Milestone year

Still part of daily routine, Illinois newspapers mark 200th birthday


Editor’s note: The News Bulletin breaks format this week to bring you a look back at 200 years of newspapers in Illinois. This article was written by Tom Emery, a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at (217) 710-8392 or Viewpoint returns next week.


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the origin of newspapers in Illinois. In the two centuries since, the newspapers of the state have carved a rich and storied history.

“Newspapers offer a window into the past,” said Dr. Samuel Wheeler, a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  “If you want to really understand what life might have been like in a specific place during a specific period of time, you might start by simply reading their local newspaper.”

Journalism in Illinois pre-dated statehood by four years. The first newspaper in Illinois was the Illinois Herald at the territorial capital of Kaskaskia, which published its first edition, a three-column foldover, on Sept. 6, 1814. The owner was Matthew Duncan, a friend of the territorial governor and the older brother of the fifth governor of the state, Joseph Duncan.

The Herald, a weekly publication, was supported by federal and territorial patronage, as it was paid handsomely for printing national laws and proclamations.  Still, it found space for local advertisements, items such as notices on stray animals, foreign affairs, and even poetry and prose.

The Herald quickly became a key outlet for political views and was owned by a succession of prominent Illinois leaders.  In the spring of 1816, the paper was purchased by Daniel Pope Cook, the namesake of Cook County, and the name was changed to the Western Intelligencer.  Now the paper was used to promote Illinois statehood, which was achieved in 1818, the same year that the publication was renamed the Illinois Intelligencer.  Two years later, the paper moved with the state capital to Vandalia.

In 1823, the Intelligencer was bought by sitting Governor Edward Coles, who used the publication to champion his efforts to prevent a pro-slavery state constitutional convention. Coles became a frequent contributor to his paper, which proved successful. In voting that August, Illinois voters rejected slavery, a hallmark moment in the history of the state.

By then, the state had four newspapers. The second was the Emigrant, which began operations in Shawneetown on Sept. 5, 1818. The printer of that publication had arrived with his printing press on the Ohio River, sailing downstream from Pennsylvania, when he became stuck on a sandbar. Local residents talked him into staying in Shawneetown.

Like the Intelligencer, much space in the Emigrant was consumed with the printing of national laws and politics, ads for local goods and services also filled its pages. The name was changed to the Illinois Gazette the following year.

Like other early papers, the Gazette often lacked for supplies.  No editions were printed for two months in the summer of 1819 when a vessel carrying a shipment of paper was halted by low water.  Two years later, production stopped for three months when another load of paper was mistakenly delivered to St. Louis.

Also on the scene was the Edwardsville Spectator, the third paper of the state, which issued its first edition on May 23, 1819. The Spectator was founded by Hooper Warren, who later left to establish newspapers in various other towns.

Warren’s enemies in Edwardsville induced another paper to land in town. In September 1822, another printer from Pennsylvania was coming through town with a press, looking for a location to open business. Some of Warren’s critics encouraged the printer to stay in Edwardsville, and a new competitor, the Star of the West, was born.

The Star was sold in April 1823 and became the Illinois Republican, which folded the next year.  In Kaskaskia, a paper with a similar name, the Republican Advocate, was started in January 1823 and became a fervent supporter of the proposed slavery convention.

Slavery remained a hot-button issue in Illinois newspapers for decades.  On Nov. 7, 1837, abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy suffered five mortal gunshot wounds while defending his printing press from a pro-slavery mob in Alton.

Until the mid-1820s, there were no newspapers north of Vandalia. That changed in early 1827 when Warren established the Springfield Spectator with remnants of his Edwardsville publication. The following year, the Miner’s Journal opened for business in the lead mining town of Galena.

Chicago finally joined the fold in 1833 with the creation of the Democrat. Two years later, the rival Whigs began the American, which became the first daily paper in Illinois on Nov. 26, 1839. The Democrat followed suit the next year, when forty-three newspapers were operating in the state.

That number had exploded to 300 by the outbreak of the Civil War. At least thirty-three of them were on the scene in Chicago, including the Tribune, which opened for business in 1848. Over the decades, the Tribune would become the dominant newspaper of the state, known for its Republican leanings that spawned a political machine. Subsequent publishers of the Tribune, Joseph Medill and Robert McCormick, and their families were some of the most influential political forces in the state.

Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln was a devoted reader of newspapers. A perk of his appointment as postmaster of New Salem in 1833 was a free newspaper subscription.  He later subscribed to countless newspapers, which he frequently read aloud in his Springfield law office.

Lincoln was also in the newspaper business for a time. In that era, many newspapers were subsidized by political parties, who in turn encouraged subscriptions by their supporters.  In 1857, Lincoln provided a $500 subsidy to the Missouri Democrat, a leading St. Louis paper that was actually a Republican outlet, for circulation in southern and central Illinois.

Two years later, Lincoln bought the press and type to establish a German-language Republican paper.  German-language papers were prevalent across the state, owing to the large contingent of Germans, the most numerous immigrant group of Illinois. Papers in as many as eight languages were found across Illinois during the era. A half-century later, African-American presses reflected the views and needs of Illinois blacks. By the 1920s and 1930s, the Chicago Defender became the leading voice of blacks in the state and beyond.

Like the state as a whole, the newspapers of Illinois were divided through the Civil War.  Those in opposition sometimes paid the price. Federal soldiers damaged the office of the Bloomington Times, a critic of the Lincoln administration, and hurled the type of the Chester Picket-Guard into the street in July 1864.  In June 1863, the Chicago Times was ordered by military authorities to be “suppressed” for “loyal and incendiary statements” until President Lincoln revoked the order three days later.

Papers of the era had overt political agendas and rarely refrained from personal attacks on their opponents. The vitriol that spewed from their pages would induce lawsuits in today’s world.  In Chester, the Picket-Guard “hoped to deliver the state, already disgraced by such a dishonest, radical, lecherous, blasphemous, and drunken, dirty, beastly thing as (Illinois Gov.) Dick Oglesby, from that low, vulgar, dirty and hypocritical (John A.) Logan. Maggots would sicken on him.”

Though shrill and largely inaccurate, the Picket-Guard was hardly the exception to the rule. Most papers engaged in similar mocking of their opponents’ virtue, intelligence, and even manhood.

“If you want entertaining reading, go back and look through the pages of newspapers from those times,” said Taylor Pensoneau, a former statehouse reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who has extensively studied Illinois history. “All sorts of vicious and derogatory remarks are said about political opponents, things that would never pass muster today.”

Still, many papers were owned by some of the leading names of the state, who often used them to promote their political causes. The family of the mother of Adlai Stevenson, who served as Illinois governor from 1949-53, owned the Bloomington Pantagraph. The inventor of barbed wire, Joseph Glidden, ran the DeKalb Chronicle. In 1856, John M. Palmer, a future Illinois governor and U.S. Senator, furnished the money to found the Free Democrat in his hometown of Carlinville to espouse his political views. In 1879, he bought the Illinois State Register in Springfield for the same purpose.

The Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871 wiped out most of that city’s papers, but only temporarily. Each of the major dailies were back in business within forty-eight hours. That dedication to the press was reflected statewide, and the number of newspapers in Illinois doubled between 1870 and 1880, to a total of 1,017. Every one of the state’s 102 counties boasted at least one newspaper. Many of the small-town papers were family-owned.

In 1890, there were 1,241 newspapers in Illinois, a number that jumped to 1,700 in 1906. While the competition was fierce in Chicago, even rural readers had plenty to choose from. In Carlinville, a town of 3,500 residents, readers in 1902 could select from the Macoupin County Enquirer, which published both daily and weekly editions, as well as Palmer’s old Democrat and the upstart Macoupin County Argus.

“The market was extremely competitive, even in the smaller towns,” said Pensoneau. “There were some fistfights between editors, and all sorts of violent outbursts, name-calling, and the like. In some cases, paper boys even beat up rivals from other papers.  It was kind of a free-for-all atmosphere.”

Newsprint in most publications was often tiny and the columns cramped. Still, readers of most papers were treated not only to local news and gossip, but also national political news and literary submissions.  In the days before radio, television, and the Internet, newspapers were usually the only news source in town. It was not unusual for readers of even the smallest publications to see news from China in their pages.

The Tribune was at the forefront of worldwide news in the state, though it frequently butted heads with crosstown competition. Angered at its stances against labor, Prohibition, and the draft, a grandson of retail magnate Marshall Field founded a liberal publication, the Sun, on Dec. 4, 1941. In 1948, it merged with the Chicago Times to become the Sun-Times, which survives as that city’s other major print outlet.

Other competitors statewide also merged in time. In Springfield, the Journal and Register began publishing a joint Sunday paper in 1961 and completely merged operations in 1974. In the Quad Cities, the Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus began to share operations in 1986.  In other cases, multiple papers are owned by conglomerates.

Most major cities in Illinois eventually found themselves with only one newspaper. By 1989, the number of newspapers in Illinois had dipped to 745. With the onset of the Internet and economic downturns, that number has dropped to around 450 today.

Still, newspapers remain part of the daily routine for millions of Illinoisans, who depend on them for accurate, timely news reporting, a means of education, and a fulfilling leisure activity.

“The rewarding feeling each day of turning the pages of real newspapers is something the digital age can never replace, ” said Pensoneau, “at least not for me.”