Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg: Community and Democracy on the Illinois Frontier
Brand: Southern Illinois University Press

Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg: Community and Democracy on the Illinois Frontier

  • Publish Date: 1996-08-15
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • Author: Associate Professor Kay J. Carr

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Because Illinois stood at the center of the changes wrought by the national evolution from an agrarian to an industrial society, the history of the states settlement, Carr argues, serves as an excellent laboratory in which to observe the momentous transformations of the time. With a few notable exceptions, however, historians have essentially ignored the social history of Illinois during that crucial period. Filling that gap, Carr examines the development of community social and political structures in Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg.

Each of these towns was founded in the first half of the nineteenth century. Belleville, the seat of St. Clair County, was originally dominated by the French and, later, by Anglo-Americans. By the l830s, the majority of the population was German. Ottawa, the seat of LaSalle County, was founded as the original western terminus of the Illinois and Michigan Canal and was dominated by Anglo-Americans until the 1840s when Irish canal workers became the majority. Galesburg, the eventual seat of Knox County, was founded by New England. Protestants who dominated the community into the twentieth century, despite the presence of large Swedish and Irish minorities.

Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg grew at about the same rate during the antebellum period and were forced by the circumstances of the day to deal with common problems: attracting railroads to their towns to ensure economic prosperity; instituting public schools; and establishing workable local political systems to guarantee the communitys continued existence in the changing society.

Although they shared common problems, the people of these three towns chose different paths toward their eventual community development. Because Bellevilles German population was divided on political, religious, and social grounds, its people eventually established a local political system relying on competitive democratic decision making to take them into the industrial age. In Galesburg, the dominant Yankee elite maintained control of local politics during that period; eventually they joined with the Swedes to exclude the Irish from participation in a community that stressed cooperative decision making. In Ottawa, the initial Yankee developers joined with savvy Irish leaders to establish a political system that was both competitive and cooperative. Bellevilles extreme political competitiveness and Galesburgs extreme political cooperation were the unusual cases. Ottawas reaction to the challenges of American society during this period, Carr contends, was the more usual, reflecting the way many communities developed.

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