Explorer's raft passed bluffs that became Quincy

Willard Keyes developed a lifelong friendship with Quincy founder John Wood. He was integral to the early organization of the city and Adams County. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: May. 5, 2019 12:01 am Updated: May. 5, 2019 1:22 am

Twenty-six-year-old Willard Keyes rafted down the Mississippi River in May 1819 and passed the wooded bluffs that would become Quincy on May 10.

Congress would soon pass the Missouri Compromise, and the new law would play a role in Keyes' life and in Quincy's early history.

Slavery was expanding, and anxious abolitionists such as Keyes were moving to Western Illinois and other border states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was supposed to keep a balance between free and slave states by admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state.

Willard Keyes was born in Vermont on Oct. 28, 1792. He worked with his father on a farm but as a young man decided to explore the west. He left the East Coast in 1817 and settled in Prairie du Chien, Wis.

Willard Keyes was a well-read frontiersman. He lived in Wisconsin for two years running a mill and teaching school. He wasn't done exploring. He and a friend assembled a raft and left Prairie du Chien in April 1819. They floated down the Mississippi River ending eventually in St. Louis. In February 1820, Keyes visited the federal land office in Edwardsville, Ill., where he met fellow land speculator John Wood. The two men joined a group of men who were exploring the bounty lands. The group traveled up the Illinois River Valley until the Beardstown area and then turned west, camping near the present day Camp Point, before continuing west to what is now Pike and Adams counties.

Although unalike in character, Wood and Keyes developed a lifelong friendship beginning with their detailed exploration and settlement in southwestern sections of military tract land; land given to veterans of the War of 1812.

Wood and Keyes farmed in Pleasant Vale Township in Pike County for two years before settling at the promontory Keyes had passed three years earlier. They arrived in 1822, when the confusing state of slavery in Illinois was threatening to overturn its original admittance as a free state in 1818.

Most of the early settlers in Illinois were from slave states or were French, who also had slaves. These settlers were hoping to pass a referendum for a constitutional convention to change Illinois to a slave state. The referendum was defeated Aug. 24, 1824, with the help of Gov. Edward Coles, and literal trailblazers like Wood, Keyes and other young settlers. They helped counterattack pro-slavery forces with discussions and voting campaigns, reaching out to the sparsely populated Illinois frontier.

John Wood was the first to settle in Quincy, building a cabin in 1822, while Keyes remained in Pike County. He came to Quincy in 1824, building the second cabin near Vermont and Front streets. The cabin was later used as a courtroom. Adams County was founded in 1825, and Keyes became one of the county commissioners. He was integral to the early organization of the city and county, holding several positions in the fledgling government. Keyes also continued to farm, and on occasion he traveled back to his old Pike County neighborhood with John Wood, Rufus Brown and brothers John and Jeremiah Ross, formerly of Atlas. Another brother and founder of Atlas, Col. William Ross, knew them well. They had speculated and surveyed many acres of Pike County land together, and Ross had accompanied Keyes and Wood on an exploration trip 40 miles north of Atlas to Quincy's future site.

Keyes' first wife, Laura Harkness died in 1832 leaving three children. In 1834, Keyes married Cornelia Burgess, who died a few months later. He then married Mary C. Folsom in 1836, and they had five children.

The 1830s also brought a deeper involvement with the anti-slavery movement. He was a founder of the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society, the first in Illinois, in 1835, and he joined several other Quincy residents at the 1837 Illinois Anti-Slavery Convention in Alton, promoted by the Rev. Elijah Parish Lovejoy. Keyes also became an Illinois agent for the Philanthropist, a new abolitionist paper in Cincinnati founded by James Birney. Elizur Leonard of the Quincy's Mission Institute and Frederick Collins of Columbus also were agents for the Philanthropist.

Keyes knew and supported Illinois abolitionists the Rev. Asa Turner of Quincy's Congregational Church and the Rev. David Nelson of the Presbyterian Church. Keyes also was recognized for his contribution to "American Slavery As It Is," with his name appearing in this controversial 1836 book published by Theodore Dwight Weld. Weld was a national leader in the abolition movement, and Keyes' association with him and the Philanthropist invited criticism from his slave-owning neighbors across the Mississippi River.

The co-founder of Quincy also was secretary and treasurer for David Nelson's Mission Institute, a missionary training school in Quincy that secretly shuttled fugitive slaves to Canada. In 1840 he and other trustees from Quincy purchased land near 24th and Maine streets to build an Institute campus. They also bought a 40-acre tract in Melrose Township that was bogged down with marshes. The soggy land was used as a landing spot for escaping slaves.

By 1855 the Mission Institute had long been extinct, so Keyes and his group sold the land to Jacob B. Hollowbush.

A biography in a Keyes family history says Keyes "loved a generous act for its own sake, and for the sake of the inward consciousness it brought a duty fulfilled ... and he was an active and outspoken abolitionist, at a time when to be such was unpopular with a large portion of the community."

Keyes Hall at Chicago Theological Seminary was built in 1865 in honor of the Quincy resident a year after his wife, Mary, died. A bequest by Deacon Willard Keyes provided lecture rooms, a library, a chapel, offices and sleeping quarters for 38 students. Willard Keyes died Feb. 7, 1872, and is buried in Woodland Cemetery.


Heather Bangert is involved with several local history projects. She is a member of Friends of the Log Cabins, has given tours at Woodland Cemetery and John Wood Mansion, and is an archaeological field/lab technician.



"Adams County Antislavery Society Constitution Aug. 25, 1835." Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County Collection.


"Chapter V, Some Years Preceding County Organization." In the "Quincy and Adams County History and Representative Men," edited by David F. Wilcox, 90-95. Chicago, IL: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1919.


"Fifty Years of Home Missions in Illinois," The Home Missionary, Vol. 49. New York: American Home Missionary Society, 1875.


Find A Grave, database and images (findagrave.com : accessed 22 April 2019), memorial page for Willard Keyes (Oct. 28, 1792 to Feb. 7, 1872), Find A Grave Memorial no. 173504034, citing Woodland Cemetery, Quincy, Adams County, Illinois, USA; maintained by Bob Keith (contributor 47378024).


"Historical Sketch: President Ozora Stearns Davis," the Register, Vol. 5. Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Theological Seminary, 1911.


Robert Keyes Family History: archive.org/stream/genealogyrobertk00keye/genealogyrobertk00keye_djvu.txt


Quincy City Directories, 1848, 1855-1866.


Richardson, William A. Jr., "Dr. David Nelson and His Times." archive.org/stream/jstor-40186795/40186795_djvu.txt


Richardson, William A. Jr. "The Founders of Quincy, Illinois --John Wood, Willard Keyes, Jeremiah Rose," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (April to July, 1924), pp. 165-169.


"Ross Family," http://genealogytrails.com/ill/pike/bioross.html



River raft trip anniversary

This May marks the 200th anniversary of Willard Keyes' trip down the Mississippi River and his first look at the location of the future city of Quincy.