Honoring the celebration of the Illinois Bicentennial, the Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that James Thompson, judge, educator, and pioneering surveyor, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.
James Thompson was born in South Carolina in 1789. He arrived in Randolph County, Illinois, with his brother, Samuel, in 1814. The brothers settled in Kaskaskia, where James worked as a teacher for three years. In 1817, he and his wife, Margaret, settled on a farm in Preston, near the center of the county, where they raised twelve children.
James’s reputation as a reliable, responsible citizen – and as a capable surveyor – quickly led him to a career of public service. In 1820, he was named as a county commissioner, and during his year in that office he enumerated the federal and state censuses for Randolph County. The next year, he began working for the United States Surveying Service, a role he held for more than two decades. He served several terms as a county surveyor; he was also the county’s probate judge from 1831 until 1848, and in 1832, he served as a captain during the Black Hawk War.
Precise, accurate surveying became one of James’s most recognized skills. He surveyed and platted important early county roads, including one linking Kaskaskia and Vandalia, the state’s first and second capitals. He helped establish an official boundary between Randolph and Monroe Counties, and he surveyed and platted numerous local towns, including Chester, Sparta, Steeleville, and Rockwood. One historian noted that “whenever the name of James Thompson is mentioned, the idea of surveying is suggested. His foot has probably made its impress upon every section of land in Randolph County.”
James’s most famous surveying work, however, was done in the summer of 1830. He was hired by the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission to survey towns at either end of their proposed canal, which was to stretch from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. After completing a plat map of the town of Ottawa, James and his crew traveled to Fort Dearborn on the shores of Lake Michigan. On August 4, 1830, he completed the very first plat map of the city of Chicago. He named several of the new streets of Chicago after counties in Southern Illinois, including Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Clinton Streets. And, of course, Randolph Street was named for Randolph County, Illinois.
At the time, there were only 32 registered voters living in the area around present-day Chicago. After the plat was completed, James left Chicago, which was still merely “Lake Michigan howling on one side and prairie wolves on the other,” to return to Randolph County. He turned down the canal commission’s compensation offer of several acres of property in the newly-platted town, preferring instead to take $300 for his work.
When James died in 1872, newspapers in Chicago recognized him as one of the city’s founders in their obituaries. Half a century after his burial in the Preston Cemetery, the people of Chicago installed a new monument at his gravesite. The marker was a fitting tribute, honoring the person that the Chicago Tribune once called an “unquestionable and identifiable founder” of the city of Chicago. The city still celebrates the date on James’s completed plat as an important anniversary. The grave marker, however, has since fallen into disrepair, and a restoration project would be an appropriate memorial to a person who helped create and connect Illinois’s communities. But his greatest monuments are undoubtedly the communities themselves. As one Chicago reporter put it, “James Thompson has another monument, a really spectacular one. If you wish to see it, stand anywhere along the main branch of the Chicago River, and look about you.”