‘Tall grass … like the deep sea’

Early stories tell the tale of the birth of Morgan County, Jacksonville

By Greg Olson

Amazement is probably what best describes the reaction of those who settled and visited Central Illinois in the 1820s. The tall grass prairie that greeted them seemed to be never-ending.

“For miles and miles we saw nothing but a vast expanse of what I can compare to nothing else but the ocean,” wrote a Boston newspaper reporter who visited Illinois in the early 1800s. “The tall grass … looked like the deep sea; it seemed as if we were out of sight of land, for no house, no barn, no tree was visible, and the horizon presented the rolling of the waves in the far-off distance.”

That’s the scene that Morgan County surveyor Johnston Shelton and his crew saw when they platted Jacksonville in March 1825, as the young town sat on open prairie, devoid of trees.

The name Jacksonville was given in honor of General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the idol of western frontiersmen.

Another story has the town being named after Andrew W. Jackson, a boy who met the men platting the town in 1825. It makes for an interesting story, but it’s unlikely the surveyors had the youth in mind when the town was named. Plus, the town’s name probably was chosen by county commissioners or other elected officials, not surveyors.

Historian Don Doyle, who wrote a book about Jacksonville’s early development, said that historical sense points to the town being named after General Jackson. “[Jacksonville’s founding] was right after the election of 1824, when Jackson lost, and the beginning of the modern Democratic Party,” Doyle said.

Jackson, a Democrat, was elected to consecutive terms — in 1828 and 1832 — as president of the United States. Most of the first settlers in the Jacksonville area were Southerners — primarily from Kentucky and Virginia — and supporters of the more famous Andrew Jackson. The place names of such towns as Jacksonville and Winchester, and such counties as Morgan and Scott, reflect the early Southern influence in the region.

Regardless of those facts, the local Andrew Jackson has earned a lasting place in Jacksonville history for his work as a minister and for reportedly being the first Black alderman in the city.

Jacksonville was located on the state Road that ran from the Illinois River to Springfield. This road went through the middle of what is now Jacksonville’s Central Park, and State Street and what is now known as Old State Road take their names from this early road.

Illinois had been a state for a little more than six years and Morgan a county for only two years when Jacksonville was founded as the seat of county government.

An unknown local historian described Jacksonville’s inauspicious beginnings in a brief history included in the town’s 1860-61 directory of residents and businesses:

“The population of Morgan County was then small, and its wealth still smaller, and the laying out of a city of these unpretending dimensions was considered by some then residing in this vicinity, as a hopeless and ridiculous undertaking. Aaron Willson, who then owned and occupied a farm lying at the west end of College Grove [west of present-day Illinois College], told the writer that the proprietors of the town offered to donate to him any lot fronting on the public square, on condition that he would cease to ridicule their town. The offer was not accepted.”

Despite Willson’s criticism of early Jacksonville, the village grew rapidly. By the end of the first year, it had a post office and 11 buildings around the public square.

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