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Champaign County, Illinois

Early History

"The territory now forming the County of Champaign, with all contiguous thereto for many miles in all directions, was, up to the year 1819, held and occupied after the fashion of Indian occupancy, by what was known as the Kickapoo tribe of Indians, and had been so held by them for more than fifty years, and their ownership was recognized by contemporaneous tribes of Indians and military authorities, French, English and American.

"It so continued until the year 1819, when a treaty entered into at Edwardsville, Illinois, on the thirtieth day of July, between the United States and the Kickapoo Indian tribe, represented by its chiefs, ceded territory to the whites. The language of this treaty recites that, "said Kickapoo tribe claims a large portion by descent from their ancestors, and the balance by conquest from the Illinois nation and undisputed possession for more than half a century.

"This treaty was confirmed and re-declared a month later between the same parties in a treaty held at Vincennes. Upon the making of these treaties, the Kickapoos at once departed to their new home beyond the Mississippi, and this, according to the records of those times, ended the Indian occupation of this country, as well as ended the claims of any Indians to the soil, except the right claimed by certain Pottawatomies and others who, for many years, made their annual visits to this country during their hunting expeditions.

"The surveys of the land were completed in the year 1822, and the traditions gathered from those who came here to stay and did stay and become permanent dwellers and land owners, name this as the year in which the first white man's home was erected, and the same authority recognizes Runnel Fielder and his family as the first white dwellers within Champaign County."[1]

"Champaign County has an exceptionally interesting history. We have not, however, proposed to place this on record, yet a few lines regarding its location, advantages, and the wonderful transformation made from the wilderness of forty years ago, will not, we deem, be inappropriate. While there is no county in the State that possesses all the advantages of an Acadia, yet Champaign County may be credited with coming as near to this as any one of them. Its geographical location is very favorable, being only 128 miles south of Chicago, 160 northwest of St. Louis, 106 west of Indianapolis, and ninety miles east of Peoria. This happy location gives it ready access by rail to the cities named, and enables it to secure the benefits of favorable markets. In area, Champaign County is among the largest in the State, and for the value of its products, it is excelled by few. It is exceedingly well laid out, being an oblong square, thirty-six miles north and south and twenty-eight miles east and west, and having an acreage of 645,120, with a population in round numbers of about 42,000. This entire area is under good cultivation, having good roads, elegant farms, fine houses and excellent schools.

The county is traversed by four different lines of railroads, giving it ample transportation facilities. Its topography is very favorable. The land forms a watershed which carries the water off in every direction. One of the highest points between Chicago and Cairo is at Ludlow. The drainage is good, and there are very few sloughs now in the county. The soil is a rich, black vegetable loam, varying from one to two feet in depth, and very productive. The county is covered mostly with undulating prairies with occasional groves, and some slightly broken lands. It is well watered by numerous streams. Underlying the surface are extensive coal beds which afford a ready and cheap article of fuel. The climate is of the medium temperature, which makes it very desirable as a place of residence, and very favorable to agricultural interests as well as stock-raising.

Though settlers came into the county at a very early date, the commencement of its rapid growth may be dated from the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1854-55. This was the turning point in the history of the county. The settlements at first were confined to groves and timber belts, and the cabins were built of logs. The first white men to come into the county, as far as is known, were the United States surveyors, who divided the county into townships. This was in the summer of 1821. Prior to this, it is supposed, there were hunters and trappers here, but they left no name or sign behind them of their coming or going. The first settler or squatter, was Runnel Fielder, who came in 1822, and located in the northeast corner of section 11, Urbana Township. Fielder, however, made no entry of land until 1828, which was on section 12, Urbana Township. This pioneer has also the credit of planting the first orchard in the county. Permanent settlement was not begun until the year 1828.

Champaign, like all new counties in this State, until brought under cultivation, was the home and nursery of malarial diseases. They were a great hindrance to the settlement of the county. Sometimes there were not well persons enough in a neighborhood to take care of the sick. Physicians were few, or entirely wanting.

The first school-house was built in 1832, near Urbana. Not long before this was the first school taught. The county was organized from lands attached to Vermilion County by an act of the Legislature, approved Feb. 28. 1833. The first meeting of the County Commissioners was held in May following. Commissioners from Clark, Coles and Edgar Counties were appointed to locate the county seat. Urbana received this honor, though there were other places contesting. The only post-office in the county at that time was on the farm of Matthias Rhinehart, and was named Van Buren, after Martin Van Buren, who was then occupying the poisition of Vice President of the United States. As soon as the county seat was determined upon, settlers began to gather in. They located at first on the south side of the grove. Stores and shops were soon started, and roads opened to the different parts of the county. The Van Buren post-office was moved to Urbana and its name perished. The population of the county at that time was about 800. In 1835 it had increased to 1,250, and in 1850 to 2,649, not quite 100 a year.

From the advent of the railroads, Champaign County has had a steady and healthy growth, until now she is one of the foremost counties in the State. The principal city is Champaign, which is a very active business place, and an attractive place of residence. Urbana is the county seat and the next in population. Homer, Rantoul, Tolono and Mahomet are also thriving little cities. There are several prosperous villages, among which are St. Joseph and Philo.

Champaign County is the seat of one of the great educational institutions of Illinois, the State University. It has an attractive and healthy location on high grounds, between Champaign and Urbana. The domain occupied by this University embraces about 625 acres. There are several buildings connected with this institution, all of which are well built, commodious and attractive. In addition to agriculture, horticulture, practical mechanics and engineering, the curriculum embraces a full English and a classic course. Great pains have been taken by the State in selecting the best professors and educators for this University, in all its departments, and thoroughness in all branches of study is its distinguishing feature.

The public schools the county has endeavored to make first-class. Some of the city school buildings are elegant, and all are substantial, numbering within the borders of the county about 245.

In the growth and development of her vast resources, in her agriculture and stock-raising, in all the departments of labor in which busy man is engaged; in her churches and schools, in civilization and culture, Champaign County has taken a front rank. Well may her people be proud of their product; well may her pioneers turn with pride to their achievements. Within a half century a wilderness has been subdued and converted into beautiful farms and thriving, populous cities, and a community established commanding the admiration of the country." [2]

[1] History of Champaign County, Illinois with Illustrations, 1878.

[2] Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois, Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.

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