1878 Knox County

In 1830 it was thought that a sufficient number of inhabitants were living in this section to have the county organized, which accordingly was accomplished without any unnecessary delay. The law required a county to contain 350 legal voters before an organization could be effected, yet there were scarcely that number even of individuals within the boundaries of Knox county when organized. On the admission of Illinois into the Union, what is now Knox county was a part of Madison county. Afterwards by an act of the Legislature, approved June 30, 1821, it was placed within the boundaries of Pike, which is the oldest county in the Military Tract. It then embraced the whole country north an west of the Illinois river. By a subsequent act, approved February 10, 1826, its present boundaries were determined, and it was attached to Fulton county for judicial and recording purposes. On the 3d day of July, 1830, by an order of Judge Young, an election was held for the purpose of selecting three commissioners, and on the 7th they met and completed the organization of Knox county, for a detailed account of which we refer our readers to the following chapter.

We will state in this connection that, when the county was organized in 1830, townships 12 and 13 north, range 5 east, were included within the boundaries of Knox county. This act of the Legislature was approved January 15, 1831. In 1837, when Stark county was organized, these two townships were severed from this county and included in that. The town of LaFayette, Stark county, is located within this section, and consequently was originally in Knox county.

It was through the instrumentality of Riggs Pennington that the two townships referred to were attached to this county. There was a beautiful grove within the territory, which he thought would add materially to the wealth of the county, and be a counterpart to the delightful forest in Lynn township, subsequently known as Fraker’s Grove. Pennington was almost a regular attendant upon the Legislature, although not a member. He wielded no little influence among the Representatives, and therefore when he wanted the section alluded to attached to his county his request was granted without delay.

In 1837 an attempt was made to divide Knox county for the formation of Coffee county. But little interest was taken in the matter by the people residing in the western portion of the county, as it was a move especially concerning the residents of the eastern section. On the 10th day of April of that year, an election was held to vote for or against the division of the county, and the formation of Coffee county. There were 263 votes cast, 77 of which were for the measure, and 186 against it.

The “Military Tract” comprises all the land between the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers, south of the north line of Bureau and Henry counties. It is so called because much of it was “patented” by the Government, in quarter sections, to soldiers of the war of 1812. There was scarcely a soldier in that early day who counted his land of much value, and ever thought to occupy it himself; but immigrants came in, entered Government lands and “squatted” on “patent” or military land, improved it, and thus rendered it valuable. It was seldom that a “patentee” could be found at the time of settlement, and many of the early settlers presumed that the owner never would be known; but in many instances, after a patent quarter-section was made valuable by improvement, the original patent would be brought on by some one, who would oust the occupant and take possession, sometimes paying him something for his improvements and sometimes not. Many holders of patents had no pity. This condition of affairs presented a temptation to merciless “land-sharks,” who would come into this section and work up cases, ostensibly for the original patentees, but really for their own pockets.

The most notorious of these was one Toliver Craig, who actually made it a business to forge patents and deeds. This he carried on extensively from 1847 to 1854, especially in Knox and Fulton counties. He had 40 bogus deeds put on record in one day at Knoxville. He was arrested in New York State in 1854, by H. M. Boggess of Monmouth, and taken to the jail in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he attempted suicide by arsenic; but at the end of a year he was released on bail.

When the Military Tract was laid off into counties, most of them were named in honor of military heroes of the nation. This county was christened in honor of the brave statesman-general, Henry Knox. The following is a brief personal sketch of him whose name this county now wears:

Henry Knox, an American general and statesman, commander of the artillery during the Revolution, and Secretary of War under Washington, was born in Boston, July 25, 1750, and died in Thomaston, Me., October 25, 1806. He was of Scotch and Irish Presbyterian stock, and his father came from St. Eustatius, one of the British West India islands. He received the common school education of his time in Boston, and was remarked as a youth of fine abilities and generous disposition, fond of the heroic examples of former ages, and, according to Dr. Eliot (who was nearly his cotemporary), giving constant prestige of future eminence.

General Knox played a most important part in the revolutionary struggle for liberty, and was admired and beloved by Washington, and like him, after a long, active, and eminently successful public career, retired to private life. Gen. Knox was large in person, of a robust and athletic frame, enterprising and resolute in character, of a generous, buoyant and social disposition, cordially appreciated and beloved by friends, possessing unquestionable integrity, unsurpassed energy, and a mind liberally cultivated by study.

Knox County is about equally divided between timber and prairie land, the northern tier of townships being mainly prairie, while the southeastern, along Spoon river, is chiefly timber. In sketches of townships this feature will be noticed more at length. It is situated on the very height of the divide between the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers, with the 41st parallel of north latitude running very nearly through its center. It is well drained by streams running east and west from the central divided, and perhaps contains more high, dry and exceedingly rich and fertile lands, susceptible of producing all the grains and fruits common to this latitude, than the same number of acres lying in a body anywhere on the face of the globe. The soil is underlaid with a good quality of coal and building stone, and for a healthy climate Knox county has no superior and few equals.

The large prairies of the county presented a most beautiful sight before they were settled. The following very descriptive lines on “The Prairies of Illinois,” by Captain Basil Hall, portrays their beauty in their wild and native state:

“The charm of a prairie consists in its extension, its green, flowery carpet, its undulating surface, and the skirt of forest whereby it is surrounded; the latter feature being of all others the most significant an expressive, since it characterizes he landscape, and defines the form and boundary of the plain. If the prairie is little, its greatest beauty consists in the vicinity of the encompassing edge of forests, many deep, inward bends, as so many inlets, and at intervals projecting very far, not unlike a promontory or protruding arm of land. These projections sometimes so closely approach each other that the traveler passing through between them, may be said to walk in the midst of an alley overshadowed by the forest, before he enters again upon another broad prairie. Where the plain is extensive, the delineations of the forest in the distant background appear as would a misty ocean beach afar off. The eye sometimes surveys the green prairie without discovering on the illimitable plain a tree or bush, or any other object, save the wilderness of flowers and grass, while on other occasions he view is enlivened by the groves dispersed like islands over the plain, or by a solitary tree rising above the wilderness. The resemblance to the sea which some of these prairies exhibited, was really most striking. In the spring, when the young grass has just clothed he soil with a soddy carpet of the most delicate green, but especially when the sun, rising behind a distant elevation of the ground, its rays are reflected by myriads of dew drops, a more pleasing and more eye-benefiting view cannot be imagined.

“The delightful aspect of the prairie, its amenities, and the absence of that somber awe inspired by forests, contributes to forcing away that sentiment of loneliness, which usually steals upon the mind of the solitary wanderer in the wilderness; for, although he espies no habitation, and sees no human being, and knows himself to be far off from every settlement of man, he can scarcely defend himself from believing that he is traveling through a landscape embellished by human art. The flowers are so delicate and elegant as apparently to be distributed for mere ornament over the plain; the groves and groups of trees seem to be dispersed over the prairie to enliven the landscape, and we can scarcely get rid of the impression invading our imagination, of the whole scene being flung out and created for the satisfaction of the sentiment of beauty in refined men.

“In the summer the prairie is covered with tall grass, which is coarse in appearance, and soon assumes a yellow color, waving in the wind like a ripe crop of corn. In the early stages of its growth it resembles young wheat, and in this state furnishes such rich and succulent food for cattle that the latter choose it often in preference to wheat, it being no doubt a very congenial fodder to them, since it is impossible to conceive of better butter than is made while the grass is in this stage.

“In the early stages of its growth the grass is interspersed with little flowers, -- the violet, the strawberry-blossom, and others of the most delicate structure. When the grass grows higher these disappear, and taller flowers, displaying more lively colors, take their place; and still later a series of still higher but less delicately formed flowers appears on the surface. While the grass is green these beautiful plains are adorned with every imaginable variety of color. It is impossible to conceive of a greater diversity, or discover a predominating color, save the green, which forms a beautiful dead color, relieving the splendor of the others. In the summer the plants grow taller, and the colors more lively; in the autumn another generation of flowers arises which possesses less clearness and variety of color and less fragrancy. In the winter the prairie presents a melancholy aspect. Often the fire, which the hunters annually send over the prairies in order to dislodge the game, will destroy the entire vegetation, giving to the soil a uniform black appearance, like that of a vast plain of charcoal; then the wind sweeping over the prairie will find nothing which it might put in motion, no leaves which it might disperse, no haulms which it might shake. No sooner does the snow commence to fall than the animals, unless already before frightened away by the fire, retire into the forests, when the most dreary, oppressive solitude will reign on the burnt prairies, which often occupy many square miles of territory.”

Contributed by Pat White and Charlotte Babicki, extracted from the 1878 History of Knox County, Illinois, published by Charles C. Chapman & Co., Chicago, pages 106-110.

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