When the Stephensons ventured to Illinois, they were coming to the newly opened territory to build a new life.
The Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House opens an enchanting window on cultural, political, social, and architectural developments during the early history of Illinois.
Built in 1820 by skilled craftsmen using native materials, the two-story Federal Style house offers an elegant and classic illustration of how the upper class lived at the time.
The four-room home is an excellent example of architecture from this early period and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency includes it among only a handful of homes built in the first quarter of the 19th century that remain standing in Illinois. It is also considered the oldest brick home in Madison County, Illinois.
The Stephenson House is an important landmark in the establishment of Edwardsville -- the third oldest city in Illinois -- as a center of government and commerce. Benjamin Stephenson also played an important role in the emergence of Illinois from a “territory” into the nation’s 21st state in 1818.
Colonel Benjamin Stephenson (1769-1822)
Benjamin Stephenson was one of the founding fathers of both the city of Edwardsville and the State of Illinois. With his good friend and political ally Ninian Edwards, who was the third Governor of the State of Illinois and namesake for the city of Edwardsville, Stephenson was instrumental in bringing law and order to the developing Illinois Territory.
Stephenson was a true public servant at the federal, territorial, and town levels. During his lifetime, he was a merchant, sheriff, bank president, Colonel in the Illinois militia, road commissioner, Indian agent, and member of the Edwardsville Board of Trustees. He was also one of 33 men who helped design the Illinois Constitution. Of those 33, his is the only home still in existence.
While serving in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1816, Stephenson was able to bring a Federal Land Office to Edwardsville, and President James Madison appointed him Receiver of Public Moneys to run it. Under Stephenson’s supervision, Edwardsville was the largest selling land office in the U.S. The sale of public lands put much needed revenue into the Federal treasury and was the single most important factor in the rapid growth of Edwardsville as a center of economic and political power. Stephenson’s success with the Land Office also made him personally wealthy.
A Hub of Political and Social Activity
During Stephenson’s time, Edwardsville was home to many of the wealthiest and most powerful political figures in Illinois. Many of them also held high positions in the federal government. Stephenson’s spacious, comfortable house was a vital hub of political and social activity for these prominent leaders, including Ninian Edwards, Edward Coles, Auguste Choteau, Jessie Thomas and Felix Grundy. Their lingering footsteps make the Stephenson House historically significant at the local, state, and national levels.
When Stephenson died in 1822, his house passed through a number of hands and experienced a variety of structural modifications. It was eventually sold to the Sigma Phi Epsilon (Fraternity) Household Corporation in 1982. In 1999, the City of Edwardsville, with a $500,000 grant from the State of Illinois, and under the supervision of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Edwardsville Historic Preservation Commission, purchased the house from Sigma Phi Epsilon.
A Living Museum
Today, the renovated Stephenson House is authentically restored.* Each of its four rooms contains period furnishings and four original fireplaces designed in the Adams style. The rooms are painted in the popular colors and glazes of the day. The Stephenson family enjoyed bold colors, and would use several in one room.
The Stephenson House is a hands-on learning center, bustling with activities from the Stephenson era that will entertain and educate visitors of all ages. Trained docents in period dress provide tours of the house and gardens. Visitors might see bread baking in the kitchens beehive oven, a leatherworker constructing a shooting bag, children playing period games or a political discussion about the future of the territory in the parlor. The rebuilt summer kitchen recreates cooking techniques and recipes from the day. The sights, smells, and sounds are designed to increase awareness of the region’s cultural heritage and provide a real-life glimpse of Edwardsville in the 1820s.
The beautiful home at 409 South Buchanan Street serves as a permanent reminder of a man who gave extraordinary service to his country, state, and city in the early days of the 19th century. It is a timeless community treasure, enriching the lives of present and future generations.
Col. Benjamin Stephenson
The Stephenson’s owned slaves. When they moved to the Illinois Territory in 1809 they brought with them Winn, Hark, and Tobe. They were referred to as indentured servants for legal purposes. Slavery had been forbidden in the Illinois Territory but legislation written in the 1790s did allow indentured servitude. At the time indentured servitude was a legal practice throughout the country. Slaveholders entering Illinois Territory, and later the State used this practice to get around anti-slavery laws.
When discussing indentured servants, most of us picture Europeans who sold their freedom to gain passage to America and then worked a set number of years before achieving freedom. This is the scenario we all learned about in school, but it is not the only one. As slaveholders moved into Illinois Territory, and later the state, they had sixty days to take their slaves to an available courthouse to be registered as indentured servants. In theory, the slave was supposed to agree to be indentured. But in reality, what choice did they have regarding their freedom? The slaveholder chose the number of years an indenture would last. In many cases, the period listed on an indenture was ninety-nine years. The idea was not ultimately to set the servants free but to keep them in legal bondage. If an indenture contract was coming to an end, it was not uncommon for the owner to take the servant to St. Louis and sell them at auction, recouping some of their original investment.
It was common practice that a child born to indentured parents would also be indentured. The general rule was that females were indentured until the age of 32 and males to the age of 34. There were many variations to this rule. Two of the children owned by Ben and Lucy were indentured at very young ages: Washing Will at 9 months of age in 1821, and Barksley at 42 days in 1813.
We know little about the Stephenson family’s indentured servants. We know their names and ages from census records and other documents, but not much more. In 2005, the Friends of the Stephenson house hired a historian who specializes in the history and genealogy of enslaved people. He was unable to discover any additional information on the servants, but researchers working on the Stephenson family continue to hope for a breakthrough.
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