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Morris Birkbeck (January 23, 1764 – June 4, 1825) was an early 19th century Illinois pioneer and publicist. He served briefly as the Secretary of State of Illinois.

Early years

Birkbeck was born at Settle, England, the son of an influential Quaker also named Morris Birkbeck and his wife Hannah Bradford. By 1794, as leaseholder, Birkbeck was farming an estate of 1,500 acres (6.1 km2) at Wanborough, Surrey, where he was the first man to raise merino sheep in England. On April 24, 1794, Birkbeck married Prudence Bush, daughter of Richard and Prudence Bush of Wandsworth, Surrey. After 20 (math error) years of marriage, Prudence died on October 25, 1804, leaving her husband with seven children.

In 1814, accompanied by his friend George Flower, Birkbeck traveled in recently defeated France. His Notes on a Journey through France (1814) revealed a good-tempered, fair-minded observer, well grounded in science and the humanities. A liberal in both politics and religion, Birkbeck found it increasingly irritating to be taxed by a government that denied him a vote because of his religion and also required him to be tithed by a church he did not belong to. In early 1817, with a party consisting chiefly of his children, he emigrated to the United States, where George Flower, who had gone before, now joined him.

Life in Illinois

During 1817-18 Birkbeck purchased, both for himself and others, 26,400 acres (107 km2) of public land in Edwards County, Illinois. Flower was busy raising more money and organizing colonists in England.

Birkbeck's Notes on a Journey in America from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois (1817) was published in Philadelphia, London, Dublin, and Cork. It ran through eleven editions in English in two years, and was published in German at Jena (1818). His Letters from Illinois (1818), published in Boston, Philadelphia, and London, went through seven editions in English, besides being translated in 1819 into French and German. By directing settlers to the prairie lands of the then west these books had a wide influence.

In 1818 Birkbeck laid out the town of Wanborough, which was short lived. The same year he and Flower quarreled and never reconciled. The cause of the split is unknown. Later Birkbeck became president of the first agricultural society in Illinois. He gave a great impetus to raising cattle and to the scientific tilling of the soil.

In 1823 Birkbeck, through articles contributed to newspapers under the pen name "Jonathan Freeman," helped to consolidate the antislavery forces in Illinois and ensure that it became a free state. In 1824 an old London acquaintance, Edward Coles, then governor of Illinois, appointed him Secretary of State. Birkbeck served for three months, but was turned out when the pro-slavery majority in the state Senate refused to confirm his appointment.


On June 4, 1825, while returning on horseback from a visit to Robert Owen at New Harmony, Indiana, Birkbeck drowned trying to ford the Fox River. He was 61 years old.

Political offices
Preceded by
David Blackwell
Illinois Secretary of State
Succeeded by
George Forquer


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