Search billions of records on

Return to Mercer Home Page
Part 2 - 1834 to 1845
Part 4 - 1860 to 1865
Surnames Page
Social and Home Life in the 50's and 60's

Part 3: Mercer County - 1845 to 1860

Mechanization of Agriculture

New Boston and Eliza Townships were rural communities. Before 1850 the advent of machinery in farm production had a profound effect. Pooley, in Settlement of Illinois, 1830-1850, tells us that in 1850 Illinois was fifth among the states in the amount of wheat produced and third in the amount of corn. By 1860 it was first in both wheat and corn production. This increase could be laid directly to the use of drills for planting seed, mowing machines for hay, reapers for grain, threshing machines, and other farm machinery. James Emerson brought a traveling treshing machine all the way from Wayne County, Indiana. Interestingly, many machines were invented locally, as will be discussed in family pages. ( Poffenbarger) (Kirlin). In 1851 Cyrus McCormick of Chicago took his reaper to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London where it won the Gold Medal. By 1856 the reaper was famous worldwide, and it was a definite factor in the accelerating westward expansion in the United States. Admiration for McCormick may have been the catalyst for the name "Cyrus" suddenly appearing in families, such as the Beard and Davis families in Mercer County. McCormick's factory was in Chicago and his reaper was readily available in Mercer County. Wells Willits advertised in April 1863: "...agent for Mercer County for the sale of C. H. McCormick's reaper and mower, New Boston, Ill."

Organization of Agriculture

In 1853 the Mercer County Agricultural Board was organized by prominent farmers in the county, for the encouragement and promotion of agricultural and mechanical pursuits. Amos Prouty and Dudley Willits represented New Boston and Eliza Townships respectively. Part of the encouragement included an annual exhibition or County Fair held in the fall of each year in Millersburg. The local newspapers carried lists of the fair categories and the prize winners. These articles present both a snapshot of the crops and home activities in the County, and a listing of the specialties of each family who participated. Details of the fairs of 1857, 1859, and 1864 are included in the Social Life pages. We will also include prize information from the County Fairs on family pages. In addition to its reputation for farm crops, Mercer County began about this time to develop very good lines of blooded stock, particularly horses (see sample advertisement at bottom of the page). See Cook page for more advertisements.

Townships along the Mississippi River had an additional benefit in periodic flooding that constantly renewed the soil. Working with machinery allowed for larger farms and more farm profits. New Boston & Eliza Townships also had access to the transportation route of the Mississippi River for getting crops to market, and failure to bring rail transportation into the county did not hamper growth. (There were other opinions on this - some felt that New Boston would have become a thriving city with the proper advent of a railroad.)

Growth of Towns & Organization of Townships

With the advent of more and better crops, the settlers began to have discretionary cash. Merchants benefitted and stores and their stock of supplies grew larger. The area was growing up.

A small town sprang up in Township 15North, Range 5West. Edwin Bishop settled on Section 16 about 1850 and started a blacksmith shop. It was called Bishop's Corners until Mr. Bishop was appointed postmaster, when the name reverted to Eliza. No store was located there until much later. {Click for Map} Roads were laid out beginning in about 1850. A township organization meeting was held April 2, 1854, and officers were elected. Eliza Township was set up including both Township 15North, Range 5West {Map}, and Township 15North Range 6West {Map}. In the 1850 census, 85 families resided in Township 15 North, Range 5West, and no one resided in T15N R6W. (This was according to the census so take with a grain of salt; as mentioned in Part 2 this area was largely timberland but a few people did live there as we have discovered in various histories, but evidently missed in the censuses.)

Townships 14North, Range 5 & 6West were organized into New Boston Township in 1852. In the 1850 census, 145 families resided in Township 14North, Range 5West {Map} including 49 in New Boston Town. No one resided in T14N R6W (see comment under T15N R6W above).

The great majority of the families in both Eliza and New Boston Townships were farmers. The total number of families for the two townships was 229, or an increase of 94 families between 1840 and 1850. All but 46 families were engaged in farming.

New Boston town was laid out into lots in 1834 as discussed in Part 1. Some of the lot ownerships over time can be determined from delinquent tax lists. Ferreting out what mercantile establishments started when is difficult and must be done from a combination of family histories, county histories, census records, and newspaper advertisements. We will start a list here that will change as we go through our records: (See Medicine page for more on physicians and druggists).
John Asp, blacksmith
Mark Willits,physician
Thomas Willits, physician
Edmund Harrell, physician
J. O. Allen, physician
A. W. Tipton, physician
Simeon P. Smith, physician & teacher
Joseph Alyea, druggist & merchant (J. Alyea & Son, 1855)
Thomas Alyea, druggist & merchant
John Beeson (also see Denison), druggist
William Drury, merchant (People's Store as Drury & Willits, 1847)
John Willits, druggist
James Emerson, lumber merchant
Thomas Doughty, saddler (see Shields)
Gilbert Ives, saddler (see Surnames for link)
Gideon Ives, merchant (Ives & Dennison) (see Surnames for link)
James Doughty, merchant
Elmore Denison, merchant
Joseph Denison, potter
William Denison, potter
John Swafford, shoe maker
James Bell, merchant
James Thompson, merchant (People's Store as Thompson & Drury, 1849, Bell & Thompson, 1856)
David Kirlin, cabinet maker and undertaker
Michael Poffenbarger, blacksmith
William Schamerhorn, blacksmith
Levi Willits, merchant
Wells Willits, merchant
Courtney Drury, merchant
Richard Thomas, merchant & post master (1856- see ad below in "Connections...") (Maze & Thomas, New Boston Cash Store, 1855)
S. V. Prentiss and M. M. Prentiss, druggists (New Boston Drugstore) (See Medicine page for their advertisement.)
William Avery, hotel proprietor (Railroad Hotel, New Boston, 1856)
Sadler Sinclair, machine building (New Boston Foundry, 1853)
T. K. Holden, machine building (New Boston Foundry, 1855)
Joseph Graham, blacksmith (shop in New Boston, 1855)
F. A. C. Foreman, real estate agent
William Beckett, started a tavern in 1854 but by 1855 had been convinced by temperance workers to convert it to a bakery and ice cream parlor
Henry B. Southward, grocer
Lyman Scudder, livery stable

Proximity to the River, the need to move merchandise, and the need for new buildings supported several other occupations in New Boston town: Zebulon Willet, ferryman (see the History of the New Boston ferry)
Daniel McCurdy, cooper (see Denison)
Thomas Green, cooper (see Beach)
James McChesney, cooper
Harley Ives, cooper (see Surnames for link)
Andrew Gingles, carpenter
Sidney Chidester, carpenter
Anderson Kirlin, carpenter
Josiah Maxfield, wagon maker (see Prentiss)
Henry Hires, wagon maker
Garret DeBaum, painter
In 1856 Henry Roberts and Joseph Graham built a three-story brick carriage and wagon factory
Others provided supporting roles as laborers and clerks

One occupation notably absent in the 1850 and 1860 censuses in New Boston was banker. This reflected a general trend in Illinois of a distrust by yeoman farmers of bankers. Bankers were seen as people who did not make their living by labor and who must therefore, of necessity, obtain their money by illicit means from poor and unsuspecting citizens (The Emerging Midwest, Nicole Etcheson, Indiana University Press, 1996). Mistrust was fueled by financial panics and bank closings such as reported in 1855 in the local paper, The Golden Age. Something of a barter system still existed, as some of the mercantile establishments offerred cash or goods in exchange for farm produce. Often, though, merchants were reduced to pleas for payment of bills so they could restock their stores.

Connections to the Outside World

From an 1856 advertisement in the New Boston Non-Pareil { Click} by postmaster R. Thomas, we know steamboats arrived twice daily at New Boston. Mail was delivered on a regular schedule and letters could be posted to California and Oregon.

In 1859, the people of New Boston subscribed to the ill-fated Western Airline Railroad, but they would not pay until a train came to town, and the train would not come until the money was received.

In 1855 the townspeople of New Boston raised a $200 purse to assure the continued publication of the newspaper, then the Golden Age (see more on the Newspapers page).

Gold in California

As discussed in Part 2, beginning about 1845 some settlers began to leave the area when new territories opened up elsewhere. There were always those dissatisfied with others crowding in, as well as those who had an inherent wanderlust. The largest outflow began with the discovery of gold in California in 1849, but many settlers became discouraged with the conditions they found in California, and some returned to Mercer County. Anyone who believes their family lived in Mercer County in the mid-1800's and can't find them in the 1850 census should check the California censuses. We will include information in family histories, but are also putting up a separate page on gold fever for there were several gold rushes over the years that pulled Mercer County people away.

German Families

Apparently some effort was made to combat the outflow of settlers. We noted that several German families settled in Mercer County about 1852/53. Since they arrived almost at the same time, we assumed they came together. However, an examination of ship's records from Germany showed they arrived at different ports: some at New York, some at New Orleans, etc. Looking into this a little further, it was found that ships were often met by "agents" who directed new arrivals where to find good land, and how to get there. Since these families all came immediately to Mercer County, we have to assume that they were being directed there from their ports of arrival. Whether agents were representing individuals or the County we have no way of knowing, as there is no mention in the History of Mercer County, 1882 of the arrival of these German families. See the German Families page that includes those who settled in, or had connections with, New Boston and Eliza Township.

Pennsylvania Families

There was an influx of Central Pennsylvania families to Illinois from about 1846 into the 1860's. Some of these Pennsylvania families arrived in Mercer County. Again, we are not sure why they chose Mercer County; perhaps friends and neighbors already there wrote back about the fine qualities of Mercer County. Or perhaps, once underway to Illinois they simply continued west until they were stopped by the Mississippi River.

Social Organization

Another notable event in the early 1850's was the establishment of the County Poor Farm. Prior to that time, indigent souls were cared for by individuals at County expense, or were provided for by overseers of the poor appointed by the county commissioners for the various townships. A very good history of the Poor Farm is included in the History of Mercer County, 1882. Regular records were kept after 1859 and the records help us determine what happened to some families. We have added a page for the Mercer County Farm although it was located in Perryton Township, because residents of New Boston and Eliza Township are sometimes found among its inmates.

Another fallout from the advent of machinery and the new prosperity was the formation of social organizations, including church societies, Odd Fellows, and Masons. A Universalist Church was organized early in New Boston. Many Mercer County families later embraced the Universalist religion, which was based on spiritualism. Since one of the major tenets of spiritualism was contact with departed loved ones, it is easy to see how it became popular in this time period when we consider the death rate from disease, especially among children. (See Social Life in the 50ís and 60ís for more.)

The first whiff of temperance arrived, as a mock funeral oration for a shop that sold liquor was published in The Golden Age in March 1855. The liquor store owner, a Mr. Beckett, soon converted his shop to baking and ice cream making. The election of 1855 put emphasis on the liquor issue, and on election day, the women of New Boston searched the places where liquor was sold. Pre-warned, the proprietors had hidden the goods. The election of 1858 again focused on the liquor issue. The year before, two "wet" groceries had been licensed "with distasteful and unpleasant results," but most of the citizens favored "a dram occassionally." The sale of liquor was continued ("Pathways to the Present in 50 Iowa and Illinois Communites.")

More attention to schooling was evident in the 1850's. We have put up a separate page on schools, as there were several family involvements of note, and the evolution of the school system takes up much more than the few sentences we could allow here.

New Land Available

More soldiers' bounty lands became available in the mid-1850's. Citizens were informed of the Act in the May 28, 1855, edition of The Golden Age (clipping below). Veterans, widows and minor children, or those who had not received a full allotment of 160 acres of bounty land, could apply for the remainder. For an example of how they applied see the Long Family Papers. Speculators bought these warrants and re-sold them. Examination of warrant deeds reveals the original soldier and the purchaser's identity.

During this time period, federal land unsuitable for use was released to the state. The state sold this poor land cheaply to farmers. Proceeds of sales were to be used in drainage projects on the land.

Growth of Aledo

About 1857 there began to be a great deal of concern that the new town of Aledo would siphon off all the business from New Boston. In actuality it meant a great deal of business, particularly for the lumber yard, in supplying materials for all the new houses springing up in Aledo. Aledo had grown in about one year to a town of 1500 people. The first issue of the Aledo Weekly Record was published 7/14/1857. The history of the town is amply covered in the History of Mercer County 1882.

Growth of New Boston and Eliza Townships

By the 1860 census we find 319 families in New Boston Township and 152 in Eliza Township. Obviously the inflow of settlers greatly outnumbered the outflow. The population had more than tripled since 1840. And the German families who left Germany to keep their young sons out of mandatory military service soon found their sons facing a war in the U.S.

Moving Toward the Civil War

There was much debate in the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois over the slave question in the 1850's. The Fugitive Slave Act, which provided for the return of slaves to their owners, did not sit well with the northerners. And the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, ruling that a slave was not a person, pointed toward the inevitable Civil War. Despite all the rhetoric about slavery, it is interesting that the Mercer County population (along with other Illinois counties) was nearly all white. The Dred Scott Decision probably discouraged any escaping slaves from staying in the state, but what about free slaves? Freedom seemed to be an abstract concept, not one that was practiced by welcoming black families with open arms.

Residents of Mercer County however did participate in the underground railroad. There is a very interesting article by Josephine Nichols in the Aledo Times Record, July 24, 1996, about "Mercer County's fugitive slave railroad." She has done much research in identifying stops on the railroad in Mercer County. Illinois routes are defined and include "Two routes farther north in Illinois began at New Boston and Port Byron. From New Boston the runaways traveled east through Aledo, Viola, New Windsor to Andover then to Geneseo and Prophetstown." The History of Mercer County 1882, page 662 "For several years previous to and during the war, the people in the western part of the township [Greene] are said to have been large stockholders in the underground railway."

Golden Age, New Boston, Illinois, Wednesday morning, April 26, 1854
Black Hawk
This horse will stand the present season at the stable of the subscriber, six miles north east of New Boston at $2.50 the single service; $4 the season, (if paid within the season, otherwise $5 will be required) and six dollars the insurance, payable the first of March next.
Said horse is a Chestnut sorrel, 16 hands high 15 years old this spring, of great muscular development, lofty and commanding appearance susceptible of the highest excitement, which brings him without an effort into the most gay and splendid attitude. Before purchasing said horse from Mr. B. Short, near Springfield in this State, I learned as I beleive the following facts, to wit: that he has owned said horse from a four year old, that he has not been moved from his stable but two seasons, has stood at high figures, has the finest and highest priced horses in that section, is still in high repute there &c,&c. As he was kept last season, by Mr. Hubbard, of our country we can see many of his colts, his pedigree is two lengthy to insert here, suffice it to say he claims to have decended from the most celebrated turf horses in our country, as his appearance indicates, for further particulars age hand &c. Eliza Creek, March 26, 1854.