A Renaissance man, he lived an extraordinary life after rising to prominence in Peoria.
Last year, the Peoria Historical Society announced the creation of the Charles Ballance Bequest Society. Named after one of Peoria’s earliest settlers, the Society will hold an annual reception to recognize individuals who have included the PHS Endowment Fund in their wills. But who was Charles Ballance?
An early Peorian with a litany of accomplishments, Charles Ballance was a teacher, lawyer, surveyor, real estate investor, ferry owner, Civil War colonel, politician, poet and historian. A Renaissance man, as he has been called, he rose to prominence soon after settling in Peoria.
A Kentucky Upbringing
Charles Ballance (1800-1872) was born in Silver Springs, Kentucky to Willis and Joyce Ballance. Originally from Durham, England, the family found their way to Virginia with the early British settlers. Ballance’s grandfather fought and died in the Revolutionary War, while his parents moved from Culpeper County, Virginia to Madison County, Kentucky, where he was born on November 10, 1800.
Willis and his second wife, Joanna, joined the United Society of Believers, or Shakers, in 1806. Following Shaker custom, six-year-old Charles and his sister Prudence were separated from their parents and taken to the Children’s Order, where they were supervised, schooled and taught a trade. The Shaker reputation for work ethic and strict discipline was a hallmark of his upbringing.
When Charles was eight, the family moved to a Shaker village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. By age 15, he was an accomplished gardener; he eventually wrote one of the first technical gardening manuals in the West, which was included with the sale of seed packets. Eventually, dissension disrupted the orderly Shaker community, resulting in the expulsion of a number of apostates, including Charles. These sinners, according to the Society of Believers, desired democratic reforms, including elected leadership seats, which won them the elders’ enmity. In 1829, at 29 years of age, Charles left the Shaker village to forge a new life “in the world.”
Ballance read law with Judge Terah T. Haggin in Harrodsburg, Kentucky and was admitted to the bar. Now known as Judge Ballance, he also taught school before leaving the state. He arrived in Peoria in November 1831, describing it as the “richest country on earth.” He was also aware of the land title conflicts arising from the French eviction during the War of 1812—disputes that would tie up the courts for decades. In his journal, Ballance offered an account of his arrival:
Sat 19th proceed to Peoria town the seat of justice of Peoria county an situated on lake Peoria. The road is through rich timber to within three or four miles of the town. This last distance is a beautiful rich Prairie. The road after crossing Copperas creek runs below the bluff the balance of the distance. Previous to seeing this place I had determined to settle at Rushville but upon seeing this spot it so far exceeded any place I had ever seen in native beauty & combined so many advantages for a pleasant commercial town I at once resolved to spend my days here but at present there is but little doing toward making a town on account of the unsettled state of the titles to the land which however it is hoped will soon be settled.
Seeing few available opportunities in Peoria, Ballance crossed the river and travelled south to Pekin. He found the city to be a “handsome place,” but the weather, he noted, was “cold beyond anything I had ever experienced.” In December, he left Pekin and took a southerly route through the state. Having found Vandalia to be “an inconsiderable place & is likely so to remain,” he was ready to return to Peoria, but the ice-packed river detained him, and he waited in St. Louis for the spring thaw. He returned to Peoria in March 1832 on the steamboat Express:
Mon. 12… At some places it was with immense difficulty that we got through at all. The banks of the river were generally overflowed so that land was nowhere in sight… At Pekin below this place it was so cold that a thermometer which was laid off 20 below zero seemed as no index of the weather.
In August, Ballance wrote about the ravages of the Black Hawk War and his disappointment with his business prospects: “This country (or rather the people in it) being poor and thinly populated it would at best have been a poor place for the practice of law but the war & famine that prevailed have prevented me from making anything of consequence.”
Settling in Peoria
Over the next several years, other Shaker families joined Ballance in Peoria, including the Voris, Lineback, Bryant, Congleton and Gass families, and their business interests were interconnected for many years. Ballance was elected county surveyor and worked with the Voris and Bryant families in real estate development. They expanded the City of Peoria, following surveys conducted by Ballance in 1832 and 1834.
After receiving an inheritance from a relative in 1834, Ballance’s financial prospects improved. In June 1834, he and Isaac G. Lineback purchased a ferry for $125, and Ballance captained the boat himself until it was rented the following September. The same year, he purchased a home at the corner of Water and Liberty streets—the site of old Fort Clark—after living at a boarding house for two dollars a week.
Ballance provided the seller “Wm R. Swinerton for four hundred dollars. One hundred I paid in hand. One hundred I am to pay on the first day of Sept next. One hundred on the first day of April thereafter and one hundred on the first day of the following November. He is to use the house until April & board me for the use of it.” Ballance brought his sister, Prudence, to Peoria where he “commenced housekeeping on the 19 [April, 1834].”
A Dangerous Dispute
In 1835, the disputes over land titles reached a critical juncture. Included in this quarrel was Ballance’s property—a “garden & three houses”—also claimed by Isaac Underhill and Lewis Bigelow, who held a preemption right from 1832. The conflict escalated when Underhill threatened to destroy Ballance’s garden fence. According to Ballance, he “hired George Dupree a low-life bully to do it. Dupree undertook it three or four weeks ago when I was planting some things in the garden and I struck him lick with the hoe which proved sufficient to stop him.”
Undeterred by Dupree’s failure, another man was hired to finish off the garden fence—and possibly even Ballance himself:
On Monday last Underhill hired an Irishman to do it and armed him with a pistol he himself guarding the man with a gun. As soon as I learned what was going on I went on the ground with a gun and two pistols. On my arrival he cocked his gun and his man cocked his pistol. I ordered the man to desist from tearing down the fence. Underhill ordered him to proceed & raised his gun at that instant I fired my gun at Underhill and he fired his at me and his man Thompson drew his pistol but before he had time shoot I had fired a pistol at his head which made him retret a short distance but supposing I had no other pistol he rallied with his pistol and presented but seeing I was ready with another he retreated. I then commenced reloading my gun upon which he approached me again with a cocked pistol but I kept him at bay with mine untill I had loaded my gun. He then retreated and left the field. Underhill having retreated before.
There is no record of any shots actually hitting their mark, and all parties managed to leave the scene with their lives intact. However, both men were indicted for “assault with intent to commit murder” in September 1835. A jury acquitted Ballance the following April, and Underhill’s indictment was dismissed as well.
Despite these contentious disputes, Ballance’s expertise in land laws contributed greatly to his successful career. According to a biographical sketch written in 1890, he purchased a sizeable tract of land “in the lower end of the city” subject to French claims, but succeeded in obtaining clear title; “their possession added much to his wealth.” Charles Ballance could already boast a successful and diverse career, but one title was missing from his résumé: husband.
Building a Family
While many former Shakers married within their small circle of émigrés, Ballance married an outsider, Miss Julia M. Schnebly, on March 24, 1836, with whom he would have 10 children. Julia had moved from Maryland to Peoria with her parents in the fall of 1835, marrying Ballance shortly thereafter; she was 19 and he was 35. The Rev. Isaac Keller—Julia’s uncle by marriage, who was instrumental in their introduction—officiated at their ceremony.
Julia moved into the house at Water and Liberty, which “was considered a superior one for the times,” she writes, but with its proximity to the river, spring flooding was not uncommon: “in the spring it often happened that the water came up to our back steps and it was not unusual at such times to attach a fishing rod to the back door to catch a fish for the next meal.” Three of the Ballance children were born in this home, which the family eventually outgrew, moving to a larger home at 904 South Adams.
Some years later, Rev. Keller’s daughter, Kate, taught in a private schoolhouse built by the Ballance family. Located on Walnut Street between Washington and Adams, it was the first schoolhouse constructed in Peoria, and it became a free, public school upon passage of the Education Act of 1855. However, as Ballance notes in his history of Peoria, the school “was so badly patronized for want of children that it soon closed.”
Education was important to the Ballance family. A biographer noted that although his formal education was limited, Ballance had a voracious appetite to learn new things:
“…his love of study led him in every direction till his knowledge became encyclopaedic. Science and philosophy, theology and medicine, history and poetry all interested him, and so well could he converse on any one of them that, to the listener it seemed that the subject under discussion must be his chosen one.”
Politics and the War
That Charles Ballance was able to build a school is illustrative of his success, upon which he reflected: “I have been tolerably successful in pecuniary matters since I have been in this state though I have met with many losses but as a politician I have been unfortunate.” He notes several political losses early on, though he also admits to being elected judge without knowing he was a candidate:
I have been a candidate for several offices and been beaten although I always run well. I once came within twelve votes of being elected, once within nine and once tied the foremost man but recently there was an election for two justices of the peace and I was elected without my knowledge or consent over several others and have for a few days been acting under my new commission.
In 1842, the Whig Party nominated him for state senate, though he was defeated by Democrat William W. Thompson in the general election. Ten years later, Ballance was elected alderman of the First Ward, and in 1855, mayor of Peoria. One biographer notes “he gave to the city a businesslike, practical and beneficial administration.”
A loyal Whig until the party’s dissolution, Ballance joined the Republican ranks and signed the letter inviting Lincoln to Peoria to debate Stephen Douglas in October 1854. A Union supporter during the Civil War, he contributed considerable money to form the 77th Regiment, Illinois Infantry, and served as colonel before resigning prior to the regiment being called to the front. At 60, he was too old for active duty.
An Extraordinary Life
Following the war, Ballance finally settled the disputed land claims. According to Ernest East in History of Peoria, “Charles Ballance, a landholder, paid Robert Forsyth, the son of Thomas, $31,000 to release the claimant’s interest in eight lots. This ended 20 years of litigation over Peoria’s French claims.”
Shortly before his death in 1872, Ballance wrote one of the most comprehensive accounts of early Peoria history—History of Peoria, Illinois, published in 1870 when he was 70 years old. He lived an extraordinary life during the earliest settlement of the City of Peoria, and as one biographer noted, he was “a man of much more than ordinary ability with whom association meant expansion and elevation.” iBi
Deborah Dougherty is vice president of the Peoria Historical Society Board of Directors.