Pekin, Illinois | 1824-2024

History of Pekin

Downtown Pekin

A History Of Pekin

Quick Facts

The First Settler

The first white settler in what would become Pekin was Jonathan Tharp of Ohio, who built a log cabin in 1824 on a bluff above the Illinois River at a spot that today is near the foot of Broadway, not far from where Pottawatomi Chief Shabbona and his family soon after set up their wigwams.

A Community Grows

The first recorded death was that of Ezekiel Turner, who was struck by lightning in February 1825. On March 10, 1827, Joseph, son of Jonathan Tharp, was the first child born in what would become Pekin.

Open For Business

Pekin's first store was set up in 1827 by Jacob Tharp in his smokehouse. In the spring of 1829, Absalom and Joseph Dillon opened a store of general merchandise followed by David Bailey in 1830 featuring dry goods, groceries, and notions.

First School Opens

The first school was built on Second and Elizabeth Streets in 1830 by Thomas Snell, who promptly appointed his son John the initial schoolmaster.

First Town Election
After the establishment of Pekin as a town, the first town election took place on July 9, 1835. Five men were elected as town trustees: D. Mark, D. Bailey, Samuel Wilson, J.C. Morgan and S. Pillsbury, with Morgan being elected as president of the town’s board of trustees.
First Town Seal
Pekin’s first seal was “an eagle of a quarter of a dollar of the new coinage,” formally adopted by the town board on Dec. 29, 1840.
First Pekin Mayor
After being incorporated as a city on Aug. 20, 1849, Pekin elected its first mayor and aldermen on Sept. 24 that year. Pekin’s first mayor was Bernard Bailey.
More Firsts...
First Steam Mill
Pekin’s first steam mill was built in April 1845 by Benjamin Kellogg near the river between Margaret and Ann Eliza streets. Kellogg’s business was destroyed by a fire in the fall of 1849.

First Jail
Pekin’s first jail was built in November 1849 for the cost of $48. The jail served the city until 1868, when it was destroyed by a fire started by some of its inmates.

From The Community

Pekin Memorial Hospital 1918


In 1913 the Pekin community of approximately 14,000 residents wanted a high quality, modern hospital to serve their health needs. This led to the formation of the non-profit Pekin Memorial corporation.
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From The History Room - Pekin Public Library

First Mayor

The railroad arrives in Pekin

The first years of Pekin’s existence coincided with a period when men and goods were transported along the waterways and canals of Illinois using riverboats, whether steamers or packet boats.

But steam-powered rail (invented in Britain in 1804, three years before Robert Fulton’s first steamboat) would soon challenge and then eclipse steamboats as the preferred means of long-distance transportation of good and people.

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First Mayor

Bernard Bailey, Pekin’s first mayor

In our previous installment in our Pekin Bicentennial series we reviewed the story of how Pekin became an incorporated city in 1849. When the residents of Pekin voted to adopt a city charter on 20 Aug. 1849, Pekin opted for a mayor/alderman form of government.

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Charter of the City of Pekin

How Pekin became the 10th incorporated city in Illinois

Our Bicentennial series on the history of Pekin continues this week with the account of how Pekin became an incorporated city. In addition to this year being the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Pekin’s first settler Jonathan Tharp, this August will mark 175 years since Pekin’s vote to incorporate as a city under Illinois law in 1849.

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Map of Pekin

The streets of the city: the significance of the street names in Pekin’s old town

Early accounts tell us that Ann Eliza Cromwell , wife of Pekin co-founder Nathan Cromwell, was the one who suggested the name Pekin. As it happens, Mrs. Cromwell is also said to have chosen the names for most of the streets in the “Original Town” of Pekin. History and legend credits her with Pekin’s feminine-named streets.

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1864 map of Pekin

Pekin as a Town — 1830 to 1849

The first 19 years of Pekin’s history cover the period when our community was a pioneer town — an unincorporated community until 1835 (or 1837), and as a self-governed incorporated Town from the mid-1830s until 1849.

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Joshua C Morgan Tombstone

The life of Joshua C. Morgan, Pekin’s first Town President

Joshua Carmen Morgan (1804-1849) was one of the most prominent of Pekin’s community leaders in the earliest years of its existence as a pioneer settlement was, and his name appears repeatedly in the early records of Pekin’s history. He was born 15 July 1804 in Xenia, Ohio, eldest son of Isaac and Margaret (Carmen) Morgan, who were natives of Virginia and Kentucky, respectively.

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Incorporation of Pekin Document

Bumps on the road to ‘Pekin, Incorporated’ — Pekin’s first incorporation needed a ‘do-over’

In previous installments of our ongoing Pekin Bicentennial series, we have recalled the earliest years of the pioneer settlement that was formally platted, organized, and named Pekin in 1830. This week we’ll tell of how the settlers in Pekin took action to place their community on a more permanent basis by incorporating as a Town under Illinois state law.

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Drawing of Abraham Lincoln

Pekin memories of Abraham Lincoln

For this third in our series of Pekin Bicentennial Black History Month articles, we’ll highlight a selection of just a few of the many stories of Abraham Lincoln and his ties to Pekin. These stories span Lincoln’s life and career as a prairie lawyer and politician.

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Pekin-area ministers who marched for Voting Rights

Three who answered the call: the Pekin-area ministers who marched for civil rights in Selma

The decade of the Sixties was a time of momentous changes in the United States, and the Civil Rights Movement was responsible for many of those changes. The movement’s most historic achievements included the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial discrimination across the board...

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Sen. Everett Dirksen at Lincoln Memorial

Light and shadow: A review of Pekin’s African-American history and historiography

As Pekin’s Bicentennial Year continues and we now find ourselves in Black History Month, it is fitting that we turn our attention now to Pekin’s African-American history. Compared to most other areas of our city’s history, this is an aspect of Pekin’s history that has been little researched...

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Farmers National Bank

Witness to a century and a half of Pekin’s history: the Farmers National Bank building

As Pekin’s Bicentennial Year continues, this week we’ll take a look back over the history of a downtown landmark that has witnessed almost three-fourths of Pekin’s 200 years: the old Farmers National Bank building at 333 Court St., the northeast corner of Capitol and Court.

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State of the City

Scenes from Pekin’s Bicentennial Kick-Off, 19 Jan. 2024

More than 220 people were there to hear Pekin Mayor Mary Burress during her “State of the City” address on Friday, 19 Jan. 2024, an event that formally inaugurated the city’s calendar of Bicentennial celebrations.

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State of the City

‘State of the City’ to kick off Pekin Bicentennial Year and commemorate Pekin’s founding on Jan. 19

Pekin Mayor Mary Burress will formally inaugurate Pekin’s yearlong calendar of Bicentennial celebrations tomorrow morning, 11:30 a.m. Friday, 19 Jan. 2024, at a special “State of the City” event and luncheon at the Pekin Moose Lodge, 2605 Broadway.

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Marriage Register

Before Pekin: Arrival of the pioneers in the 1820s

Before the formal platting and surveying of the little pioneer settlement that would be named “Pekin” in January of 1830, the groundwork for Pekin’s founding was laid by an influx of settlers who arrived throughout the 1820s.
The first settler at what would become Pekin was Jonathan Tharp (1794-1844), who left his old home at Urbana, Ohio, looking for new opportunities in Illinois....

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Headlines from Paper

Remembering the lost: 100 years since the Corn Products Refining Company tragedy

As Pekin has now entered its Bicentennial Year, it’s good to recall that 100 years ago the Pekin Daily Times included the words, “This is Pekin’s Centennial Year” in its front page masthead all throughout the year to remind its readers of upcoming Centennial celebrations.
Yet in a kind of tragic irony, during the first weeks of January 1924, immediately beneath those words of anticipation and celebration the newspaper ran banner headlines and daily front page updates on rescue and recovery efforts...

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300 Block of Court Street Pekin, IL

Pekin preparing to celebrate its Bicentennial year 2024

The New Year A.D. 2024 promises to be a memorable one for Pekin, with celebrations and special activities being planned throughout the year to mark our community’s Bicentennial.
One hundred years ago, Pekin put on a multi-day festival and grand parade to celebrate its centennial. That and much more is in the works for Pekin’s bicentennial.

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Pekin 1864 Map

When Pekin was only a town

For the first 19 years of its existence, from 1830 to 1849, Pekin was a pioneer town, with much of the character that is associated with the Wild West rather than a modern semi-rural Midwestern city. A Native American village even thrived near the new town until 1833, first located on the ridge above Pekin Lake and later on the south shores of Worley Lake.

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Pekin High School

Public grade school education in Pekin through the years

The founding pioneer settlers of Pekin believed it was very important to provide youth with a good education. So it was that in 1830, the year of Pekin’s founding, the town’s first school opened. A log cabin built by Thomas Snell, it was located on the west side of Second Street between Elizabeth and St. Mary streets, at the southwest corner of Elizabeth and Second. Snell’s son John was the teacher.

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Pekin Street Fair

A brief history of Pekin's street fairs

Once upon a time, or beginning in 1898 and apparently ending in the mid-1930’s, Pekin would put on vibrant, very popular street fairs, hosted in the city’s downtown. In 1902, on the day of the parade, 18,000 people attended this event. Two railroad companies from Peoria brought 2,800 people into our fair town.

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Pekin Street Fair

Pekin's old fire companies

In the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1860, three independent fire companies were formed: the Independent Hood and Ladder Company No. 1, Rescue Company No. 1, and Defiance Hose Company. Two more volunteer companies were organized: the “Wide Awake” and “Protection.” By 1894 the “Wide Awakes” had a partially paid department.

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Pekin City Charter

State of Illinois' Legalization of the City of Pekin

Sunday this week was the 174th anniversary of Pekin’s vote to incorporate as a City, thereby becoming the 10th incorporated City in Illinois. That significant date in Pekin’s history – 20 Aug. 1849 – came just 14 years after the residents of Pekin voted to incorporate as a Town.

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Pekin Agreement

Lincoln In Pekin: What was 'the Pekin Agreement'?

President Abraham Lincoln’s long road to the White House began in his days as a circuit-riding lawyer over the prairies of Illinois, leading him first to the Illinois General Assembly and then to the U.S. Congress. One of the stops on Lincoln’s road was Pekin, where Lincoln was involved in a political pact known as “the Pekin Agreement.”

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Wagenseller Dry Goods Store

Joshua Wagenseller's dry goods store

The firm of Wagenseller & Co. was owned and operated by Joshua Wagenseller (1813-1882), one of Tazewell County’s Old Settlers whom we have spotlighted here twice previously. As we mentioned before, Wagenseller was an ardent abolitionist, a friend of Abraham Lincoln (who was a guest in the Wagenseller home on many a visit to Pekin), and a founding member of the Tazewell County Republican Party.

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Joshua Morgan Grave

Joshua C. Morgan, Pekin's first Town President

One of the most prominent of Pekin’s community leaders in the earliest years of its existence as a pioneer settlement was Joshua Carmen Morgan (1804-1849), whose name appears repeatedly in the early records of Pekin’s history. He was born 15 July 1804 in Xenia, Ohio, eldest son of Isaac and Margaret (Carmen) Morgan, who were natives of Virginia and Kentucky, respectively.

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Pekin Street Map

The origin of Pekin's crazy streets

After the Tharps other settlers would soon arrive – by 1830, what would become Pekin counted eight settlers. The Tharps and their companions, most of them from Ohio, made plans for a village called Cincinnati, with streets to be laid out on a north-south-east-west grid.

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Pekin Plank Bridge 1885-1930

The changing face of Pekin

Changes and developments come to a community day by day, week by week. New buildings and homes are erected, old ones are demolished, new businesses come to town while older ones expand or close their doors.

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William Haines

A glimpse into the life of Pekin pioneer William Haines

Among the pioneer founders of Pekin was a man named William Haines, who is twice mentioned in the historical essay included in the 1870 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, on page 9. Like many of the original settlers of Pekin, Haines came from Ohio.

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Pekin Ice House

The days of the old ice houses

For an older generation, the cold and ice of winter can bring to mind a long-defunct industry that once employed hundreds of men in Pekin – the ice industry.

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Pekin Daily Times

News of days gone by: the 1st Pekin Daily Times

“Citizens of Pekin, here your daily is!” With these words, the Pekin Daily Times made its debut 139 years ago this month. It began as a four-page broadsheet, with five columns to a page, published by Joseph B. Irwin and W. T. Dowdall, and delivered by four newsboys: Ad Merrill, Charley Wagenseller, Benny Irwin, and Johnny Michael.

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Pekin Hotel

Memories of Pekin's lost hotels

Modern travelers passing through Pekin or staying for a few days have a few hotels to choose from out on the east end of town, but in the past downtown Pekin had an array of hotels where visitors to “the Celestial City” could find food and a place to lay their heads at night.

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Mineral Springs

The mineral spring of Mineral Springs Park

The Pekin Park District was established in 1902, but the history of Pekin’s parks in fact begins 20 years earlier, when Mineral Springs Park – called “the jewel in the crown” of the Park District system by “Pekin: A Pictorial History” – was founded as a privately-owned park.

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Pekin Trolley Cars

Trolley cars on Pekin's streets

In terms of public transportation in Pekin today, we have the Peoria-based CityLink bus system. But in the past, Pekin was served by its own bus lines — and before that, by street cars. Pekin’s trolley system began as an abortive private venture which was taken over and run by the city.

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Pekin's seeds of faith

The first white settlers in Pekin, the Tharps, arrived in 1824 and 1825. “The Tharps had become Methodists before they left Ohio, and so Jacob Tharp welcomed a circuit-riding Methodist minister, Reverend Jesse Walker, into his log cabin in 1826 to conduct Town Site’s first preaching service,” says the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial.

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