My Early Illinois Ancestors

Today is Illinois’ 200th birthday! My family tree has some very deep roots in Illinois. Some interesting Illinois stats from my family tree include:

  • Illinois-home_image-01_byEva_wC-01Three out of four main branches of my family tree have very deep roots in Illinois, spanning at least 5 generations.
  • Six out of my eight great-grandparents were born in Illinois, and 12 out of my sixteen great-great-grandparents lived in Illinois during their lifetimes.
  • My earliest ancestor to arrive in Illinois was William Tompkins and his family, who settled in Champaign County in 1822. (More about him in a minute!)
  • My 4th great-grandfather Alexander Holbrook was another early Illinois ancestor, arriving in probably about 1828.
  • The 3rd great-grandfather Johann Wilhelm Mueller and his family arrived in Chicago in 1856, 15 years before the Great Chicago Fire.
  • The Drake family has lived in DeKalb County, Illinois for over 150 years (and still lives there today!), spanning at least seven generations. They had lived in Illinois since about 1845. My Fish ancestors, who married into the Drake family, also arrived in Illinois about 1846.
  • My Swedish ancestors arrived in Illinois a little bit later, starting with the Johnsons in 1870, and Medine family in 1881.

While many branches of my family tree are rooted in Illinois, I wanted to learn more about my earliest Illinois ancestor, William Tompkins, and his family.

William Tompkins, my 5th great-grandfather, was born in 1772 in Rowan County, North Carolina, and was the son of James and Elizabeth (Jackson) Tompkins. Little is known about his life as a child and young adult. He was married to Elizabeth Owens in 1796. According to A Standard History of Champaign County, Illinois, William Tompkins came to Illinois in 1822, and was the second inhabitant of the township of Urbana, Illinois. (The area that he lived was considered Clark County in 1822, and became part of Vermillion County in 1826, and was finally part of Champaign County when it was created in 1833.) The text describes his first years in Urbana:

In the year 1822, […] came the first white inhabitant of the township, Runnel Fielder, who set up his home in Section 12, about two miles east of the city of Urbana. During the same year, but it is believed a little later in the season, came also William Tompkins, who is believed to have been the first permanent inhabitant of the ground now bearing the name “The City of Urbana!” The latter was at first a “squatter,” for not until February 4, 1830, nearly eight years after his settlement thereon, did he become the owner of his home lot, which was the west half of the southeast quarter of Section 8, of the township. His cabin, the first permanent structure erected within the city, was located closely to the southwest corner of the tract, about where the rear end of the Courier building now stands.

Other than the standing timber the tract had little to invite its selection as a home and the reason therefor must have been its nearness to a spring of water a few rods to the southwest, near the front of the Flat Iron building, but upon another section of land. This spring, from which gushed a copious flow of water, had long been the center of an Indian encampment or village, which extended many rods to the east and to the southwest. Here, when Tompkins came, were abundant evidences of Indian occupancy in the numerous bones along the creek and of old corn hills on the adjacent prairie. Hence the name of the creek,– “Bone-Yard Branch.” Tompkins, soon after becoming the owner of his home, sold the same to Isaac Busey, an incoming emigrant from Kentucky […] (p. 428)

(Note: The details of this description may be a little inaccurate. For instance, I found a land patent for William Tompkins that identifies his land as the NE corner of section 17 of the township, and he officially owned the 80 acres in 1831. It seems that he did indeed sell the land immediately to Isaac Busey. Check out his land patent below!)

Land patent of William Tompkins, 13 June 1831, for the land on which he lived since 1822. (Image source: Bureau of Land Management Land Patents)

An extensive newspaper article in the Urbana Daily Courier newspaper in 1932 tells about about its first white settlers, including William Tompkins. The article describes how Runnel Fielder decided to settle east of what is now Urbana, and tells in detail about William’s first years:

The same year Runnel Fielder settled east of what is now Urbana, William Tompkins settled on the branch of the Salt Fork running through the present site of Urbana, the exact location of the cabin being on the east side of the creek back of the Urbana Courier office. His cabin was the first located in Urbana, and was still standing and in use in 1855, having been subsequently purchased by Isaac Busey. According to the account given by an old settler who spent many a night in the cabin, it was roughly made of oak logs, and was from twelve to fourteen feet square. There were no nails, hinges, glass or locks used in its construction.

The cabin was built as follows: Large logs were placed in position as sills, on these were placed strong sleepers or cross poles, and on these sleepers were laid the puncheons, being rough hewn slabs of trees to serve as floors. The logs were then built up until the proper height for the eaves was reached; then on the ends of the building were placed poles longer than the other end poles, which projected some eighteen or more inches over the sides, and were called “butting pole sleepers.” On the projecting ends of these were placed the “butting poles,” which served on each side to give the line to the first row of boards or slabs used as a roof. These were of course split, and as the gables of the cabin were built up, were so laid on as to lap a third of their length. A heavy pole was laid across the roof parallel to the ridge pole, to keep them in place. The house was then chinked and daubed with clay and mud. 

The huge fireplace built in one end of the house was made of clam stones and sticks. It served both for cooking and for warmth. The ceiling was covered in skins of animals to help keep the cabin warm. Holes were cut for windows, but were without glass, greased cloth being used to supply light. The door was made of log slabs, and hinged with pieces of leather. 

The furniture consisted of a large puncheon or slab of oak, flattened on the upper side, and with four legs driven into it at the corners. The seats were stools made in the same way. The bedstead made in the form of a long box, was swung up against one side of the cabin during the day, thus affording more room in the cabin. The bed was made of leaves or corn shucks covered with skins. Home dipped tallow candles were used for lighting, the tallow being obtained from animals. Wooden vessels named “noggens” were used for bowls, and forks were a rarity. 

This cabin was the scene of the first circuit court held in the county, and the seat of the deliberations over the location of the county seat. Later on the erection of a new cabin by Isaac Busy, it was used as a carpenter shop, and later as a stable for “Uncle Billy” Park’s cow. The new cabin of Busey’s, afterward known as the “Wilkinson cabin” stood where Kline’s store now stands on Main street, and was subsequently moved to Crystal Lake park, but has since been torn down. The homes of Fielder and Tompkins were the only white settlers between the settlements on the Wabash river and those in McLean county.

William moved his family in the summer of 1831 to Bureau County, Illinois, and made a claim on the east side of Spring Creek. (History of Bureau County, p. 181.)  William’s daughter Elizabeth, my 4th great-grandmother, married married Alexander Holbrook in about 1828-1829, and they moved to Bureau County in 1833, along with Elizabeth’s brother Martin. (It is unknown where they lived for the few years before they came to Bureau County.) In 1834, William Tompkins made a trip to Tennessee, and died in Champaign County as he was passing through on his way home (p. 487). (I have not found a death record or burial record to confirm this!) He may be buried in Champaign County, or in an unknown grave in Bureau County.

I’m still researching my earliest Illinois roots, so stay tuned for more stories!


  • Bradsby, Henry C., ed. History of Bureau County, Illinois. Chicago: World Publishing Company, 1885.
  • Busey, Paul G. “History of Champaign County,” Urbana Daily Courier (Urbana, IL), 27 Oct 1932, image copy ( : accessed 3 Dec 2018), page 1; Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
  • Stewart, J.R., ed. A Standard history of Champaign County, Illinois : an authentic narrative of the past, with particular attention to the modern era in the commercial, industrial, civic and social development, a chronicle of the people, with family lineage and memoirs. Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1918.
  • Bureau of Land Management Land Patent Records, Certificate No. 2412, 13 June 1831.

Read more about some of my Illinois ancestors:

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