History & Architecture

There always has to be a first and with Springfield the person who first settled and put down roots was John Kelley. He traveled with his family from North Carolina to what was then the most western state in the union. The City of Springfield sprung from where his cabin was built. Kelley in another place might have changed Springfield’s early development or perhaps prevented the original town from ever being platted. If John Kelley never located here the City of Springfield might not even exist today.

Pioneer Springfield

In 1818, when Illinois became the nation’s twenty-first state, Sangamon County was a virtually uninhabited region in the central part of the state. Often referred to as the “Sangamo Country,” it was seen as a land of plenty by the few who had ventured far from Illinois’ southern settlements. Years later, Illinois Governor John Reynolds claimed “Sangamon” (a word often interchangeable with “Sangamo”) was Pottawatomie for “where there is plenty to eat.” One of these men to venture into the Sangamo Country was Elisha Kelley, a native of North Carolina and hunter from Illinois’ Macoupin County.

Elisha Kelley appears to have been quite taken with the area’s rich soil and plentiful resources: following his 1818 trip into the Illinois interior, Kelley returned to his family in North Carolina and persuaded them to return with him to the Sangamo Country. In 1819, the first of many Kelleys, Elisha’s brother John and his family, arrived in what would become Springfield. They built a cabin near the northwest corner of modern day Klein and Jefferson Streets, for which John Kelley is generally recognized as Springfield’s first settler.

John Kelley and family were true pioneers. They came as squatters, among the earliest to move so far from an established, east cost state and so deep into this relatively unknown part of Illinois. John’s family, together with his father, brothers (including Elisha), and their families, settled in close proximity to each other, creating the closest thing to a town in this part of Illinois. Additional settlers were attracted to the settlement for both the sense of security provided by close neighbors and the richness of the Sangamo Country. Other pioneers, like Dr. Gershom Jayne and the merchant Elijah Iles, soon joined the Kelleys and the settlement began to take on the appearance of a town. In 1821, when the Illinois General Assembly created Sangamon County (then bordered by the Illinois River and a legal line known as the 3rd principle meridian running through the center of Illinois), the settlement “near John Kelley’s field” was named temporary county seat and christened Springfield, after Spring Creek which flowed nearby.

Although Springfield became the permanent county seat after beating out the upstart Sangamo Town in later years, it took another decade before Springfield was officially incorporated as a town. The first dilemma to be overcome by early boosters was physical ownership of land in Sangamon County. Settlers of this portion of Illinois were technically squatters until November, 1823, when the Springfield Land Office opened, making United States land officially available for purchase in Sangamon County. Earlier in 1823, John Kelley entered into an agreement with Elijah Iles, John Taylor, and Congressman Daniel P. Cook to purchase the sections of land Kelley, Iles, and Taylor had settled upon with the intent of platting a town from which lots could be sold at a profit. Kelley, however, had the misfortune to die before he could purchase his claim and it was instead sold to Thomas Cox.

The proprietors platted the town and named it Calhoun, after the famous United States Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. Senator Calhoun was famous at the time for his support of the developing west, but time proved him to be a states rights advocate whose doctrines became the foundation for the secession of the confederate states during the Civil War. Like its namesake, the town’s platted name enjoyed little popularity in Sangamon County and reverted to its common name, Springfield. When the settlement was finally incorporated in 1833, it was as the town of Springfield. Had the name Calhoun remained as originally platted, one can only imagine the irony of Abraham Lincoln, the president who saved the Union, coming from a city named for the man most responsible for tearing that same Union apart. Fortunately, Lincoln will always be associated with his beloved Springfield.

In the years that followed, Springfield grew. New settlers arrived to farm the region and pioneer businessmen arrived to service the town and surrounding countryside. By 1830, Springfield boasted a population of about one thousand while the future metropolis of Chicago could claim less than 350 souls. Springfield had grown within a decade from a settlement of squatters, little more than pioneers living off the land, to a thriving frontier town with tradesmen, professionals, and land speculators looking for an opportunity to make it rich. Within its second decade, the town became a city and the Illinois State Capital, boasting a population of over twenty-five hundred.

Although today it bears little resemblance to its frontier roots, the city of Springfield can trace its history back over 185 years to John Kelley’s small cabin on the Illinois prairie. It was Kelley and his family who sent the word out about the beauty and richness of the land, causing others to follow. Kelley, his wife, and other early family members died and were among the first to be buried here. Often forgotten by those who have lived in Springfield, or merely visited the city, Springfield owes John Kelley and his family their gratitude for establishing roots in the area while putting the region on the map.

For more information, see:

John Kelley’s homestead was located in the southeast quarter of section twenty-eight, township sixteen north, range five west of the third principle meridian, as surveyed by the Federal Government. A portion of Kelley’s quarter section, together with portions of the three quarter sections to the south and east, later became the town of Springfield. Today, Kelley’s land is outlined by Washington, Walnut, Miller and First Streets, at the northwestern most point of the original town plat.