Eye of the beholder

Eye of the beholder

Jacksonville of the 1800s elicits opposing viewpoints


Settlers from New England began arriving in Jacksonville in the late 1820s. With them came a strong desire to found all types of social, educational and religious institutions.

One of the greatest contributions made by New Englanders to the young town was Illinois College (IC). The idea for what became Illinois College came from a Presbyterian missionary named John Ellis, who believed that a “seminary of higher learning” was needed, and interested others in his plan.

Ellis helped choose the site of Illinois College atop a hill about a mile west of the Jacksonville public square and joined forces with a group of theological students from Yale College to establish IC in 1829.

In 1830, just five years after Jacksonville was founded, the town had 446 residents.

“Although many of the leading residents of Jacksonville during the first decade or two came here for religious reasons and left a strong imprint on the community and region, the vast majority of settlers, it appears, came here to better their condition,” wrote former IC history professor James Davis, an expert on frontier life in Illinois.

One of the primary attractions to settlers in the Jacksonville area was the fertile soil, according to Davis.

“The soil around Jacksonville was rich and very thick, free from rocks, rolling enough to be well-drained and yet level enough to be farmed without great difficulty,” Davis wrote. “The growing season was also long, allowing for a great variety of crops, fruit and livestock.”

However, famous American poet William Cullen Bryant penned a depressing description of Jacksonville in 1832.

“It is [a] horridly ugly village, composed of little shops and dwellings stuck close together around a dingy square, in the middle of which stands the ugliest of possible brick courthouses, with a spire and weathercock on its top,” Bryant wrote.

The courthouse to which Bryant referred was Morgan County’s second courthouse and the one in which young attorneys Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas practiced law.

That particular courthouse served the county from 1830 until 1869, when county governmental offices were moved to the present courthouse on West State Street.

Despite Bryant’s less than flattering description of Jacksonville, other visitors to the community in the 1830s had more positive — even glowing — things to say about the growing village.

“I was drawing nigh to Jacksonville, the principal town in Illinois,” wrote an unknown traveler in 1837.

“Passing the Diamond Grove, a beautiful forest island of nearly a thousand acres, the traveler catches a view of the distant village stretching away along the northern horizon. He soon enters an extended avenue, perfectly uniform for several miles, leading on to the town. Beautiful meadows and harvest fields on either side sweep off beyond the reach of the eye, their neat white cottages and palings peeping through the enameled foliage.

“To left, upon a swelling upland at the distance of some miles, are beheld the brick edifices of Illinois College, relieved by a dark grove of oaks resting against the western sky. These large buildings, together with the other numerous public structures, imposingly situated, give to the place a dignified, city-like aspect in distant view.”

So, as with many things, despite the opposing opinions, the beauty of Jacksonville was in the eye of the beholder.

Sketch provided by Greg Olson

This is a drawing of Morgan County’s second courthouse, which was a two-story brick building that stood in the southwest corner of Jacksonville’s Central Park from 1830 to 1869. This is the building that the famous poet William Cullen Bryant called “the ugliest of possible brick courthouses.”

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