History of Morgan County, Illinois

Morgan County is named for Daniel Morgan

Daniel Morgan [1736-1802] was an early soldier in the American Colonies, during Pontiac’s War [1764] and Dunmore’s War [1774]. During the Revolution, he served as colonel of a Virginia regiment, then became a Brigadier General. He commanded the “The Rifle Brigade”, serving with distinction at Quebec, Saratoga, and the Cowpens. He commanded the Virginia Militia in the suppression of the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794 in Pennsylvania. He was a representative from Virginia from 1797-99.

Established in 1823

The area was originally part of Madison County, which was formed in 1812, before Illinois became a state.

The present-day counties of Cass and Scott were part of Morgan County until 1837 and 1839, respectively. The boundary line with Cass County was originally farther north than the current boundary which was established in 1845. Morgan County measures 24 x 24 miles or 576 square miles. The county seat is in Jacksonville, which is named after General Andrew Jackson.

Morgan County has seen 3 courthouses since it was established. The first courthouse was built in 1826 on the Jacksonville square. It was a 2-story frame building 30 x 40 in size. This courthouse burned on December 6, 1827. The second courthouse was built in 1830 and served the county for 39 years until the third courthouse was built. It was in the second courthouse that men such as Stephen A. Douglas served as State’s Attorney and Abraham Lincoln practiced law.

The third courthouse was started in 1868 and took 1½ years to complete. It was not occupied into until November 1869. The commissioners at that time asked for bids for the new courthouse; the lowest bid was $147,000 by C. R. Underwood. The actual cost of the courthouse was $204,000. The Morgan County Courthouse is a model of simplicity and strength in construction. It is constructed of stone with every third tier running through the entire wall. The exterior stone came from the quarries of Joliet. The architecture reflects the influence of the French Renaissance style in its dormer-windows, towers, arched and rounded windows, and in the pillared and arched front entrance.

Jacksonville History & Facts

First settlers

The first settlers began arriving in Morgan County in 1819 but it was not until 1823 that the county was formally organized. Jacksonville was laid out on a 40 acre tract in 1825 and was chosen as the Morgan County seat. Named for General Andrew Jackson, the city was incorporated in 1867.

Illinois College and MacMurray College

In 1829 Illinois College was founded by John Ellis and a group of Congregational-Presbyterian missionaries called the “Yale Band”. Beecher Hall, erected in 1829-1830, is the oldest college building in Illinois. It was named for Edward Beecher, the first president of the college and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Old Beecher,” as the building is sometimes called, is still standing today.

Illinois College granted the first bachelor’s degree in the state in 1835 and began the first medical school in Illinois in 1843.

The Illinois Female Academy, later known as MacMurray College, was founded in 1846 by Methodist clergy, including Peter Cartwright. In 1930, the school adopted the name MacMurray in honor of Senator James E. MacMurray. It was more than a century later, in 1955, that the school became coeducational. MacMurray College closed in 2020.

Early Churches

The first Jacksonville churches were organized in these early years. Among the prominent preachers of the time were Peter Cartwright (Methodist) and Barton W. Stone (Christian Church – Disciples).

State Institutions

Because of humanitarian and political influences in Jacksonville, three state institutions for the care of the handicapped were located here. The Illinois School for the Deaf was chartered in 1839 and began classes in 1845.

The Illinois School for the Visually Impaired began as a private school in 1847 and was turned into a public institution in 1849. The Jacksonville Mental Health and Developmental Center was authorized a charter in March, 1847, only two months after Dorothea Dix, the legendary champion of prison and state hospital reform, appealed to the state legislature for it. The mental health hospital closed in 2012.

Leaders and Innovators

Jacksonville has contributed a remarkable number of leaders and innovators to the state and to the nation.

In 1833, Jonathan B. Turner settled in Jacksonville as a professor at Illinois College. He promoted the Osage orange hedge which became the first effective method of fencing the North American grasslands. Turner was also as great proponent of the public school system in Illinois and is recognized as the father of the land-grant college idea. His goals for the public school system were realized in 1840 by an Illinois College graduate and Jacksonville teacher, Newton Bateman, who organized one of the first free public schools in Illinois and later became president of the Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Lincoln’s arch-rival, Stephen A. Douglas, became Morgan County’s prosecuting attorney in 1835, and William Jennings Bryan, an Illinois College graduate, practiced law in Jacksonville from 1883-1887.

Jacksonville also contributed three governors to Illinois – Joseph Duncan (served 1834-1838), Richard Yates (served during the Civil War, 1861-1865), and Richard Yates, Jr. (1901-1905). Governor Duncan’s home still stands at the north edge of Duncan Park on West State Street.

During the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant rested his Illinois Regiment (21st Illinois Infantry) on the Morgan County Fairgrounds.

In 1864, Dr. Greene Vardiman Black, the father of modern dentistry, began his Jacksonville practice which would continue for 34 years.

In 1900, William E. Sullivan began manufacturing Ferris wheels in Jacksonville and set his first model in operation on the public square. Now in its fourth generation in business, Sullivan’s organization, the Eli Bridge Company, is the oldest firm in the country making Ferris wheels as a stock item and is one of the few such firms in the world.