Originally Posted Online: Feb. 23, 2013, 6:00 am
Last Updated: Feb. 24, 2013, 12:39 am
Couple traces history of a Port Byron founder
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By Marlene Gantt
In the pioneer days when Rock Island County towns were settled, many men had to serve in multiple political positions, as well as building their homes and developing a way to earn a living.
Harold and Alexandra Benedict, Port Byron, have researched numerous newspapers and documents to discover the life of Nathaniel Belcher, one of Port Byron's founders. They have compiled their research into a booklet about Nat Belcher, his family and other community settlers and leaders.
Nathaniel Belcher came from Vermont during the first half of 1836 when he was 32 years old. He did not come to speculate in government land that was $1.25 an acre, according to the Benedicts. Belcher permanently moved to Port Byron in 1837 and was appointed postmaster. He created Port Byron with the help of co-owners of the land that encompassed the northwest fractional quarter of section 25 in township 19, range 1 east of the fourth meridian .The town was surveyed, recorded and advertised in newspapers as far away as St. Louis by Aug. 9, 1836.
"Five men owned Port Byron. Three of the proprietors, George Davenport, Walter Philips and Nathaniel Belcher, could be found at Stephenson, the county seat," according to Alexandra Benedict, who wrote the text. "The other two, Samuel Allen and Dr. Patrick Gregg, both resided in Port Byron according to published information. Samuel Allen died in 1838 and Dr. Gregg moved to Rock Island."
The owners of the town advertised for businesses to come to Port Byron.
On Sept. 8, 1837 a public meeting was held in Rock Island to establish a U.S. Marine Hospital on the island of Rock Island. Belcher, Charles Eames and J. Barnard Smith were on a committee to rally support in neighboring counties. Other men present were Lucius Wells, Hampton, Joseph Conway, Joseph Knox, and Herman G. Reynolds, to name a few.
Belcher married Rebecca Jenks, Cordova, in 1838.They built the stagecoach inn called the Port Byron House. "Tradition holds that it stood at the corner of Walnut and Main where the funeral home is now located," Benedict said. Next they built a frame building that housed their store and post office. The young couple lived above the commercial building. Their third building was built of stone on lots five and six at the corner of Cherry and Main.
Besides being postmaster Belcher was appointed supervisor of Upper River Road District. Each person in the district was obligated to perform four days of labor on the roads or pay for a substitute. Belcher was to serve in many capacities, including county commissioner, ferry owner with Moses Bailey and Silas Marshall, and executor for the estate of many people he was unrelated to such as Samuel Allen.
On Jan. 12, 1839, "The Iowa Sun," Davenport, reported there were three important projects being undertaken in Stephenson, (now Rock Island). At the organizational meeting for the projects Daniel Green Garnsey was chair and attorney Knox was secretary. Garnsey, Knox and Belcher were to petition Congress to locate "an Arsenal, a manufactory of Powder, and of Fire arms, upon Rock Island, in said county."
Knox, Dr. Gregg and John S. Miller were to petition the state legislature for a fire insurance company.
George Mixter, Lemuel Andrews, and Moses Powars, St. Louis, were selected to petition the legislature for a branch of the Illinois State Bank.
Due to these petitions, the government sent personnel to Rock Island to evaluate water power of both the Rock River and Mississippi River and the suitability for installations on Vandruffs Island and the island of Rock Island.
William Bell, captain of the Amaranth steamboat, made a report on his 1840 visit. Others commissioned to evaluate the islands made comprehensive reports. Nevertheless, Fort Massac near Cairo was selected, although nothing was ever done there. After the Civil War, the island of Rock Island was chosen as the location for one of three new arsenals and armories.
The branch bank was denied but some banking functions exclusive of printing paper currency were grafted onto the charter of the Rock Island Mutual Fire Insurance Company in 1839. When the company was incorporated, Belcher and Dr. Gregg and Lucius Wells were three of the 10 named incorporators.
"This corporation fell short of the bank that these men had hoped to establish," said Benedict. "However, the stockholders had achieved the two goals of limited liability and unlimited corporate longevity they most sought. In other states, insurance companies sometimes were able to expand their powers at a later session of the legislature. Others simply carried on as banks without power to print paper money while issuing policies that were virtually pro forma."
On Dec.1, 1845 the "Rockford Forum" published an article describing Port Byron. It said there were between 100 and 125 inhabitants, one tavern, one store, and several merchants. It was thought to be a good place for purchasing wheat. There was a saw and grist mill in the same precinct; it was located at Tippecanoe. George S. Moore had become the postmaster.
Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a former Rock Island school teacher.