Belleville (German)

The city of Belleville was named by George Blair in 1814. He thought the name      (French: “beautiful city”) would attract new residents. Most of the early residents Belleville attracted were Germans. Indeed, Belleville was the center of the first important German settlement in Illinois.

The core German immigrant groups arrived in the 1820-30s. Many fled their homeland after the failure of ther German Revolution in 1848. The Germans were liberal, free-thinking revolutionaries. Arriving in St Louis, they were so horrified by slavery, they crossed back across the Mississippi River to establish themselves in St Clair County, as Illinois was a free state (though laws allowed slavery and indentured servitude to continue under a wide range of circumstances – but it certainly was better for African Americans than Missouri). They were fervent abolitionists and protected freed (and, presumably, escaped) slaves in an area outside Belleville known as Shiloh Valley and Turkey Hill.  

Most of Belleville’s early German immigrants had graduated from German universities. They were nicknamed or called themselves “Latin Farmers” because of their education. They established one of the first kindergartens in the country. One German immigrant, Gustav Koerner, helped establish the city’s public library. The Belleville Public Library is the state’s oldest library, predating the Illinois State Library by three years. The public library has a big ‘founders collection’ of German language books and newspapers. The German settlers also founded choral groups, drama groups and literary societies.

By 1870, an estimated 90% of the city’s population was either German-born or of German descent. Most of the European-American population today is of German ancestry. Belleville has a distinct sense of its history and identity that embraces its German heritage.

Gustav Koerner (mentioned above) was wounded in a failed revolution in Germany and escaped to the US, where he became a Lincoln confidant (he actually met Mary Todd in Kentucky before she moved to Springfield and met Lincoln). Koerner, too, was a fervent abolitionist and a close associate of Abraham Lincoln. He was part of the group creating the Republican Party in 1856. Koerner helped write the 1860 Republican platform and he managed Lincoln’s campaign to get the presidential nomination. He was the only non-Springfieldian pall bearer for Lincoln. The Koerner House on Mascoutah & Abend is on the National Register of Historic Places. The restoration of his Belleville house is ongoing (see: )

After the Civil War, Belleville became a manufacturing center producing nails, printing presses, gray iron castings, agricultural equipment, and stoves. Belleville became known as “The Stove Capital of the World.”

The first brewery in Illinois was established in Belleville.

In 1868, Gustav Goelitz founded the candy company that is known today as Jelly Belly.

The first style of houses in Belleville were simple brick cottages, known locally as “German street houses” or “row houses.” Many other architectural styles flourished. Luckily, a lot of architecture has survived and 73 properties were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, forming the Belleville Historic District. The streets off Main Street have a number of great antebellum homes, many connected to early families.

Here is an interesting article in the Belleville News-Democrat (April 8, 2015):