Thursday, November 2, 2017

Galva, Illinois' Founding History.

Galva was founded as a blend of New England and Swedish families, with an added mixture of the Manx and the eventual infusion of the myriad nationalities which moved here in the course of 150 years.
Front Street in Galva, Illinois
The building of a town was visualized first in 1853 by two men who had migrated to Illinois from Vermont — William Lorenzo Wiley and his cousin, James Martin Wiley. They had first stopped off in Brimfield.

Colonists in nearby Bishop Hill immediately offered a helping hand with the new town. In the eight years since their arrival from Sweden, the followers of Eric Jansson had learned much about the building of a community, a lesson fraught with hardship and sacrifice, yet distinguished by a great religious dedication. By 1854, their colony in the rolling land near Red Oak had become a highly successful enterprise.

Other families who had migrated to Illinois from the Isle of Man, that tiny kingdom in the Irish sea, also joined in helping put Galva on the map. And they did much to develop one of the richest agricultural areas of the nation.

Thus, Galva's beginning was an auspicious one, marked by the efforts of men and women in whom the pioneer spirit burned strongly and whose lives had been fashioned around an abiding faith in God.

In the intervening decades Galva became the Homeburg of George Fitch...the City of Go...the place so many folks living throughout the United States still refer to as “the old home town.”

It was during and overland journey from their homes in Brimfield, Peoria County, to Rock Island and Davenport that the Wiley cousins reached the decision to establish a town. Actually, they were on a land inspection trip that February day in 1853 and the founding of Galva was something of an afterthought.

A few weeks earlier, William L. Wiley had written to George R. Wiley in his native Saxton's River, Vermont, describing “1,000 acres for sale up north of Galesburg, 600 acres being heavy timber, which can be bought for $10,000.... I think this land will double within two years....”

On February 24, 1853, he wrote another letter to George R. Wiley: “J.M. and I start today for Rock Island and Davenport. We will look over that land we were talking about....”

Arriving on the future site of Galva, the Wiley's halted on a slight rise of land, which today is a park bearing their names. The words of William L. Wiley have been recorded in history: “What a beautiful spot! Let's buy the land and lay out a town.”

Besides being an astute business man, William L. was of poetic nature, and in later years he wrote in verse about this land where he envisioned a city. There were such phrases as “untouched by white man's plow,” “created by the hand divine,” and “a place, most enchanting for man to dwell....”

But the Wileys weren't the first to be fascinated by this land near the head waters of the Spoon River. James F. Bonham, a Maryland bachelor, had migrated to Illinois in the early 1830s and after a short stay in Chicago, pushed westward to within gunshot of the present site of Galva. This was at least 10 years before the Swedish Colonists reached Bishop Hill and about 20 years before Galva was founded.

Jimmy Bonham was well fixed financially and invested in a sizeable acreage in Section 28 of Galva Township. He built a cabin at the edge of a hickory grove northwest of here and his home often was a wayside haven for pioneers traveling between Peoria County and Rock Island. In the 1990s, the area where Bonham had his homestead was given the name Bonham Road. Bonham also was public spirited and several years later when Galva was considered as the site of Augustana College, the bachelor listed as his contribution 10 acres of land on which to erect buildings.

Even before Bonham arrived, Michael Fraker established a homestead in this area. the site he selected was a short distance west of LaFayette, later known as Fraker's Grove, and he is credited with being the first white settler in Lynn Township.

Bonham also lacked the distinction of being the first land owner in this area. the site of Galva originally was part of the military tract of Illinois where land grants were given to soldiers who served in the War of 1812. A corporal by the name of Jacob Joy received a quarter section in 1818 by order of President James Monroe, but the corporal deprived himself of the joy of viewing this fertile Illinois prairie, much less settling here. He owned the 160 acres exactly one month before it passed into the hand of a Massachusetts man.

Galva was founded at a time when the launching of new towns was a common business. The Midwest was being rapidly developed and the opening of the railroad through this section encouraged the settling of many towns along this new artery of commerce.

The difference of a mile or so would have placed the new town in Knox County, but the railroad was the deciding factor. The route across southeastern Henry County was uncertain as the survey started. Plans to lay the tracks near the outskirts of Bishop Hill were considered, but an agreement with the colony trustees wasn't reached. Nevertheless, the colonists aided the project by grading the right-of-way east of Galva.

Surveying was in progress at the the Wileys halted here on their historic trip to Rock Island and they immediately began negotiations with the railroad officials to induce them to locate a station here. Their success was obvious. Originally, the line was called the Military Tract, but within a few years it became the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. It was launched about 1850 as a link between Galesburg and Mendota, but the original promoters lacked the funds to finish it. For a time, it looked as if it might be another of the “paper railroads,” so common during that period.
North Exchange Street, facing northeast, in the early 1890's. More telegraph wires are being installed.
The railroad's success was assured when controlling interest passed into the hands of John Murray Forbes, a Bostonian with a plentiful supply of dollars and eastern friends with even more dollars. Forbes, destined to become known as “the man who built the Burlington,” visualized a rail link between Chicago and the Mississippi River. Already, through his efforts the 12-mile line between Turner Junction and Aurora had been extended westward to Mendota.

A building boom marked the early days of Galva that summer and autumn 150 years ago. There was feverish activity to erect homes and stores before winter set in. Buildings began to dot the land, where for years, Jimmy Bonham's cabin had been the only sign of civilization. The prairie echoed with a symphony of saws and hammers.
Exchange Street. (1912) - Created by Ben Anderson
The above 1912 photo of Exchange Street ghosted with a modern day picture.
“We plant a little pile of sawdust and next morning a house was sprung up.” Thus, George R. Burt, a carpenter, described Galva's mushrooming growth. At one time as many as 150 men were busy on construction projects.

When the Wiley cousins advertised an auction sale of land in November, 1856, they inserted this comment in the bill: “Galva, already known, is of only two years' growth, but the rapidity with which it has grown since its birth has outdistanced itself in the expectations of its parents and elder sisters....” The population was between 1,000 and 1,200.

For a time, Galva's population exceeded that of Kewanee, which was started the same year at the north edge of Wethersfield when the railroad was built.

While Swedish colonists joined the New England and Manx families in the building of Galva, folks of other nationalities also were attracted here to establish homes. The “western fever” gripped many more New England families who followed the example of the Wileys.

Early Galva residents included such families as the Wileys and the Wolevers, the Bigelows and the Babcocks, the Johnsons and the Olsons, the Fullers and the Farrs, the Seeleys and the Sopers, the Kellys and the Kelseys, the Burts and the Baileys, the Abys and the Albros.

At one time, as many as 35 Wileys lived here, although there is no record of the number of Johnsons in the early years. One hundred and fifty years later the names of the Andersons, Olsons, Nelsons and Johnsons still dominate the roster of families; but ironically, the name of Wiley, so prominent in the early history of the town, does not appear among the residents of Galva's sesquicentennial year.

On the site of Galva, the Bishop Hill colonists invested in 50 town lots. They built the first boarding house and the first warehouse, dug the first well, published the first newspaper and cooperated in scores of projects. They were good neighbors in every respect.

In recognition of their aid in the early building activities, the honor of naming the new town went to the Bishop Hill colonists. It was Olof Johnson who suggested the name. Johnson, a colony trustee, represented Bishop Hill in its Galva business enterprises, maintaining headquarters here and occupying a large home which he erected at the northwest corner of Wiley Park. This home is now owned by Ed Muncaster and is listed in the National Historic Record. Otherwise, he spent much time in eastern and southern cities where the Jansonists conducted business.

He was quoted as saying: “After due deliberation, it is my distinct privilege to propose the name of which we shall be justly proud. It is the name of one of the greatest seaports of Sweden, a city from which many of our people set sail on the voyage to the new world. It is my fervent hope that in the years to come it shall serve to cement even more firmly the bonds of friendship between the peoples of our adopted country — the United States of America — and our beloved homeland — the Kingdom of Sweden. With a feeling of great pride, I propose the name of Gefle....”

Because the name was pronounced “Yaveley,” within a short time in was Anglicized to the present spelling. A number of years ago, the spelling of the Swedish town was revised to “Galva.”

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Wonderful read. Thank you.
    Jason Bates
    Galva Resident

  2. Thank you for sharing the history of the town I live in. I am very fascinated in the town's history.

    1. I hope to settle there in the near future. I have Swedish roots. My grandmother, Anna Peterson, came to America in 1901. I am 2nd generation American on my mom's side.


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