Biography of Judge John W. Spencer

Judge John W. Spencer, deceased, one of the pioneers of Rock Island County, was born at Vergennes, Vermont, July 25, 1801. His parents, Calvin and Ruth (Hopkins) Spencer, were natives of the New England Colonies. The father of Judge Spencer was born in Bennington, Vermont, and his mother near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and were descended from the Puritan English. They reared four sons and a daughter, John W., being the eldest. At this writing the first and second generations here mentioned are long since gathered unto their fathers, and only the grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren remain to perpetuate names made honorable in the earliest history of our county. From the two families united by the marriage of Calvin Spencer and Ruth Hopkins, in the very beginning of the past century, many noble men have sprung-men who have adorned alike the pulpit and the state; and if it were possible in the space at our command to trace the genealogy of the Spencers and the Hopkinses from the days when some of their ancestors were enforcing in a judicial capacity, the quaint old laws that forbade travel on the Sabbath except in a pious going to and from the Church of God, laws that allowed no whistling or other boisterous conduct on that sacred day; laws, indeed, that forbade “ye good man ye kissing of his wife on ye Sabbath day “if it were possible, we say, to follow the history of those families from their periwigged “squire-archy” down to the death-bed scene at Rock Island, February 20, 1878, from whence the spirit of John W. Spencer took its flight, the roster would contain many names that good people have revered. But the province of the present biographer is limited to a bare recital of the more important events occurring in the life of the gentleman whose name forms the caption of this sketch. The lives of Spencer, Davenport, Wells, Case and Vandruff are all indelibly stamped upon the history of a great state. Unlike a majority of men of whom we write, they made history; without such men there would have been no history to write. What we know of the hills, the forests and the streams, unpeopled by the hardy pioneer and those who followed them, would be a chapter easily written. A famous writer has said that the history of a country is but a story of the lives of the men who make it. The history of Rock Island County from the Indian occupation down to the time when a knowledge of events shall cease to be perpetuated in print will reflect the life of Spencer, and that, too, whether his biography, as such; were ever written.

John W. Spencer spent his youth in his native state and at the common schools acquired the rudiments of an education. In 1820, driving a two-horse team for Mr. Brush, he crossed the Alleghany Mountains, traversed the broad states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and at the end of fifty-one days from the time of his leaving home, landed in the City of St. Louis. The State of Missouri was just then being admitted into the Union, and as Negro slavery was, by the constitution, made legal,

Mr. Spencer preferred to cast his lot east of the “Father of the Waters “. So in December following his departure from New England, in company with an uncle who had been a resident of Missouri, he recrossed the Mississippi and took up a residence in Greene County, Illinois. Here he stopped for seven years and worked at farming. In the spring of 1826, in search of a location for a water mill, he ascended the Illinois River as far as Ottawa. Failing to discover any site to his fancy, he retraced his steps and the following spring ascended the Mississippi to the lead mines. On this trip his attention was attracted by the natural beauty of Rock Island and the adjacent country on either side of the river, and when in the following year he learned that the Indians had abandoned the Rock River Territory, he decided to go at once to Rock Island. He was accompanied here by Mr. Louden Case, Sr., whose daughter he afterward married.

At that period Galena, one hundred miles distant, was the nearest post office. The presidential election had just taken place, but nothing was known at Rock Island of the result. For a consideration young Spencer undertook, on foot, to carry the mailbags to and bring the election returns from Galena. The river was frozen, he donned his skates and set out. His route was through the not altogether friendly Winnebago country, but he encountered no difficulty from that source, and on Christmas Day, 1827, he started on the return trip, landing three days later at Rock Island; and the people learned that “Old Hickory” was president elect of the United States. It must almost have taken his breath away when the sum of five dollars was placed in his hands in payment for a two hundred mile run on foot through a hostile Indian country in the dead of winter.

In the spring of 1829 he brought his family from Morgan County (whither they had re-moved the year before from Greene) to Rock Island and took possession of a vacant Indian wigwam. From that day to the hour of his death, J. W. Spencer was a citizen of Rock Island. He witnessed the return of Black Hawk from his hunting expedition, to find his lodges occupied by the “pale-faces”; he heard the angry and reasonable protests of that great chief, against the encroachments upon his natural rights; he heard his sorrowful argument “Saukie-wigeop-saukie-aukie” repeated many times to no purpose, and saw the great chief stride away toward the setting sun, where he told his people that the story of the occupancy of their lands by the white men was too true. He saw the chief and his people come again, and in common with other settlers, knew the purpose of their coming; he knew the possibilities of their discontent, and feared that the Indian was bent upon revenge. He noted the first out-break of their savage insubordination; saw the culmination of their ferocity as it rose in lurid lights from burning cabins, and disturbed the elements with the screams of butchered women and children. He saw the swift-footed pioneers as they pursued the savage destroyers, and saw the strong arm of the Government as it descended upon the wily Sac and his warriors at Bad Axe,-and he saw peace reign supreme in the valley of the Mississippi.

In all the struggles of the Rock Island pioneers Mr. Spencer participated. During the Black Hawk War he was one of the organizers of the “Rock River Rangers”, in which company he held the rank of first lieutenant. He was a member of the first board of Rock Island County Commissioners, and held the office twelve years. He was the first judge of the Rock Island County Court, and as such performed the first marriage ceremony in the county. He was a delegate to the Illinois State Constitutional Convention in 1847, and in this body he was a conspicuous factor. Though public-spirited, he had no ambition for office-holding, his only experience in that line being confined to a time when his country actually needed and demanded his services. In 1841 he, with. David B. Sears, Spencer H. White, and Ainsworth and Lynde, merchants at Rock Island, built the first dam erected at Moline, and developed the great water power at that place. At the death of Captain J. Wilson, the father of his second wife, in 1852, he succeeded to a controlling interest in the Rock Island and Davenport Ferry, ‘a most valuable property, a large revenue from which still goes to the family. Mr. Spencer died as he lived, a conscientious Christian. He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and brought his children up to a strict observance of that faith. One of his sons, the Rev. William Anson Spencer, is presiding elder of Dixon District, Rock River Conference, Illinois.

The first Mrs. Spencer, nee Miss Louisa Case, died in 1833, leaving one son, John C. Spencer, who died January 16, 1871. In 1834 Judge Spencer married Miss Eliza Wilson, of New Haven, Vermont. She was the accomplished daughter of Captain John Wilson, deceased. Of the six children, three only are living: Edward W., Julia S. (Mrs. D. T. Robinson) and the Rev. William Anson Spencer, of the Dixon District. John C. is deceased. Their son Charles H. was accidentally drowned when eighteen years of age in Rock River, and their youngest born, Roswell G., died when about three years of age.



Biographical Publishing Company. Portrait and Biographical Album of Rock Island County. Illinois; Chicago: Biographical Pub. Co.

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