#SmallTownSaturday – Riverside, IL

Home in Riverside, Illinois

*Originally posted on October 21, 2017*

Today we’ll visit Riverside, IL (pop. 8,875) for #SmallTownSaturday!

Portages, streams, free-flowing springs, wooded river banks, and vast prairie provided a few types of game to several Native American tribes in Riverside until their forced removal. The Potawatomi were the principal residents, but the Ottawa and Chippewas also lived in the region. Located just west of Chicago’s Ft. Dearborn though, white settlers began to lay their claim to the land as early as 1836.

Riverside was largely undeveloped in the early to mid-19th century. Farms belonging to the Forbes, Egan, and Gage families existed, but little else. This changed in 1868, when businessmen surveyed the lands surrounding Chicago. They hoped to build a suburb to provide easy access to the city while also allowing residents to enjoy the country life. Bound by the Des Plaines River and dense woods, the Gage farm was purchased in July and transferred to the new Riverside Improvement Company to begin construction.

The Company chose Frederick Olmstead, planner for New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Lincoln Park, as their architect. His literary tastes provided the names of Riverside’s streets, which commemorate English poets like William Shenstone and George Herbert.

One of the first projects was a grand hotel, opened in 1870. Next came a multi-denominational church. Houses began cropping up in lots beside the church, summer vacationers began filling the hotel, and the town blossomed.

In 1873, false rumors that Riverside was malaria-infested and panics spurred by the Great Chicago Fire caused the Company to suffer financial losses and it failed. Still, a few faithful residents continued to build, and they successfully petitioned Cook County to incorporate Riverside in 1875, making it one of the first planned communities in the United States. The village slowly grew over the next decades.

That’s not the end to the Riverside story though! If you want to learn more, stop by IHLC to learn more.

Myra Bradwell

Photograph of Myra Bradwell, dated 1870

Throughout her life Myra Colby Bradwell was a progressive and tireless advocate for women’s rights. She was born in Manchester, Vermont on February 12, 1831 to parents who were active abolitionists. She grew up in Vermont and New York, and at the age of 12 she and her family moved to Schaumburg Township, Illinois. Myra attended a finishing school in Kenosha, Wisconsin and then a ladies’ seminary in Elgin, Illinois. In 1851, she began a career as a school teacher. A year later on May 18, 1852 she married James Bradwell, a law student from Palatine, Illinois. The newly married couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee for a short time and operated a private school. After the birth of their first daughter in 1854, Myra and James returned to Illinois and settled in Chicago.

Once in Chicago, James completed his studies and began his legal career. In 1855, he was admitted to the Illinois bar and formed a law practice with Myra’s brother, Frank Colby. In 1861, James was elected as a Cook County judge. Myra Bradwell developed an interest in law and under James’ guidance began reading and studying. She firmly believed that a married couple should work as partners and share in each other’s interests and work. In 1868, Myra established the Chicago Legal News, a weekly newspaper in which she covered nationwide legal news; discussed the legal profession, court decisions, and new legislation; and advocated reform for the profession and women’s social and legal rights. This paper soon became the most important legal publication in the western United States.

After putting her legal studies on hold during the Civil War, Myra passed the Illinois bar exam with high honors in 1869 and applied to the Illinois Supreme Court for admission to the bar. Her request was denied on the grounds that as a married woman she was unfit to practice law. She countered their argument, filing multiple briefs, but again was denied and formally told that a woman could not practice law in the state of Illinois. Bradwell published the court’s decision and her own legal brief challenging the ruling in the Chicago Legal News. In 1870, Myra appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the denial of Bradwell’s admission.

While waiting for a decision from the United States Supreme Court, Myra and James Bradwell assisted two other Illinois women attempting to gain admission to the bar. Alta Hulett from Rockford and Ada Kepley from Effingham were each refused admission based on their sex. Kepley had graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1870 and was the first female law school graduate in the United States. Together, Bradwell, Hulett, and Kepley drafted a bill that would prohibit sex as a barrier to any profession. On March 22, 1872, the Illinois legislature passed this bill which became the first anti-sex-discrimination law in the United States. Hulett reapplied and was admitted to the bar in 1873, and Kepley was admitted in 1881. Bradwell did not reapply to the state bar.

Throughout her career Myra was involved in many important legal cases involving women’s rights. In 1869, she drafted a bill that gave married women the right to retain their own wages and protected the rights of widows. She helped organize Chicago’s first women’s suffrage convention and was active in the founding of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Bradwell argued that women should be treated as rational beings, allowed a space to work in the public sphere, and be able to participate as citizens. She believed that women should not be excluded from a profession because of their gender or marital status. She supported her husband’s efforts to secure legislation to make women eligible to serve as notaries public, in school offices, and to be equal guardians of their children. Both Myra and James Bradwell served on the Illinois Woman’s Suffrage Association’s legislative committee. Myra also acted as an advocate for women’s representation in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and helped lobby Congress to have the exposition held in Chicago. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1891, and though her health was deteriorating throughout the fair, Myra rented a hotel near the fair for a week and attended for a few hours each day in a wheelchair.

In 1890, upon a request from James Bradwell, the Illinois Supreme Court admitted Myra Bradwell to the bar without a reapplication. The court recognized her status retroactively to the date of her initial 1869 application, making her the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois state bar. In 1892, she became the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Myra Bradwell died of cancer on February 14, 1894. Myra took great pride in the fact that her work made it possible for other women to enter the legal profession. Her own daughter, Bessie Bradwell Helmer, became a practicing attorney in 1882. After Bradwell’s death, her daughter Bessie continued her mother’s legacy and took over the running of the Chicago Legal News.

Labor Activism in Chicago: Elizabeth Chambers Morgan

Photograph of Elizabeth C. Morgan in an 1895 newspaper

“Abolish the sweat-shops;

Arise in your might.

We women demand it!

By all that is right,

By all that is sacred,

By all that is just,

We urge you go forward;

In you is our trust.”

– “The Sweater’s Lament,” Elizabeth Chambers Morgan

Elizabeth Chambers Morgan is one of the inspiring women in Illinois you can learn about here at the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections. She was one of the leading activists and social reformers in the Chicago labor movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Thomas J. and Elizabeth Chambers Morgan Papers (IHLC MS 139) document her and her husband’s involvement in the labor movement in Chicago.

In 1850, Elizabeth Chambers was born into a working class family of ten children in Birmingham, England. She received little formal education, and at the age of eleven she started working ten to sixteen hour days at a mill. In 1869, she moved to Chicago, Illinois with her husband, Thomas J. Morgan. While living in Chicago, Elizabeth and Thomas became actively involved in the city’s socialist and labor movements.

Elizabeth was a leading figure in the fight for eight hour work days and increased wages for women in factories. In 1888, she formed the Illinois Woman’s Alliance and helped organize the Ladies’ Federal Labor Union. In 1891, Elizabeth helped investigate and expose sweatshop conditions in Chicago factories with a report titled “The New Slavery: Investigation into the Sweating System.” Elizabeth Chambers Morgan was passionate about improving the lives of working-class Chicago residents, especially women and children. The work she did helped expose the abuses many of them faced every day.

You can learn more about Elizabeth and Thomas Morgan as well as the labor movement and socialism in Chicago by visiting the IHLC and taking a look at the Thomas J. and Elizabeth Chambers Morgan Papers.


Image: Elizabeth C. Morgan, clipping from an unidentified newspaper, 1895. Thomas J. and Elizabeth Chambers Morgan Papers (IHLC MS 139). Illinois History and Lincoln Collections. University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

#SmallTownSaturday – Bement, IL

Bement Cottage, where Lincoln and Douglas met

*Originally posted on October 7, 2017*

This week we’re travelling to Bement, Illinois (population 1,696) in Piatt County for #SmallTownSaturday!

Founded in 1854 and incorporated as a town in 1860, Bement is currently the only town in the United States with this name! The town was named after a secretary of the Great Western Railroad who promised to donate a bell to the first church in the town.

In the winter of 1853, businessman Joseph Bodman traveled from Massachusetts with L. B. Wing and Henry P. Little to the prairies of Illinois, where they had heard the Great Western Railroad was to be constructed. In 1854, the men secured titles to the land at $1.25 per acre. Joseph Bodman knew when he first surveyed the land of what would become Bement that he wanted the town to be part of the railroad system. Originally, there was to be no railroad passing directly through the town, but Joseph Bodman was able to convince the Great Western Railroad company to build a station in Bement. In 1856, the railroad was finally constructed.

The Bodman family was an integral part of developing the Bement community. In 1855, the first house was built for Joseph Bodman. He erected the first business building in 1855, which served various purposes such as a post office and train depot. Joseph Bodman took on several roles within the town, including first postmaster, director of the first school, and member of the Board of Trustees for the town.

The town of Bement is also known for the role it played in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The Bryant Cottage, pictured below, became the setting of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas’s two-hour conference. It was here in the parlor, on July 29th, 1858, that the two men discussed and made arrangements to begin their famous debates.

If you are interested in learning more about Bement or any other town in our #SmallTownSaturday series, stop by the IHLC!

“Any honorable position:” The life of John J. Bird

John J. Bird

In 1884, former Republican governor Richard J. Oglesby carried the vote to again assume the state’s highest office. Applying for “any honorable position” in Oglesby’s administration was Southern Illinois politician John J. Bird. A longtime advocate for African American voices in Illinois government, Bird served in various public offices throughout his life and helped push for equality in the post-emancipation Midwest.

John Bird and his family spent some years in both Canada and Ohio before they settled in Cairo, IL. In 1873, he was elected as the town’s police magistrate, the first African American public official in the heart of Little Egypt. In this role, Bird became one of the most influential black leaders in Southern Illinois. Alongside others like William T. Scott, his fellow co-editor of the Cairo Gazette, and Reverend Thomas Strothers, Bird pressed issues like disparities in education and successfully campaigned for the election of several other African American officials. This caused a transformation in Cairo from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold.

In that same year of 1873, then-governor John L. Beveridge appointed Bird as a trustee of Illinois Industrial University (now the University of Illinois) in Urbana, also making him the first known black trustee of any majority white college in the United States. This role suited Bird well as he was known to be a champion for equitable education, believing that it was the key to political change. He served in this post until 1882 when he resigned for unknown reasons.

Not limiting himself to Cairo, Bird was also active on the political stage statewide and spoke and campaigned as far north as Chicago. He and Scott were both prominent proponents of the Republican ticket throughout Illinois in the 1876 election. Bird also attended several State Colored Conventions as a delegate and speaker. As a rift began to develop between the Republican Party and some black citizens, Bird headed a faction at the 1883 convention that hoped to heal the divide rather than allow for a complete splinter into an independent party. Yet while Bird generally believed that the Republicans were the best bet for securing civil rights, he simultaneously followed Frederick Douglass’ advice that African Americans could not afford to follow any party blindly. Bird had already demonstrated this caution at the 1880 State Colored Convention where he set up a non-partisan committee to monitor the status of black civil rights issues on both sides of the aisle.

Want to learn more about this fascinating figure from Illinois history? Stop by the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections to read up on John Bird and his world.

Image courtesy of Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge Free & Accepted Masons, http://mwphglil.com/ 



  • Bigham, Darrel E. On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
  • Joens, David A. From Slave to State Legislator: John W. E. Thomas, Illinois’ First African American Lawmaker. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
  • Portwood, Shirley J. “African American Politics and Community in Cairo and Vicinity, 1863-1900.” Illinois History Teacher 3, no. 2 (1996): 13-21.

Fannie Barrier Williams

Fannie Barrier Williams, undated

Fannie Barrier Williams was born in Brockport, New York on February 12, 1855. Brockport was a non-segregated community outside of Rochester and her parents were of high social standing. Brockport was said to be “north of slavery,” and because of this Barrier Williams enjoyed a much more privileged upbringing than those living in the South.

Brockport had never seen slavery or segregation due to New York legislation that gradually led to the emancipation of slaves. This emancipation of New York slaves culminated with 1827 legislation which ended slavery in the state. New York was also influenced by the Second Great Awakening which emphasized human freedoms. This Christian revival effectively transformed views on slavery and helped to advance the abolitionist platform. However, despite social inclusion in Brockport, political exclusion of blacks and people of mixed-race still existed.

Barrier Williams moved to Missouri during the Reconstruction era in hopes of teaching newly freed slaves. However, there existed more racial prejudice and segregation than she was familiar with. Eventually, she moved to Washington D.C. where she was introduced to a large community of black elites. It was here that she met her husband, Samuel Laing Williams. The couple eventually moved to Chicago, where Barrier Williams gave up teaching to help found clubs and continue her role as an activist.

Once in Chicago, Barrier Williams became acquainted with the elite black community and became active among Chicago reformers. Her work mostly revolved around rights for women of color, and she helped found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Prior to this, she played a leading role in changing the admittance requirements for the exclusive Chicago Women’s Club to not include race. Barrier Williams was also involved in labor activism through the Illinois Women’s Association.

Despite being involved in Chicago’s elite black circles, Barrier Williams worked beyond them in order to gain rights for non-privileged African Americans, particularly black women. Barrier Williams achieved significant recognition for protesting the lack of black representation at the 1893 World’s Fair. For this she was appointed “clerk in charge of colored interests” in the Department of Publicity and Promotion. She was also invited to give two speeches, one to the World’s Congress of Representative Women and another to the World’s Parliament of Religions.

Barrier Williams returned to Brockport in 1926, where she led a much quieter life. She died on March 4, 1944, at the age of 89.


  • Hendricks, Wanda A. Fannie Barrier Williams: Crossing the Borders of Region and Race. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed February 12, 2018).

#SmallTownSaturday – Chatsworth, IL

Sketch of "The Great Chatsworth Wreck"
*Originally posted on September 23, 2017*

This week we’re visiting Chatsworth, Illinois (population 1,140) for #SmallTownSaturday!

Originally an indigenous settlement dating to at least 1774 known as Kickapoo Grove, the site of present-day Chatsworth was uninhabited by white settlers until 1832, when a small number began moving into the area in the midst of the Black Hawk War. Aggression against Native Americans soon drove the Kickapoo across the Mississippi.

By the time the Kickapoo people had been removed from the village, all of the white families save one – the Olivers – had relocated to Indiana. Renaming his slice of the county Oliver Grove, Franklin Oliver and his family lived alone in the area until the mid-1850s, when new residents began building their homes nearby. In the 1860s, three areas of Oliver Grove successfully petitioned for separation. The residents sought a name change that led to the incorporation of the Village of Chatsworth in 1867. As business and houses cropped up, growth was further spurred by the construction of two railways – the Toledo, Peoria and Warsaw (TP&W) in 1857, and the Kankakee and Southwestern in 1878 – which brought waves of immigrants to the town.

Throughout the 1880s, the TP&W line frequently hosted “excursion trains,” relatively cheap round-trips via train to exciting destinations. On August 10, 1887, such a train set out from Peoria carrying some 800 vacationers bound for Niagara Falls. That summer had been hot and dry, causing prairie fires throughout the Midwest. Afraid of engine sparks igniting a fire, TP&W crew members set a “controlled” fire near the rails outside Chatsworth on August 10th. The fire spread to a nearby trestle bridge and charred its frame. When the train passed through Chatsworth later that day, its first car made it over the bridge, collapsing it in the process and sending the trailing cars slamming into the hillside below. The “Great Chatsworth Wreck,” illustrated below, caused about 85 deaths and hundreds of injuries.


#SmallTownSaturday – New Philadelphia

New Philadelphia, IL

New Philadelphia, Illinois is the first known town in the United States to have been established, planned, and registered by an African American man. The town, founded by “Free” Frank McWorter in 1836, reached its peak population in 1865 with 160 individuals and 29 households. It was a racially integrated community long before the Civil War.

Frank McWorter was born a slave in South Carolina. In his early twenties, he was able to purchase the freedom of his wife, Lucy, for $800. Two years later, he purchased his own for the same price. Eventually, Frank bought the freedom of at least 15 family members, including his children, by working at a saltpeter mine. Frank moved from South Carolina, to Kentucky, and finally to Illinois where he purchased 160 acres of land in Pike County in 1830. The McWorters were the first settlers in Hadley Township. Here, they established a farm.

Five years later, Frank purchased 80 acres of land from the United States government. 42 of these acres would become New Philadelphia. During this time, several citizens from Kentucky and Illinois vouched for Free Frank in court, enabling him to change his name to Frank McWorter. This legislative act also allowed him to purchase land and protect it in a court of law, a right not allotted to most African Americans at the time.

New Philadelphia was a frontier settlement until the late 1840s, and an agricultural service center town until the 1860s. The town began to decline in 1869 with the construction of a nearby railroad. The railroad passed just a mile north of New Philadelphia, and this was ultimately fatal for the town. By the early 20th century, only 6 households remained. Unfortunately, this was the fate of several small black communities in Illinois that were looked over by railroad lines. New Philadelphia is no longer in existence today.

#SmallTownSaturday – Kaskaskia, IL

Map of Kaskaskia that appears in Natalia Belting's "Pierre of Kaskaskia"

*Originally posted on August 26, 2017*

The wait is over! This week we’re traveling to Kaskaskia (pop. 14) in southwestern Illinois.

The modern day town of Kaskaskia is actually the sixth settlement named Kaskaskia in Illinois. The first Kaskaskia was located near present-day Utica, Illinois, across the Illinois River from Starved Rock. The village, named after the Kaskaskia tribe inhabiting the area, moved south along the Illinois River until it reached its present location in 1703. It was there that French traders settled down with the Kaskaskia and the Jesuit missionaries who had accompanied the tribe on their migration. Situated between the Kaskaskia River and the Mississippi, the town soon became a thriving community and center of trade.

Throughout the 18th century, Kaskaskia served as a center of government for Illinois Country. When the state of Illinois was created in 1818, Kaskaskia was chosen as the first capital of the Prairie State. Its life as the state capital was short-lived, however, and the government moved the capital from Kaskaskia to Vandalia two years later in 1820.

Due to frequent flooding of the Mississippi River, the population of Kaskaskia dwindled over the next 20 years. A devastating flood in 1844 wiped out much of the town, forcing many of Kaskaskia’s occupants to leave. Around 1863, the Mississippi River began to move eastward with each successive flood, taking much of the town with it. Another major flood in 1881 carved a new path for the river, which moved from the west of Kaskaskia to the east, turning the peninsula into an island.

Today, most of Kaskaskia’s older buildings have been swallowed up by the river. The population has dwindled to 14 people, making it the second smallest incorporated town in Illinois.

You can learn more about Kaskaskia and the role it has played in Illinois history here at the IHLC. The map featured below appears in Natalia M. Belting’s Pierre of Kaskaskia, which is available here at the IHLC or online at http://tinyurl.com/ydc8moma.

Bicentennial – February introduction

Oscar Stanton De Priest

Not only is February the second month of the Illinois bicentennial (1818-2018), it’s also Black History Month! To celebrate, we’re bringing you 28 days of trivia, quotes, fun facts, and more about the lives and legacies of African Americans in Illinois history. You can follow along on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our blog.

Pictured above is Chicagoan Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century.

Want to learn more about African American history in the Prairie State? Come visit us, give us a call, or send us an email or message! We’d love to help.