By the late 1830s, the major river towns of Clinton County had been established.
Clinton, Camanche, and Lyons had experienced steady growth, and settlers to the area already had moved farther inland on the vast grass prairie. Basic farm operations had begun to emerge, as well as the beginnings of towns.
While the region had been officially organized as Clinton County in 1837, the ever-increasing number of settlers began to make it more and more important for the establishment of a strong local legislature. This governing body would handle not only the needs of the river towns, but the county as a whole.
The town that housed the regional legislature would be known as the county seat, and also was where the county courthouse would be built.
The first county seat of Clinton County was the city of Camanche, simply because it was the town with the most people in it. Next in size were nearby Clinton and Lyons, with nothing else at that time even coming close.
Because of their relatively close proximity to each other and the need for having regular access to regular legal services wasn’t as high, Camanche was an acceptable choice. Residents of the city were confident that it would remain the county seat, so much so that they started designing their own courthouse.
Having the title of the county seat gave its hosting city a tremendous boost to settlement. Because people needed to come there, it gave a practical reason for hotels, stables, and other businesses to take root there. It also made it more desirable for some people to live there, which led to a population boost as well.
However, the higher status given to the county seat gave other towns motivation to fight bitterly for the right to be chosen, which is what started to take place in Clinton County.
Camanche argued to keep its place, while Clinton and Lyons both mounted campaigns pushing their cities as worthy of the county seat.
Eventually, the territorial legislature decided that the debate was getting out of hand.
The territorial government decided to appoint a special commission that would decide where the courthouse would go. It consisted of three men, each from a neighboring county. The idea was that none of them would have a direct interest in where the county seat would go, and so ensure a non-biased outcome.
The commissioners heard the arguments of the river towns, but they also took into account the continuous growth of the rest of the county. Ultimately, they decided that none of the river towns would be the county seat.
Instead, they chose a small cluster of settlements in the middle of the county. Their reasoning was that because of the slowness of travel in the day and the needs of citizens living on the western edge of the county, it would be better if the county seat was located in an area near the center. That way, traveling distance for everyone was more equal.
Technically, their chosen place wasn’t even an official town as of yet. That would soon change, and by 1841, DeWitt was well on its way to prominence in Clinton County.
John Brassard Jr. is an author
and a contributing writer for many publications who often refers to himself as the “kitchen table historian.” Visit his website at https://johnbrassardjr.com.