Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Village of Godfrey, Illinois

The Village of Godfrey lies on the east side of the Mississippi River between the confluences of the Illinois and Missouri rivers. When waterways were the only highways, the junctions of the three rivers formed important intersections. The location drew Indians, Europeans, and—during Illinois’ territorial period—three groups of frontier settlers: “First, the white man born in a slave state…; second, the negro, generally a slave; and third, the Yankee, from over the Mountains.”
Benjamin Godfrey House
Reverend Jacob Lurton and his wife, the former Sarah Tuley, left their longtime home in Louisville, Kentucky, in the spring of 1817. Accompanied by an extended family and six slaves, the Lurtons were Godfrey’s first recorded settlers. Like many of their frontier counterparts, the Lurtons held slaves, engaged in whiskey making, and shared an antagonism toward Yankees. When Yankees took issue with the Southerners’ ways, the Lurtons and their neighbors moved on.

New Englanders led the second wave of Godfrey settlers. Nathan and Latty Scarritt were temperate, hardworking, devout Methodist farmers who recruited like-minded neighbors. Five years after the Scarritts settled in Godfrey, an influx of eastern businessmen developed nearby Alton’s riverfront. The Yankee businessmen considered Godfrey to be Alton’s chief source of natural resources and agricultural goods. By 1833, Alton and Godfrey were joined economically, but local settlers were deeply divided by social issues—especially slavery.

The small settlement of the Rocky Fork area in Godfrey may be the oldest and largest Underground Railroad site in Illinois. Rocky Fork was a refuge for runaway slaves. Courageous Negroes risked their lives to escape slavery, then continued to reach back to help others gain freedom. Indians provided protection and shelter to runaways until the close of the War of 1812. White “Friends to Humanity,” acting in response to their antislavery beliefs, also assisted slaves. In 1828, with the protection and assistance of Don Alonzo Spaulding and his family, Rocky Fork became a large-scale Underground Railroad station. Operated by both blacks and whites, the station drew fugitive slaves from Southern Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The history of Rocky Fork presents a compelling, multi-racial effort that spanned decades.

Benjamin Godfrey, the man for whom Godfrey is named, has long been a subject of local speculation. Was he a hardened pirate with ties to the infamous Jean Lafitte? Or was he a pious and humble businessman with a passion for reform? The former New England sea captain came to the area in 1832 with $50,000. He quickly expanded his fortune as a partner in the successful freight-forwarding firm of Godfrey, Gilman & Company. He built the first church in Alton, a mansion in Godfrey, and the first women’s college west of the Allegheny Mountains. Yet, when asked about his past, Godfrey only said: “It would make a novel.” Benjamin Godfrey’s reticence concealed his past involvement in the domestic slave trade. By 1835, he and his partner were among the most successful businessmen in Illinois. In alliance with others, Godfrey embarked on a phenomenal array of economic development and philanthropic reform projects. By 1838, Godfrey had an interest in land, stock companies, lead mines, smelting equipment, steamships, and the proposed Alton-Shelbyville Railroad. Lower Alton was the scene of a commercial empire that was projected to rival St. Louis.

Several tragic events occurred in rapid succession in 1837. First, Elijah Lovejoy, a young minister and newspaper editor from New England, was killed by a proslavery mob while guarding his printing press in Godfrey, Gilman & Company’s Alton warehouse. Lovejoy’s martyrdom and the farcical trials that followed his death destroyed Alton’s reputation in the East. Next, a national economic downturn reached panic proportions. Godfrey and Gilman’s vertical monopoly on the Galena lead market collapsed, triggering the failure of other Alton businesses. Construction stopped, and land values dropped. Hard times set in. When a subsequent bank investigation of Godfrey and his partner in management abuses, the two men resigned their positions and prepared to dissolve their commercial empire.

Monticello Female Seminary opened in 1838 at the height of Benjamin Godfrey’s financial woes. Nevertheless, Godfrey spared no expense in building a palatial three-story stone building. Godfrey placed Reverend Theron Baldwin, a member of the Yale Band, in charge of academics. Baldwin modeled Monticello’s rigorous curriculum after that of his alma mater and hired three Eastern women to teach. Philena Fobes, a twenty-seven-year-old “blue stocking” with a love of learning and high academic standards, quickly rose to a leadership position at the college. Seminary students included the privileged daughters of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the state, as well as slaveholders’ daughters, Cherokee Indian girls, and orphaned girls on scholarship.
Monticello Female Seminary, Godfrey, Illinois
Benjamin Godfrey suffered a staggering series of personal and financial losses in the aftermath of the Panic of 1837. Turning his attention to his farm, family, the Seminary he founded, and the village he platted, Godfrey used the period to regroup and polish his remaining assets. He sought to insulate the college and the community from the reputation for violence that descended on the area after Lovejoy’s murder. 

During the following decade, the Village of Monticello, a conservative New England community in both appearance and values, revolved around the Seminary, its two Protestant churches, and Benjamin Godfrey and his family.

In 1850, with the help of Abraham Lincoln and other members of the Illinois State Legislature, Benjamin Godfrey began construction on the long-awaited Alton-Sangamon Railroad. Godfrey encountered engineering difficulties, bad weather, labor problems, and cost overruns from the outset. In desperation, the founder sought additional funds from a New York financier, mortgaging everything he owned. When the double ribbon of track was completed in 1852, the road was renamed the Chicago and Mississippi Railroad. At the same time, Godfrey was replaced as superintendent of the road and embroiled in a series of lawsuits that dragged on for years. His efforts, however, brought renewed hope and prosperity to the region. Farmers cultivated more land, and land prices rose; coalmines, sawmills, flour mills, factories, and distilleries operated at capacity. New industries opened, and jobs were plentiful. At the height of its academic and cultural achievement, Monticello Seminary was dubbed “the ornament of the West.”

The Mexican War, the California Gold Rush, the railroad, and the telegraph brought the rest of the nation closer. Change spawned new antagonisms and conflicts.

The death of Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 gave rise to the abolition movement. Antislavery men and women were appalled as growing numbers of free blacks and runaways were jailed and kidnapped. Eastern missionaries drew a line east from Alton across the State of Illinois. The area south of the line was considered proslavery and outside the boundaries of the missionaries’ cause. Godfrey was just north of the line. St. Louis slaveholders formed a secret organization and stepped up their efforts to return runaways and expose those who assisted runaways. Secret Copperhead societies formed. Local black leaders emerged to combat the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Sympathetic whites, including Dr. Benjamin Franklin Long of Godfrey, founded the Illinois Mutual Fire Insurance Company. This legitimate business provided a highly organized, well-disguised cover for an Underground Railroad system that spanned central and northern Illinois. Dr. Long’s farm became the first stop on Rocky Fork’s Underground Railroad. Rocky Fork’s population doubled between 1850 and 1860. When Lincoln and Douglas debated at Alton in 1858, the United States was on the path to war.

Abraham Lincoln carried Monticello Precinct in the 1860 presidential election but did not carry Madison or surrounding counties. When the southern states seceded from the Union, many residents of Southern Illinois sympathized with the Confederacy. In Godfrey, however, a large, enthusiastic crowd immediately gathered to express their loyalty to the Union. Amidst rumors of traitors, county secessions, and invasion, Godfrey residents formed the secret “Monticello Prudential Committee.” Sons of Godfrey’s original settlers served with the Mississippi Ram Fleet, fought in the battles of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson in Kentucky, and at the bloody battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. Sgt. Carlos Colby, a Godfrey resident and a nephew of Dr. Benjamin F. Long, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the Siege of Vicksburg.

It was time for a fresh start when the soldiers came home victorious and honored the dead. There was a feeling of hope, gaiety, and change in the air. A new generation was in charge. Reminiscences of the pioneering generation became history. New leaders emerged. Reverend Erasmus Green, a black Civil War veteran, presided over the newly built Rocky Fork A.M.E. Church. At Monticello Seminary, women laid aside their hoop skirts and performed in gymnastic exhibitions. Philena Fobes retired. “What is unfinished in one administration,” she said, “may be completed in another.”

Godfrey’s original settlers made astounding progress despite differing styles, values and beliefs. Within a generation, they cleared land, built homes, cultivated farms, and successfully established churches, schools, and businesses.

In 1991, the Village of Godfrey was incorporated. Local monuments, historic landmarks, churches, and traditions commemorate Godfrey’s pioneering generation.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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