1808 : Jesse W. Fell Born, Man Who Named Pontiac and Livingston County

November 10, 2020 all-day

November 10, 2018 is the 200th birthday of Jesse W. Fell, the man who named Pontiac and Livingston County and who was one of Abraham Lincoln’s first political backers.

Jesse W. Fell was born Nov. 10, 1808, in Pennsylvania, studied law in Ohio, and had many accomplishments in the Illinois part of his life, including founding the town of Normal, and helping found what is now Illinois State University. He also founded Clinton, Towanda, Lexington, LeRoy and El Paso. He helped develop Dwight, Joliet and Decatur. Fell died Feb. 25, 1887.

Fell suggested the name of Livingston County to honor Edward Livingston, a lawyer and statesman, mayor of New York City, representative in Congress from New York and later Louisiana, U.S. senator from Louisiana, Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson, and U.S. Minister to France. The county was established Feb. 27, 1837, by an act of the Legislature.
Pontiac, the first and only county seat, was incorporated in 1856, and township government was adopted in 1858.

Although Livingston had no connections to Illinois, the General Assembly “found him accomplished enough to name a county after him,” a Wikipedia.com page says.

Local historian and former staff reporter Barbara Sancken wrote in an article that Fell “had more to do with shaping the early events of Livingston County and Pontiac than any other man.” She noted how he walked from Pennsylvania to Illinois in 1831 as a 23-year-old, and who would live in Bloomington from 1832 until his death, except for five years of that period.
He became acquainted with Lincoln in 1832, learning of his service as a captain thin the Black Hawk War. A Quaker, Fell was a good friend of Stephen A. Douglas but opposed him politically, Sancken noted in her story.

Fell became the first attorney in Bloomington, the county seat of newly formed McLean County

Fell was also a great-grandfather of Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, twice a candidate for president, and ambassador to the United Nations under President Kennedy. “I have a bad case of hereditary politics,” Stevenson once quipped; his paternal grandfather, Adlai Stevenson, was vice president under Grover Cleveland.

Fell explained in a letter how he decided on the names.

The letter, addressed to the Old Settlers group of the county, was printed in the Jan. 6, 1876, edition of The Pontiac Sentinel:

“Being associated somewhat t with the early history of your city and county, it will, I trust, not be deemed intrusive to state, very briefly, why Pontiac and Livingston County came to the names respectively of your county seat and county.

“I have always commiserated the lot of the original inhabitants of our common country, and in view of their certain and rapid extinction, have favored the perpetuation of some of their favorite names. When, therefore, in olden times, my friend, Henry Weed, the first settler and proprietor of what is now your county seat, applied to me to draft a petition for the post office, I inserted the name of “Pontiac,” that being the name of a distinguished Indian chief.

“In drafting the first bill for the formation of the county, some years after, I left a blank to be filled with a name when thereafter agreed upon. Gov. John Moore was at that time one of our representatives in the legislature and had a very decided preference for the name of “Belmont,” that being the name of the county he had lived in Ohio.

“I was for (Edward) Livingston, mainly because, not long before, he had rendered the county an important service in drafting the celebrated proclamation putting down South Carolina…Secession. Finding a majority of the committee on counties of my way of thinking I had no difficulty in inserting the name your county now bears; a fitting compliment to one of the most accomplished statesmen of the age …”

The Fell parks in both Pontiac and Bloomington are named after Jesse Fell.

Source: “Today is bicentennial of birth of Jesse Fell“, Pontiac Daily Leader, November 10, 2008.

If anyone has access to te July 21, 1937 Pontiac Daily Leader, there is a picture and story about Jesse Fell in the  in the centennial issue of the newspaper.

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