It is meet and seemly that some permanent record be
place 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 have 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 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 the later generations who view these fertile fields of grain in all
directions and know of 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 naturally asks why it 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
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 cause 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.
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
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 Robertson’s 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 latter went
to the cabin for his gun, but was persuaded by his wife to make no further
trouble. The Robertson’s gave up this land and settled on the southwest
corner 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 1, 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 count election was held, Mr. Gum was 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 Charles Hansford. These three were
the first county commissioners after the actual organization in 1830. Stephen
Osborn, the first sheriff; Parnac Owen, the first county surveyor; Alexander
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, Phillip 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 acres; 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 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
William 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, William 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 cornmeal 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 educational interests of the
county very much. He was keenly awake to pubic 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 Governor 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 they 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 sawmill on Henderson Creek; Rees Jones, who built the first
gristmill 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 yeas 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 Has,
the first Justice of the Peace, officiated.
In 1833 the first post office 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 William 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. William 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. The
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
18334 by William 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 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 William, 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 clapboard 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 fireplaces were made of mud and sticks at first,
later of brick. In these rude fireplaces 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. There 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 Sumac, with the pitch 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 abundance in the timber. The Robertson’s
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.
On 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
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