HISTORY OF POPE COUNTY, ILLINOIS
 

Although we have some prosperous citizens, Pope County's real wealth does not accumulate in bank accounts. We take pride in our historic heritage, our great natural beauty and the organizations and events which give meaning to our lives.

Even though there are reports of white explorers in the area now known as Pope County, as early as 1780, the first permanent settlement was in 1798 at the site of present-day Golconda. The town began with a primitive ferry in 1798, operated by Major James Lusk, a revolutionary war veteran, and his wife Sarah McElwaine Lusk, daughter of a Virginia senator, who led a party of 34 that left Waxhall, South Carolina in April 1796 on a trek to Livingston County, Ky. The group was on their way to their "promised land". They arrived at the Ohio river, opposite what is now Golconda, May 4, 1796.

In 1797 Major Lusk secured a ferry license from Kentucky. He was quickly disenchanted with his situation when the terms for admission of Kentucky to statehood included the right to own slaves (His first wife, Laetitica Thomas, had been murdered by a slave. Lusk disposed of all his slaves, at once, and was henceforth a bitter opponent of the trade.)

Lusk decided to leave Kentucky for Illinois and petitioned Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana Territory (which included Illinois at the time) for a ferry license for the "north bank" of the creek which now bears his name. Gov. Harrison denied his request until such time as the Delaware Indians left the area.

Lusk was impatient, moved across the river, and operated his ferry without a license. He completed a two-story frame house in 1798, from keel-boat lumber, at the intersection of the river and the creek. He operated the ferry from this "Ferry House," sometimes called the "Tavern House." The Lusks thus became the first settlers between Kentucky and Kaskaskia in the Illinois area.

Before Lusk died in 1803, he completed a road six feet wide to Green's Ferry on the Mississippi as a plan to create business for the ferry. Sarah became the proprietor of the business, and in 1804 became the first woman in Illinois to obtain a ferry license, making the business legitimate.

When the first steamer passed down river in 1811, it stopped here to take on fuel. Thousands of immigrants crossed the ferry to follow westward trails. In 1838-1939 some 13,000 Cherokees crossed on their "Trail of Tears" To Oklahoma.

The town and county were both organized in 1816. The County got its name from Nathaniel Pope who was the secretary of the Illinois Territory. The town was named Sarahsville in honor of Sarah Lusk. Just how the town evolved from Sarahsville to Golconda contains a small amount of mystery. Court records show the platting of Sarahsville on August 28, 1816. On January 24, 1817, the name "Corinth" was ordered. That same day another entry says: "Order that the town now called Sarahsville, the present seat of justice for Pope County, hereafter be called Golconda, at the request of the proprietors" -- County Records Book A. There is no explanation for the shuffling of names. The traditional meaning of the word "Golconda" is "land of wealth," and, to us, it is appropriate.

In 1818, Illinois entered the Union as a free state. Two of our original settlers helped write the Illinois State Constitution. The constitution did not specifically regulate against slavery already established. It was legal to keep an indentured servant for one year, but this time limit was generally ignored. The first emancipation certificates of freedom found recorded in Pope County were issued in 1823 and the last certificate was issued in 1850. There were no slaves in Illinois in 1860.

The population of Pope County reflected the emigration of Europeans to America that occurred in the 19th century. At the peak of population, which mainly consisted of Scotch, Irish, French, English, Welsh, German, and African immigrants, many small communities dotted the county. Usually they consisted of a church, school, post office, mill, blacksmith shop, and a general store. The rural communities were important trading centers in areas where roads were often impassable and a trip to Golconda was an all day endeavor. The social life of the rural community was centered around the church and school. The population steadily increased from 2,610 in 1820 to a peak of 14,017 in 1890. The population declined to 4,250 in 1980.

The Golden Age of Pope county occurred from 1870-1930. Growth in the county was marked by economic prosperity. Businesses flourished when Golconda became the commercial center of the area. The era of the railroad brought freight and passenger service to rural communities isolated from river transportation by poor roads. River transportation continued to serve the area until after the 1937 flood when construction of the flood wall cut off access to the river. The affluence within the county between 1870 and 1900 was reflected in the substantial houses built at that time.

The Great Depression affected Pope County the same way it affected the nation, everyone experienced some degree of poverty. In Pope County three banks closed. Schools paid the teachers with tax warrants, many citizens declared bankruptcy and others lost their life savings.

At this time (1933), the government established the Shawnee National forest in Southern Illinois, which was meant to relieve small farms of worn out land. Many farmers responded to this opportunity to sell their land. Thousands of acres were acquired in southern Illinois. A pine plantation project was initiated which would eventually return money to the county from the sale of the trees. This money was to be used solely for education and roads within the county.

The National Government gave assistance through Relief and CCC. Several CCC Camps were located in Pope County. The Purpose of CCC was to put food on the table of many American families by putting young men in camps where they learned trades that were followed throughout the years.

One of these camps, a Forest Service Camp, was located at Eddyville with the concern of building roads and making recreational areas throughout the Shawnee National Forest. They also planted several hundred thousand trees, along with walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts.

Pope County was fortunate to have this CCC camp. They made many long term improvements to the Shawnee which are still being utilized today by natives and tourists.

Assistance to Pope County was also offered by the University of Illinois when they established the Dixon Springs Agricultural center. Here experiments were conducted for the purpose of improving farming and animal husbandry techniques.

In the 1950's, school consolidation that occurred in much of rural America was experienced in Pope County. Gradually, as the population declined from 1940-1960, small schools closed and students were bused to larger attendance centers in Eddyville, Robbs, New Liberty, and Golconda. In 1969, it was voted to build one new grade school across from the high school which was built in 1954. Attendance began at the new grade school in the fall of 1971 and the Pope County Community Unit School District #1 was in operation. County-wide busing brought the entire school population to one attendance complex.

Our scenery is unsurpassed--the Shawnee National Forest, which covers one third of the county--gives us lakes and creeks, rock formations and caves, wooded hills and valleys that are most excellent for hiking, camping, bird watching, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and to just get away.

Events such as the River-to-River Relay, Trail of Tears Commemorative, Farmer's Market, 9-day Trail Ride, Fall Festival, Deer Festival, and Christmas House Tour are among our yearly events.

Our local organizations such as Main Street Golconda, Pope County Historical Society, Golconda-Pope County Chamber of Commerce, and Golconda Rotary are joined by other civic groups and local businesses in working to welcome our many visitors. Many of the individuals involved in these organizations as well as others strive to maintain and gather information about the rich history of Pope County and the people who have lived here.

We all believe that Pope County, Illinois is the place to be. I think that you could ask anyone raised here and they would say that it is "HOME."

Information supplied by Mildred B. McCormick & Pope County Historical Book, Volume 1  April 1999

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