MACOMB, IL

Macomb was founded in 1830. Its settlement history and that of the larger Western Illinois area derives from the War of 1812: the “military tract” that was created by the U.S. government to give soldiers land in gratitude for their service. That land, of course, had prior occupants: Native American people, the conflict with whom – between the Anglo newcomers and Indigenous people played out very dramatically in the Black Hawk War.

THE MILITARY TRACT

Macomb became the county seat of McDonough County. The town of Macomb is named after Major General Alexander Macomb. The county is named after Commodore Thomas MacDonough. They were national heroes of the War of 1812. Neither fought near nor lived near their namesakes. But their fame was so great that the newly settled area chose the names of these men and in 1914 these commemorative plaques were placed on the War of 1812 monument in Chandler Park in Macomb. 1914 celebrated the hundredth anniversary of their respective great battles in New York State against the British. It was the American victory in the War of 1812 that generated the military tract in which Macomb and McDonough developed. That is the connection. Local historian John Hallwas argues that the War of 1812 monument connects the community to its local and national past as public memory. The monument was restored and rededicated in 2016 thus indicating “a great deal about what what we stand for in our local culture …residents and visitors … are committed to thinking about, and appreciating, what matters in our national past, and relating it to our lives in this place.”

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Macomb was the scene of tremendously important events in the political and racial history of the United States before and after the Civil War. As explained by historians Timothy Roberts (WIU) and John Hallwas (emeritus, WIU), the county and Macomb itself were ideologically divided on the slavery issue between those favoring abolition and those who supported the southern secessionists. Macomb’s population included settlers from the East (“Yankees”) and from the South. The Democrats (as the term was then applied) were the pro-slavery party. Republicans (as the term was then applied) were the abolitionists. In fact, Macomb had two newspapers representing these divergent points of view, with their offices on opposite sides of the town square. Their locations still exist. The Macomb Eagle newspaper expressed the Democrats view and the Macomb Journal expressed that of the Republicans. The forces cleaving the country in two were playing out in this small area of Illinois.

The Blazers and the Allisons were two heroic abolitionist families who were active as conductors on the Underground Railroad. This area received fugitive slaves heading north from Quincy. A harrowing account by D. N. Blazer recounts his family’s secretive activities and vividly depicts the struggle and pathos of the escaping slaves. READ IT HERE: https://uofi.box.com/s/hki7tyihou56ju05k8sxzroof1e7ma3j Members of the family are buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln arrived in Macomb and was immediately embraced by his fellow abolitionists who lodged him overnight, August 25, at the Randolph House Hotel. Lincoln engaged with James Magie of the Republicans’ Macomb Journal and with Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune. In the hotel they constructed the question that Lincoln would put to Stephen A. Douglas on August 27 in their second debate, to take place in Freeport. That question became known as “the Freeport Question.” Lincoln would pin Douglas down on the ownership of slaves. Although Lincoln lost the senate election, he won the presidency two years later and remembered the support he had received in Macomb from the abolitionists such as Randolph, Magie, Medill and the Blazers and Allisons.

It was also during this visit that Lincoln was induced by James Magie to have his photograph taken at the studio of William Painter-Pearson. It is a candid shot. Macomb marks this historical image with a historical marker and a “Looking for Lincoln” placard.

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This visit to Macomb was not Lincoln’s only one in 1858. He spoke at the courthouse at least twice, once inside and once outside. A “Looking For Lincoln” upright panel on the courthouse grounds marks this aspect of Lincoln’s association with the city.

Notwithstanding the town’s discord on the race issue, African Americans did live in Macomb during the Civil War and after. This is a significant fact given the “sundown towns” found elsewhere in Illinois in which African Americans were not permitted to live or, indeed, to be present after dark. The most prominent member of Macomb’s early African American community was William Ball who opened a barber shop in Quincy and then came to Macomb in 1865 to pursue that business. It is reported that he was very successful with an elegant establishment that likely serviced the city’s well-to-do white men. A historic plaque commemorates his presence in town on the façade of the building that today is H&R Block. Ball was a leader of his community. For instance, he established the first African American church. And although Macomb was becoming more diverse after the Civil War, Ball and his family lived in an African American neighborhood.

Charles V. Chandler played an enduring role in Macomb. After serving in the Union army at age twenty and quickly being wounded and invalided out, he returned to Macomb where he built a small empire. Among his economic activities were a pottery factory, making wagons, producing clocks and banking. Most important for Macomb was his philanthropy and the ideology expressed by it in the post-Civil War period. He changed the urban design of Macomb by purchasing and then demolishing buildings so as to create a beautiful city park that is known by his name. He built an opera house. And in 1899 he funded a statue for the park that was a memorial to the Union soldiers of the region who had fought in the Civil War. The statue still stands. Historian Tim Roberts observes that the community was still affected by the divisions of the Civil War and that ceremonies and public works, such as this statue, were intended to heal.

The great Civil Rights leader, C.T. Vivian, spent his childhood in Macomb (1929-1943) through his college years at Western Illinois University. He returned in 1949-1951. The city honored him in 2020 with a historical marker on the site of his home and in 2022 with a giant mural downtown tracing his career and depicting his receipt of the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama.

Thus we see that Macomb played a significant role in the settlement of Western Illinois and political dramas of the nineteenth century. Those events are physically manifested on Macomb’s urban landscape, assisted by historical markers and the media produced by the area’s outstanding “Unforgettable Forgottonia” tourism bureau.

As well, the Western Illinois Museum (201 S. Lafayette Street) has won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to reinstall their exhibition. When completed, the WIM will be a significant resource for understanding the history of Macomb and the region.

The curious visitor also can take advantage of the exceptional Western Illinois history archives housed in WIU ‘s Malpass Library. The building itself is an architectural gem and well worth visiting.