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Portrait and Biographical Album of Benton County, Iowa
Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1887

JOHN S. TILFORD, a resident of Vinton and proprietor of the original town plat, was born in Charlestown, Clark Co., Ind., July 30, 1811. His father, John Tilford, was a native of Rockbridge County, W. Va., but of Irish descent, born June 11, 1775, near the great Natural Bridge. His mother, Ann (Workman) Tilford, was born Sept. 30, 1781. In 1796 his father moved to Adair County, Ky., and was among the earliest settlers of that county. For fourteen years he labored to make for himself and his family a home in that State, when, on account of some defect in the title to his land, he sold out and moved to Clark County, Ind. Here he made a claim in the heavy timber and at once began to clear out a farm. By hard work and great economy he amassed considerable property, but unfortunately, going security for a friend, he lost it all. Both he and his wife were members of the Presbyterian Church. The father died Feb. 26, 1864, and the mother Aug. 4, 1823.

John St. Clair Tilford, of whom we write, was reared in the county of his birth, which was then but little better than a wilderness. His school days were limited to six weeks, which he received after he became of age and had served in the army during the Black Hawk War. His father had to accompany his other children each morning to school with a gun to protect them from panthers and bears, which abounded, returning for them in the evening. When sixteen years of age he was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker to learn that trade. He was to work four years, for which he was to receive his board and be allowed four months to attend school. As his teacher was too drunk to teach him anything, he only went one week and was given the remainder of the time to use as he pleased. On the 4th day of July, 1832, he enlisted as a private under Capt. Lemuel Ford in the United States Rangers, especially for service in the Black Hawk War. The company was ordered to Fort Dearborn, where now stands the city of Chicago, where it remained a short time, and was then sent to Rock Island. It was here placed under the command of Gen. Scott, who had with him about 1,600 men. Capt. Ford's company encamped at the old Indian town where Black Hawk was born. At this time the cholera broke out on the island where the greater part of Gen. Scott's force was encamped, and about 400 soldiers died. Even while the cholera was raging, the Indians met here for the purpose of making another treaty, Black Hawk having in the meantime been captured and his band dispersed. On account of the cholera the meeting was held on the site of the present city of Davenport. Mr. Tilford was present at this meeting, which was made between the Indian chiefs and Gen. Scott. After the treaty was made his company was ordered back to the Illinois side, and for a time encamped near Vandruff's Island, and was then ordered to Fort Gibson, Indian Ter., where it remained until May, 1833, and was then sent to the Red and Canadian Rivers to make a treaty with the Pawnees and the Comanche Indians. They were unable to do any thing with these tribes, and so returned to Fort Gibson. While upon this expedition they experienced many hardships. One of their comrades stole all the flour of the mess, and then deserted and for forty-four days they were compelled to live upon fresh meat alone, even without salt. Mr. Tilford at one time purchased half a pound of flour, for which he gave $1; on this he lived eight days. He subsequently offered his horse and all his equipments, worth $150, for one pound of flour, but could get no one to accept his offer. On the 8th day of July, 1833, he was discharged at Fort Gibson and went to St. Louis, where he drew his pay of $1 per day for himself and horse. After receiving his pay he returned to his old home in Charlestown, Ind., where he attended school a few weeks. In the spring of 1834 he went to Franklin, Johnson Co., Ind., where he engaged in the furniture trade or cabinet-making.

On the 25th day of April, 1835, he was united in marriage with Miss Margaret J. Young, a daughter of Joseph Young, who died at Vinton in the ninety-third year of his age. (See sketch.) Of their children three are now living — John Y., a farmer in Butler County, Iowa; Ann Jane, widow of W. W. Hanford, whose sketch appears in this work; Helen A., widow of J. R. Tracy, who died Oct. 6, 1871.

Believing there was a better opportunity for advancement in the fair State of Iowa than in his native State, in 1849 Mr. Tilford located land in Benton County, Iowa, and in 1852 moved here with his family. In 1851 he laid out and platted the original town of Vinton, giving it that name in order to retain a post-office which had been established four miles east, which had then been removed to this point. When the streets were being named he called one Railroad street. The surveyor laughed at the idea, but recorded it as suggested. This was nearly twenty years before the iron horse reached Vinton. When the survey of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railroad was finally made through the place, the line was run through on that street, and it is now in reality Railroad street.

Mr. Tilford has always been a friend of education, believing, with others, that the safety of the republic depends on the education of the children. While in Indiana, working at his trade, he gave $300 toward establishing a college at Franklin. After coming to Iowa, in connection with his father-in-law, he built the first schoolhouse in Vinton, at a cost of $500. For the Academy, or Collegiate Institute, at this place, he gave about six acres of land and about $300 in cash. To show their appreciation of the gift, the incoporators named it in his honor. For the College for the Blind he offered forty acres of land and $500 in cash. To his enterprise and zeal is due the establishment of this institution at Vinton. In religious as well as educational enterprises he has given liberally, especially for the present fine Presbyterian Church edifice in Vinton, in fact all the churches, except two, their building lots.

During all the length of time our subject has been a resident of Vinton, no man has had at heart the good of the place more than he. In addition to the original plat, he has made nine additions to the city, and has given liberally to every enterprise calculated to build up the place. Toward the construction of the railroads he gave $2,600. Not alone is the credit due to him, but also to his estimable wife, who has truly been to him a helpmeet, and who has seconded his every effort. Their children have all left the home nest, but scarcely a day passes but one or the other, or their grandchildren, gather around the fireside to cheer the hearts of the old couple, who live in a beautiful home in the south part of the city, near Tilford Collegiate Institute.

For nearly forty years Mr. Tilford has lived in this community, indeed the community has grown up around him. As a venerable patriarch, and one who has done much hard work and given much valuable aid to the county and the moulding of the character of people, his memory should he cherished and preserved.

We are pleased to present the portraits of Mr. Tilford and wife in connection with this sketch.

Source Citation: "1887 Benton County, Iowa Biographies"  [database online]  Benton County IAGenWeb Project. <>
Original data: "Portrait and Biographical Album of Benton County, Iowa." Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1887, p. 177-179.
Transcribed by: Sue Soden. Submitted to the Benton County IAGenWeb Project on June 16th, 2007. Copyright © 2007 The IAGenWeb Project.

Return to: 1887 Biography Index

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