Henry County, Illinois, was named for Patrick Henry (1736 to 1799), a Revolutionary War-era lawyer, orator, and statesman who is perhaps best known for his proclamation, "Give me liberty or give me death." The Illinois county that bears his name was initially established on January 13, 1825, along with ten other area counties. Its original northern boundary extended all the way to the Wisconsin state line.
The creation of Jo Davies county to the north in 1827 reduced Henry County to about half that size. The counties bordering Henry County (and the years they were formed) are Mercer (1825), Rock Island (1831), Whiteside (1836), Bureau (1837), and Stark and Knox (both 1839). The county covers 826 square miles and has a total population of just over 51,000.
Establishment of County Government
Henry County government, including the office of Sheriff, was established in 1837 when the first elections were held at Brandenburg's Tavern in Dayton Corners, near what is now Colona, Illinois. Brandenburg's Tavern was not a tavern in the traditional sense and was used as a hotel, post office, and horse stable. It was owned and operated by George Brandenburg and was the first such "tavern" in Illinois. All that remains today is a small stone monument marking its location. The county seat has moved three times since then.
The first county seat was established in 1837 at "Richmond", which was near the center of the county. Richmond no longer exists, but a historic marker was placed on the west side of Illinois, Route 82 between Cambridge and Geneseo, just to the north of Hillcrest Nursing Home, to mark the location. The courthouse in Richmond burned to the ground one month after opening. Richmond remained the official county seat until 1839.
The next location was a small settlement north of Osco, Illinois called Morristown. This served as the county seat from 1840 until 1843. A new courthouse opened in 1841 on land donated by the village. Geneseo, Illinois served as a temporary county seat from 1839 to 1840. The Morristown site was unpopular with many citizens, especially in the eastern and southern parts of the county, due to its distance. In 1843 a petition was circulated to move the courthouse to a more central location. In 1844 land was donated west of Sugar Tree Grove, known today as Cambridge, and this has been the county seat ever since. Morristown exists today only as a collection of houses and a cemetery.
The courthouse building in Morristown was moved overland, using runners pulled by mules and oxen, to the new location. This structure was preserved and still stands as part of a historic display near downtown Cambridge, Illinois.
A new courthouse was built on this site in 1845 and was in use for more than 30 years. This courthouse was the scene of the 1850 murder of Bishop Hill Colony founder Eric Jansson by John Root (opens in a new window).
The present courthouse, a Victorian structure of brick and stone, was completed in 1880 at a cost of just over $77,000. An addition was built in 1940 to store legal records at a cost of $80,000 and restoration was done on the stonework. Its appearance changed little over the years until a new Jail and Court Services addition was built in 1999.
The first jail was built in 1854 next to the courthouse at a cost of $3000. It was replaced in 1868 by a new jail that included living quarters for the Sheriff. A "modern" jail was built in 1928 using money from fines paid during Prohibition. It also included living quarters for the Sheriff. In 1967 the Sheriff's Office was moved from the Courthouse to the Jail, and the Sheriff continued to live at the Jail until the 1970s.
The 1868 jail was eventually torn down and the sheriff's living quarters were converted into the offices of the Regional Superintendent of Schools. When that office moved to a new location, the building was converted into storage space. It was then torn down to make room for the new Jail and Court Services addition, as was the 1928 jail.
A 1974 addition built onto the 1928 jail was kept and was made part of the new construction. To illustrate how times have changed, the cost of the 1999 addition was $8.7 million. This addition houses a new state-of-the-art jail and the offices of the Sheriff, the Circuit Court Clerk, the States Attorney, and Henry County Court Services (Probation). Two new courtrooms and new Judges' Chambers occupy the ground floor. The basement has office space, currently in use by the Sheriff's Office, and two large storage rooms. As in the 1928 construction, no tax money was used, as the project was financed almost entirely by money from court fees and fines.
The first Sheriff of Henry County was Robert McCollough, who was elected in 1837 and who served for only one year. There have been a total of 32 Sheriffs of Henry County, one of whom was killed in the line of duty.
On June 13, 1946, at about 2 pm, Sheriff Byron Pierce answered a call of suspicious activity at a farm east of Cambridge. John Morris, who had recently been released from the state hospital in East Moline, confronted and shot Sheriff Pierce with a small-caliber rifle. Morris was taken into custody a few hours later after the house was surrounded by Sheriff's Deputies, Illinois State Police, and police officers from several surrounding communities. Morris's brother, Frank, was also found shot to death in a nearby field. The flagpole at the main entrance to the new courthouse addition is dedicated to the memory of Sheriff Pierce by the Henry County American Legion.
Retired Sheriff Gilbert M. "Gib" Cady, is a descendant of Stephen Cady, one of the original settlers of Henry County. Sheriff Cady started his career with Henry County law enforcement in 1970 and began his first term as sheriff in 1978. His 32 years as Sheriff are the longest on record in both Henry County and in Illinois.