Charles J. Searle Oration
Mr. President, Citizens of Rock Island County, Ladies and Gentlemen: I feel highly flattered at being accorded the privilege of taking part in the important ceremony of laying the corner stone of your new “Temple of Justice,” and while the nature of a statistical paper for permanent preservation, requires me to indulge in a greater use of statistics than is conducive to present any temporary interest, I have striven, in the very limited time I have had to bestow upon the task, to cull out of the records and traditions of the county such statistical information as in my opinion would most interest those present, as well as future inhabitants of the county, to whose curious gaze the contents of this corner stone will be revealed, perhaps a century from now. My endeavor shall be to confine myself almost exclusively to matters of local interest, but no historical or other information concerning Rock Island County would be complete without taking somewhat into consideration the history and growth of our country as a whole. The records of the world’s history disclose the rise and fall of many great and prosperous nations, but history never recorded such great, rapid, and, we hope, enduring, progress of a people as has been witnessed into the United States since its formation. Pre-eminently a peaceful nation, our area has grown from 827,844 square miles in 1789, to 3,603,844 square miles in 1895, and that too, mostly by peaceful conquest. Our population has grown from 3,929,214 in 1790, to 62,622,250 in 1890. Under the benign influence of the free institutions handed down to us by our illustrious forefathers, from a few scattered settlements, skirting along the Atlantic seaboard. we have developed into a mighty nation. A nation whose institutions are not beyond improvement, but in the main, filled with a happy, prosperous people. A nation of inestimable wealth. A highly civilized nation, filled with churches, schools and libraries. A nation making unprecedented strides in industry, art, science and education. A nation that is indeed the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” A nation of the utmost possibilities of resources and development, and destined, I hope, to be during all time, the greatest, grandest nation the world ever saw. Illinois, our beloved state, taking its name from the Indian word, “Illini,” signifying “Superior Men,” has, in the short space of seventy-seven years, from its admission in 1818, grown to be a mighty empire of 3,826,351 people. The virgin soil of her wonderful prairies, the wealth of her primeval forests and the hidden treasures of her mines, have made her the gem of that great galaxy of states known as the “Great North-west,” which has no equal in fertility, re-sources and possibilities of development on the face of the earth. Great as our National and State development have been, Rock Island County has kept pace with our common country; and that, too, notwithstanding the fact that we came so comparatively late in the order of settlement. Marquette and Joliet were likely the first white persons to set eyes on the then wild, beautiful and romantic scenery of Rock Island County, at that time the home of the Indian and the buffalo, in the year 1673. The first white settler was Colonel George Davenport, who located, with his family, on the beautiful island in the Mississippi River between here and Davenport in 1816, a time within the memory of quite a number of the grand old patriarchs within the sound of my voice. Little did the unbroken wildernesso surrounding that solitary habitation, distant hundreds of miles from any other, forebode the marvelous development that has taken place here since its erection. The first house erected on the main shore of our county was by Colonel George Davenport and Russell Farnham, in the eastern part of our present city. The first white child born in this vicinity was George Davenport, in 1817. The first lands that were entered were entered October 19, 1829, by Colonel George Davenport and Russell Farnham, the government land office then being at Galena, Illinois. The first marriage was that of James I. Burtis to Angeline Beardsley, in 1833. In 1805 for the first time the flag of the Union proudly waved ,over Rock Island County’s present domain, is beautiful field of blue then only contained a constellation of seventeen stars instead of forty-five, as now. The early settlement was slow, for, while nature was kind and presented few obstacles to settlement, the savage and treacherous Indian did. It required the Black Hawk War of 1832, that had for battle ground the beautiful prairies and unbroken forests of Rock Island County, to drive the able and revengeful Black Hawk and his tribe beyond the Mississippi, to make way for the advancing tide of settlement and civilization. It was not till 1833, that the inhabitants had increased sufficiently to justify the legislative act of that year, providing for the organization of the county, and even then the total vote of the county was only sixty-five. The first seat of justice was established in the same year, at John Barrel’s house, in what was then called Farnhamsburg, now a part of the City of Rock Island. In 1835 the seat of justice was changed by commissioners appointed by an act of the legislature, to the present site, in what was then called the town of Stephenson. Richard M. Young was the first judge to preside over the circuit court, Joseph Conway was the clerk, Benjamin F. Pike, sheriff; Thomas Ford, state’s attorney, and Joel Wells the foreman of the grand jury. Lists of the jurors, witnesses and parties to suits, disclose the names of the ancestors of a great many of our present ‘citizens, many of whom are prominently known, but which my limited time will not permit me to give. The circuit then including Rock Island County was known as the Fifth Judicial Circuit, and included the counties of Cook, LaSalle, Putnam, Peoria, Fulton, Schuyler, Adams, Han-cock, McDonough, Knox, Warren, Jo Daviess, Mercer and Henry. The first attorneys at the bar were Ford, Turney, Smith, Maxwell, Strode, Walker and Mills; these were soon followed by such well remembered characters as Knox, Drury and Wilkinson. The first hotel, tavern as they were then called, -was opened in 1833, belonging to Jonah H. Case, whose family has ever since been prominent in the county. Private schools were opened at an early date, and free schools were established in 1856. The first church (Methodist Episcopal) was built in 1844; the first library opened in 1855, and the first newspaper, the Rock Island Banner and Stephenson Gazette was started in 1839. The City of Rock Island, including the towns of Stephenson and Farnhamsburg, and outlying additions, was organized in 1841. What was known as “Rock Island Mills” was in 1843 organized into the beautiful City of Moline, “the city of mills.” Camden, afterwards “Camden Mills” and now Milan, was laid out in 1843; Port Byron, in 1836; Cordova, in 1837; Hampton, in 1834; Rapid City, in 1833; Coal Valley, in 1856: Andalusia, in 1859; Edgington, in 1843, and Reynolds, in 1876. The assessed valuation of the county in 1833, immediately after its organization was so low that the taxes collected only amounted to the sum of $53.72 1/2, so that it can be readily seen that the county’s affairs did not permit any great defalcations on the part of the county officials. The population of the county in 1840, at the time of the first census, was 2,610 souls. But few in numbers, and poor though they then were, the people of the county in 1835, with commendable public spirit and ambition, and with a realization of the future needs of the county, resolved to build a court house. They let the contract for $10,500, furnishing the brick themselves at a cost of $1,600, making a total cost of $12,100 at the time of the acceptance of the completed building in 1838. Humble as it now seems, it was then a grand structure, one of the finest buildings in the state, and was the pride of the city and county for years. Its erection had entailed an expenditure of perhaps not less than $10 for every man, woman and child in the county, which in view of the poverty of the people and the scarcity of money then in circulation, was indeed an evidence of the greatest public spirit; an amount of money harder to raise then than $1,000,000 would be now by the people of this county. Could the walls of the old building relate the scenes they have witnessed, what a story they could tell. From it have issued more than 17,000 official licenses, authorizing the solemn, God ordained rites of matrimony; and there we find the sad record of thousands of deaths; records of joy and happiness on the one hand, and of grief and sorrow on the other. There are recorded the story of elections, the history of the rise and fall of many an ambition. There are preserved the evidences of the titles of the people to their homes and their belongings; the administration of the estate of departed loved ones; the financial records of the county; the enlistment of the heroic volunteer for the preservation of our National life, and his honorable discharge; in the record of the 11,697 civil causes that have been recorded on the dockets of the circuit court, we have a record of conquest and defeat, justice and injustice, poverty and wealth, anxiety and exultation, hope and fear. The criminal records, disclosing 4,554 cases, tell us a tale of injustice, hate, malice, revenge, crime in all its hideous forms, from the most trivial offenses, to robbery, rape and murder. If its walls would reverberate the echoes it has heard and flash upon our vision the sights it has seen, what sights we would indeed behold, what sounds we would hear! We would see every phase of human character, good and bad. We would witness the play of every emotion of the human mind and heart. We would see the joyous, hopeful bride, the grief stricken mother; we would see the anxious, uplifted faces of litigants as they scrutinized the jury, or waited with bated breath for the decision of the judge; we would hear the exultant, victorious laugh of the victor, and the heart-broken sobs of the convicted criminal, his relatives and friends; we would see many a fierce combat between giants at the bar; we would be startled at their audacity; we would wonder at their display of earnestness and passion; we would be thrilled by their eloquence as they pleaded for the property, liberty and lives of their clients; we would anxiously await the verdict of the jury; and at last we would listen to the solemn sentence of the upright judge. But the old building has long been inadequate. From a population of 2,610 in 1840 we now number nearly 50,000 souls. Instead of two marriages on record as in 1833, last year we had 390. To keep abreast of the times and to meet the demands of the county, the people have elected to build this fine building. On the 20th day of June, 1895, the contract for its construction was let for $112,201. According to the contract, it is to be fully completed by November 1, 1896. From all indications, it will be a grand and stately structure, an ornament, and the pride of the county for generations to come, and commensurate with the needs and demands of the county. It will perhaps remain the seat of justice of the county for a century. In it will be repeated, only on a large scale and in a more multifarious form, the history of the old court house. In it the county’s affairs will be hereafter conducted, justice will be administered, rights secured, guilt punished, innocence vindicated; the constitutional rights of life, liberty and the pursuits of happiness conserved. The time is not far distant when court will have to be held throughout the year; yes, when the court will have to be held in sections, for this court house will still be in use when this county will have a population of 150,000 people or more. Well may the people of Rock Island County anticipate the era of wonderful increase of population, wealth and progress we are just now fairly entering upon, by the erection of this grand building; for second to none in natural resources, industry and thrift, we will be in the van of enterprise and progress.
Source: Historic Rock Island County, pub. Kramer & Company, Rock Island, Illinois, 1908