HON. JOHN DEE STEVENS (deceased), of Carthage, was prominently identified with the history of Hancock County for many years, and, in fact, his name is inseparably connected therewith, for he was a leader in many enterprises and public movements which have resulted in the growth and development of the county and in promoting its best interests and material welfare. Almost his entire life was here passed, and so widely and favorably was he known that we feel assured our readers will receive with interest this record of his career.
Mr. Stevens was one of the native sons of Illinois, his birth having occurred in Carrollton, Greene County, February 8, 1826. His parents, Joseph and Elmira (Dee) Stevens, were married in Carrollton, in April, 1825. The maternal grandfather, John Dee, was a native of Vermont, and with his family removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Mr. and Mrs. Stevens became acquainted.
In 1818, her father’s family went to St. Charles, Mo., and two years later removed to Carrollton, Ill., where, in 1822, Joseph Stevens took up his residence. He was born in New York City, and in Cincinnati learned the hatter’s trade. In 1828, he removed with his wife and son John to Hazel Green, Wis., and for a few months was connected with the lead-mining interests of that region, but in the autumn he went down the Mississippi on a keel-boat to where now stands the town of Louisiana, Mo., which was then only a hamlet. There he opened a hatter’s shop, and in connection with business along that line traded extensively with the Indians, making various trips to the several tribes in northwestern Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
This he carried on until his business was almost stopped by the Black Hawk War, in 1832. The following year he came to Hancock County, and secured Government land in Chili Township, about twelve miles due south of Carthage, being located on the main line of travel between Quincy and the East. He established the stage-house at Chili for the accommodation of the public, and, securing the control of the line, continued to run stages between Macomb and Quincy for some years. His place was noted for its cheerful hospitality, and its most popular and companionable landlord became a favorite with all who went his way.
He died on the old homestead in 1846, at the age of forty-six. His widow survived him about seventeen years, her death occurring in 1863. Carthage had just been chosen the county seat when he located here, and he was present at the first sale of town lots, which occurred in 1832. He was an anti-Mormon, and was called to aid in suppressing that sect.
Not long after he located in this county, he was joined by his brother, Moses Stevens, who also secured Government land. He was a contractor, and erected the court house which is still standing. He completed the building in 1839, and soon afterwards went to Iowa. In 1850, he went to California, where his death occurred the same year.
John Dee Stevens was the eldest in a family of four sons and one daughter who grew to mature years. George W. resides at Medicine Lodge, Kan.; J. O. is a farmer of Chili Township; Mrs. J. S. Hatton resides in Carrollton, Ill.; and Frank, a Union soldier, was killed at the battle of Jackson, Miss., in 1863.
John remained at home during his boyhood, and passed through the exciting scenes which accompanied the Mormon troubles. He was with the men who were called out by Gov. Ford to aid in disbanding the Mormons at Nauvoo. On the 27th of June, 1844, Hyrum and Joseph Smith were killed by a squad of men from Warsaw, who had been expected to join Gov. Ford at Golden Point, but who after disbandment came to Carthage and committed the atrocious murder. Mr. Stevens remembered seeing both men when they were brought into the court house the following morning. Later he was with the forces under Thomas Muckman, of Mt. Sterling, who, with John Carlin, went to Nauvoo to serve the papers on the Mormons.
This was in October, 1846. The army of about five hundred camped three miles from the temple at Nauvoo and awaited negotiations, which it was hoped would end the affair peaceably, but these were rejected, and hostilities commenced. The battle was begun and raged for an hour and a quarter, when the supplies gave out, and the attacking party withdrew. Mr. Stevens remained with the army, doing the duty assigned him until hostilities ceased, and Nauvoo was given into the hands of the authorities.
Soon after, the Mexican War came on, and he was anxious to enter the service, but the death of his father occurred about that time and he felt that his services were needed at home, although he had made preparations to join a regiment at Quincy.
In 1849, gold was discovered in California, and the following year Mr. Stevens joined three young men, who with a six-horse team started overland to California. On reaching their destination, Mr. Stevens began work in the mines at Placerville, but being attacked by rheumatism, he was disabled for that arduous labor. After leaving the mines, he sought a warm climate, and located near the old missions of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, where he secured employment with some Mormons who were engaged in the lumber business. It is very probable that he did not tell his employers that he had acted as a soldier against them in Hancock County, else he would have lost his position, if nothing worse had occurred.
At length he turned his face toward home, for he was tired of wild life in the West, and determined to join a surveying party which was fixing the boundary line between Mexico and the United States. In company with a Mr. Peabody from Ohio, and an old sailor named Mormon Bill, he started on the trip, the three traveling on ponies. The journey was full of interesting and sometimes dangerous adventures and was one never to be forgotten by Mr. Stevens. His companions were not men of the best class, and after a time he parted company with them, joining a man who was going direct to Texas.
Mr. Stevens proceeded to Eltar, Mexico, where he joined two Americans and sixty native laborers, who were building a substantial fort. Here Mr. Stevens began raising tobacco, which sold for $10 per pound in Mexico, but the Apache Indians coming to attack him, the camp and its followers all fled to Eltar, and the crop was lost.
Our subject then set out to join the surveying party. On the way he fell in with a band of thieves, but at length reached the party, and later found himself in San Antonio, Tex.
Mr. Stevens did not then at once set out for Illinois, but, with the hope of retrieving his fortunes, made a trip to Ft. Clark. At length, after an absence of five years, he returned to the scenes of his boyhood, poor in pocket, but rich in experience. The following year he visited Ft. Riley, Kan., then the headquarters of all the wild spirits of the border, but a few months spent there satisfied him, for he was in the company of gamblers, and he returned to the prairies of Hancock County, and accustomed himself to the habits of a more civilized life.
About this time he married Miss Julia Ann Towler, of La Prairie, Adams County, and after his marriage he began farming on the old home which he had left seven years before, and there resided until 1870, when he was elected County Sheriff, and removed to Carthage.
In 1872, he was re-elected and efficiently served for four years. During the succeeding ten years he devoted himself to farming interests, but did not remove to the country. In 1882, he was chosen to represent his district in the State Legislature, and while thus serving always had the interests of his constituents at heart, and took an active part in dvocating such legislation as would cause the railroads to provide more adequate service for the people. This roused the opposition of those connected with the railroads, and when he was renominated the opposing party so persistently worked against him that he was de-feated.
For years he was Chairman of the County Democratic Committee, and did all in his power to promote his party’s interests. He was the author of the “Aledo Letter,” which resulted in the union of the Democrats and Greenbackers in the district for the election to Congress of their candidate, William H. Neece, much to the chagrin and annoyance of the Republican leaders.
He was a man of keen observation, a close student of human nature, and his great urbanity and suavity of manner made him a leader of men. He became Postmaster of Carthage under Cleveland, but resigned his office on the election of President Harrison, not desiring to serve under a political opponent. Though he was an advocate of Democratic principles, he did not fully agree with the President on all matters, as he was a strong advocate of the free-coinage system.
Mr. Stevens took an active interest in everything that pertained to the perpetuation of the authentic history of the county in which he so long made his home. He was for years a member of the Old Settlers’ Association, and for two years served as its President. He was a man of broad and liberal mind, who believed in giving to the pioneers who were the founders of the county their just dues. Those who knew him esteemed him highly for the many excellencies of his character, and certainly his name deserves an honored place on the pages of his adopted county.
Mr. Stevens died at his home in Carthage January 3, 1894, after an illness of but a few days. His children are Leona M., who is connected with the educational interests of the county; Clara B., wife of Thomas Jackson, a fanner of Hancock County; and Elmira A., at home.
File contributed by: Sandy Morrey
Source: Portrait and biographical record of Hancock, McDonough and Henderson counties, Illinois : containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens of the county, pp. 145-47. [Chicago, Ill.] : Lake City Pub. Co. 1894.