Morgan County was established in 1823 and named for General Daniel Morgan, a Revolutionary War hero. In 1825 the Morgan County surveyors staked out land at the center of a 160-acre tract, and the seat of government was established in the new town of Jacksonville. Thanks to early settlers Alexander Cox, Joseph Fairfield and George Hackett, the Jacksonville town square quickly developed.
Education was always a primary concern for city founders. Illinois College was founded in 1829. The Reverend John M. Ellis, a Presbyterian missionary in the West, felt the need for a “seminary of learning” in the new state. His plans came to the attention of a group of Congregational students at Yale University. Seven of them, in one of the now famous “Yale Bands,” came westward to help establish the college. As one of the earliest institutions of learning in the Midwest, the college was named after the state in which it was located, and the first president of the college was Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The courthouse was built on the square, churches were constructed, railways were planned, and before long, stores and taverns were flourishing. Jacksonville had the largest population in the state in 1834, outnumbering even Chicago.
Jacksonville’s educational foundation grew stronger with the Illinois School for the Deaf, the School for the Blind (later Illinois School for the Visually Impaired), and the Illinois Conference Female Academy (later MacMurray College), in addition to the public schools. By 1850 Illinois College had conferred Illinois’ first college degrees and opened the first medical school in the state. Because of this commitment to education, many referred to the community as “The Athens of the West.”
Beginning with Capps Woolen Mills, established in the 1839, businesses located in Jacksonville because of the excellent economic climate and convenient access for transporting goods. Farmers appreciated the fertile soil of central Illinois, and agriculture enriched the economy as well. In 1900, W.E. Sullivan, founder of the Eli Bridge Company, introduced the “Big Eli” ferris wheel on the Jacksonville square. In 1919 the company relocated to the city. It is the world’s oldest manufacturer of ferris wheels and other amusement rides.
Jacksonville has contributed three governors to the state: Joseph Duncan, Richard Yates, and Richard Yates, Jr. Governor Duncan’s home still stands on West State Street. Built in 1834, this home served as the official Executive Mansion of Illinois from 1834-38.
The Jacksonville area has carefully built upon the foundation established by its forefathers. It is now a thriving community rich in educational, business and leisure activities, making the area an enjoyable place to live, work, play, shop and learn.
Illinois College graduate and teacher, Bateman was principal of what is purported to have been the first free public high school in Illinois. A friend of Abraham Lincoln, Bateman is said to have been the last person to shake hands with Lincoln as the train pulled away from the Springfield depot to take him to Washington to assume the presidency.
DR. GREENE VARDIMAN BLACK
In 1864, this father of modern dentistry began his Jacksonville practice, which would continue for 34 years. His Jacksonville office has been reconstructed as an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.
WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN
Illinois College graduate, Bryan practiced law in Jacksonville from 1883-1887 prior to making three unsuccessful campaigns for president of the United States.
STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS
Douglas was nicknamed the “Little Giant” because he was short (5’ 4”) but considered by many a “giant” in politics. Douglas served as Morgan County State’s Attorney from 1834-36. He held offices as a state legislator and as a U.S. Congressman. Democratic nominee for President in 1860, Douglas lost to the Republican Party’s candidate, Abraham Lincoln, whom he had debated two-years previously in the famed series of “Lincoln-Douglas Debates.”
BENJAMIN H. GRIERSON
Grierson joined the Union war effort as a volunteer from Jacksonville. His family lived in Jacksonville and remained here during the Civil War. He taught music in Jacksonville and was a merchant, owning a general store in Meredosia. An unlikely candidate for a cavalry officer, he had been kicked in the head by a horse in his youth. “Grierson’s Raid” pulled the attention of the Southern army from Vicksburg and allowed Grant to take Vicksburg.
To learn more about Abraham Lincoln and his many ties to Jacksonville, see page Looking for Lincoln on this site.
This former multi-time world champion heavyweight boxer and member of the Boxing Hall of Fame was an outstanding athlete at Jacksonville High School. His track coach entered him in eight State events, and Ken placed first in eight. As a result, the “Ken Norton Rule” was instituted in Illinois high school sports, which limits participation of an athlete to a maximum of three track and field events. His professional career includes a shocking victory over Muhammad Ali in 1973 to win the NABF Heavyweight Crown, breaking Ali’s jaw in the process.
Tucker, a 5-foot-11 guard and graduate of Illinois College, became the first non-Division I player to win the Denny’s College Slam Dunk Contest (2011). With an estimated 50-inch vertical, Tucker earned his way into the contest by posting highlights of his dunking ability on YouTube. After winning the vote and gaining entry into the contest, Tucker was tagged the “dark horse” by celebrity judge and NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone. Tucker reigned victorious after dunking the ball over and out of the hands of teammate Nathan Kohler and landing two perfect scores on previous dunks. This Carlyle native averaged 14.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while slamming down 30 game dunks during his senior year.
JONATHAN B. TURNER
In 1833, Turner settled in Jacksonville as a professor at Illinois College. He was a great proponent of the public school system in Illinois and is recognized as the father of the land-grant college idea.