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Pike County, named for explorer Zebulon Pike, was established in 1821 and was 3.5 million acres of Military Tract land that followed the Illinois River and stretched to the northern and western Illinois borders. The original Pike County included the then small village of Chicago. Pike County has been the current geographical size since 1825.
Our first courthouse was a small log cabin at Coles Grove, which is now Gilead in Calhoun County. Our second courthouse was in Atlas, which was the first settlement within the new smaller borders. Colonel William Ross, who along with his brothers established Atlas, loaned $200 for the purchase of the land near the center of the county that would become the new county seat, Pittsfield. The first courthouse in Pittsfield was on the north side of the square. It was a small wooden store building next to the alley. In 1839, a large brick courthouse was built in the center of the square. Due to structural issues, it was torn down and replaced in 1894 by the current courthouse. This courthouse was designed by architect Henry Elliott and completed by builders Yeager and Schultz. The keystone architecture was designed by Robert Franklin of Nebo. The 125th anniversary of the courthouse's dedication is November 16, 2020.
Population grew rapidly in the early years of the county. During the Civil War, there were 3,124 troops out of the nearly 30,000 Pike County citizens. Learn more about Pike County's military history at the All Wars Museum. Col. Ross would be sad to know that since the years after the Civil War, our population has steadily declined. He once argued with John Wood, early settler of Quincy in Adams County, that he felt sorry for Quincy due to its close proximity to the thriving city of Atlas. Pike County's population is now less than half that of the city of Quincy.
As population changed and the railroads were built and changed route, many towns came and went for various reasons. Ghost towns include, but are certainly not limited to: Straut, Tempest, Old Pearl, New Philadelphia, and Mormontown. New Philadelphia was the first town in the United States to be platted and legally registered by an African American, "Free" Frank McWorter in 1836. Learn more here. Mormontown was a short-lived Mormon settlement in Newburg Township that has completely disappeared from sight, including the cemetery where Silas Smith is said to buried. Learn more here.
Pittsfield was a special place to President Abraham Lincoln, as was Griggsville. Before his presidency, he visited Pike County at different times between 1838 and 1858. Our local Looking for Lincoln chapter has created a Talking House Tour that tells about the specific homes and businesses Lincoln visited during his time here. Learn more here.
Pike County was the home of several notable figures including: Three of President Lincoln's private secretaries, John Hay, John Nicolay and Charles Philbrick; Frank McWorter, a self-freed slave who established New Philadelphia; Rebecca Burlend, an early settler who wrote "A True Picture of Emigration" about her family's first years here; Congressman Paul Findley; and Robert Earl Hughes, the largest man to ever live.
This is what county borders looked like in 1821 when Pike County was established.