Sangamon County and Springfield in Peck’s Gazetteer, 1837

Map from another John Mason Peck publication: A guide for emigrants : containing sketches of Illinois, Missouri, and the adjacent parts, 1831 (

John Mason Peck (1789-1858), traveled widely in Missouri and Illinois as a Baptist missionary. He helped establish more than 900 churches and was important in efforts to eliminate slavery in Illinois.

He also “wrote prolifically,” Wikipedia says, “including on agriculture, frontier history and Native American matters.” Among his books is the epically titled A gazetteer of Illinois: in three parts, containing a general view of the state, a general view of each county, and a particular description of each town, settlement, stream, prairie, bottom, bluff, etc., alphabetically arranged. Peck’s Gazetteer, as it is often called, was published in 1837. The link above takes the reader to the full text on

Here are two excerpts from Peck’s Gazetteer (spelling and punctuation in the original; the “distinguished writer’s” letter regarding Sangamon County has been abridged):

Peck describes Sangamon County

Sangamon County is one of the largest and most flourishing, counties in the state. It is bounded on the north by Tazewell; east, by Macon; south by Montgomery and Macoupin and west by Cass and Morgan counties. The northwestern corner runs down between the Sangamon River, which separates it from Cass county, and Tazewell county, to the Illinois river.*

It is forty-eight miles long, besides the corner mentioned; and forty -five miles wide – containing, in the whole, an area of about 1,270 square miles.

Sangamon county is watered by the Sangamon river and its numerous branches. Those which take their rise within the limits of the county are Clary’s, Rock, Richland, Prairie, Spring, Lick, Sugar, Horse, and Brush creeks, on the south side, proceeding upward in the arrangement; and Crane, Indian, Cantrill’s, Fancy, Wolf and Clear creeks, which enter from the opposite side. Those branches which rise without the county, and yet run a considerable distance within it, are Salt creek and branches, North Fork, and South Fork. These streams not only furnish this county with an abundance of excellent water and a number of good mill seats, but are lined with extensive tracts of first rate timbered land.

Here are oaks of various species, walnut, sugar maple, elm, linden, hickory, ash, hackberry, honey locust, mulberry, sycamore, cotton wood, sassafras, etc., together with the various shrubs, common to the country.

The size of the prairies in Sangamon county is seized upon as an objection, by persons who are not accustomed to a prairie country. But were the timber a little more equally distributed with prairie surface, its supply would be abundant. The prairies vary in width from one to eight or ten miles, and somewhat indefinite in length, being connected at the heads of the streams.

Much of the soil in this county is of the richest quality, being a calcareous loam, from one to three feet deep, intermixed with fine sand. The point of land that lies between the Sangamon and the Illinois rivers, which is chiefly prairie, is divided betwixt inundated land, dry prairie, and sand ridges. A stranger to observations upon the surface of Illinois, upon first sight, would pronounce most parts of Sangamon county a level or plane. It is not so. With the exception of the creek bottoms and the interior of large prairies, it has an undulating surface, quite sufficient to render it one of the finest agricultural districts in the United States. These remarks are not meant exclusively for Sangamon. They apply with equal propriety to many other counties on both sides of the Illinois river. What has been heretofore known to persons abroad as the Sangamon country, may now be included in a large district, containing a number of large and populous counties.

This county contains a larger quantity of rich land than any other in the state, and therefore can maintain a larger agricultural population, which is the great basis of national wealth. A distinguished writer, speaking of the state of Illinois, and particularly of this portion of it, remarks in a letter to a friend from Springfield, Illinois, – of March 2d:

“Our ‘far west’ is improving rapidly, astonishingly. It is five years since I visited it, and the changes within that period are like the work of enchantment. Flourishing towns have grown up, farms have been opened, comfortable dwellings, fine barns and all appurtenances, in a country in which the hardy pioneer had at that time sprinkled a few log cabins. …

“The state of Illinois has probably the finest body of fertile land of any state in the Union, and the opportunities for speculation are numerous – property will continue to advance – admirable farms and town lots may be purchased with a certainty of realizing large profits. …”

The first settlement on the waters of the Sangamon, made by white people for a permanent abode, was in 1819; the county was organized in 1821, and then embraced a tract of country 125 miles long, and seventy-five broad.

The public lands were first offered for sale in November, 1823, by which time, however, farms of considerable size, even to 100 acres of cultivated land, had been made.

At the present time, the borders of the prairies are covered with hundreds of smiling farms, and the interior animated with thousands of domestic animals. The rough and unseemly cabin is giving place to comfortable or brick tenements, and plenty every where smiles upon the labors of the husbandman.

This county is in the geographical centre of the state, and will eventually be in the centre of population.  Its river market and deposit is Beardstown; but much of its imports will be received and its exports sent off by its own river, which has already been navigated by steam to the vicinity of Springfield, and when some of its obstructions are removed, will afford convenient navigation for steamboats of the smaller class. Its exports now are beef cattle, pork, wheat, corn meal, butter, cheese, etc. and soon will include almost every article of a rich, agricultural country.

Sangamon county belongs to the first judicial circuit, sends seven members to the house of representatives, and two members to the senate.

Its population, at the last census, was 17,573, its numbers now would exceed 20,000.

Villages and towns are springing up, some of which may become places of note, as Athens, New Salem, Richland, Salisbury, Greenfield, Rochester, etc.

The seat of justice is Springfield.

John Mason Peck (Wikipedia)

*Peck was writing two years before Sangamon County was reduced to its present size with the creation of Menard, Logan and Dane (now Christian) counties. See Sangamon County boundary maps.

Peck describes Springfield

SPRINGFIELD one of the largest towns in Illinois, and the seat of justice of Sangamon county. It is situated on the border of a beautiful prairie on the south side of the timber of Spring creek, on sections twenty-seven and thirty-four, in township sixteen north, in range five west of the third principal meridian. This town was laid off in February, 1822, before the lands in this region were sold. At the land sales of November, 1823, the tract on which the older portion of the town is located, was purchased and duly recorded as a town. It then contained about thirty families, living in small log cabins. The surface is rather too level for a large town, into which it is destined to grow; but it is a dry and healthy location.

Springfield has nineteen dry goods stores, one wholesale and six retail groceries, four public houses, four drug stores, one book store, two clothing stores, eleven lawyers, eighteen physicians including steam doctors, one foundry for castings, four carding machines, mechanics and trades of various descriptions, and two printing offices from which are issued weekly the “Illinois Republican,” and the “Sangamon Journal.” The public buildings are a court house, jail, a market house, and houses of worship for two Presbyterian churches, one Methodist, one Baptist Reformer, one Episcopalian, and one Baptist society, each of which have ministers, and respectable congregations.

The first house built in Springfield was erected fifteen years since. The town has increased more than half within the last three years. It has excellent schools for both sexes, and an academy. By a recent act of the legislature Springfield is to be the permanent seat of government after 1840, and an appropriation has been made of $50,000 and commissioners appointed to build a state house.

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This entry was posted in Environment, Farming, Histories, Illinois capital, Maps, Sangamon County, Soil, Springfield, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sangamon County and Springfield in Peck’s Gazetteer, 1837

  1. Jim says:

    “A stranger to observations upon the surface of Illinois, upon first sight, would pronounce most parts of Sangamon county a level or plane. It is not so. With the exception of the creek bottoms and the interior of large prairies, it has an undulating surface…”

    Need this guy to back me up when I try to tell people it’s not just flat here. They’re not having any of it!

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