Lawmen kept peace in county’s early days

The old Vermilion County Jail was situated north of the courthouse.

Hiram Hickman was a lawman. He served as sheriff of Vermilion County several years and assisted law enforcement officers when he was called upon to do so as a private citizen.

Hiram was born in 1805 in Tennessee and made his first visit to Illinois 1828. At that time the Vermilion County prairies were still covered with tall grass and the county was home to a few Native Americans. Hickman and his wife settled at Georgetown in the 1830s, where Hiram began operating an inn and farming.

By the 1840s, the original residents had been ousted from the county and were being replaced by an increasing number of settlers. Historians would note the newcomers were attempting to “civilize” the young prairie state. As the 1840s wore away, Hiram Beckwith noted Vermilion County was infested with horse thieves. He was a lawyer and a historian and an eyewitness to the era and events he wrote about.

In a letter written to Judge David Davis on Aug. 25, 1849, Sheriff Hickman informed the judge about two men he had arrested, a horse thief and a man passing counterfeit money:

“ Sir, In consequence of the uncertainty of our jail. I this day removed two prisoners to the Jail of Edgar County. One says his name is John Young. He was committed for passing counterfeit money. The other says that his name is John Woodruff. He was committed on one charge of stealing horses and one for stealing clothing.

“Your Obt. Sevt. H. Hickman Sheriff”

It is interesting Hickman did not identify the men positively but gave the name each of them gave him. Perhaps this was because it was a period of time when offenders often gave a fictitious name. David Davis was the judge for the circuit that included Vermilion County and would later be appointed to the United States Supreme Court by his friend Abraham Lincoln.

Sheriff Hickman noted he never had any trouble catching thieves, but they seldom had any trouble freeing themselves without the assistance of a lawyer. They usually managed to escape from the jail before the next session of court. The Danville jail was in disrepair and a constant source of criticism in the county.

When a new jail was being contemplated years later, writer Alvin Robinson noted, “This dungeon is a shame and disgrace to the county. It is a blot on our good name, and a mortifying commentary on our civilization. It is high time that steps were taken to abolish the nuisance and erect some suitable jail.”

A new jail would be erected, but not during Sheriff Hickman’s days as a lawman. Historian Beckwith noted the horse thieves the sheriff captured also had many friends in the county who assisted them in escaping.

When Sheriff Hickman left his home to transport prisoners or to pursue suspects in 1849, he left his wife Martha at home with their eight children. The youngest was his namesake son, born Jan. 4 of that year. If the pursuit was to be long, he would take a few provisions with him and camp out if he could not find accommodations. He sometimes would be accompanied by a deputy.

Occasionally, he and his predecessors would travel by stagecoach. Beckwith noted the coaches in Illinois at that time were little more than old wagons and were frequently mired down in the mud of the dirt roads. The sheriff and all on board would exit the vehicle and assist in freeing it from the quagmire. Roads were merely a rutted trail across the prairie or through a timber. Stumps still abounded in the road awaiting removal.

The lawmen who traveled these roads also had to attempt to keep the local vigilantes in check. They were the self-appointed enforcers in the county. They operated without any legal due process for a suspect who was pointed out to them. They administered whippings, beatings, and in rare instances, executions. They would later be replaced by organized Horse Companies.

Vermilion County was fortunate to have men like William Reed, Sam Frazier, Hiram Hickman, and Thomas McKibben who put on a sheriff’s star and provide protection for its citizens in its early decades. They kept the peace as the frontier and its challenges slowly moved west. They were the lawmen.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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