John Wood: Quincy’s First White Settler
In 1821, a native from New York named John Wood came to this vicinity to investigate the claim of a friend who had been granted a land bounty in the Military Tract. This bounty was a large area of land in Western Illinois set aside by an act of Congress as bounties for soldiers from the War of 1812. John Wood was so impressed with the natural resources of the land that he returned in 1822 to become Quincy’s first white settler. Other adventurers came from the East, either to settle on their land grants or to engage in trade, and the little settlement grew and became known as Bluffs because of its location. The site of this town was originally home to Kickapoo, Fox, and Sauk (Sac) Native American Tribes. In 1825 the commissioners drove a stake into John’s Square and named the settlement Quincy, in honor of the newly elected U.S. President, John Quincy Adams. Quincy was incorporated as a town in 1834 and as a city in 1840.
Quincy’s Earliest Settlers
Five thousand members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, were forced from their homes in Missouri and were brought to Quincy during the winter of 1838-1839. The new residents vastly outnumbered the people of the town. They did not have their own place to sleep and food was scarce. However, the people of Quincy provided food and shelter for the Mormons until Joseph Smith led his followers 40 miles up river to the settlement of Nauvoo.
Quincy’s earliest settlers, primarily from New England, were joined by a mass of German immigrants in the 1840s. The new residents brought with them much needed skills for the developing community. Quincy expanded rapidly in the 1850’s with a growing population of 13,000. The town was on the rise, and steamboat arrivals and departures along the Mississippi made the riverfront a beehive of activity. Flour and saw mills flourished, for the fertile soil yielded excellent crops of grain; game was abundant throughout the land; oak, hickory and walnut timber came in quantity from the forests that were cut down to make way for the expanding community; and trade flourished. From these conditions came the nickname “The Gem City.” Large numbers of German immigrants who had come by boat to New Orleans continued their journey up the river and settled in Quincy, bringing to the community skilled craftsmen and high caliber citizens. Manufacturers increased to include stoves, plows, household furniture, organs, carriages, and farm wagons. Several breweries and a distillery also prospered. As Quincy’s population exploded during the mass migration from Germany, the new immigrants, who brought styles of their home country, changed its culture.
Quincy: An Important Part of the Underground Railroad
In Quincy’s early years, the matter of slavery was a major religious and social issue. The location of the city in the free state of Illinois, which was only separated by the Mississippi River from the slave state of Missouri, made Quincy the center of political controversy. Sixty-five community leaders chartered the first Adams County Anti-Slavery Society, which was the first in Illinois. It was because of where the city was located, the available ways of transportation, and the Anti-Slavery Society, that Quincy became an important part of the system known as the Underground Railroad. From their home at 415 Jersey, Dr. Richard and Jane Eells helped spirit fugitive slaves to freedom. They were caught trying to help a fleeing Monticello, Missouri slave. An ensuing legal battle was pursued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to become the most celebrated litigation involving the Underground Railroad. During these years of development, the question of slavery had become a growing issue in Quincy, as well as other parts of the country. Most Quincyians were abolitionists, and those who were most strongly opposed to slave holding formed an abolition society. Slaves were assisted in escaping from their owners to make their way to freedom in Canada. They were transported by boat from the banks of Missouri across the river to Illinois in order to become free. Sympathizers concealed the fleeing slaves in their homes, or at designated “stations” until they could be sent on to the next place and eventually to freedom in the north. This practice caused bitter feelings between the residents of the two states and on more than one occasion abolitionists were captured, tried and imprisoned in Missouri. Dr. David Nelson’s Mission Institute, an abolitionist training school, was also part of the Underground Railroad.
Washington Park and the Famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates
As a river town, Quincy was important as a stop for travelers and as a business and political center. In 1860, John Wood became the 12th Governor of Illinois. Also, from this district, Stephen Douglas was elected to the Congress and later to the Senate. On October 13, 1858, in John’s Square (which became known as Washington Park in 1857), the sixth of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates was held. More than 15,000 people are said to have crowded the square to hear Lincoln draw from Douglas the admission that he favored permitting the states to settle the question of slavery within their borders, a statement which won election to the Senate for Douglas, but two years later went far toward electing Lincoln to the presidency.
The Largest City Within 100 Miles
With the advent of railroads in Illinois, the center of activity swung away from the river, but while other cities have surpassed it in size, Quincy remains the largest city in an area of 100 miles in all directions and retains its sturdy independence. By 1870, Quincy passed Peoria to become the second largest city in Illinois with 24,000 residents. In addition to Burlington, the Wabash Railroad also serves Quincy. Ten miles east of the city is Quincy Regional Airport Baldwin Field, Quincy’s Class 4 municipal airport, named for Tom Baldwin, a native Quincyians and pioneer balloonist and parachutist, through whose efforts the parachute was developed.
America’s First Community Arts Council
Quincy is also home to America’s first Community Arts Council. The Quincy Society of Fine Arts was founded in 1947 and continues to sponsor a wide range of cultural events including fine arts festivals, opera productions, arts classes, historic preservation and theater productions. The area is also the site of ten museums and four national historic districts, including one area with 50 square blocks of well-preserved private homes.
So Much Culture in One City
The South Side German Historic District has much of the city’s historical architecture. Other significant buildings exist: Temple B’nai Sholom is one of America’s earliest Moorish Revival synagogues. The Quincy Museum located on historic Maine Street was featured on a cover of National Geographic as one of the ten most architecturally significant corners in the United States. From 14th to 24th streets, Maine Street is notable for the number of restored homes dating back to the 1800s. The Villa Katherine Castle is a small Moroccan-styled castle situated on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. It is a rarity to find an example of Mediterranean architecture in the Midwest. The “Gem City” has been twice recognized as an All-American City. It has a range of architecture, including several Gothic style churches. The city is home to Quincy University, a Catholic Franciscan College founded in 1860, John Wood Community College, and several other smaller colleges.
The Flood of ’93
During the Mississippi River flood of 1993, the water crested at a record of 32.2 feet, 15 feet above flood stage. The flood of 2008 was not far behind at a crest of 30.8 feet. Riverside companies and business suffered extensive damage during these two massive flooding’s. Throughout all its natural disasters, the city of Quincy still stands strong and is now home to over 40,000 residents and was voted as one of the top ten historic towns in the United States.