The history of Hon. Orville H. Browning’s prominent role in Quincy and in Illinois history is well known. It is lesser known that he played a prominent role in Hancock County, IL as a young lawyer in the 1830s. His name is mentioned on at least a dozen pages of Gregg’s 1880 History of Hancock County. However, before introducing the Hon. Orville Browning into this article, a little background information is needed.
Hancock County’s earliest historian, Thomas Gregg, settled in Hancock County in the mid 1830s and started numerous county newspapers and, for a time, lived and published in nearby Montrose, Iowa. Gregg was acquainted personally with many of the early settlers in Hancock and neighboring counties, and together with them, organized the first Hancock County historical society. He and Browning would have shared many early historical experiences in the development of the area.
Hancock County had been attached first to Pike and then to Adams until it had sufficient population to qualify as a separate county. The first session of the Adams County Court was held at Quincy on July 4, 1825. At the September 1825 court are found the names of a few early Hancock Co. settlers. In November of that same year, Judge Richard M. Young ordered, “that the attached part of this county be set off into an election precinct, to be called Fort Edwards” (present day Warsaw). At the December 15, 1825 session, “John Wood, Jeremiah Rose and Henry Snow were appointed to view a road leading east to intersect [with] Fort Edwards road laid out in June 1825 by Pike County”.
Hancock County was organized as a separate county with a population of 350 on September 14, 1829; the order issued by Judge Young of Quincy. His 9 year term on the circuit included court sessions held at private homes on the rapids, and later in the log cabin court-house in Carthage. “Rapids” refers to the Des Moines Rapids, a 12 mile stretch with a 24 ft. drop from the head of the rapids (south of Nauvoo) to the bottom of the rapids (near Hamilton). This stretch of land and three miles south to Fort Edwards (Warsaw) contained the earliest settlements in Hancock County and included the villages of Montebello north of Hamilton and Venus (Nauvoo).
It is at this point and at these locations that Hon. Orville H. Browning of Quincy enters the scene and becomes well known in Hancock County. When asked to give the address at the first Pioneer Association in 1869, he recalls as a young lawyer from Quincy that he was present at Hancock County court when it was held at Montebello. Of the lawyers he met at that Court only one survives, his friend Wesley Williams, also present at the pioneer’s meeting. Browning recalled early days as seen by the two men when traveling the road from Quincy to Montebello:
“There were no houses or anything approaching a settlement, save at Whitney’s Grove and Fort Edwards. No Carthage, no La Harpe, no Fountain Green, no Warsaw then. Between Montebello and Crooked Creek, on the road to McDonough County, there were no houses. The country, though uninhabited, was not a wilderness or a desert; it was the green, billowy, sunlit, beautiful prairie, left solitary because the people at that day believed the open country would never be settled. The northern half of the State was almost uninhabited; the flourishing cities of Quincy, Galena and Chicago— that miracle of a city—were all included in one Judicial Circuit, presided over by one Judge.”
Browning also recalled attending the first court held in a log cabin built in 1833 at Carthage. Although Carthage at that time consisted of only a few houses, the permanent county seat was located there due to its central location. Browning is listed as a Prosecuting Attorney August 1834 pro tem.
Browning’s most noteworthy connection to Hancock County may be in the role he played in the trials of those accused of murdering Joseph Smith, the self proclaimed Mormon prophet, and his brother Hiram. By July 1843, conflict in the county had escalated as well as dissention by some of the followers of Smith. Some of these events coincided with an upcoming election in which politicians sought the Mormon vote. “It is believed that Smith had intended in good faith to throw the Mormon vote to Mr. Walker” as a matter of revelation. Due to lag time in communication, however “This change of position at Nauvoo was not known in Adams County till after the election; so Mr. O. H. Browning, the Whig candidate in that district, received the Mormon vote.”
Meanwhile the county was in commotion, a printing press had been destroyed, charges brought against Joseph and Hiram Smith, arrest orders issued, and the brothers jailed. They were subsequently murdered and a group of local men charged with being part of the mob who stormed the jail.
“On May 19, 1845, court again met in special term at Carthage — present, Richard M. Young, Judge; James H. Ralston, Prosecuting Attorney; David E. Head, Clerk; and M. R. Deming Sheriff” and Joseph Lambert, of Jacksonville, as Assistant Prosecutor.” The attorneys representing the defendants were: Wm. A. Richardson, O. H. Browning, Calvin A. Warren, Archibald Williams, O. C. Skinner and Thomas Morrison. The defense team, including Browning, was successful in getting all of the men acquitted.
Browning’s accomplishments were many. He was appointed U.S. Senator in 1861 and instrumental, with his friend Abraham Lincoln, in forming the Republican Party at the Bloomington convention. And — given his long standing connection to Hancock County and to Thomas Gregg, it is not surprising that he gave the address on several occasions at the Pioneer’s Association meeting. Both men had a strong desire to preserve and transmit county history for posterity.
Gregg, Thomas. History of Hancock County, IL; Together with an Outline History of the State and a Digest of State Laws. Hancock County, IL: Chas. C. Chapman & Co., 1880.
Murray, Williamson, & Phelps. The History of Adams County IL: A History of the County-its Cities, Towns Etc. Chicago, IL: 1879.