A Piece of Dixon History: John Dixon dies July 6, 1876

A bust of John Dixon appears in relief at Heritage Crossing along the Rock River in Dixon.

Editor’s note: Today’s column is the first of a two-part series about the death of Dixon’s founder, John Dixon. The second column will be published in the July 19 edition of the Dixon Telegraph.

On May 11, 1876, 91-year-old John Dixon followed his routine of walking from his home in North Dixon to the post office at at Jefferson Avenue and Bradshaw Street . Later that day, as the Chicago Tribune reported, he was “struck with palsy,” which possibly meant that he suffered a stroke resulting in some paralysis.

At the time, John Dixon’s name was legendary. When the Wisconsin State Journal reported his affliction, the newspaper noted that Dixon was “known all over the state of Illinois as one of its earliest, oldest and most revered citizens.”

It was an era when the Midwest highly esteemed “the old settlers,” the brave souls who first ventured into the area decades earlier, interacting with the native tribes, blazing trails, building log cabins and enduring hardship.

When John Dixon arrived at the Rock River in 1830, he established the first settlement in the vast area between Galena, Chicago and Peoria. “Dixon’s Ferry” was and is one of extremely few Illinois towns named after its founder. These distinctions only increased the stature of the venerable “Father Dixon,” who was still alive at age 91.

National news

His death finally came on July 6, two days after the community – and the nation – celebrated the centennial Fourth of July. As Dixon prepared for a historic funeral, the news of his passing spread far and wide.

The Tribune’s coverage of his death included an 11-stanza, 44-line poem about “Old Father John Dixon – Rock River’s Pioneer” by Captain Sam Whiting. It began:

“Rock River’s Pioneer is dead –

Old Father Dixon is no more;

All lowly lies the noble head,

Revered and loved in days of yore.”

The news of his passing was heralded in more than 20 newspapers in Illinois and far beyond the state’s boundaries. I found his death reported in major newspapers in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis, and in at least 15 states from Massachusetts to Montana.

The city mourns

City officials deemed it appropriate to hold his funeral on the Lee County Courthouse lawn as his body would lie in state inside the courthouse. After all, John Dixon had donated the land for the courthouse in 1840 and donated the funding for its construction.

Demonstrating a community in mourning, the courthouse’s large Corinthian columns were draped in black as were many of the city’s stores and public buildings. On the north lawn, two large platforms were erected: one for the speakers and one for the choir. An estimated 10,000 people came to pay their respects to the beloved most-senior of citizens.

A citizen extraordinaire

A public funeral was appropriate also for a man who had done so much for the public good. Few today realize that, before he left New York for Illinois, he was one of the original members of the Young Men’s Bible Society of New York, the forerunner of the globally known American Bible Society.

He also served as county clerk of Peoria County from 1825 to 1830 and was their justice of the peace, circuit clerk and recorder of deeds. After becoming the first white settler of the Rock River Valley, he later exerted his considerable political skills to make Dixon the seat of the newly formed Lee County in 1839.

In 1840, he famously ventured to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Martin Van Buren to get the federal land office moved from Galena to Dixon, an achievement that brought significant commerce and development to the town. In 1843, John Dixon and Abraham Lincoln were delegates who addressed the Whig convention in Springfield.

Dixon also served as the city’s first mayor in 1853. Four years later, he was a delegate to the convention of the Republican Party in Bloomington. In 1858, at age 73, he successfully lobbied against a groundswell effort to move the county seat from Dixon to Amboy.

The witness to growth

Many more achievements could be mentioned. But John Dixon must have taken greater pride in seeing his community grow from its primitive beginnings as one family, one cabin and one ferry.

By 1876, Father Dixon’s riverside outpost had become a thriving city of hundreds of families and houses, many mills, factories and churches, two railroads, two school buildings, a university and a new bridge. Hosting the town’s many visitors were six hotels, including the Nachusa Hotel, named after John Dixon’s nickname, Nachusa, given him by the local natives.

Friends in high places

Over the long course of his leadership in the Rock River Valley, John Dixon had become friends with many who became household names throughout the country. These included Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, to name a few.

Of these, Davis may have been the closest acquaintance, since he had known John Dixon as early as 1831. In 1860, then-Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi called John Dixon “a very honest man” when Davis spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate, urging passage of a measure that would compensate the now-destitute old man for his service during the Black Hawk War.

Although John Dixon was firmly against slavery, he did not allow Davis’s pro-slavery position to disrupt their friendship. Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis’s widow, wrote that Father Dixon invited Davis to Dixon after the war. She also said that Davis spoke “most affectionately” of John Dixon and often recalled being at his house on the Rock River in those early days.

The Dixon community knew and appreciated John Dixon’s achievements, but they offered greater praise for his memorable personality and virtues.

In part two we will reveal the heart of John Dixon, why people loved him and how they chose to memorialize him.

  • Dixon native Tom Wadsworth is a writer, speaker and occasional historian. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament.
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