Pioneer Struggles — ‘Politics as Usual’

Prairie politics were not all that different from politics of today. 1837 Putnam County was one of 12 huge original counties. The county seat was in Hennepin, located on the east side of the Illinois River. For many in Bureau, it was a great distance and often the Illinois River flooded. Residents could not conduct land transactions or attend court. The citizens of Bureau felt it was an absolute necessity to have their own county. A petition was signed by residents and forwarded to the Illinois State legislature in Vandalia. (Springfield became the capital two years later.) On Feb. 28, 1837, the act passed, fixing the boundaries as they are now. However, it could not take effect until the majority of the county favored it. Putnam County was made up of present day, Putnam, Bureau and part of Stark and LaSalle counties. About 1,584-square miles with a white population of 5,000. At issue, ‘against the division’ would mean Hennepin would lose its influence and trade opportunities. Those ‘for the division’ wanted independence and Princeton as their county seat.

By law, an election was held on the first Monday in March 1838. In Princeton, delegates were appointed and paid to visit each precinct to persuade folks to vote for the division. Amariah Sherwin was appointed the Spoon River delegate. However, after he performed his duty he left for parts unknown, to the disadvantage of his numerous creditors. He never made a final report. But the other west delegates were effective in presenting their cause. People on the east side of the river were equally active in electioneering.

The day of the election, great excitement prevailed. Hennepin sent delegates to Princeton to guard against vote tampering. Loud talk and quarreling was the result and they left. They found non-resident travelers on the roads voting, boys as young as 16 voting and women dressed as men voting. The division passed by 30 votes. A huge celebration was held in Princeton which included a torchlight procession, bonfires and wild gun fire! The people on the east decided to contest the election.

On the day of review, all poll books were to be examined at the Hennepin clerk’s office. The Princeton delegate, lead by Cyrus Langworthy, stopped by the Searle settlement and asked William, Brown, Job and Timothy to join them. They were large, athletic men and would be helpful in any altercation. One of the Hennepin precinct books containing votes for the division could not be found and two others were disqualified. Mr. Langworthy was not backward in telling them of their rascality and a quarrel broke out. He was saved from violence by the presence of the four Searle boys. A huge celebration was held in Hennepin which included a torchlight procession, bonfires and wild gun fire! In the excitement of the night, they even tried to burn Langworthy in effigy. But reasonable folks stepped in and the old clothes were saved for other purposes.

Notwithstanding the Hennepin County authorities, Bureau went on to comply with the state provisions. All the precinct books were finally located and presented to the governor. The vote for division was upheld and an election of county officers was held. Thomas Mercer was elected county clerk/treasurer and collected $332 for school, county and state taxes. It proved sufficient to meet the needs for the first fiscal year. And by the way, Cyrus Langworthy was elected the first sheriff.

In 2020, Bureau County voted 60% for Donald Trump for president. In fact, 76% our counties voted for Trump. The Democratic county voters of Chicago and collar counties however, carried the day for Joe Biden. But the Bureau County clerk’s race was more like 1838. The Bureau County Republican paper reported that Russ Miller (R) held a slim 51-vote lead over incumbent Dawn Reglin (D). However, as mail-in and absentee ballots were tabulated, the Democrat was declared winner by 63 votes (out of 16,753 cast). As far as I know, there was no torchlight procession, bonfires and wild gun fire! Nor anyone burned in effigy. We are lucky to live in today’s Bureau County!

Lt. Col. Dick Wells (retired) has a master’s degree in history and is a property owner on the Neponset Township, Great Sauk Trail. His great-great-great-grandparents came to Annawan Township in 1842. He has always been interested in pre-Civil War pioneer history and has been reading a number of first-person accounts. Dave Gugerty, Bureau County Historical Society curator, has also been a resource. This is article 3 of a six-part series. His next focus will be on housing, transportation and the Great Sauk Trail.