Galesburg and the Land


A Platmap of Galesburg, before it became Galesburg


A Brief History of Knox College

The Founders of both Galesburg and Knox College were one and the same, creating an abolitionist town to help escaped slaves. While their actions have been admirable to many, the founders still participated in settler colonialism, where they took land that did not belong to them and perpetuated harm against Native Americans. While many have almost mythologized the founding of the town, the founders were complicated and messy in their founding. 

The founders, and many people afterwards would talk about the land of Galesburg in very different ways, which I have decided to analyze through the lens of abolition. The founders mostly referred to the land in a business sense, in acres. For example in 1837, Henry Wilcox received a part of Section 17 at a price of $6 per arce.[1] The land was seen to be bought and used, but in “A Brief History of Knox College” By  Jonathan Blanchard, an 1845 pamphlet about it’s namesake, we see him describing all the flowers and the natural beauty of the land, but this is used to advertise and mythologize the land.[2] In these writings, we see the land being treated as something only to ogle at, and to be broken. We see the land as a tool to further the agenda of settler colonialism. There is very little mention of the Native Americans who were on the land previously, and especially given that Knox’s old mascot was a Native American. It was very clear that the founders didn’t even consult Native Americans, as there are records of prairie fires that destroyed much of the land. Many Native Americans would plan out controlled burns, to prevent these devastating fires from burning most of their land.[3] Later writings about the land included such language as “Subdue the virgin prairie”,[4] and other examples that implies that the land was not used, or that it needs to be tamed and domesticated. Such writing is harmful, as it sexualizes the land and reinforces misogynistic stereotypes by implying that the land is “virgin”.[5] 

The trustee notes, a set of minutes from every trustee meeting, can help us show how the college has slowly come together, there are plenty of things that are missing. At no point are Native Americans ever mentioned in either the early trustee notes,[6] or the Silvanus Ferris memoir, a memoir written in the 1930s by a descendent of Silvanus Ferris that recounts his life and the foundings of Knox College and Galesburg.[7] While you could argue that the founders of Galesburg and Knox College were focused more on abolition, the word “Abolition” never shows up between the first set of trustee minutes from 1835 to 1863. Instead we see many years of land settlements and purchases, and many years of arguments. The founders were often more concerned with which branch of Christianity they should declare the college, either Presbyterian or Congregationalist. Both sides definitely fell to immature tactics, from groups of people leaving mid meeting, to threats of legal actions against other trustees for minor issues, to an (alleged) fist fight[8] and declaration of a year of previous meetings being declared (mostly) null and void.[9] Multiple times, both George Washington Gale, the founder of Knox and namesake of the town, and Jonathan Blanchard, the second president of the college, were either asked to resign because of their obsessive arguing, or tried to resign themselves, only for the board of trustees to deny their resignation, as it would be too costly for the college in its early years.[10] Many students even disliked the founders, as records showed student’s hanging Gale’s photo facing towards the wall.[11] The other trustees did not like Gale too much, as a vote to hold a memorial service for his death in 1861 had failed. In the Ferris memoir and other historical books, we see them idolized and praised for their success in founding the town and the college. Many historical writers only saw and upheld the idea of manifest destiny in their writings about the founders. Hearing the old tales of those who came from New York to start a new town [12], but we rarely see any of the ugly side of the founding of Galesburg. Many died along the way, and in the first few years of the town’s growth, even the first thing planned before the town existed was the cemetery.[13]


South of Galesburg, A poem written by Elizabeth Arnold Lowman, featured in an alumni magazine, and used in the Silvanus Ferris Memoir. Part 1.


South of Galesburg, A poem written by Elizabeth Arnold Lowman, featured in an alumni magazine, and used in the Silvanus Ferris Memoir. Part 2.


South of Galesburg, A poem written by Elizabeth Arnold Lowman, featured in an alumni magazine, and used in the Silvanus Ferris Memoir. Part 3.

Many of the early trustee meetings were chaotic and messy. Not only did money go missing, but after the fire in 1843 that burned down one of the buildings, Knox was very heavily in debt. The college was only saved by abolitionist money from England. Many buildings were left half unfinished, one trustee meeting had to change location as the east building was considered unsuitable.[14] The most striking early trustee meeting was in April 1850. Plenty of the trustees in 1850 were elected “illegally” without quorum, in that there were not two thirds of the trustees present, (mostly due to Gale and his group leaving mid meeting when things did not go their way) and the trustees had to redo 19 trustee seat elections. Luckily, every revote was unanimous. After this, 5 trustees resigned. The trustees declared all meetings from April 1849 to then to be null and void (excluding a small handful of business, including students getting degrees). All bylaws passed from then were removed.[15] The mythologization of the founders, the land, and everything in between removes the ugly truths behind how settler colonialism hurts Native Americans, to the founders barely scraping by and struggling to run this institution. While their abolitionists efforts were not in vain, their efforts with the land and college were severely misconstrued. 

Galesburg and the Land