Visitors Guide to
Hancock County

The area that now makes up Hancock County has been in use by humans for more than millennia. The area of the Lower Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi River Paleo-Indians once hunted game here more than 12,000 years ago. The Early Woodland Period began in the upper Mississippi valley about 700 B.C. This period is characterized by a community lifestyle and the primitive construction of burial mounds. From 200 B.C. to 400 A.D. the Hopewell civilization became the dominant culture and many of the mounds present in Hancock County are from this period. In the late 1700s, the Sauk and Fox tribes were forced from their homelands in what is today western New York, and came to the Middle Mississippi River Valley. They in turn dispossessed the Illini which had for been occupying the area. In 1804 a delegation of Sauk and Fox chiefs were convinced to sign the Treaty of St. Louis which gave the United States claim to all of the land between the Illinois, Wisconsin, and Mississippi Rivers. The tribes received $2,234.50 worth of goods, an annual stipend of $1,000 worth of goods, the right to hunt the area, and the protection of the United States Government. The Federal Government would also establish trading posts for the Sauk and Fox to purchase any further needed goods "at a more reasonable rate than they have been accustomed to procure them." In 1805 an agricultural school and trading post at what is today Nauvoo. This post soon closed due to charges of mismanagement against the Indian Agent, William Ewing. Sporadic use of the post at Nauvoo caught the attention of a retired US Army captain named James White, and in 1824 he purchased the property from the government and began a permanent settlement. Knowing that the Sauk still held claim to the land for hunting purposes as well as feeling that the land was traditionally theirs, Captain White, negotiated another deal giving 200 sacks of corn flour for their claim.

In 1825 Hancock County was formed out of Pike County and by 1829 had grown sufficiently to need a post office. In 1830 the area was given one at the three home settlement of Venus, a community that grew up around Captain White’s settlement. By 1832 Venus had a population of 62 and was one of the top contenders for the new county seat. The county seat ultimately went to the new town of Carthage which was platted in the center of the county. In 1834, absentee investors platted the town of Commerce at the site of Venus. It was hoped that the town would become a commercial success because the site was situated at a portage past the seasonal rapids. Streets were laid out; lots were surveyed; stores were established. With many of the lots in Commerce, plans were made for an addition called Commerce City. The Great Panic of 1837 put an end to Commerce. Land that had been purchased at great cost was now almost valueless, with no means to pay for it. Overnight the town of 200 was nearly abandoned with only a stubborn few remaining.

Commerce City wasn’t the only community that was being started in the early 1830s. Carthage grew as a result of becoming the county seat. The community of Warsaw was laid out in 1834 on the site where two War of 1812 forts stood by speculators who thought the area would become important in manufacturing and shipping on the Mississippi River. The most significant town that would arise at the time was Nauvoo which was founded by The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, or more commonly known as the Mormons. While the Mormons were regrouping in Quincy after being expelled from Missouri in 1838, church leaders learned that a large amount of land was for sale in the Commerce area. The church purchased this land as well as the mostly vacant Commerce plat and began to settle the area. Joseph Smith and other leaders arrived in the community by May of 1839 and Smith renamed the town "Nauvoo", meaning "to be beautiful." Despite the name, the site was at first an undeveloped swamp. The community grew quickly and was characterized by detached single-family dwellings reminiscent of New England construction styles with commercial and industrial buildings in the same pattern.

During the 1840s many more Mormons moved into Hancock County. As the Mormon population grew, non-Mormons in Hancock County, especially in the towns of Warsaw and Carthage, felt threatened by the political power of the growing Mormons. Mormons voted as a bloc and candidates for office began to cater to their desires. The Mormons were able to set up what many considered an independent government with its own courts and militia. Because legal issues involving Mormons could only be settled in a Mormon court many disputes involving Mormons and non-Mormons ended in violence as the non-Mormons didn’t trust the Mormon courts. Dissent also arose in the church itself. In 1844 William Law, an important merchant and counselor to Smith, broke with the church over the issues of polygamy plural marriage and other legal issues. Law was excommunicated and founded a reformed church and established a newspaper named the Nauvoo Expositor which he intended to use to expose the practice of polygamy. The Nauvoo Expositor published only one issue after which Smith ordered it destroyed. This action was seen as an opportunity by Mormon opponents who whipped up public sentiment that the destruction of the press was illegal and unconstitutional. Smith, his brother Hyrum, and two other men were arrested and held for trial in Carthage. While there the two Smith brothers were murdered when a vigilante mob attacked the jail.

After Smith's death, the agitation against Mormons escalated and opponents of the Mormons called for their expulsion from Illinois. Vigilante bands roamed the county forcing Mormons in outlying areas to abandon their homes and retreat into Nauvoo for protection. On January 29, 1845, the both houses of the Illinois Legislature overwhelmingly repealed Nauvoo’s city charter. By the end of 1845 it became clear that no peace was possible between church members and antagonized locals. Mormon leaders negotiated a truce so that the Latter Day Saints could prepare to abandon Nauvoo. In early 1846, the majority of the Latter Day Saints left the city.

With the departure of the Mormons the population of Nauvoo fell dramatically. Warsaw replaced Nauvoo as the prominent city in Hancock County, reaching a population of 20,000 by 1875. Industries in the river town during this prosperous period included clam shell button making, flour milling, the manufacture of fine woolen cloth, and farm machinery. However the coming of the railroads affected Warsaw and today its population is only about 2,000. Main Street in Warsaw retains many of the earmarks of an early, prosperous American frontier town and the downtown area was designated a historic district in 1977.

In 1849 Nauvoo became home to the Icarians, a utopian socialist commune based on the ideals of the French philosopher, Étienne Cabet. The Icarians bought the Temple Square and began their short-lived experiment in communal living. For the first few years the commune prospered and at its peak, the colony numbered over 500 members. The colony broke up after disagreements over legal matters with most moving on to other locations. Those that remained realized the soil and climate was much like what they had known in Europe and began cultivating grapes and making wine. Nauvoo was noted for its fine wines but like most wineries did not survive Prohibition. The wine business has revived starting in the 1980s and visitors can learn about this time period by visiting the underground arched wine cellar and pressroom at the Rheinberger Museum where the first winery in Nauvoo has been restored. In the mid-1930s became home to the Nauvoo Blue Cheese Factory. To help this new industry and the reemerging winery industry the first Grape Festival was organized in 1938. The Grape Festival has become a Labor Day tradition and is one of the oldest festivals in west central Illinois brining thousands of sight-seers and tourists to Nauvoo each September.

Nauvoo has become the most extensively restored town in the Midwest. Both of the major branches of the Mormon faith have been actively restoring Nauvoo for years. The Community of Christ has been active for over a century in maintaining and restoring properties and added the Visitor Center in 1980 to tell the story of the Joseph Smith Historic Sites that the church maintains. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began its restoration of Nauvoo properties starting in the 1960s with the work of Dr. James LeRoy Kimball. The visitors center operated by the LDS is a great place to start a tour of historic Nauvoo. The center offers an informative film presentation, displays, artifacts, documents, and a relief map of Nauvoo in 1846. The Monument to Women memorial garden at the visitors center displays 13 life-size statues of women, each depicting a different role women play in the home and in society. Nearby the LDS operates the Family Living Center which allows visitors to explore the sights and sounds of pioneer life in historic Nauvoo. Hands-on-experiences include woodworking, weaving, rope making, pottery, and candle making just to name a few. The Family Living Center is free and a must see place for children. The LDS also operates seven historic homes that are free and open to the public

Visitors to Hancock County should plan to spend some time, perhaps as much as a day, in the region in order to get a full grasp as to all that it has to offer. Most of the activities are in Nauvoo, although Carthage offers the Carthage Jail complex and the Kibbe Hancock Heritage Museum. There are some excellent natural spots including Nauvoo State Park and the Weinberg-King State Fish and Wildlife Area. The ride along IL-96 runs right along the river from Nauvoo to Hamilton is especially colorful in the fall.

Explore these Great River Road Communities
in Hancock County, Illinois
Carthage   Hamilton   Nauvoo   Warsaw
The official site if the Quincy Area Convention & Visitors Bureau which promotes Adams, Hancock, and Pike Counties as destinations for overnight visitors.

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail Quincy Museum
Quincy, Illinois
John Wood Mansion
Quincy, Illinois
Chief Keokuk Statue
Keokuk, Iowa

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