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John Shaw – the 'Black Prince of Pike County'

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By Linda Hanabarger

Lately, my interest has turned to the early legislators who traveled to Vandalia, the new capital, hewn from a virgin forest.  The capital city was new, and many of the first men in government were the earliest settlers of the state.
In 1820, there were 18 senators (Green and White counties shared a senator) and 36 representatives. We were part of Bond County that year, and Martin Jones was a senator and Jonathan C. Pugh was a member of the house.
One of these early, colorful men hailed from Pike County, which took up most of the area of the Bounty Lands in northwest Illinois. His name was John Shaw.
I first read of John Shaw in Christiana Tillson’s book, A Woman’s Story of Pioneer Illinois. Christiana was a new bride in the fall of 1822 when she came to what became Montgomery County.
She wrote, “John Shaw, one of the first settlers, and a great politician and fond of rule, made himself conspicuous in Pike at that time. He was a large, dark complexioned man, with a power to lead, and to gather about him warm friends, while his peculiarities were such as to insure for him an equal amount of antagonism. He – by those not in subjection to him – was known as "The Black Prince of the Kingdom of Pike."
“…[my husband, John Tillson] partook of the hospitality of his bachelor cabin, which was returned in full after we were housekeepers, as we chanced to be on his road to the seat of government. He had been elected from his 'Kingdom of Pike’ to the legislature, where he was always known as a troublesome member.”
It was thought that Shaw was the very first settler on the "military tract." Having settled in what became Gilead, in Pike County of the Military District, Shaw was in the right position for leadership. He had served as a guide and scout, and was said to have helped build a fort on or near the site of present Clarksville at the time of the murder by Indians of the O’Neal family.
Shaw conducted a store, engaged in politics and “his influence was so great that he was able to rule the county indirectly, which he did for many years. Shaw controlled a large band of half breeds and French-Canadians, and spoke the tongue of the Indian as well as French.
Many terms were used for John Shaw,  including tyrant and dictator. Former governor Edward Coles described Shaw as a hot-tempered former riverboat trader in Arkansas and Missouri, who owned a grist mill and tannery in Pike.
Coles, Illinois’ governor from 1822-26, wrote that Shaw was known for “bending to his own advantage every trick or subterfuge. He forged deeds and doctored poll books.” Coles also said of Shaw that he was a noted man, ambitious, restless and unscrupulous, and engaged in all sorts of business and politics.   
Shaw was known as a ruthless dictator and controller of elections in the formative years of the area.
By 1823, things came to a head, and factions started – Shaw and anti-Shaw. It was not until a great and united struggle that Shaw lost his supremacy.  In 1841, he built a steamboat named the "John Shaw," with the boat being destroyed the next year at a loss of $80,000. Shaw never recovered financially from this event. After this, it was said that he moved to Wisconsin, at a place that became known as Berlin.
Historian Lyman Draper interviewed the "Black Prince" in his waning years at Marquette Co., Wis. Shaw had moved to this state in 1846 and recalled for Draper that he commenced clearing and settling upon a farm between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers at a point where Gilead (Illinois) was located, proudly stating that at one time he owned 30,000 acres.
It is very interesting that during his interview with Draper, Shaw did not touch on the 20–plus years when he was known as “The Black Prince of the Kingdom of Pike.”