Marion was located and named August 20, 1839 by three commissioners from nearby counties appointed by the legislature. Calvin Bridges of Union, Thornberry C. Anderson of Gallatin, and Jefferson Allen of Jackson County met at Bainbridge august 19 and were sworn by Justice of the Peace William Norris to locate the new county seat as near the center of the county as they could find a suitable site. Each commissioner was paid $12 for his services.
William and Bethany Benson made the county a deed of gift that same day to twenty acres selected for the new town site. Their deed was the first County Clerk John Bainbridge entered on his new book. The Benson land entry for that particular parcel was made less than a year before, but Mr. Benson had been a resident of the county at least since 1817, when he made the shingles for a house on Phelps Prairie. He was the first settler on Poor Prairie and had a corn and wheat field on the land that became the public square. Mr. Benson became constable of the new town, and in his old days moved to Schoharie Prairie where he died in 1856. There is a tradition that the county was named for William Benson, the name Williamson formed by dropping the first syllable of his last name.
When the commissioners decided on the site in Poor Prairie the Bensons had few neighbors. The Aikman family to the west, the Elijah N. spiller family to the north, the Goodall family to the southeast, Silas Gratton and James McCoy lived near enough to be called neighbors in those days. Richard Tyner built a cabin within the present city soon after 1826 but Mr. Benson bought those improvements and Mr. Tyner returned to his father’s homestead on the Eight Mile Prairie.
No record was made of the reason for naming the town, but Francis Marion, the swamp fox, was one of the Revolutionary heroes whose exploits were still common talk. General Marion led his Carolina soldiers in forays that made all the king’s men fear them. At least one of those soldiers lived in the county, the Joshua Tyner whose son built the first cabin on the site of Marion. The other sons and nephews of Marion’s men who had made the county their home felt the name eminently suitable for their new county seat.
The county court held its first meeting October 7, 1839 at the Benson home, which served as hotel as well as courthouse. It was a double log house with a stack chimney, one room (the second built) larger than the first. Poor Mrs. Benson couldn’t find seats for all the stalwart officials and citizens that crowded her home, but a farmer chanced by with a load of pumpkins.
In this makeshift courthouse with pumpkins for stools, the three county commissioners commenced the county’s business. First they cast lots for terms of service; Cyrus Campbell of Eight Mile Prairie, one year; Sterling Hill, two years; Frederick F. Duncan of Bainbridge, three years. Commissioner Hill moved his grocery from his old home on the Kaskaskia trail in the northwest corner of Creal Springs Township. In the new town he kept store on the south side of the square and conducted his justice of the peace court in one corner of the building.
But the first business opened in the new town was John “Bone” Davis’ Saloon. Mr. Davis was in such a hurry to get established that he bought a set of stable logs from the Bensons and erected a door-less cabin on what he thought would be a corner lot. When Henry W. Perry surveyed the town, this lot was part of the public square and Mr. Davis had to move.
The original town of Marion included the public square and one row of blocks around it, forty seven lots in all. County Surveyor Perry was paid $12 for his work and $2 each was paid his assistants; James Henderson, Dempsey Odum, Archibald T. Benson and Elijah N. Spiller.
Sheriff John D. Sanders supervised the public sale of lots, beginning November 7, 1839 and running three days. Thirty eight lots were sold, for a total of $2,409.50 on credit. William I. and Archibald T. Benson bought the most valued corners of the square, the north side of west Main Street for $161.25, the west side of North Market Street for $150. These funds were the first source of revenue for the county save for the licenses issued by the county commissioners, and were used to construct the public buildings described as Marion courthouse.
The house of William Benson was made the polling place for a precinct called first “Town” and then Marion and extending from north to south county line. A post office was opened January 30, 1840 with Willis Allen as the first post master. He was also the first congressman who lived in the county.
In the spring when Commissioner Hill moved his grocery to the town several others opened. James McFarland, D.L. and J.D. Pulley each had a saloon. Joshua Mulkey built the first store, Robert Hopper the next. John G. Sparks had a hat shop at the northeast corner of the square. There were also several blacksmiths.
A town charter was secured by special act of the legislature February 24, 1841. An area one mile square, with the public square as the center, was specified as the town of Marion in the legislative act. A very progressive look was given the dusty square when Allen Bainbridge built the first hotel in 1842. It was a two story brick building that extended fifty feet along the north side of the square and was known as the Western Exchange. Mr. Bainbridge also manufactured tobacco in a warehouse at the northwest corner of the square. Milton Mulkey built the first steam mill in the county at Marion in 1845.
Subscription schools were opened in 1841 and the first schoolhouse, a frame building, erected in the northwest edge of the little town. Among the early teachers were William Richie, Mr. and Mrs. William R. Scurlock, and the Rev. Nehemiah A. Hunt who moved in from Bainbridge. Mr. Scurlock was county school commissioner during the Civil war and prepared the first written report on the county’s schools.
An attempt was made to provide a school of higher grade and Marion Academy was incorporated by the legislature that granted the town charter. Trustees were Joseph G. Rice, Joab B. Freeman, Archibald T. Benson, John Pascall, John Hundley, Samuel Aikman, Anderson P. Corder, Elijah N. spiller, John G. Sparks, John N. Calvert and John B. Hick. Mr. Calvert was county commissioner at the time; Mr. Corder, a future member of the legislature. Although their plans came to nothing, these early workers in the cause of higher education deserve their word of praise.
Church organizations followed closely upon schools. A Christian Church began to hold meetings about 1843 with Mr. and Mrs. Joab Goodall and Mr. and Mrs. John Pulley among the first members. Archibald T. Benson and Isaac Mulkey were early preachers in this church. A Methodist congregation was organized in the new courthouse during 1844 and built Sweet Gum Church three years later. A Presbyterian Church was organized August 31, 1845 by William Chamberlain and Williston Jones as missionaries and the first elders were Samuel and James Aikman, Napoleon B. “Bone” Calvert, Joseph McGinnis and St. Clair McMurray. Schoolmaster Hunt was ordained the next year and became minister of this church. During his ministry a building was erected in Marion that is now part of Crossroads Church. The Marion Baptist church was organized in the summer of 1865, with Elders William Ferrell, Wiley B. Chamness and David Butler as the church council and the latter the first pastor also. One of the first preachers was David G. Young, county superintendent of schools at the time.
The first fraternal order was organized October 8, 1850 when Fellowship Masonic Lodge 89 was chartered. Williamson Lodge 392 of the Odd Fellows was organized May 27, 1869. Monitor Lodge 236, Knights of Pythias, was instituted February 5, 1890.
Marion had its first newspaper in 1854 when a group of business men bought out William H. Willeford and moved the press to Marion. I.B. Jones was employed as editor, and the Marion Intelligencer was published at Marion from 1855 to 1866. The two papers now published at Marion date from 1874 and 1875. The Monitor was established in 1874, became the Leader in 1887, and is now published at the plant of the Marion Daily Republican. The Egyptian Press was established in 1875, and the Marion Evening Post at the same plant in 1902. Names changed, but the publication and politics of each paper have been consistent.
A regular village charter was secured for the county set in 1856, with amendments and extension of rights in 1865. The village received its first impetus to industrial growth when the last rail was laid on the Carbondale and Shawneetown track into Marion January 15, 1872. Although this road was never extended east of Marion, it became part of the Illinois Central system and furnished Marion its first outlet.
Two years after the railroad came, Marion was granted its charter as a city, the first in the county. The mayor of 1874 was Joseph W. Hartwell; the first aldermen were M.W. Robertson; Hartwell Hendrickson, later Circuit Clerk; Robert M. Allen, son of the county’s first congressman; John M. Young; Charles M. Edwards, the miller; and Augustus N. Lodge, the county superintendent of schools.
These were but the beginnings of Marion. The community manifested a leadership from the first that was felt throughout Southern Illinois. It is well epitomized by the fact that among Marion citizens at one and the same time were numbered a congressman, a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, a Circuit Judge, a state senator, and a representative.
(Extracted from Pioneer Folks and Places, Barbara Barr Hubbs, 1939, on sale at the Williamson County Museum)