The area now known as Williamson County, Illinois has been administered in turn by French, British, Virginian, and United States authority. Although the French were the first to make good their rights by occupation, the British claim dates from the great charter granted in 1607 by James I, king of Great Britain, to the London Company. Had those English businessmen known of its existence, southern Illinois would have been included in Virginia under the sea to sea grant based upon the Cabots’ discoveries.
French rights began with the discovery and exploration of the Mississippi river. Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette were the first white men upon its northern waters, and came as far as the mouth of the Ohio in 1673. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, followed in 1679, and named all the lands drained by the great river Louisiana, in honor of Louis XIV (Le Grand) and his Queen Anne. This empire of the Mississippi valley became the stock in trade of one of the greatest speculations in French history. John Law’s Mississippi bubble brought settlers to the French missions along the Mississippi and made the name Illinois common talk in Paris. Antoine Cadillac was governor and Detroit the capital tor the vast empire whose wealth matched even the dreams of the French speculators, though its gold and diamonds were not adornments for a beauty of the court, but grain and coal to feed and warm a world.
Authority of France came to the Illinois country when Boisbriant and one hundred French soldiers arrived at Kaskaskia in 1718 to assume military command of the Illinois district of the royal province of Louisiana. They found the missionary priests and their Indian converts established in permanent settlements. Missions at Cahokia and Kaskaskia were established during 1700.
Strangely the Indian inhabitants who hunted over the present area of Williamson County during the early days of American settlement were those who followed the French into southern Illinois. The Kaskaskia Indians were removed from their original home near Peoria by the French priests who sought to save this peaceful nation from the cruel Iroquois. The Shawnees came to the Ohio River about 1715, and the territory now Williamson county was the meeting place of the two tribes. Friction arose over choice hunting grounds, and in 1802 a battle was fought by agreement in Townmount prairie on the south side of the present Franklin County. The Kaskaskias were vanquished, the fleeing warriors were massacred at the ford over the Little Muddy River, and the Shawnees held the country until they moved on to another home. Then the Kaskaskias returned, in small hunting parties sent out by French traders, and fraternized with the early American settlers.
French hunters and traders penetrated the wilderness between the rivers, until the country now forming Williamson County was well known. Frankfort hill was an early trading place, to which the French came at certain seasons. Hunters built shelters to be used by any wanderer at Fredonia, Eau Mineral (Creal Springs), and L’eau de Salle (Saline). Trappers were given certain hunting rights; traders were allowed to acquire certain lands. For one purpose or the other, French survey 695 was set off for John Edgar, John Hogue, and Louis Blay Jr. on Big Muddy river where the Grande trace crossed.
When the French mission called Assumption and the fort that became Massac were built on the Ohio, a trail was blazed from that settlement to Kaskaskia. This Grande trace entered Williamson county near Sulphur Springs, crossed the Saline at Ward’s Mill, entered the prairie country at Bainbridge, crossed Phelps and Herrin’s prairie, and forded Big Muddy river one mile south of the mouth of Pond Creek. The French burned the mileage figures into trees, and then marked the blazes with red paint. Roadway there was none, save as some tree that proved too great an obstacle was cut.
By the Peace of Paris in 1763 Louis XV of France ceded his royal province of Louisiana to Great Britain at the end of what American colonists called the French and Indian wars. Fort Chartres was surrendered to a company of British soldiers October 10, 1765. By order of General Thomas Cage in Boston the fort became the capital of His Majesty’s (George III) provinces west of the Alleghanies. A few British traders came west, such as the company who purchased Crab Orchard hunting right from the Indians. But French life was little changed in the settlements along the Mississippi, and French traders continued to make their annual visits to their posts in the interior.
Then came the magnificent idea of a young Virginia militia officer for an offensive rather than defensive warfare to protect the frontier posts that suffered the horrors of Indian warfare as a pan of the American Revolution. George Rogers Clark conferred with Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia, and was given authority to raise a secret expedition to attack the British outposts from which hostile Indians made their raids upon the Virginia frontier.
With less than two hundred men, Colonel Clark descended the Ohio River. On June 24, 1778 they saw an eclipse of the sun from the falls of the Ohio, or Louisville. By hard rowing, they reached the mouth of the Tennessee, now Paducah, four days later. There a party of American hunters who had just come from Kaskaskia chanced on the Virginia soldiers. John Saunders, one of the hunters, volunteered to act as guide. That same evening Colonel Clark’s boats were beached in a small creek above Fort Massac. The next day, without horses, wagons, baggage, or artillery, the conquest of the Illinois was begun.
There were two routes that Colonel Clark could choose. One, the Grande trace, was the more traveled and the success of the expedition depended upon the element of surprise. It seems likely that he took the less traveled route, one that he refers to as “the Hunters’ Road.” This brought him into the edge of Williamson County for his second night’s camp near PulIey’s Mill.
Colonel Clark recorded that “on the third day out” (from Fort Massac) “we reached prairie.” This must have been in the neighborhood of Bainbridge. But his records also say they marched but twelve miles the third day because they became lost. So it was within Williamson County that the guide, John Saunders, became confused, lost his way, and was threatened with death when Colonel Clark suspected him of bad faith. But after a search, Saunders found a blazed tree and went forward confidently. Mention of the blaze would suggest that they followed the Grande trace into Kaskaskia.
On the fourth day the company crossed the Big Muddy, and stories persist that they made the fording at other points than the Grande trace. After a march of six days with only four days’ provisions, the company reached Kaskaskia the evening of July 4, 1778. The capture of the settlements and the friendly understanding with the French, the bitter winter campaign against Post Vincennes on the Wabash mark Colonel Clark as master soldier and statesman. His little expedition gave the infant United States of America the Mississippi river as a western boundary rather than the Alleghany mountains when the treaty of peace was signed with Great Britain in 1783.
But the territory had been conquered by Virginia militia under orders from the governor of Virginia. In October 1778 the Virginia assembly created Illinois County. Colonel John Todd of Kentucky was named commandant, and in May 1779 set up an American government at Kaskaskia. This government had scarcely begun to function when Virginia and the other states ceded their western lands to the United States on December 20, 1783. The transfer by which Illinois became part of the new nation was signed by Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Arthur Lee, and Samuel Hardy.
The continental congress, sitting in New York City, passed the ordinance of 1787 to govern the territory of the United States northwest of the river Ohio. Two months later the constitutional convention, sitting at Philadelphia, signed the federal constitution. Arthur St. Clair, a revolutionary soldier, was appointed governor of the Northwest Territory and set up a capital at Marietta, Ohio on July 15, 1788.
But such an expanse of territory required somewhat more local government, and Governor St. Clair visited his western constituents in 1790 and set up two counties in the Northwest territory: St. Clair and Knox. The county line left the eastern third of Williamson county within the jurisdiction of Vincennes, the western two-thirds looked to Cahokia as county seat.
In 1795 Randolph County of the Northwest Territory was cut off from St. Clair, and the western two-thirds of Williamson County returned to the jurisdiction of Kaskaskia. The eastern third remained in Knox County.
Indiana territory was created by act of congress May 7, 1800. New county lines were laid out, and all the present area of Williamson County was included within Randolph county of Indiana territory. Illinois Territory followed, by act of congress February 3, 1809. Again county lines were changed, but the present Williamson County remained entirely within Randolph County. Kaskaskia was the county seat, whether part of Indiana or Illinois territory.
The present Williamson County had its first settlements as a part of Indiana territory just before Illinois territory was formed. Jordan’s Fort was built in 1804 and after a few years had its outpost in what is now Corinth Township. A blockhouse and terry were built on Big Muddy river at Humphreys’ Ford. Under instructions from the territorial governor of Illinois, the settlers on Phelps prairie built their blockhouse in 1811. Possibly their leader Captain Thomas Griffith had another at his home on the Saline, Ward’s Mill.
Other counties were formed to divide Illinois Territory, and in 1812 the present Williamson County was split three ways. Only the corner northwest of Big Muddy river remained in Randolph County. Miles’ trail was used by Governor Ninian Edwards to mark the boundary when he created Gallatin and Johnson counties. Settlors in the northeastern part of Williamson County’s present area transacted their county seat business at Shawneetown; those in the south went to the house of John Bradshaw in Johnson County. The village of Elvira latter became the county seat of the southern county.
Although county boundaries were adjusted constantly, and seven new counties were formed, Williamson county’s area remained divided between two counties until 1818, when Franklin County was created as a part of Illinois territory. The three new counties of that year were formed in the hope of facilitating admission as a state. Franklin County contained the twenty-four congressional townships that now form the two counties.
Garrets tavern was appointed the place for transacting Franklin county business. July 6, 7, and 8 were election days in 1818, so that the citizens had plenty of time to ride or walk to the one polling place in the county. They voted for delegates to a convention that would frame the first constitution of Illinois. Each man announced his choice aloud, the vote was repeated by the sheriff, and then recorded. Thomas Roberts of Corinth and Isham Harrison of Mulkeytown were named Franklin County’s delegates.
Illinois became a slate by congressional action December 3, 1818. Thomas Roberts represented Franklin and Johnson Counties in the senate of the first legislature, Elijah Ewing was the member of the lower house. Other Franklin county men who sat in the early general assemblies were Thomas M. Dorris, John Dement, and Johnson Wren. George P. Bowyer and Dempsey Odum went to the legislature in the early thirties, asserting the dominance of the southern part of Franklin County.
Settlers who had come into the county were nearly all from Tennessee and Kentucky and therefore most of them were cither natives of Virginia and the Carolinas, or sons of families who had made the first stage of the westward trip from those states into Tennessee and Kentucky. The first comers were like the Indians, dependent upon hunting for their living. The next groups were squatters, who built a cabin near a stream or spring and stirred up the rich ground for a small corn patch and vegetable garden. The public lands were not made available to purchasers until 1814 when the land office at Shawneetown was opened. But only a few scattering tracts were entered until the thirties.
By that time, a different type of settler had arrived in numbers. He was a man of family, looking for a permanent home and willing to work with his neighbors to form a constantly improving society. Each man provided food and shelter for his family; each woman manufactured the raw materials of her husband’s crops into meals and clothing. Society was organized strictly on an agricultural basis, with an occasional mill to represent the future industries. Store goods that could be obtained were traded for, and work was exchanged, not hired. Simple Methodist or Baptist tenets marked the universal religion, although a moral code by which every man was judged on his performance of the simple duties of daily life served instead of theology or law.
As population increased, the question of a county division was agitated, chiefly as a matter of convenience in reaching the county seat. Petitions for a division were presented to the tenth general assembly meeting at Vandalia in 1836 and 1837. That was the year the ambitious internal improvement scheme for railroads and canals all over the state was approved by the legislature. Achilles D. Dollins and Dempsey Odum represented Franklin County in the lower house of that legislature, but they failed to get any action on their constituents’ request.
The remedy lay at the polls August 6, 1838 when five Democratic candidates for the lower house of the legislature presented themselves to the voters. The question of a county division was thoroughly argued during the campaign, and unusual interest is indicated by the number of votes cast, 1,884. Representatives Dollins and Odum and George P. Bowyer, a former representative, were defeated. Two men pledged to secure a new county were elected.
Willis Allen and Allen Bainbridge went to Vandalia December 3, 1838 with the voters’ instructions to persuade their fellow lawmakers that a new county was a just and efficient necessity. Braxton Parrish was the state senator from their district. Other members of the upper house were Orville H. Browning, William A. Richardson, and James Turney, all future United States senators from Illinois.
Among the members of the house were Abraham Lincoln; William L. D. Ewing, a past governor; Augustus C. French, a future governor; Ninian W. Edwards, son of the territorial governor and a former attorney general; Alan Emmerson, grand-father of a future governor; and Jesse K. DuBois, a future state auditor. Germanicus Kent, who established the Presbyterian Church around the Galena lead mines, sat in that house. Southern Illinois members were Dr. John Logan of Jackson county, father of the general and senator; Samuel D. Marshall of Shawneetown, son of the state’s first banker; Vital Jarrot and Edmond Menard, members of the old French families.
The legislature was the last to meet at Vandalia, where Mr. Bainbridge secured lodging at the house of Mr. Walters. The two new representatives busied themselves in getting acquainted, and not until February 7 did they make any official move toward securing what they had come after. That day Mr. Bainbridge presented a petition from citizens of Franklin County, praying for a division of said county. Mr. Allen immediately presented a remonstrance from other citizens of the county, against such action. Both papers were read by the clerk and referred to the committee on counties.
Members of the committee on counties at that session included John Moore of McLean County, Henry L. Webb of Alexander County, Abraham Lincoln of Sangamon county, Newton Cloud a future speaker of the house, and Germanicus Kent. The committee considered the petition and remonstrance, heard the Franklin county representatives talk about local conditions, and prepared a bill.
John Moore of McLean County reported to the house for the committee, and presented February 14, 1839 a bill to establish the county of Williamson. That day the bill was read twice, and ordered engrossed on the record.
On February 23 the senate received the bill from the house. Braxton Parrish took the matter in hand, and moved that the bill be referred to a select committee for immediate consideration. Senator Parrish then lived in Jackson County, but he was an old resident of Franklin County and knew many of the residents of the southern part of the county through his appearance at Zion Church and the others of the Methodist denomination. The senators from Perry and Jefferson counties were appointed with Mr. Parrish to the special committee for studying the bill to establish a new county. They made a favorable report, and the senate passed the bill February 27. The next day the bill became law when it was approved by the council of revision, composed of the governor and members of the Supreme Court. Thomas Carlin was governor.
Procedure was establishing the county was simple. First a special election was ordered for the first Monday in August. If the question of division was approved by the voters of Franklin County, an election for county officers of Williamson followed. Three justices of the peace whose residence was within the new county were appointed an election board to meet at Bainbridge and tally the votes for county officers.
Choice of a county seat devolved upon three commissioners, residents of adjoining counties and appointed by the legislature. Marion was the result of their work.
Instruction for an immediate organization of county business was contained in the act, here printed in full:
An Act to Establish the County of Williamson
Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois, represented in the General Assembly, That it shall be lawful for the legal voters of the county of Franklin to meet at the respective places of holding elections in said county, on the first Monday in August next, and vote for or against the division of said county; and if it shall appear, by the returns of the election aforesaid, that a majority of all the votes given of said election shall be in favor of a division, the said county of Franklin shall be divided, and the following shall be the boundaries of a new county, to wit: Beginning at the northeast corner of township eight south, range four east of the third principal meridian; thence west, with the said township line dividing township seven and eight south, to the third principal meridian; thence south, with the third principal meridian, to the township line dividing ten and eleven south: thence east, with the said township line dividing ranges four and five east; thence north, with the said range line, to the beginning: and which new county, so formed, shall be called Williamson.
Sec. 2. The legal voters of the county of Franklin and Williamson shall meet at their respective places of holding elections, on the first Monday in September next, and proceed to elect county officers for each of said counties; which officers, when so elected, shall hold their respective offices until the next general election for such officers, and until their successors are elected and qualified: Provided, however, That this section shall not be so construed as to prevent any county commissioner, residing within the limits of the said new county, from serving out the time for which he was elected, as a commissioner of the said county of Williamson.
Sec. 3. The returns for the election of county officers for the county of Williamson shall be made, within seven days after the election, to William Norris, Sterling Hill, and John T. Davis, three acting justices of the peace within said county; who shall meet at the town of Bainbridge, within ten days from the day or the election, and proceed to open the returns, shall transmit abstracts of said election to the Secretary of State, and shall do and perform such duties as are now required by law of clerks of county commissioners” courts and justices of the peace in like cases.
Sec. 4. The county commissioners elected under the provisions of this (act) for the county of Williamson, shall meet as a court on the first Monday in October next, at the county seat; and shall proceed to lay off the county into justice’s districts, road districts, appoint supervisors, and do and perform such other duties as may be required of them by law.
Sec. 5. It shall be the duty of the school commissioner of the county of Franklin, within thirty days after the organization of the said new county, to pay over to the school commissioner of the said county of Williamson, one-half of the entire amount of the school fund received from the State: Provided, however, That if the school commissioner of the county of Franklin shall have loaned out all or part of the said fund so received, it shall be his duty, and he is hereby required to transfer, in notes or obligations, one half of the whole amount which is due and payable to the aid commissioner, together with one-half of the amount of money on hand; And provided, further. That nothing contained in this section shall be so construed as to prevent the school commissioner of Williamson County from receiving one-half of the distributive share of the school fund received by the school commissioner, whether the same shall be in promissory notes or money.
Sec. 6. The school commissioner of the county of Franklin shall deliver, within thirty days after the organization of said county of Williamson, all the money, books, promissory notes, bonds, mortgages and papers, of every description, belonging to the respective townships within said new county; and for a failure to perform any of the duties required of him by this act, the said school commissioner of Franklin County, and his securities, shall be liable to all damages that the county may sustain by the refusal or neglect of said commissioner.
Sec. 7. The clerk of the county commissioners court of the county of Franklin shall, as soon as may be convenient after the organization of the said county of Williamson, deliver to the clerk of the county commissioners of the said new county, a list of the taxable property within the limits of said county, and which taxes shall be collected and applied to county purposes within the said county of Williamson.
Sec. 8. That for the purpose of locating the seat of justice of the county of Franklin, John Reed of Perry county, Noah Johnson of Jefferson County, and Milton Carpenter of Hamilton County, are hereby appointed commissioners, who, or a majority of whom, shall meet at the town of Frankfort, and, after being duly sworn, shall proceed to locate said seat of justice. Calvin Bridges of Union County, Thornsbury C. Anderson of Gallatin County, and Jefferson Allen of Jackson County, are hereby appointed commissioners to permanently locate the seat of justice for the county of Williamson. Said commissioners shall meet at the town of Bainbridge, and, after being duly sworn, shall proceed to locate the seat of justice for said county. The commissioners appointed by this act shall locate the seat of justice at the center of each county, or at some point the most eligible and nearest thereto, taking into view the convenience of the place, together with the advantage to be derived to the county from such location.
Sec. 9. If the county seat of each county, respectively, shall be located on the lands owned by individuals, the commissioners shall require a donation of at least twenty acres of land to be made to each county, and on which the public buildings shall be erected; but if the location shall be made at a town or village, the commissioners shall require at least ten acres of land adjoining the town plat, and a number of town lots, or a donation in money, or both, of sufficient value to amount to twenty acres of land, the town lots to be appraised by the commissioners; and, after the location of the county seats above named shall be made, the county commissioners shall, as soon as convenient, proceed to the erection of public buildings.
Sec. 10. The county commissioners’ court, and the circuit court within the counties of Franklin and Williamson, shall be held at such places within each county as the county commissioners shall designate, until public buildings shall be erected. The commissioners appointed to locate the seats of justice, respectively, shall meet on the third Monday in August next, or as soon thereafter as may be convenient, and shall each receive the sum of three (dollars) per day for each day necessarily employed by them in the location of the same; which compensation shall be made out of the county treasury of each county, respectively.
Sec. 11. It shall be the duty of the clerks of the county commissioners court of the county of Franklin, at the time of giving notice to the judges of election, previous to the election to be held on the first Monday in August next, to insert in such notice, that a vote will be taken for and against the division of said county, and directing them to open columns in their poll-books to receive said votes; and the legal voters of said county shall vote for or against the division of the county.
Approved, February 28, 1839.
(Extracted from Pioneer Folks and Places by Barbara Barr Hubbs, published in 1939 and on sale at the Williamson County Museum book store)