In the general assembly on March 4, 1819, Alexander county was created. At that time it contained all of its present territory and the west part of the county of Pulaski. The county was named from Dr. Wm. M. Alexander, a pioneer who came to Union county as early as 1818. He was instrumental in booming the town of America, the first county seat of Alexander county.
Without doubt the first settlers in the county were three families - Joshua, Abraham, and Thomas Flannary; John McElmurry and Joseph Standlee. They settled on the Mississippi river about four miles below the present town of Thebes. There are six or more old French grants lying parallel to the river and touching one another endwise in Santa Fe and Goose Island precincts. They are numbered from north to south as follows: 681, 680, 520, 536, 537, and 2,564, etc. These old French claims were confirmed by Congress on May 1, 1810, to John McElmurry, Jr., claims or grants numbered 680, 681, 525 and 526; to Joseph Standlee grants 2,564, and 684; to Abraham Flannary, or his heirs. 531, 529; to Joshua Flannary, or his heirs, 530 and 528; to Thomas Flannary, or his heirs, 529 and 527.
The first settlers in Cairo were a family by the name of Bird. They are supposed to have come to the present site of Cairo as early as 1795, and after remaining a short time moved to Cape Girardeau. They may have returned about 1811 as quite a number of refugees came from New Madrid about the time of the earthquake at that place. The Birds settled on the extreme south end of the peninsula, at least they entered land there. As early as 1812 there were a few settlers along the Ohio at Mound City, America, and near New Caledonia.
The first county seat was America, now a forgotten town, three and a half miles above the present Mound City. In 1833 the county seat was moved to Unity, four miles due west of the present town of Villa Ridge. From here the seat of justice was moved to Thebes in 1844. From here it was removed to Cairo about 1859 or 1860.
The settlers were slow about taking up lands and opening up farms. They hunted and fished and wandered about. The real settlers who developed the farms did not come till after 1840 and the first church in the county was built about that time. Schools were slow in opening. The first teacher is said to have been David McMichael; Topley White and Moses Phillips were pioneer teachers.
In 1817, July 26, John G. Comegys of Baltimore bought eighteen hundred acres lying on and constituting the peninsula excepting the extreme south end which was bought by Wm. Bird the next year. The Cairo City and Bank was chartered January 9, 1818. The land of the peninsula was to be made into lots and sold and a portion of the money put into improvements and the rest of it was to constitute the capital of the bank. The peninsula was surveyed and a city laid off. The bank was a bank of issue and was located in Kaskaskia. In 1841 a new company, The Cairo City and Canal Company, was organized which bought large quantities of land on the peninsula. Darius B. Holbrook was the moving spirit in this company. A few houses were built, among them a large wooden hotel, two stories, and some woodmen's shanties. A store was kept in a boat. Work on the central railroad had brought a great many people to the vicinity of Cairo. In the meantime farms were being opened. The villages of the county were flourishing.
The lumber interests were important at an early date. A steamboat, the "Tennessee Valley," was built at Cairo in 1842. It was on April 9th of that year that Chas. Dickens reached Cairo from Louisville. As he approached the peninsula he saw the big hotel, the few stores, the brick yards, and the "ways" on which the "Tennessee Valley" was in process of final construction. In 1828 the Birds brought slaves over from Missouri and built the first levee. It was constructed around the big hotel. This hotel stood just south of the Halliday House. The sale of bonds in Europe enabled the Cairo City and Canal Company to construct levees about the city. It is said as many as 1,500 men were at work on the levees at one time. In 1844 there was extremely high water but Cairo was protected by the levees. In 1851 the Illinois Central Railroad Company agreed to build a levee around the city eighty feet wide on top and of sufficient height to keep out the highest waters. These levees are doing duty today, with others which have been built. In June, 1858, the levees broke and the city was flooded, though the water was not so high. The highest water ever recorded above the low water mark was April, 1912. At that time the gauge read 54 feet.
Alexander sent her quota of men to all the wars in which Illinois has taken part. In 1812 she furnished three soldiers - David Sowers, Robert Hight, and Nathan M. Thompson. In the Black Hawk war Capt. Henry L. Webb served with a company of 52 men mounted volunteers. The county did her duty in the Mexican war; and in the Civil war, Cairo was the most important military point north of the Ohio. Col. Oglesby, Gen. Prentiss, Gen. Grant, and other prominent soldiers commanded at this point. Gunboats, transports, and naval supplies were to be seen on every hand from '61 to '65. Many of the old citizens in Cairo remember well when Grant and Foote sojourned in Cairo.
While this county is mainly an agricultural county, there are large interest in manufacturing and shipping. Immense quantities of hard lumber are kept in stock by great lumber firms. Planing mills furnish abundance of work for hundreds of hands. Immense plants have recently been located in North Cairo. One of these, a veneering plant, is controlled by the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
Cairo has in recent years become a great railroad center. The Illinois Central has large interests in Cairo. So also has the Mobile and Ohio, and the Big Four. A company called the Cairo and Thebes Railroad Company has recently erected elegant terminals in Cairo and constructed a road from Cairo to Thebes where connection is made with a number of other roads.
Educational interests have suffered in this county largely because of topographical conditions, a large share of the county is subject to overflow and rural schools are greatly handicapped. In some localities the colored population is considerable and this forces the school district to have two schools or to have colored and white children in the same school. In the city of Cairo, however, the schools have been kept up to a very high standard. Especially is this true of the city high school. The city schools have been under the management of Prof. T. C. Clendenin for two decades and are well patronized. Mrs. Fanny P. Hacker is the present county superintendent.
The geographical position of the city of Cairo has given the place some notoriety which otherwise would not have come to it. As has al* ready been pointed out Charles Dickens of England visited Cairo in 1842. It is doubtful whether he was off the boat, but he saw enough of it to cause a very unpleasant memory of it to be recorded in his "American Notes." It has been suggested that he owned stock in the Cairo City and Canal Company. At least he gave the city some excellent free advertising.
Capt. Billy Williams, an honored citizen of Cairo, says he once saw Gen. Winfield Scott land from a passing vessel and inspect the city of that time. He also remembers Charlotte Cushman as a Cairo visitor.
Commodore Foote, while yet a flag officer, having returned from the bombarding and capture of Fort Henry was desirous of attending church on a Sunday. In company with his crew he attended the Presbyterian church. The pastor was unable to be present on account of a sudden illness. Comodore Foote was not willing that all the congregation should be disappointed, so he ascended the pulpit and took his text from John 14, 1: "Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me.” His sermon was acceptable and all retired feeling that the distinguished guest could do other things than reduce great forts to ruins.
A very famous picture was taken while the troops were stationed in Cairo in September, 1861. It is a front view of the post office. About its doors are gathered a number of Cairo citizens surrounding two great warriors-to-be, Gen. John A. McClernand and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. This picture appears in Volume I of the Photographic History of the Civil War and also in Judge Lansden's History of Cairo. It is a historic picture.
Probably the most noteworthy event connected with the political life of the county and city was the visit in September, 1858, of Senator Stephen A. Douglas and his wife as they were on their way to the famous Jonesboro debate. But since the details are given somewhat in the chapter on that famous debate we need not repeat them here.
In 1811 a steamboat was constructed in Pittsburg and put in charge of Captain Roosevelt of New York. The boat was called the "New Orleans." It was ordered to make a trip from Pittsburg to New Orleans and return to test the navigability of the two rivers. It reached Cairo the 18th of December, 1811, made its way to New Orleans and returned to Pittsburg.
Gen. Andrew Jackson was in Cairo three or four days in 1813. Gen. Zachary Taylor visited Cairo in 1849. Gen. Garfield in 1868; Gen. Grant in 1880; Jefferson Davis in 1881; President Roosevelt in 1907; and President Taft in 1909.
A distinguished guest was entertained by the citizens of Cairo on November 30 and December 1 and 2, 1911. It was none less than Alfred Tennyson Dickens, son of Charles Dickens who visited in St. Louis in 1842, and who spoke slightingly of the peninsula and the rivers in his "Notes." Mr. Alfred Tennyson Dickens was entertained in the palatial home of Mayor George Parsons. A reception was held in his honor in the Alexander Club and also in the home of Mayor Parsons. He was driven over parts of Alexander county and Pulaski county. He said the hills reminded him very much of those of Scotland. Mr. Dickens died suddenly in New York January 2, 1912.
This short and imperfect sketch of Alexander county, and its chief city, would be incomplete indeed if the names of some of her noted men were omitted, and we shall therefore append a few of the many who are worthy:
Wm. Bird who settled the peninsula. Dr. Alexander after whom the county was named. John G. Comegys who purchased all the peninsula and founded the city. Darius B. Holbrook headed the Cairo City and Canal Company organized in 1837. Judge Miles A. Gilbert who saved the property of the Cairo City and Canal Company after the financial crash of 1842. Col. S. Staats Taylor rejuvenated the city in 1854 and was instrumental in beginning the future Cairo. Capt. Wm. P. Halliday came into prominence about 1860 in the financial circles of Cairo. From that time to his death he was a power in business circles. Capt. Halliday had four brothers. They were all noted in business circles. Mayor George Parsons for several years connected with the Cairo City Property, and mayor of the city, has become widely known in Southern Illinois. He is much attached to the highest welfare of the city of the Delta.
Within recent years the historic town of Thebes has come into prominence. Just a few miles below Thebes, which is on the Mississippi some six miles below Cape Girardeau, there are some old French grants of land made probably in the days of French rule. The grants fell into the hands of a number of Americans and were confirmed to them in 1810 by congress. These early settlers had a "Station Fort" called McElmurry's Station. This is probably the origin of Thebes. The court house in Thebes still stands. In April, 1905, a very fine bridge of the cantilever construction was completed across the Mississippi and railroads are centering here from both Illinois and Missouri. The town has grown and now has a population of 717.
The recent agitation of the "Deep Waterway" project has called attention to the question of the navigability of the Mississippi river, and to put at rest this question the good people secured the visit of the Concord, one of our finest cruisers. In the accompanying picture the vessel is lying in the Cairo harbor. The Halliday House and business blocks may be seen in the distance.
Extracted 10 Apr 2017 by Norma Hass from A History of Southern Illinois, published in 1912, Volume 1, pages 425-431.
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