A Brief History of Geneseo
Original Author: Wesly Roach, ENG206 SP11
Revision Author:

National Overview: From the Revolutionary War to the Rise of Abolitionism

For nearly the first one-hundred years of our nation’s history, the institution of slavery had a nearly debilitating grip upon both the social and political arenas that affectedits new society day to day. An offer of freedom, initially made by British commanders (Tobin, 1), set into motion many new questions to the morality of slave holding.Those states that had held such fervor for breaking the chains of British reign had difficulty reconciling enslaving blacks.Within a couple years into the 19th century, five northern states had emancipated their slaves altogether(Tobin, 4). These convictions would migrate west as colonies moved into and settled the mid-west. The origins of Geneseo,Galesburg, and a few other townships familiar to us that were founded with strong anti-slavery sentiment,formed their opinions in this fashion (Turner, xvii). Up until the War of 1812, there is little to be said about fugitive slaves escaping to the north. The reason for this was that information of black emancipation in the northern states and Canada was withheld from slaves. Also, due to limited knowledge of terrain, most escapees returned to their owners rather than choosing to starve in the swamps and surrounding country side. After the war, rumors and information regarding the land of freedom for blacks became prevalent (Tobin, 7). Here is where the Underground Railroad(UGRR), among other tools of slave escape, was conceived.

Illinois was originally part of what was called the Northwest Ordinance. Slavery was forbidden, but there were laws in place to prevent fugitive slaves from attempting to take asylum. Although not as well traveled as some eastern states, the Illinois UGRR was an integral part of the “line,” due to “sizable black communities” in Chicago and “strong abolitionist sentiment” in townships like Galesburg. It also shared its border with Missouri which was a slave state. The Illinois UGRR would have been an ideal method for Missourian slaves to reach Canada. They were the majority of traffic and would have beguntheir journey in Rock Island.Tennessee, Kentucky, and as far as Virginia, were other states that gave up slaves to the Illinois UGRR (Turner, xvii).

Town’s conception

Geneseo, unlike the majority of communities of the time, which evolved and grew around trade routes and water ways, was an intentional conception. Sociologists refer to towns like this as transplanted communities.Fueled by the movement of the Great Revival of the 1830’s, eight families, with goals of social reform and seeking a theocratic form of government, consorted to leave their way of life in New York and pursue on offer for federal land in Illinois made to veterans of the War of 1812(Geneseo Historical, 7).

Town Founders and Planning

The township’s name is rooted from where the colonist that settled there came from, Genesee County, New York. At the forefront of the endeavor, Rev. Jairas Wilcox and John C. Ward selected three men to survey and purchase a tract of land. For this task they commissionedCromwell K. Bartlett, Roderick R. Steward, and John C. Ward. The men, later joined by James M. Allan and Arba Seymour, purchased 1760 acres at $1.25 per acre. The town was laid out on a forty acre plot. The first five of the eight founding families departed on September 18, 1836(Geneseo Historical, 8),but not before organizing the “First Orthodox Church,changed to the Free Congregational Church of Illinois upon arrival, and is presently the First Congregational Church of Geneseo (Geneseo Historical, 10).The remaining three families joined the others in the spring of 1837. All total, parentage and children, there were forty persons that made the journey.

Religion, Temperance, and Anti-Slavery

To say that Christianity was an important aspect of the original colonist lives could be alarge understatement;“Declaring religion to be one of the core ingredients in society, it was one of the elements of the way of life in New York which the members of Geneseo Colony insisted must be transplanted” (Geneseo Historical, 17). A reflection of these convictions can still be seen in the present day. Today, within the small township, there are twenty-one churches and three more between the townships of Hanna, Edford, and Cornwall. Temperance was part of social law. Alcohol and strong drink were prohibited, and a “slip” would result in church intervention. Of equally strong conviction among the colonist were their anti-slavery positions. The church members were required to believe, “…that the holding of their fellow man in bondage or slavery is a sin and hence are willing to do what they can to break every yoke.” The colonists, of course, set to build shelter for the winter, but “scarcely had the colonists built cabins before Geneseo became a station for the UGRR.” As early as 1840, delegates were appointed to the Anti-Slavery Society in Chicago. During the Civil War, forty-eight of the township’s men responded to fight for the union, and church members volunteered to become teachers in support of the American Missionary Association, which taught freed Negroes skills they would need to assimilate into free society when the war ended (Geneseo Historical, 12).

First Churches

At first, religious services were held in the cabins using beds and stools for seating. In the spring of 1838, as soon as weather permitted, the colonist built an open-air shelter in the northeast corner of the square to serve as a church and school. The first church was built that summer; a twenty square foot structure of split oak. The church congregation was a conglomeration of Congressionalist and Presbyterians, and those doctrines, or near deviations, dominated in the townships through 1850 (Geneseo Historical, 13).

Modern Church Hallmarks

Even though there are twenty-four churches and their histories that have shaped the town, a few stand out among the others. The First Congregational Church of Geneseo is what evolved from the original covenant made by the eight families that initially came here. The present building’s cornerstone was laid on July 18, 1855 and was dedicated on May 28, 1856. The bell was delivered, from New York, via the Rock Island Railroad, which was also completed that year. The present building has grown substantially since that time, including wing additions, an entry way, a new steeple, and a belfry. The most recent of these renovations were dedicated on March 16, 1952(Geneseo Historical, 18). The second church of mention is First United Methodist Church; however, the reason for its majesty is found in its perseverance through tragedy. The first building, erected in 1855, was the founding and housing to the congregation for twelve years. The first building, at its present site, was started on August 6, 1872. On the night of July 3, 1918, this building was completely destroyed by fire. The spirit of the church lived on through the congregation, and on April 11, 1920 the church celebrated a week long dedication of their new building that was erected on the site of the old one (Geneseo Historical, 20).


Because of the way that Geneseo was conceived, on ideals, there is definitely more history to this small township than is written. Because of where it was conceived, one can better understand why it had such theocratic government and anti-slave sentiment. To include a summary of the extensive history of this societal phenomenon would be many pages more, and hopefully it will be a continuing endeavor.

Works Cited

Geneseo Historical Association, ed. Geneseo, Illinois: The First 150 Years. Dallas, Texas: Geneseo Historical Society, 1985. Print.

Tobin, Jacqueline, and Hettie Jones. From Midnight To Dawn: The Last Tracks Of The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday Broadway Publishing, 2007. Print.

Turner, Glennette Tilley. The Underground Railroad In Illinois. Glen Ellyn: Newman Educational Publishing, 2001. Print.

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