Early Illinois Women

Sarah Withers of Bloomington

Sarah Withers

Withers Library, Bloomington


Sarah Withers, the wife of merchant Allen Withers, was an early Bloomington settler, an early friend of Abraham Lincoln, and a civic benefactor. She was also a southern sympathizer, brought up in Lexington, KY, who would write bitterly on 4 May 1861, "This day our nation is to be disgraced by the inauguration of Abe Lincoln as President. How humiliating."

Bloomington was prospering, and merchants like Allen Withers were rejoicing. He and Sarah lived comfortably in their home at the corner of East and Washington Streets, and they were thinking of buying a stately home about 10 blocks to the northwest, on Lee and Locust.

They also bought land near Baton Rouge, LA, where they dreamed of going to live as plantation owners. And to develop this land, Allen Withers bought slaves.

Although their slave Henry became legally free upon living in Illinois, he stayed with the Withers for the rest of his life, and regarded as one of the family. The Louisiana slaves, however, Allen felt were an economic necessity, and so he was sympathetic to the Southern position of the right to slavery.

Bloomington was home to many southern families, but the times and opinions were changing. Even the Withers conservative First Presbyterian Church now had a minister with strong anti-slavery views. Sarah cannot agree with his sermons, writing "I don't like that man, and there is no use to try." Allen Withers simply refused to attend. On April 5, she wrote "Everybody is for fight and against the South. Have felt very sad. Went up to Mr. Perry's. They were really unkind and insulting.

In her diary of 13 April 1861, Sarah wrote, "Very exciting news from Fort Sumpter. The War began last night. oh how horrible to think of Fratricidal War, and of this once Glorious nation being rent asunder."

Abraham Lincoln issued his War Proclamation, asking for 75,000 troops. Allen Withers quickly changed his mind and became a Union man. He attended the city mass meeting and was appointed to a committee headed by Isaac Funk to recruit volunteers for the Army. Sarah continued to suffer. "Have been insulted twice today by persons abusing the south." And, "I need sympathy, but find I can expect nothing of the kind in this community."

The war was a national tragedy and a personal one. Sarah's adored husband died very suddenly in 1864. Sarah put aside her wartime bitterness towards Bloomington and dedicated herself to a life of philanthropy. The land which was the site of the Withers' first home was donated to the Library Association. Withers Library was dedicated in 1887 and served the city until a new Bloomington Public Library was built on Olive St. in 1977.

Sarah's daughter Jessamine, mother of two, died young. In her will, Sarah donated her home on W. Locust St. and one of her farms to found the Jessamine Withers Home for the Elderly, which remained in operation until 1963.

Withers Park, part of the property which contained the library, is still a site for downtown concerts and is the home of the Trotter Fountain, a memorial to the family of Sarah's close friend Georgina Trotter. Georgina and Sarah Raymond completed the final fund-raising for the Withers Library. All three women left their mark on Bloomington.


  1. Withers, Sarah R., "Diary", 1 January 1860-20 May 1861. MCHS Library (transcription) and MCHS Archives (original)
  2. Schlenker, Alice. "The heretics", 1985, ms. MCHS Archives
  3. Portrait of Sarah Withers and image of Withers Library. MCHS Archives, Photograph Collection
  4. 1881 library card. MCHS Archives

Contributing Library:

Stevenson - Ives Memorial Library, McLean County Historical Society, Bloomington, Illinois

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