St. Clair Co.

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By J. N. Perrin


The French  The British    The Americans   County Boundaries  


In 1890 was celebrated the centennial of St. Clair county, Illinois, at Belleville, the county seat. On that occasion a vast concourse of people from various portions of our State took part in the exercises; a monster street parade took place in which a great number of floats represented both old and new conditions of agricultural, industrial and social life; the festivities were graced by the presence of two of Illinois' most distinguished characters - Hon. Lyman Trumbull and Gov. Richard J. Oglesby - both of whom participated in the program by making addresses. The management had assigned me the pleasant duty of presenting an historical address and in concluding its delivery I made use of the following language which I beg to submit as an introduction now to the presentation of this sketch of the 'mother of counties."

"This is the place where Indian warriors camped; where Jesuit priests brought forth the cross: where first the Frenchman came; where England ruled and swayed; where old Virginia sent her sons; where pioneers blazed out the path: and where the hand of toil since then has wrought another wonder of the world."

As historians and historical students you are expected to be historically cognizant of the events which occurred prior to the formation of this county from the day when Cartier landed on the St. Lawrence in 1534 down to the proclamation in 1790 by Arthur St. Clair which established the first county in Illinois. Hence a cursory review suffices as a historical stepping-stone to the subject in hand.

The Spaniards had traversed the Southland, the English had skirted the Atlantic sea-board and the French had established themselves in the North-East and had spread their discoveries along the St. Lawrence and the chain of Great Lakes before the middle of the seventeenth century.

We shall briefly follow the French explorations, as it is to them that we are indebted for the discovery of this Mississippi Valley. All through the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth, they opened up the North-East, which was called New France. It was during the last half of the seventeenth that the northern Mississippi river was discovered. In 1673 a young Jesuit missionary, Father Marquette, 36 years old, immortalized himself through this discovery. Through the discovery all the territory bordering on the river and its tributaries became French territory and was so considered in the proclamation issued through the LaSalle expedition in 1682. As a part thereof Illinois became French. Under the French occupation which lasted for more than three-quarters of a century the earliest settlements in Illinois were made of which we have any historic knowledge. Kaskaskia ranking as the oldest had its beginning in a mission established by Marquette on the northern Illinois river. About 1700 we find it in the southern portion of the present state on its present site practically at the mouth of the Kaskaskia river where it empties into the Mississippi. In the same year we also find Cahokia having a definite beginning. These two pioneer settlements, the subject of so much dispute and historic misstatement, can not lay claim to greater antiquity with any historic truthful accuracy. In 1718 Fort Chartres was commenced which for a half century was the headquarters of the French government in the West. A year later almost within the shadow of this great military fort the village of St. Anne's was begun. There is now no vestige left of this village. In 1722 Prairie du Rocher was established. Prairie du Pont near Cahokia commenced in 1760. At the time of the transfer of this territory from the French to the British in 1763 these with Peoria in the north were the centers of population in what was then termed the Illinois country so named from the Illinois confederacy of Indian tribes who originally had their habitat on this soil.

At the close of the French-Indian war in the treaty of Paris in 1763 this Illinois country was embraced in the cession and in 1765 the formal transfer was made when St. Ange de Belle Rive delivered up the keys of Fort Chartres. The Illinois country did not have to remain British long for during the war of American Independence it was delivered to the American cause by George Rogers Clark through his capture of the North-West in 1778. During the brief period of English occupation of this territory from 1765 to 1778 an incident took place which is of vast historic importance. This was the assassination of Pontiac near Cahokia. Cahokia is in the present county of St. Clair and this famous historic happening enriches the annals of the county greatly for Pontiac was probably the greatest of all the Indians of whom we have any historic information.

After the capture of the Northwest by Clark the stream of American migration began to set in to the West. The Illinois country was erected into the Illinois county with John, Todd of Kentucky as commandant. The Americans settled in what is called The American Bottom. In 1781 came Moore and Bond and Garrison and Rutherford and Kidd and settled at The Beautiful Fountain in Monroe. Later the Lemons and Ogles and Pulliams and Whitesides came. A few years later, at the close of the War of Independence, it was suggested that some of the states should cede their lands to the national government and in 1784 the Illinois county was ceded to the United States by Virginia and erected into the Northwest Territory by the ordinance of 1787, with Gen. Arthur St. Clair as the territorial governor, in which capacity he served until 1802. It embraced Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Under the ordinance of 1787 among other things it was provided as follows: "For the prevention of crimes and injuries the laws to be adopted or made, shall have force in all parts of the district, and for the execution of process criminal and civil, the governor shall make proper division thereof; and he shall proceed from time to time, as circumstances may require, to lay out the parts of the district in which the Indian titles shall have been extinguished, into counties and townships, subject, however, to such alteration as may thereafter be made by the legislature." By virtue of this authority was issued the proclamation dated on the 27th day of April, 1790, and signed by the Governor and his secretary organizing the county of St. Clair, so named after the Governor himself. It was the first county organized within the present limits of our State of which it embraced fully one-third. The population of Illinois at that time is supposed to have been about 2,000.

Upon the organization of St. Clair county the political machinery was put in operation and the first evidence of legal proceedings was seen in the legal tribunals established at Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher and Cahokia. A judge presided at each one of these places. In those days the superstitious feelings of the people had not yet been eradicated; in the very year when this county was created the belief in witchcraft was prevalent and two instances are recorded of negroes being executed. Judge William H. Snyder told me of a conversation had in his youth with a very aged Frenchman who had witnessed the execution of some negroes for witchery and also witnessed the flying of some crows overhead immediately afterward and believed that the bad spirit had gone into the crows and was taking its flight.

The proclamation establishing St. Clair county fixed its boundaries as follows: "Beginning at the mouth of the little Michillimackinack river, running thence southerly in a direct line to the mouth of the little river above Fort Massac upon the Ohio river; thence with the said river to its junction with the Mississippi; thence up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Illinois river, and so up Illinois river to the place of beginning, with all the adjacent islands of said rivers, Illinois and Mississippi."

When a division of this county took place in 1795 and Randolph county was formed out of the southern part below a line drawn east and west from the Mississippi to the Wabash through the New Design Settlement in the present county of Monroe, Cahokia became the county seat of St. Clair and remained so for nineteen years. A division took place in the year 1800, as stated in the title of the Act of Congress of May 7th of that year, of "the territory of the United States, northwest of the Ohio, into two separate governments." The west part was called Indiana Territory and included Illinois. St. Clair county was then represented in the legislature at Vincennes and the members used to ride on horseback across the country along what was called the old "Vincennes Trace." William Henry Harrison was appointed as Governor of the Indiana Territory in which this section was included. The population of Illinois then was reported at 2,458. Through a division in 1809 of the Indiana Territory, Illinois became a territory with Ninian Edwards as its first territorial Governor. In 1812 when Illinois became a territory of the second grade by a vote of the people, Governor Edwards also by his proclamation had established the counties of Gallatin, Johnson and Madison.

In 1814 the County seat of St. Clair county was removed to Belleville where for ninety years it has witnessed the steady growth of an industrious people. From time to time divisions have been made until the present county is reduced to its present size; though within its present bounds we have a population of 90,000 whose hearts beat with gladness because they live within those bounds where nature yields her choicest gifts; where orchards bear their choicest fruits; where meadows smile beneath the sun; where farms are scattered o'er the fairest soil; where mines give up abundant fuel; where forges blaze and chimneys smoke; where hammers sound and anvils ring; where the army of progressive toil keeps pace with the forward tread of legions marching on to their destined goal; and where the eye of man in perpetual glee beholds the scene.

Within the present limits of the county many of the most noteworthy events within the history of the State have transpired. Such as the founding of one of the very earliest of all the settlements in the West when Cahokia began in 1700; the assassination of Pontiac near Cahokia in 1769; the establishment of the first Protestant Theological Seminary in the West when in 1827 John M. Peck built the Rock Springs Seminary half way between O'Fallon and Lebanon, which has since been transferred to Upper Alton and grown to be Shurtleff College; the first railroad in the West which was built in 1837 across the Grand Marais and the American Bottom to where the thriving city of East St. Louis now stands and had no less renowned a personage than Gov. John Reynolds for its projector; the first legal execution which took place in the State when Timothy Bennett was hanged at Belleville on Monday the 3rd day of September, 1821, for the murder of Stuart in a sham duel.

Click here to read more about the Stuart-Bennett Duel

These events of course all occurred within the bounds of the original county necessarily. Besides them the territory within the bounds of the original county witnessed the building of the most famous of all American forts at a cost of a million dollars and became the home of all of the Capitals of the State, namely Kaskaskia from 1818 to 1820, Vandalia from 1820 to 1839, Springfield from 1839 to the present.

Prior to the era of authentic history this section also witnessed the greatest events of antiquity as evidenced in the mammoth mounds scattered over St. Clair, Madison, Clinton and Washington counties. Recent explorations of these by Dr. E. A. Woeld of Belleville have added immensely to the department of Archeology. And thus archaeologic proof brings forth antiquity in corroboration of the present in its insistence that this favored spot of earth was designed by Nature and by Nature's Ruler as the seat of a mighty civilization from which shall radiate a countless throng of blessings to the world.


From Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society--1905
pp. 58-61


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