Tazewell County’s history is rich and deep, so where to start in writing about our past is a difficult endeavor. Do you start with the various Indian tribes who called central Illinois home, though specific historical facts are hard to come by? Or do we start with the French explorers Sieur de LaSalle and Henri De Tonti, who established Fort Creve Coeur, where present-day Creve Coeur sits?
One book on Illinois history refers to Tazewell County as a “leading ag and coal mining” county. Agriculture remains a vital part of our local economy, but the mining industry is a long-past part of our history. Do we write about mining and riverboat traffic and their contributions? Do we feature those distinguished individuals who have touched Tazewell in some way, including Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Peter Cartwright or Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen?
Tazewell County was officially organized on January 31, 1827. Before its incorporation, it was a significant part of Peoria County. The county was named after Littleton Waller Tazewell, a lawyer, former governor and senator from Virginia. The first U.S. census of the county set the population at 4,716 residents. That number stands in stark contrast to the 135,707 people who call Tazewell home today, making us the 14th-largest county in Illinois.
Current-day Tazewell County consists of 19 townships, several of which are named after the area’s early settlers. George Hittle settled in what is now Hittle Township, while Dillon Township is named after Nathan Dillon and his family, who opened the first post office and general store in the county.
By order of the commissioners’ court in 1828, Mackinaw became the first county seat in Tazewell County, beginning what one history book refers to as a “county seat war,” something faced by many new counties. In 1831, Pekin demanded that it be the county seat, and it was thus moved. Tremont then took that title in 1836, but it was subsequently moved back to Pekin in 1848, where it remains today.
During the Black Hawk War of 1832, Pekin’s first schoolhouse, the Snell School, was reconstructed and fortified into what was called Fort Doolittle, and a company of soldiers from Pekin volunteered to fight. Thirteen men from Tazewell, including a major and a captain, were killed at the Battle of Sycamore in northern Illinois. This began a long and continuous tradition of men and women from Tazewell County volunteering, and in some cases, giving their lives for our freedom.
Numerous individuals who passed through our county have had a notable impact on the county—and our country. Before he became President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln frequently appeared in the Tazewell County Courthouse on legal matters, and his signature appears on many documents that originated in our county. His vaunted political rival, Stephen A. Douglas, served as state’s attorney in Tazewell County for a period when those decisions were made by the governor. And lastly, Rev. Peter Cartwright, a frontier Methodist revivalist and two-term representative to the Illinois legislature, rode the circuit through Tazewell County, preaching the gospel and saving many.
Many of these details come from a 1954 book by John Drury entitled This is Tazewell County, Illinois, and these few, short paragraphs do not begin to touch on the depth of our 189 years as a county. The impact of Caterpillar, the railroads and many other topics have not even been mentioned. A humbling question for all of us today would be: “What are we doing today in Tazewell County that historians will look back and remember and write about us?” iBi