Historical Overview of Jacksonville, IL

Today’s post is an introduction to Jacksonville’s early days and demographics. It is not comprehensive but will acquaint you with the world of American Athena. 

Jacksonville is peculiar town with a peculiar sense of history. In many ways, it is typical of mid-size Midwestern cities. It struggles to remain economically viable, as state institutions and manufacturing centers no longer employ the legions of people they once did. And like many small Midwestern towns, there are core groups of people working to maintain civic pride and revitalize Main Street. Jacksonville is somewhat unique, however, in that its people seem to be deeply grounded and civic boosters bank on its rich history to attract small businesses.

In a spirit of fairness, early surveyors plotted Jacksonville as a county seat in the geographic center of Morgan County. Far from navigable rivers and deficient in natural resources, city planners set their sights on developing institutions to stimulate the economy and attract “respectable citizens.” In 1829, Congregational ministers and Yale alumni established Illinois College, the first Illinois institution of higher learning to conduct classes and graduate students. Edward Beecher served as president from 1830 until 1844. In 1830, the same party established the Jacksonville Female Academy (JFA) to provide an identical liberal arts education for women. Within thirty years, educators founded two more women’s colleges, the Methodist-affiliated Illinois Female College and the secular, radical Young Ladies’ Athenaeum, as well as a conservatory of music and the co-educational (yet short-lived) Berean College.

The Illinois State Hospital for the Insane.
The Illinois State Hospital for the Insane.

The city also featured the Illinois School for the Deaf, the Illinois School for the Blind, the Illinois State Asylum, and several private sanitariums. During the 1850s, the people of Jacksonville transformed their lived experiences with sectional conflict into political action, as they interacted with emerging Democratic and Republican leaders. Stephen A. Douglas maintained a law office in town, while Abraham Lincoln was a frequent visitor. Women played critical roles as reformers, patrons, administrators, teachers, students, alumnae, medical practitioners, and patients. For example, Dorthea Dix aided city leaders in founding the Illinois State Asylum, but in 1864 the institution made national headlines following the publication of Elizabeth Packard’s scathing exposé of its poor conditions.

Jacksonville’s demographics provide an especially dynamic environment in which to study the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race in education and public discourse. In the frontier period, the population primarily consisted of transient working class families from New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, and the upper South. Local institutions also contributed to a diverse community wherein the deaf and visually impaired found employment at local book binderies and manufacturing centers. Even after the Illinois legislature enacted harsh Black Codes in the 1850s, hundreds of free African Americans enjoyed thriving churches, integrated primary schools, and access to housing. An active Underground Railroad aided slaves seeking freedom and in 1865, civil rights activists welcomed Frederick Douglas to address a public audience. By the end of the nineteenth century, a prosperous African American professional class led local movements for civil rights. Leaders included Dr. A.H. Kinniebrew, formerly the personal physician to Booker T. Washington, and Mary J. Jackson, the first president of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. In 1870, approximately 40 percent of the town’s population was foreign-born. Immigrants, including a large group of Portuguese Protestants seeking asylum in the United States, found work as domestic servants, and in manufacturing, agriculture, medical facilities, and educational centers. Yet wealthy, white elites systematically excluded these populations from civic life and higher education. By the 1850s, city leaders passed restrictive laws to curb vice, enforce social control, and encourage assimilation. They emphasized temperance and even the prohibition of alcohol to tame what they saw as immoral behavior among the German and Irish (read: Catholic) immigrants living in the north east sector of the city otherwise known as “The Patch.” By the 1860s, we can see assimilationist ideas emerging in the college curricula as notions of whiteness, wellness, and the creation of “the other.”

The diverse, transient population of Jacksonville makes it typical of Illinois towns and villages in the nineteenth century, but the town is an ideal location for historians because of an abundance of written sources that comment on that transient population. Women are especially tricky when it comes to the historical record. They are largely absent from land deeds and civic records, but they do show up in legal documents (the courts, wills, etc.), and institutional records, like those of the colleges and state institutions, making this town a treasure trove of historical data.


One thought on “Historical Overview of Jacksonville, IL

  1. Thank you so much for writing this and for doing this blog! A much-needed historical overview of a crucial historical center, and my hometown. If there is anyway I can contribute (maybe in the 1920s…) please let me know.


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