The Reverend Brich

Apr 27, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

On the ninth of March in 1837, the Reverend John Brich, an itinerant Presbyterian minister from England, froze to death after his horse fell through the ice of a creek near the Rock Island County border. Reverend Brich hung his saddle bags on a tree and wandered two miles into adjacent Henry County before succumbing to the cold. Had it been the other way around, the American Bible Society may have been five hundred dollars richer, and Rock Island County may have had to settle for a wooden courthouse as was common in other frontier counties, rather than the ornate brick structure with imposing columns and a winding staircase to the second floor that graced Rock Island's courthouse square. Here's what happened.

Henry County buried Reverend Brich in Glenwood Cemetery where he lies today. But Rock Island County claimed the saddle bags. Inside was a will, dated March 25, 1836. "This day I am sixty-six years old," he had written. The will left a thousand dollars to the college in England from which he had graduated, five hundred each to the Bible Society and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the remaining $3,500 in the estate to several other religious and educational groups.

Henry county honored Brich's request in the will to be buried in a plain wood coffin at small expense so that his estate could benefit the living, but the Rock Island County coroner was faced with a dilemma. While his report did admit that there was a paper in the saddle bags, that purported to be a will, said document was not properly executed or witnessed, and therefore was not legal. Besides, wrote the coroner, the Reverend Birch was a foreigner, had never been married, and had no relatives living in the United States.

Rock Island County did what it had to do. It claimed his estate and put the entire $3,500 toward the $12,000 cost of its first, and handsomest, courthouse.

Had Reverend Birch's horse broken through the ice a hundred yards further south, Rock Island's first courthouse might well have been built of logs.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.