1840: Nathan Dresser to John Bennett

Rev. Charles Dresser & wife Louisa Withers (ca 1855)

Rev. Charles Dresser & wife Louisa Withers (ca 1855)

This letter was written by Nathan Dresser (1805-1868), the son of Nathan Dresser (1769-1834) and Rebecca Leffingwell (1775-1851). Dresser settled at Petersburg, Illinois, in 1836. He became active in Menard County government and became a close associate of Abraham Lincoln. By 1839, Dresser had become clerk of the Circuit Court. Nathan left Petersburg for southern Illinois in the 1850s with his wife, Nancy Eggliston Bennett (1808-1892) and daughter Rebecca. He later settled in Anna, Union County, Illinois, where he died. Nathan’s older brother, Rev. Charles Dresser was the minister who officiated at the Lincoln-Todd marriage in Springfield in 1842. Also, it was Rev. Dresser’s home at the corner of Jackson & Eighth Streets in Springfield that Abraham Lincoln purchased in 1844.

Residence of John Bennett in Menard County (1874)

Residence of John Bennett in Menard County (1874)

Dresser wrote the letter to his brother-in-law, John Bennett (1805-18xx), the son of Richard Everard Bennett (1779-1828) and Ann Carter (1783-1844) of Halifax County, Virginia. “At the age of fourteen he entered his father’s store as clerk, in which capacity he continued till the death of his father in 1828, after which he continued business on his own account till 1835, when he removed to Sangamon County, Illinois, settling near Rochester. Here he remained till January, 1836, when he came to Petersburg, Menard County, and opened a dry goods establishment in that then small village. Here Mr. Bennett continued very successfully to merchandise until 1858, when by his energy, industry, and assiduous attention to business, having amassed a handsome competence, he wisely resigned the toils and cares of active life to enjoy in his beautiful home – perhaps the most pleasant in Petersburg – that peace and quiet which his early life of activity so amply earned… During the winter of 1840-41, Mr. Bennett represented Menard County in the State Legislature, having been elected to that place as an Old Line Whig, and although he represented the interests of the County to the entire satisfaction of his constituents, he was not returned to the Legislature, having seen enough of political life during one session. Mr. Bennett was one of the original directors of Tonica and Petersburg Railroad, which was then a part of what is now the Jacksonville Division of the Chicago and Alton Railroad, which position he occupied for a period of four years. Nearly fifty years ago Mr. Bennett joined the order of Free Masons. In 1842, being one of the charter members, he assisted in the organization of Clinton Lodge, No. 19, at Petersburg, Illinois. At present he holds the position of District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. His life has been conspicuous for his devotion to the order and his zealous practice of its tenets. He has performed a prominent part in the history of Masonry in the State, organizing many lodges, participating in the general councils of the brotherhood, and bestowing much labor and thought in the field of Masonic jurisprudence.” [Source: Illustrated Atlas Map of Menard County, Illinois 1874. Published by W.R. Brink & Co., of Illinois]

Dresser and Bennett were acquaintances of Abraham Lincoln. A letter from Lincoln to Bennett appears in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

The substance of this 1840 letter pertains to various proposals under consideration by the inhabitants of Menard County for altering their county boundaries which were not permanently fixed until February 1841.

Stampless Letter

Stampless Letter

Addressed to John Bennett, Esq., of the House of Representatives, Springfield, Illinois

Petersburg [Illinois]
December 19th 1840

Dear John,

I have just returned from the Lyceum and as I am not disposed to go to bed immediately, I will spend an hour or so in telling you the events of the day.

According to appointment, a few citizens gathered together today in the court room to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning the Legislature for an extension of our southern boundary. There were present J. B. Smith, ¹ C. S. Mongomery, Andrew Moore, Smoot, Estill, Samuel & John Berry, Bone, George Wilson, Hiram Penny, & a good many others that said nothing & did less. Samuel Berry was appointed chairman. Previous to the meeting’s organizing, several came to me to enquire what were the sentiments of J. B. Smith upon the subject. Everyone seemed to distrust him — even some on the east side of the river. Bowling Green would not come into the meeting, I was informed, because Smith was there. I told such as spoke to me upon the subject that I knew Smith’s sentiments only from report & that he was said to be opposed to the Athens scheme. It was said in answer, he may say so, but I don’t believe him. I will watch him.

When the meeting was organized, I stated the object of the meeting & made some allusions to what Athens was doing. Smith made quite a speech. He began by alluding to the jealousy existing between the east & west side of the river. He said, if I recollect aright, that he had heard since he came into town that he was rather distrusted. He made many professions of regard for Menard County & Petersburg; professed I think to be opposed to the Athens project, & concluded by moving to petition to have the lines altered in this manner: Extend the southern line where it turns off to Rock Creek due east to the Sangamon, thence down the river one mile to the middle of Town 17, thence due east through the middle of that town as far as Menard County runs east, thence north to the southeast corner of the county. This would be extending the county very little on our side, but would carry it five miles further south than it is now on the east side & within about seven miles of Springfield.

I believed Smith was honest till he made his speech & proposition, but he overdid the thing. He was too anxious to show his friendly feelings, & I now am inclined to think as almost everyone else does; that he goes in strongly but secretly for the Athens project. As soon as this proposition was made, another one was offered to go to the bed of Richland [Creek] on this side. A good deal was said pro & con.

A vote was taken on the two propositions together & carried in the affirmative. Several then remarked that we has destroyed our chance of doing anything; that Sangamon [County] would not give off to the lines proposed; that we should meet with violent opposition in the neighborhood of those lines; & that we had asked for more than we could get.

William Bennett had made a proposition previous to the vote which I supported. It was simply to straighten the line on this side and to take in only what is called the disputed territory on the other; to demand this as our right, but at the same time to invite the Athens neighborhood & Richland to come into our county. This was almost hooted at by Smith & did not suit the people on this side. It was of course rejected.

Myself, [Charles B.] Waldo, & Backman were appointed a committee to draft a petition & some other business was transacted. In the meanwhile, a good deal of grumbling was heard in the room on account of the lines proposed. Andrew Moore was showing Smith from the map that the line he proposed would run through the Fancy Creek & Cantrell’s Creek settlements & take into this county the very people who were willing & anxious for us to take Athens if we would leave them out. So much was said to show the utter impossibility of our ever doing anything with the lines adopted that I suggested to them to reconsider the vote that we might adopt lines that would meet with less opposition. Smith assented to this & William made a motion to that effect which was carried. But fresh difficulties arose. Smith was determined to extend the territory as far as possible on his side to give us comparatively nothing on our side of the river. Cut off the Teaxas County & the lines proposed by Smith would give the east side the largest territory & the greatest number of people — a preponderance of power that the Athenians are aiming at. I saw so completely that Smith was playing into their hands that I began to think him a ______ damned rascal. So did several others. John Berry for instance!!

At the suggestion of some one, Smith & Moore were added to the committee to draft a petition and then a motion was made to leave it to the committee to run the lines. I opposed this — being on the committee — but it was getting late & the people had begun to drop off, leaving but a few in the house. So the measure was carried. The committee all went to my office. Moore went reluctantly from the expectation, I suppose, of being able to agree upon nothing. I made several propositions which were not adopted. Waldo & Bergman seemed, I thought, to be yielding to Smith. I gave them to understand that that would never do. In the meanwhile, Berry, Bone & Penny had each called me out to caution me against Smith & to insist upon going to Richland. Dr. Allen & a good many others had insisted upon the same thing & said they believed there would be no difficulty in getting a large majority of those living on Richland to sign a petition for extending our lines to that creek.

It was then getting almost dark. I sat down by the stove, determined to act on the defensive. Smith, Moore, Wright & Montgomery were trying to run the line on the east side so as to leave out the Fancy Creek & Cantrell’s Creek settlements. At last they run a line which Moore though would do; Smith said he would agree to that. I told them I would if we went to the bed of Richland on this side. Moore asked me if I though we could get that line without much opposition. I said yes, but the lie almost choked me. He said he was agreed — Smith assented, & …

I wrote out our agreement as to the lines & we all signed it. The lines are as follows: On this side of the river, take the bed of Richland Creek as the boundary to its mouth, thence up or down the Sangamon — as the case may be — to the point where the river is intersected by the section line running east & west through the middle of Township 17 North, thence east along said section line till it extends a mile & a half into range five, thence north two miles, thence east one mile into range four, thence north to the southeast corner of Menard County — thus [hand-drawn map]

The committee left the writing of the petition to me. I already see a difficulty in doing it unless you or someone else gives me some assistance. We go to the bed of Richland, but that creek does not run up to the Morgan line. There must, therefore, be a place of beginning on the Morgan line from which  we can run east till we touch the main branch of the Richland Creek. I wish you to go to the Land Office or the Clerk’s Office & examine the map of Township 17 North in Ranges 6, 7, & 8 West, & ascertain what line I must take from the Morgan County line, & follow it due east so as to strike the main fork of Richland. It ought not to go further south than the Town line between 16 & 17, but I would prefer taking the section line one mile north of that. I wish you would also examine the mouth of Richland [Creek] & see if it is above or below the point on the river where it is crossed by the section line running east & west through the middle of Township 17. No reliance can be placed on the printed maps as to the course & exact position of the small streams. If you are well enough to get the information I wish, please send it down by the next Tuesday’s mail.

Before the close of our meeting today, I introduced the subject of the distribution of the Sangamon money among the three counties, & asked the people not to leave until somethiong was done in relation to the matter, but it was so late & the people had become so much displeased with Smith’s maneuvering that a great proportion of them left. I stated what you had written to me upon the subject. Esq. Berry & some others said that when the Saline funds were appropriated for the improvement of the Sangamon River, Morgan County as well as Sangamon County had her share [and] that, therefore, Cass County was not entitled to any part of the money in the hands of the Commissioners of Sangamon County. This was a matter I knew nothing about, so to cut the business short, I moved that John Bennett be instructed to use his best endeavors to have the money appropriated as aforesaid loaned to sangamon & Meard, until it was wanted to improve the river, & that it be divided between them in proportion to the navigable part of the river in each county & if he could not affect that, to do the best he could. The motion was carried unanimously — fifteen or twenty being present — all leading men nearly. The Sangamon was declared navigable up to the forks, I believe.

It is getting late & I am tired so I will stop. I have written in great haste & being rather sleepy, I have written very confusedly & much longer than I expected when I commenced. Somehow or other, I could not abbreviate when I attempted it. You will hardly think the letter worth the additional picky one.

Sunday morning.

___ & Dick have just come & say that all are well. McCoy is recovering slowly. So is Manning. No new cases of sickness.

We had a meeting last Friday night, the second that has been called for the purpose of agreeing upon a bill to incorporate our town, a few only [paper torn]. I moved one or two amendments [paper torn] old bill which were adopted & [paper torn] bill as amended was directed to be sent to you to introduce into the house. As soon as I copy it, I will send it up. I shall take the liberty to make several verbal amendments, all which you will see when the two bills are sent to you. Yours &c., — N. Dresser

¹ Josiah Ballinger Smith (1787-Aft1860) was born in Frederick County, Virginia. He married Margaret Borders in Greene County, Ohio. She died in in 1842 in Menard County, Illinois.

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