relocation of the county seat.


In 1868, after hard political fighting, W.S. Gale was elected to the state legislature.  Gale was a Republican from Galesburg and his Democratic opponent was A. M. Craig.  The issue wasn't about political philosophies; it was about the county seat. Gale introduced a bill for the relocation of the Knox County seat to Galesburg.  Knoxville lobbied hard against it, but lost.


The bill that was passed gave the Board of Supervisors that authority to appoint commissioners who would have the authority to contract with the City of Galesburg and others for gifts of money, property, or service, for the county seat relocation.  The bill passed on March 10, 1869 and by March 25, Galesburg had submitted a bond, signed by the Mayor, and authorized by a city ordinance for Galesburg to provide the county, at no cost to the county, a very handsome offer of building lots.  The package included two certificates of deposit, amounting to $10,000 each and deeds to lots. The deeds were presented to the commissioners and the certificates were on deposit at the National Bank of Galesburg. This appeared to be a very attractive package for the voters of Knox County who lived outside of Knoxville.


But, the election was held, and "on the face of the returns" (Bateman, 1899), the majority of the voters sided with Knoxville and the keeping of the current location of the county seat. But it appears that there were some voting irregularities in both Galesburg and Knoxville, but the smaller Knoxville appeared to have taken extraordinary steps to get out the vote.  Bateman (1899) notes:

"In Knoxville, nearly three times as many votes were cast as ever before.  There were extraordinary irregularities in the conduct of the election, the same persons (sic) casting vote after vote without disguise and giving each time fictitious names.   The returns were held back until after the last were known to have been received from the country towns, creating the suspicion that preparations were made to extend the poll books and stuff the ballot boxes as far as might seem necessary to give that town a prima facie majority."


Not too surprisingly, the question was moved to the court.  It appeared before Judge Hibeen at Macomb. The judge ruled there were some irregularities in the Galesburg vote, but that the vote in Knoxville was fraudulent throughout and that the returns were without value as evidence.  Thus, Galesburg won. Of course, the decision was appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ruled in January 1873, about 4 years after the election.  The Court ruled in favor of Galesburg.


However, while this activity was underway, Knoxville did not sit quietly and wait for the Supreme CourtŐs ruling.  In the 1870 Constitutional Convention, it was established that county seat relocation votes could not be held more than once every 10 years.  Further, to move a county seat nearer the center of the county, the vote only required a majority.  But to move the county seat farther away from the center would require a 3/5ths vote. 


So, with the issuance of the court decision, Knoxville called for another election to be held in November 1873. The election was held, but relocation from Galesburg was not achieved.  Knoxville had lost.


At this point, Galesburg had secured the major railroads and the seat of local government.  With that came greater economic success. Land values increased.  Population grew and Galesburg was able to support several colleges, most notably Lombard and Knox. 


With the loss of the county seat, the county gave Knoxville the county land within the Knoxville city limits, which included the old courthouse and land.  But by then, the ill-will between the two towns ran deep.  In response to the county action, the Knoxville Journal opined, "Galesburg left Knoxville the Court House because it could not move it and the public square for the same reason."


With this success, the isolation of a religious sect, a prairie town surrounded by prairie grass, had been replaced by a railroad town with easy access of goods, labor, and new ideas and new religions.  Swedes, Germans, Irish, and others came, settled, found work, and brought changes to Galesburg's culture; Galesburg's perception of itself; and Galesburg's view of the world.


For Knoxville, its growth slowed, but it was sustained.  It lacked the growth of factories and stores that greeted Galesburg.  Knoxville kept a small Midwestern charm in both architecture and community. With the recent decline of the manufacturing sector in the U.S., as reflected in Galesburg, perhaps Knoxville didn't come out so badly in the deal, after all.


That's the thing about history.  It never seems to get done, and the story never ends.



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)


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.