Once Upon a Time

Atlas shrugged off as thriving Illinois metropolis

Col. William Ross built the first brick house in Pike County, Ill., in Atlas. He proclaimed that the town would be the star city of Western Illinois, a prediction that never came true. | Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Apr. 21, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Apr. 21, 2018 11:17 pm

For all who observed such things, Col. William Ross' proclamation that his town of Atlas would be the star city in Western Illinois was much believed. By 1821, Ross had built the first brick house in Pike County at Atlas -- and greatly enlarged it two years later. Like the mythological character for whom it was named, Atlas held great promise. The Illinois Legislature on Jan. 31, 1821, had just reshaped the state map to make Pike the largest county in the 2-year-old state -- larger even than the 3.5 million-acre military tract that was within it. The Ross family was determined that Atlas would replace Cole's Grove as the county seat.

From their confluence just below the belly of the west side of the state, the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers shaped Pike County's longitudinal borders. The northern border was the same as the state's -- from Lake Michigan to the tongue that stuck out into the Mississippi on the west. Chicago was at the time "a village of Pike County, containing 12 or 15 houses and about 60 or 70 inhabitants."

Ross and his brothers Clarendon, Leonard and Henry J., along with Sam Davis, Will Sprague and Joseph Cogswell, had arrived in 1820 from Pittsfield, Mass. Flatboats ferried them down the Allegheny and Ohio rivers to Shawneetown in Eastern Illinois. From there, the immigrants crossed Illinois' broad midsection by wagon to Upper Alton. Alton was not yet organized, but there the Rosses and their fellow travelers left their families safely with a Maj. Hunter while they scouted northward for a settlement in the Mississippi bottoms.

The pioneers lashed puncheons -- the flat side of a split log -- on top of two canoes to transport their wagons across the Illinois River. The horses, noosed at the neck, swam alongside. With no roads or trails to follow, the Ross crew marked the cottonwood, elm, hickory, oak, pecan and walnut trees as they went to guide their return. As small as the band was, it was significant in increasing the population of Pike County.

Named for Gen. Zebulon Pike, an early explorer and soldier in the War of 1812, the county was said to have fewer than 100 white and French residents when organized.

French trappers were among the first settlers in southern Pike County, later Calhoun County, and lived there until they were flooded out in 1818. At about that time, Canadian-French trapper J.B. Tibault, Americanized as Teboe, built a cabin at the site of today's Valley City, from whose bank he operated a ferry. The man was considered an eccentric. He had no wife. He had no family. And he "never tilled no land." But his home was a favorite spot for other hunters and trappers.

Two more Rosses, John and Jeremiah, followed their brothers in 1821. So did Rufus Brown, who established the first tavern in Atlas. Taverns were early and rudimentary hotels in which "brawny, hard-breathing" men slept two and three to a bunk.

In Feb. 1820, 22-year-old John Wood of New York and Willard Keyes, 28, of Vermont, made their way to Pike County, as well. They spent their first months exploring the southern region of the Military Tract from the backs of borrowed horses. A lack of interest in a bluff bank on the east side of the Mississippi that Wood had seen some 40 miles or so north split the loose partnership Wood and Keyes had formed in Edwardsville with David Dutton, Nehemiah Gates and James Nixon shortly after their arrival in Illinois.

Squatting on land where they thought they could leverage a living from their skills in farming and woodworking, Wood and Keyes built a crude "bachelor's hall" about 1.5 miles south of today's New Canton. Since they did not own the land, they knew they could be driven off anytime and lose the value of any improvements. Through their industry, the pair accumulated some hogs, two yokes of oxen, and a small iron plow with which they raised three crops, including the first corn crop in Pike County.

With $20 of his own money and $40 he borrowed from a Pike County neighbor, Wood completed the deal to buy 160 acres from land speculator Peter Flinn.

Wood built his first permanent home, an 18 by 20-foot log cabin, at the southeast corner of today's Front and Delaware streets. Controversy surrounded Wood's purchase. Although the federal land office had issued patents to bounty land awarded veterans of the War of 1812, ownership of the land resided with the federal government until settlement by a military veteran owner. Until pre-emption laws were passed to permit the sale of land to those occupying and working it, Wood until 1829 was trespassing on U.S. government property. It also meant Illinois was violating the law when it sold bounty land for unpaid taxes. Keyes was one beneficiary. He bought what today is the north side of Quincy at a tax sale at the Capitol in Vandalia for $8 and $3 in court costs.

In 1821, Wood enticed William Ross, founder of Atlas, to accompany him to the spot he had purchased overlooking the Mississippi River. Ross looked it over, congratulated Wood, wished him the best, but reckoned it would never amount to much.

"It's too near Atlas," he said.

For the next 10 years, Atlas's western star rose. In 1823, it became Pike County's seat. Daniel Shinn cut and hauled the logs for the 16 by 18-foot building, its single door on the east side and a window on the east and west sides. That year, the first school opened, and a second school opened the following year with James W. Whitney teaching. Soon the county built the first jail, its door hinges as thick as a man's arm. The entry to the sole cell was from the roof.

Ten years later, the state Legislature required that government seats be near the geographic center of each county. Atlas failed to meet the requirement, and the city of Pittsfield was created to meet the requirement of the law. Ross' dream of a city of destiny in Atlas died.


Reg Ankrom is a former executive director of the Historical Society and a local historian. He is a member of several history-related organizations, the author of a history of Stephen A. Douglas and a frequent speaker on pre-Civil War history.



Clarence Walworth Alvord, "The Illinois Country: 1673-1818." Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1920 (Reprint 1987), pp. 454, 460.


Reg Ankrom, "The Homes of John Wood" (lecture, Quincy Preservation Commission, Quincy, Ill., Aug. 1, 2016).


Reg Ankrom, "Stephen A. Douglas: The Political Apprenticeship, 1833-1843." Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishing Co., 2015, p 7.


"Genealogy Trails--Pike County, Illinois" at genealogytrails.com/ill/pike/cityflinthistory.html0, accessed April 12, 2018.


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Jesse White, "Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties." Springfield: State of Illinois, 2010, p. 39.