Coles County, Illinois Homepage

History of Coles County


Between 1820 and 1840, two migrations settled Illinois. One, from New York and New England, settled Northern Illinois. A second stream from Ohio and Wabash River valleys, settled in Southern Illinois, including Coles County.

Prior to 1820, there were no permanent settlements in the County. This was partly because the treaty with the Indians relinquishing their title to the area was not made until 1818 and because as late as 1820, there were still battles between Indians and government surveyors in the Wabash River valley. After the Indian threat had been squelched, settlements began to fill up the interior of Illinois with a series of short (30 - 60 miles) migrations.

Many pioneers migrated through Coles County, because it was on one of the routes West from Indiana and Kentucky. One major route was the Vincennes Trace, which passed from Vincennes, Indiana to Kaskaskia in Southwestern Illinois. Normally this route would have passed about 50 miles South of Charleston, however, frequent flooding of the Wabash and Embarras rivers in this region necessitated passing North through Coles County. Many settlers crossed the Embarras River South of Charleston.

A second factor determining settlement of Coles County was its topography. In contrast to areas to its North and West, Coles County was located on the timberline. Two major rivers drained the County: the Embarras on the East side of the County and the smaller Kaskaskia (Au Kas or Okaw) on the West side. Along the rivers and their tributaries were forests. Groves were scattered throughout the County. Surrounding the wooded areas, primarily in the Northern and Western parts of the County, was a broad, flat prairie known as the "Grand Prairie." This land was wet and swampy and was not drained for cultivation until the last half of the century.

Early settlers in Coles County preferred to start homesteads in the timberlands. Timber provided a source of building materials and fuel. The wooded land was actually easier to till, because much of the prairie was under water. Many settlers preferred the timberland for no other reason than it looked like home. The vast majority of early settlers came from points South and East - the wooded areas of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Whatever the reason, the timberland was settled first, primarily by Southern stock coming to the County by way of the Ohio and Wabash River valleys. The prairie was settled much later primarily by persons of Eastern stock. This difference was reflected in many aspects of the early Coles County culture, including social life, politics and house types.


The first permanent settlement in Coles County occurred in 1824 in Hutton Township near the Embarras River. In that year, a small group of men from Crawford County crossed the river at that point and decided to settle there. One of the early settlers, Benjamin Parker, built his cabin on the East bank of the river about where the Water Plant Dam is now. In 1826, Parker moved to the present site of Charleston and was joined by other settlers, thus forming a permanent settlement. After these first settlements were formed, the County grew quickly.

By 1830, the area had grown so much that requests were made to the state legislature for establishment of county government offices in the area to better serve the new residents. Consequently, Coles County was established on Christmas Day, 1830, and was named for Edward Coles, Governor of Illinois in 1822. Charleston was designated the County Seat one year later, giving impetus for growth of the new settlement by Parker and its namesake Charles Morton.

Early Coles County was much larger in area than it is today. The original county boundaries included Cumberland and Douglas counties. These were detached in 1843 and 1859 respectively, Douglas County being the last Illinois county to be formed. Settlement patterns in Coles County changed drastically from that of the first settlement on the Embarras River. By 1834, J.M. Peck’s Gazetteer of Illinois listed 11 settlements in the County, most of them still in wooded areas or along the river.

By 1840, Coles County had a population of 9,615 persons and rapid growth associated with initial settlement had subsided. By 1870, the population had grown to 25,235, the increase due primarily to the establishment of North-South and East-West railroads through the County in 1855.

The coming of the railroad resulted in a major shift to settlement patterns as new communities developed along the railroad lines. The largest railroad settlement, now the city of Mattoon, was established where the two lines crossed. After 1870, growth was steady but slow. County population in 1880, 1890 and 1900 was 27,042, 30,093 and 34,136 respectively.


The difference in the settlement of Southern and Northern Coles County resulted in differences of political thought in the mid-1800s. The civil War aroused these differences. Among settlers South of the timberline, those persons primarily of Southern extraction, were many Southern sympathizers. Those North of the timberline, primarily of Eastern extraction, including many Northern sympathizers. The result was a very tense climate in the County. Several County events were precipitated by the conflict. In 1847, the Matson Slave Trial was argued in Charleston by circuit rider Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was one of the pioneers who had crossed the Embarras River and settled in Coles County, eight miles South of Charleston. The Matson Trial involved a Kentucky slave owner by the name of Matson who kept a farm near Oakland. During the summer, Matson would transport slaves from Kentucky to work on his Illinois farm. Matson appointed a freedman, Anthony Bryant, overseer of the Illinois farm while he was away on summer. When Bryant heard rumors that Matson intended to sell his wife and children when he returned, Bryant fled the Illinois farm with his wife and children, taking refuge with two Oakland abolitionists, Gideon Ashmore and Dr. Hiram Rutherford. The slaves were then moved to the County jail in Charleston under Illinois law. Matson returned to Illinois from Kentucky and sued for damages, while the abolitionists sued for the release of the slaves on a writ of habeas corpus. Abraham Lincoln agreed to defend Matson, the only known case in which Lincoln represented a slave owner. Lincoln lost the case, which was to become an important trial in the pre-Civil War period.

In 1858, Lincoln was involved in another Coles County event related to the issue of slavery, the fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate held before an estimated 12,000 persons at the Coles County Fairgrounds in Charleston.

In 1864, a riot between soldiers home from the war on furlough and Southern sympathizers resulted in the killing or wounding of a number of persons on the Charleston Square. The close of the Civil War brought relief from these conflicts.

THE LATE 1800s

By the end of 1883, 24 towns in Coles County had been surveyed. Fairgrange in September of that year was the last Coles County community to be platted. Not all towns that were surveyed were settled, however, surveys occurred in three spurts in the County, the first being initial settlement and second attributed to the coming of the railroad. The final flurry occurred in the early 1880s and was associated with expansion of the railroad system in the County and the cultivation of the "Grand Prairie." In all 41 post offices were established in Coles County.

By the late 1800s, Coles County had established itself as an agricultural county. Much of the "Grand Prairie" was drained and cultivated for crops such as corn, oats, wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, flax and tobacco. Later, livestock would become an important business, particularly in the timberline areas and soybeans would be introduced. Corn remained the single most important crop, although it was briefly challenged by a new plant called broom corn, which was used to make brooms. Broom corn was introduced in Coles County after the Civil War and flourished form 1870 to 1939. The crop was grown primarily in Northern Coles County and was greatly responsible for the establishment and prosperity of newer Coles County communities such as Humboldt, Rardin, Bushton and Fairgrange. At one time, Coles County and its neighbors raised 75 percent of all broom corn produced in the country. Boom corn factories were established in Humboldt, Mattoon and Charleston to process the plant. By 1936, competition from the West had resulted in a decrease in broom corn activity in the County. Remnants of the crop, including the distinctive broom corn cribs, are still found in the County.

Other major businesses in the County in the late 1800s included saw and grist mills and brick and tile manufacturers.


Of all the settlements in the County, two were to become major population centers - Charleston and Mattoon. Charleston, surveyed in 1831, was organized as a village in 1835 and was incorporated as a city in 1865. In its early days, Charleston chiefly was a trading and government center. On May 27, 1896, the cornerstone of "Old Main" was laid for the establishment of Eastern Illinois State Normal School, now known as Eastern Illinois University, which was a milestone in the development of the community. Although several manufacturing plants were opened in Charleston, the college and county government have traditionally been dominant.

Mattoon was founded as a railroad community in 1855. It developed where the Illinois Central and the Terre Haute and Alton railroads crossed. Early Mattoon developers included James T. Cunningham and John Allison, who had successful businesses in Paradise, and Stephen Doles and Ebenezer Noyes. Mattoon was named for William B. Mattoon, an official of the Illinois Central Railroad. It was Terre Haute and Alton Railroad, however, that brought the first train to the new settlement, on June 9, 1855. The community grew quickly after that and became the commercial, transportation, and manufacturing center of Coles County. Transportation has always played a vital role in the prosperity of Mattoon. In addition to the Illinois Central and Terre Haute and Alton line, interurban service was established from Mattoon in the early 1900s. The automobile and energy demands of World War II spurred development of oil fields near Mattoon in the 1940s. Today Mattoon in an important shipping center located on Interstate Highway 57.


Most Coles County workers are employed in agriculture and industry. Business, transportation facilities, an airport, and favorable factory sites have influenced the development of industry in the County. The Mattoon area has about twenty manufacturing and business firms with heavy employment; the Charleston area has about fifteen. Both cities have many small commercial businesses which employ 25 persons or less. Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center located between Charleston and Mattoon on State Route 16 is one of Coles County’s largest employers.

Contact Us

651 Jackson Ave.
Room 309
Charleston, IL 61920

Tel: 217-348-0521
Department Hours:
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