Historic Morgan and classsic Jacksonville By Charles M. Eames
Judge John Leeper-A Pioneer's Life, p. 250
Thirteenth.-One Of The First, Sketch Of. The Life And Character Of Judge John Leeper, Who Came To Morgan County In 1823.
John Leeper, or Judge Leeper, as he was called, one of the early settlers of Morgan county, and whose residence was near where Jacksonville now stands, a man of some 'note in his day, deserves more than passing notice by any who undertake to write a 'satisfactory history of early days in this county.
He was born in Cumberland county, Pennsylvania, August 23d, 1786. His father, James Leeper, was brought from County Down, Ireland, by his father, Allen Leeper, when he was but a child seven years old. They were of Scotch origin, and Presbyterians, and fled from Scotland to Ireland in the days of religious persecution.
In an early day James Leeper moved from Pennsylvania to Georgia, where John Leeper was married at the age of twenty to Fidelia McCord, who was but sixteen. They were married October 28th, 1806. In the year 1809 he moved with his wife and two children to Bradford county, Tennessee, and grubbed out a farm in the cane and cedar woods on Rock Creek, near Duck River. Here Mr. Leeper remained until the spring of 1816, when being pervaded by a desire to find a better country, and one in which there was no human slavery-an institution he was bitterly opposed to from principle- he started, with his wife and six children, on the 5th of April, 1816, for Illinois territory, arriving at Edwardsville the 25th of May. Remaining here a few days, he moved on into Bond county, and located four miles south of Greenville on Beaver Creek. On the first Sabbath after their arrival here-other emigrants being along with Mr. Leeper- they drew their wagons up in a circle and herein worshipped the God of their fathers, and called the place Bethel.
Mr. Leeper proceeded to open up a farm near this place, and also built a mill, and set about building up good society by organizing the church and the school. In 1823 he moved to Morgan county, arriving the second day of November, and bought the cabin then owned by Thomas Arnett, one mile southeast of the public square in the present city of Jacksonville. At that time there was no house in sight in any direction. Here, by the help of his wife and ten children, Mr. Leeper soon made a large farm, planted ten acres of orchard, built a large two-story double log house, and a large Pennsylvania barn. Said barn was built in 1827, and is still standing at this writing (1884) as an old landmark in the southeast part of the city.
Morgan county at this time was a wilderness of uncultivated land; but very soon emigration began to come in from the east and the south, and the lands were taken up rapidly. The city of Jacksonville was laid out in 1825. The church and the school soon became a felt want. A school was opened in a log house, built about 200 yards south of the southeast corner of the public square, and the Hon. Judge William Thomas was the first teacher. This was about the year 1827. A Presbyterian church was organized June 30, 1827, in Judge Leeper's barn, the Rev. John Brich presiding at the organization. Mr. Leeper and wife, and ten others constituted the church. John Leeper and William C. Posey were elected ruling elders. The only surviving member of the original church is Mrs. Polly Mears, now 82 years old, and living in Greenville, Bond county.
In the years 1828-'29 the idea of building Illinois College began to be agitated. Mr. Leeper being a man of some wealth and feeling much interested in any movement having a tendency to improve the country and elevate humanity, pushed this enterprise forward, delivering on the ground the brick for the first building. The first day of January, 1830, school began in this building with nine students. They were Alvin M. Dixon, James P. Stuart, Merrill and Hampton Rattan, Samuel R. and Chatham H. Simms, Rollin Mears, Charles B. Barton and William Miller.
Mr. Leeper was elected a member of the legislature in 1827. He was a Whig in politics, of the Adams school, and his house was a kind of headquarters of the politicians of those times. He also kept a kind of ministers hotel, where all of every denomination felt free to come, and very often preaching meetings were held in his house before there was any church or school house. His horses and carriages were always ready for the conveyance of those who traveled to and from their appointments in this way, and his teams were ever at hand to haul wood to the poor and to the preacher. Mr. Mr. Leeper had a farm of nearly 400 acres; but large as it was, he felt it was not sufficient for the support of his growing family-being the father of fourteen children. In October, 1831, he moved to Putnam county, Ill., and opened up another large farm; and two years after built mills on Bureau creek, which supplied flour and lumber and carding for this new country for many miles around. He died the 14th of December, 1835, from an injury he received while working at his mills. Thus ended a most useful and active life, beloved and esteemed by all who knew him. Ex-President Sturtevant thus speaks of this good man, in an historical address delivered in Jacksonville in 1855: "John Leeper was a man whose strict integrity, enlarged public spirit, unaffected piety and comprehensive charity is worthy to be held in remembrance. His removal from this community was a great loss. It was considered a privilege, in early days, to hold meetings in Judge Leeper's barn."