1918 Annals - Henderson Township

By Susan McMurtry

It is meet and seemly that some permanent record be placed in the archives of the Centennial History of Illinois of the citizens of Henderson, who have been identified with the early history of Knox county and been prominent in the upholding of the commonwealth that those who came after them may know to whom they are indebted for the benefits they now enjoy. We are all debtors to the honored and useful lives of those brave pioneers, who blazed and prepared the way for coming generations.

The distinct personality of this locality in the history of our state and county arouses in us a feeling of pride in our past, because our earliest settlers exercised a great influence that has been a great value to humanity. The future of Knox county and Henderson in no small part lay in the hands of those early pioneers. A future full of hardships but also full of hope.

In writing the early history of this particular locality, one is obliged to ignore much that must naturally come in other parts of this history. We find we have to tell the history of the state or the history of the county, not the history of Henderson township. Take the important figures in the history of this region during the earlier period and you will find they do not belong particularly to Henderson, but to the greater areas of which this place is but a small part.

The question naturally arises, whence came the first settlers? What conditions drove them to face the hardships and privations of the frontier to make new homes.

It has been said that before the railroads emigration moved on parallels of latitude. This was never more clearly illustrated than in the early settlement of Knox county. It is safe to say that the majority of the early settlers were either natives or descendants of natives of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of them had ancestors who were also pioneers in these same states. Some came from the eastern states. They were extraordinary people, courageous, hardy, intelligent, honest, industrious, honorable, patriotic and God-fearing. A more self-reliant set of men and women never trod the earth. The immigrants who were to settle Henderson crossed the Ohio river in their covered wagons (prairie schooners), with a jerk line in one hand and a rifle in the other, a few coming by horseback or by foot. Conditions in Kentucky and other southern states drove the small farmer to emigrate.

To us of the later generations who view these fertile fields of grain in all directions and know of the great wealth above and below the ground, it seems strange there was not a rush of settlers into this region in spite of the natural inference that the land that could not produce trees must be worthless as farm land, which has proved in the end to be the richest possession of our "Prairie State."

When we consider that Daniel Robertson and his brother, Alexander, the first settlers in Henderson township, did not come until 1828, when Illinois had been a state ten years, one naturally asks why it was that a locality full of possibilities was not settled at an earlier date? There were many influences to retard immigration; the actual opening of land offices, the promised land sales, the extinguishing of Indian titles, the limited means of travel, the Indians themselves, and others no less important.

The early settlers of Henderson invariably located in the timber or along its border. This is not so strange when we consider that these pioneers mostly had been brought up in the shelter of the woods. This nearness to the timber was an advantage in many ways. It furnished material for their log houses, fuel for their fireplaces, meat for their food, and shelter from the fierce cold winds in winter, which often caused a great deal of suffering. The first settlers were very fond of hunting and many interesting stories are told of them in quest of wild turkey, prairie chicken and deer.
First Settled

Henderson was the first township in Knox county to be settled by white men. It is well watered by the branches which make up the head waters of Henderson river. Along these branches originally stood one of the finest groves of timber to be found anywhere in Illinois. Here was a favorite place for Indians, who had extensive fields of corn on Sections 23 and 26, south of the village of Henderson. These Indians were friendly and remained till the breaking out of the Black Hawk War, when they left without doing any serious harm.

Alexander and Daniel Robertson, two Scotch brothers, left their father's home in Morgan county, Illinois, and came to Schuyler county, where they remained one year. In February, 1828, they set out, each riding an old mare and carrying a gun and ax, came to Henderson township and settled first on Section 15. Daniel 22, and Alexander 20 years of age and single. Here they built their first log house together. This house stood east of the creek at the top of the hill, a short distance south of the wagon road and was about midway between where is now the Rio Branch of the C, B. & Q. railroad and the State Aid road. The Robertsons lived here several years together, till their land was claimed by a speculator named Baker. During the discussion over the possession of the land Baker shot at Daniel but missed him. The later went to the cabin for his gun, but was persuaded by his wife to make no further trouble. The Robertsons gave up this land and settled on the southwest comer of Section 11. Here they built their second log house, which stood across the road and northeast of the first, where Daniel lived most of his life. About 1836, Alexander settled and built a log house on Section 2, where he lived till his death in 1853.

During the next spring and summer others came, among them, Jacob Gum, a Baptist minister, who preached the first sermon in 1829, at the residence of his son, John B. Gum, on Section 32. This two-roomed log house was the first county court house. Here the first circuit court was held October 1, 1830. The judge presiding was the Hon. Richard M. Young, afterward United States Senator. Here also the first county election was held, Mr. Gum being elected the first county treasurer.

The son of Zephaniah Gum and grandson of John B. Gum was the first white child born in the county.

Riggs Pennington came about this time, who became one of the most prominent men of northern Illinois. Phillip Hash and Chas. Hansford. These three were the first county commissioners after the actual organization in 1830. Stephen Osbom, the first sheriff; Parnac Owen, the first county surveyor; Alex. Frakes, Major Thomas McKee, Robert and Eaton Nance, who settled on Section 9.

The first death in the county was that of a young man, Philip Nance, which occurred January 9th, 1829, in Henderson township, and was buried on Section 9. Major McKee, who came the fall before, was present at his death and funeral and was instrumental in erecting a suitable stone at his grave. A few years later, the people of the vicinity of Henderson raised money and erected an iron fence around his grave.
The Black Hawk War

The next year, 1829, the brothers, William and James McMurtry and their families, came in November and settled on Section 3, on a quarter bought of Riggs Pennington, paying $1.25 per acre; but afterward had to repurchase to secure a clear title. It was on their farm on the northeast 40 acres of Section 10, that the entire neighborhood assisted in building a fort, which would protect them from the Indians. Into this the surrounding families before and during the Black Hawk War would often gather. While there were often rumors of Indian uprisings, and the settlers were constantly on the watch for them, they were never molested by them. A company of rangers was organized by Wm. McMurtry, who was their captain, to be ready to pursue the Indians in all directions if needed. In 1832, James McMurtry, accompanied by F. Freeman and Thomas McKee went to Rock Island for guns to protect the settlers during the Black Hawk War. They secured 100, which were sent down the river as far as Ruthsbury, and from there by teams to his home, where they were distributed to the settlers. He served during the Black Hawk War under Major Butler. The pioneers, Wm. and James McMurtry, were descended from pioneer ancestors. Their grandfather, Captain John McMurtry, was a pioneer in the state of Kentucky, along with Daniel Boone and others. He made the stones and the first mill for grinding com meal in Kentucky, He was killed fighting the Indians as Captain of Kentucky militia in 1790. William McMurtry became quite an active and prominent politician. He was a firm believer in the principles of the Democratic party and a friend of Stephen A. Douglas. It was largely through him that the history of Henderson is so closely connected with the early history of the county and the state. He was active in the organization of Henderson township, April 5, 1853. In 1832, he was appointed first county commissioner of school lands. This office he held till his resignation in 1840, his chief duty being to sell the school section in each township and later to distribute interest money to the teachers from the school fund.. He always took an active interest in the early schools, sold the school lands, invested the money and advanced the educational interests of the county very much. He was keenly awake to public needs, and had an eye to the interests of the people. Thus his name was brought before them as a candidate for office in the state. He was a member of the Legislature during the years 1836-37 and 1838-39; State Senator up to the time he was elected Lieutenant-Governor with Gov. French in 1848. In 1862 he was commissioned Colonel of the 102 Illinois Voluntary Infantry. After serving a short time in Kentucky he resigned on account of ill health and was honorably discharged. The McMurtrys were natives of Kentucky. They lived and died on the farms on which thev first settled in 1829.

In 1830, Thomas Furguson, Roundtrees, Goffs, Lewis and Davis with their families came in locating along the south side of the grove. Following them were the Browns, settling along the old "Galena Trail."

Peter Bell, Thomas Maxwell, Squire Reed and James Reynolds also moved in in 1830. During 1831-32 a number of families came. Among these were the Ferrises, who put up a saw mill on Henderson Creek; Rees Jones, who built the first grist mill, in 1830, on Henderson Creek. These mills were great events to the pioneers and they felt now they had all they needed.
Galesburg Colony Came

In 1836 the first of the Galesburg Colony came, locating south of the grove and built up what afterwards became known as Log City, on Section 33. This settlement was only temporary and does not strictly belong to Henderson township, but more to Galesburg where they finally settled.

The first few years the settlers had to go to Rushville for their mail, about 75 miles. Here Alex Osborn was obliged to go for his license to marry Ann Hendricks. This was the first marriage ceremony in Knox county. Philip Hash, the first Justice of the Peace, officiated.

In 1833 the first postoffice in the county was established on Section 32, at the store of John C. Sanburn. Mr. Sanburn held the commission from the government as the first postmaster.

The first school in the county was in Henderson township in 1830. This school was a subscription school taught by Franklin B. Barber in a log shanty near the grove. There was another school opened in 1833 on Section 31, taught by Harmon Brown. The first school district was formed at Log City in 1837, under the management of Wm. McMurtry, the first school commissioner.

The first plow in this township, perhaps in the county, was a wooden one, brought in by Daniel Robertson.

The first pair of lines for driving seen in this section was brought in by Gov. Wm. McMurtry. Having seen them used by a stage driver in Springfield, decided to have a pair. The first Sunday he was home the entire neighborhood spent trying to adjust these lines, but it could not be done till the Governor went back and had another view as to how they worked. Then he saw one check went to the other horse.

Two of the four forts built by the pioneers of Knox county were located in Henderson township. These were to protect them from hostile Indians before, during and after the Black Hawk War. One fort site has recently been located on Section 33, on what was long known as the Peter Franz farm. The other fort was on Section 10 on the land always known as the McMurtry farm. These sites commanded the view in all directions. To this the surrounding families often went, remaining for days and nights.

For a number of years the oldest house in Knox county was about one-half mile north of the village of Henderson. It was a two-roomed log house, built in 1834 by Wm, Riley. Later the oldest house standing was two miles northwest of Galesburg. Of these primitive log houses scarcely a one can be found in the township today. No one remains who can look to the days when this country was a wilderness, to the time when the foundations for homes were laid. For a number of years, to 1903, the longest continuous resident was Dr. James C. McMurtry, son of Wm., who came with his father's family in 1829, and was less than one year of age.
The First Roads

The first roads were Indian trails. The wild Indian having similar instincts as the buffalo, followed the same trails which led from timber groves to timber groves, always choosing the shortest and best routes. Many of these same trails the first settlers traveled seeking homes, and are public highways today. One of these, the great "Galena Trail," from Peoria, passed through the western part of this township in a northwesterly direction. Traces of this old trail can be seen today. There are evidences that the American army in the Revolutionary War under Col. Montgomery, passed over this same trail through Henderson. Ordered by Gen. George Rogers Clark to follow the Sacs and Foxes to the lake on the Illinois river (Peoria) across the country and attack them on Rock river near the mouth. This he did in 1780. The old Peoria and Rock Island road passes through the township in a northwesterly direction. This was among the first main traveled roads, much of which today is State Aid road.

These pioneers at first lived like one big family. They helped each other build their houses or anything where help was needed. They kept open-house. Strangers were always welcome and cared for. Their first log houses had a puncheon floor, split out of lynn wood, a clap-board door. The clapboards were lapped over each other from top to bottom to turn the rain. The latch was made of wood, with a string tied to it to lift and lower it in a wooden catch. Their windows were holes in the logs. Their furniture was made by hand and split from logs. The fire-places were made of mud and sticks at first, later of brick. In these rude fire-places they cooked, using long handled "skillets" and in iron pots, and baked in covered "skillets" surrounded with hot coals. Fires were started from flint stone or borrowed from a neighbor. The bedrooms were made in one end of the house by hanging quilts for curtains between the beds. Children slept in "trundle" beds, which were pushed under the larger beds during the day. Their first lights were twisted cloth floated in a saucer of grease. Later candle moulds were obtained and each family made their own candles of tallow.

The first year or two their bread was made of corn grated on a tin grater. Then their grain was prepared for food in a neighbor's mill, a hand mill, made of two stones placed together, the top one being turned back and forth with a lever. Soon a water mill was started on Henderson Creek by Mr. Jones. Later people went to Milan, where was started a better mill for wheat floor. Often one of two neighbors went for the neighborhood and would fish while their wheat was being ground.

Sugar was made from the sap of the hard maple, which was boiled in large pans in the timber. The "buckets" were wooden troughs to catch the sap. The spiles were made of Sumack, with the pith burned out with a hot iron. Barrels of sugar and molasses were made from this sap. When it would not make these any longer they made the best of vinegar of it. Soap was made from lye, leached from ashes and grease. Starch was made from potatoes.

After the Indian War sheep were brought in and spinning wheels. The women spun and wove the wool into cloth for their clothing. This "homespun" they dyed at first with walnut bark and hulls for brown and oak bark for yellow. For green the yellow was dipped into indigo blue. They raised flax from which their linen was made. Money was scarce, but they needed little money, as there were no markets near. About the first means of obtaining money was from hunting honey of which there was an abundance in the timber. The Robertsons obtained their first money by selling honey at St. Louis. Many interesting stories are told of their bee hunts.

West of the center of Henderson township is located one of the best examples of a community center to be found. At an early date these Swedish people began to come into this township and by hard work and saving were able to purchase land and build themselves homes. This community built a church in 1881. This church was burned and replaced by a more modern one about 1914.

The only village in this township is Henderson, on Section 14. It was laid out June 11, 1835, by Parnach Owen, and incorporated in 1838. In early days it was a flourishing place and there were great expectations for its future. Between 1840 and 1850, over 30 coopers were employed here in making barrels, which were shipped all over the state.

In 1839, the post office here was the largest in the county and previous to the building of the railroad in 1854, Henderson was nearly as important as either Knoxville or Galesburg. Through Gov. McMurtry it was able to exert sufficient influence to secure the insertion of a provision in the railroad incorporation act that the line should pass through the town, but the provision was evaded. The road going to Galesburg, leaving Henderson a few miles to the north. Subsequently, trade being attracted to the railroad stations, the village gradually declined, until little remained. In 1886, the Rio branch of the C., B. & Q. railroad was constructed through the village and saved it from complete extinction and some improvements have recently been made.

Note: Miss McMurtry gives Robertson as the name of two early comers to the township. Elsewhere the name appears as Robinson. As Miss McMurtry grew up in the township, her spelling must be accepted as correct.)

Extracted 14 Dec 2017 by Norma Hass from Annals of Knox County: Commemorating Centennial of Admission of Illinois as a State of the Union in 1818, published in 1921 by the Centennial Historical Association, Knox County, Illinois, The Board of Supervisors, pages 105-112.

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