English and Journalism

John Regan

John Regan (1818-1893)
Elmwood/Knoxville

By Bill Knight

One of Illinois’ earliest newspapermen also wrote a book about the state’s pioneer years, and became somewhat world famous and very influential in central Illinois before dying in an insane asylum and being buried in Elmwood.

John Regan was born in 1818 in Ayrshire, Scotland, the home of poet Robert Burns. In 1842, the 24-year-old school teacher left Europe for America, traveling to New Orleans and St. Louis, Burlington, Iowa, and the Mormon colony in Nauvoo, where he met Latter-Day-Saints prophet Joseph Smith but disliked what he saw.

After a short stay, Regan and his small family moved across the prairies to central Illinois. He remarked that “the voyage [was]... like a strange dream; but here, in the depths of the un-subdued wilderness, surely is reality. The brown squirrel scampers up the tree, looking at us over his shoulder as he goes, and chattering among the branches—the woodpecker taps upon the decayed limb—the bluebird flits from tree to tree—the dew trickles—the frogs in the distant ponds hold loud concert... but still there is the feeling of solitude and loneliness gushing into the heart from every object around.”

Regan happened upon Spoon River and followed it southward where he bought 40 acres west of Ellisville near a now-vanished village named Virgil, where he built a log cabin, farmed his land, taught school and kept detailed notes.

Regan, his wife Elizabeth, and their four children returned to Scotland in late 1847, mainly to permit Regan to write and publish The Emigrant's Guide to The Western States of America (1848 and 1852). The book was a narrative account not only of immigrating to early Illinois, but of pioneers’ lives on the frontier. It was subtitled “Backwoods and Prairies.”

“It is a first-person narrative-descriptive account of the frontier region in which the author settled,” recalls literary historian John Hallwas, an Emeritus Professor at Western Illinois University. “The Emigrant’s Guide may be the first book of that kind to come out of the Midwest.”

Around 1853, the Regan family returned to America to permanently settle outside Knoxville, where Regan taught school, started a book bindery on the southeast corner of the town square, and won first prize for oil painting at the Knox County Agricultural Fair—all before buying the Knoxville Journal newspaper in 1855.

Although known and respected as a moderate abolitionist, Regan promised to maintain the newspaper’s political neutrality. But he didn’t, rejecting his anti-slavery position to become a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party and Stephen Douglas. His partisanship hurt his publishing business.

“In his book-binding days, no louder abolitionist nor greater preacher for liberty lived than honest John Regan,” remarked one letter-writer in an 1856 Galesburg Free Press. “What a change. Those who bribed him are gloating with a hellish, fiend-like grin over their prize... They have snatched a brilliant jewel from the crown of the Republican Party.”

The Journal, circulation 1,600, stopped publishing in the spring of 1857, “borne down under the credit system,” a 1880 history says.

Elmwood, then only a few years old, showed “promise of becoming a prominent town, ” the history continues, and on Jan. 6, 1858, Regan started Elmwood’s first newspaper, the weekly Observer. During its tenure, the Observer printed a 150-copy Maquon edition called the Maquon Times and a 200-copy Yates City edition called the Western Watchman. They were published through May of 1859, when Regan left newspapering for several years.

His Observer resumed in July of 1866, until a revived competitor, the Chronicle, bought its equipment and itself published until the winter of 1873, when Elmwood was without any newspaper. The following spring, Regan returned with the Maquon Times and a new sheet, the Messenger, building up a healthy business of 720 subscribers, and fighting off several competing newspapers.

Regan continued to write and edit the papers for 16 years until failing health forced him to retire in 1890. Three years later, he entered the Illinois Central Hospital for the Insane at Jacksonville, where he died on May 5 of that year.

His gravestone is in Elmwood cemetery, but his epitaph may have been written 40 years before, when he recorded his reaction to west-central Illinois for future settlers and readers.

“Before us lay one vast plain of verdue and flowers, without house or home, or anything to break in upon the uniformity of the scene, except the shadow of a passing cloud, “ his book recalls. “To the right and left long points of timber, like capes and headlands, stretched in the blue distance—the light breeze of the morning brushing along the young grass and blue and pink flowers—the strong sunlight pouring down everywhere—and the singular silence which pervaded the scene—produced a striking effect upon the mind.”

“My feelings, indeed, were of the most elated and enraptured description. I had heard of Eden and Elysium. Was it possible their beauties could surpass these?”

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