In almost nine years of working at the St. Charles Heritage Center, I can say with confidence that the most often asked question I get is some variation of “How did St. Charles get its name?” or “Who was St. Charles?” or “What is St. Charles the patron Saint of?” and finally “What is the proper spelling of St. Charles—is it St. or Saint?” Here is the story of how our town came to be called St. Charles.
In 1833, Evan Shelby, the man credited as the first white settler to arrive and stay here, had traveled to this area and decided that he liked what he saw and wanted to move his family from Indiana to a new settlement west of Chicago. It took Shelby’s family a year before they were able to move here, build a log cabin, start a farm and permanently settle.
Shelby and his brother-in-law William Franklin were the first to arrive but they were soon followed by others and, before long, a new town began to take shape along the banks of the Fox River. Other early settlers to this area included Ira Minard and Read Ferson. These gentlemen formed a business partnership with the intent of developing the new town; they also took on the responsibility of naming the place.
Charleston was the name selected, out of respect to Charlestown, NH, near where Minard and Ferson once lived. And soon after, thanks to the Minard & Ferson Company, a bridge had been built across the river, a dam was in place, a lumber mill was up and running and a general store was open for business. This growth brought more and more settlers into the area and, in a short time, Charleston was a good size new town. Mark Fletcher was hired by Minard and Ferson to draw the first map of Charleston and lay out the plan for the town.
In 1837, the town registered Charleston as their official name with the state but two years later the name was changed. A new lawyer in town, Stevens Sanborn Jones, alerted the town officials that there was already a Charleston registered in Illinois; it seems the other town was registered first and as a result a name change was needed.
There was much debate as to what the new name of the town should be. By some accounts Ithaca was a suggestion but was quickly shot down by a group of residents from Germany who had difficulty with the pronunciation. It was finally Mr. S.S. Jones who came up with the suggestion of St. Charles. It was, he reasoned, similar enough to the original name of Charleston, and as there were no other towns with the name and, since no one had any difficulty with the pronunciation, St. Charles was adopted as the new name of the town.
So there you have it, the town was not named after a person, or a Saint, and while there is a Saint Charles, he is not the patron Saint of the town, and the correct spelling is St. not Saint. If you would like more information on St. Charles History or any of the people mentioned in this post stop by the St. Charles History Museum at 215 E. Main Street!