The prairie where Kewanee is situated was once the land of the Pottawatomi and Winnebago, the Sauk and Fox.
With the defeat of Chief Black Hawk at Rock Island in 1832, the Indians were pushed across the Mississippi, opening one of the last regions of Illinois to white settlement.
In the fall of 1835, Caleb Tenney of Wethersfield, Conn., wanted to found a colony in Henry County near the Andover Colony he had started earlier that year.
The Connecticut Association was formed and a committee was sent west early in 1836 to select and buy land.
After surveying the area, they chose a site about 22 miles east of Andover at the southern edge of a vast timber called Barren Grove.
Wethersfield grew into a thriving village and had a population of about 130 within two years.
In 1852 work began on the Central Military Tract Railroad to run from Galesburg to Chicago. In spite of efforts to bring the railroad through Wethersfield, crossing a deep slough west of the village made it cheaper to take the right-of-way on more level land to the north.
When it was learned that a rail station would be built, the scramble for choice lots was on. Businessmen in Wethersfield literally picked up their buildings and moved them on wheels, logs or anything that would roll north.
A new town was laid out on May 1, 1854, Kewanee’s “birthday.” The first train rolled down the track in November of 1854. Folks wanted to name the town after the engineer who built the railroad, a man named Berrien. Colonel Berrien was not at all interested and suggested they name the new whistle stop “Kewanee,” a Winnebago Indian word for prairie chicken which was common to the area at the time.
Kewanee became a prairie boom town sprouting along the tracks, which were taken over in 1856 by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.
The boom in Kewanee was the bust for Wethersfield. Businesses, churches and people moved north and Wethersfield became a cluster of homes, farms and orchards. Over the years, the 1 1/2 mile gap of open land between the two towns closed with homes.
Special elections on annexation held in both towns in 1924 passed by overwhelming majorities and Wethersfield officially became part of Kewanee. The combined population of the two towns at the time was 18,000. By that time all services had been combined, with the exception of schools and township government, which remain independent today.
On March 24, 1949, State Rep. Frank P. Johnson of Kewanee introduced House Resolution 40 on the floor of the 66th Illinois General Assembly declaring Kewanee and Henry County to be the “Hog Capital of the World” after being designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as leading the nation in hog production. The resolution passed on a unanimous vote.
Shortly after that, Kewanee began celebrating “Hog Days,” an annual festival that brings thousands of visitors to town every Labor Day weekend.
During the 1960s, a peak in school populations helped local residents campaign for a local community college. In 1967 their dream became a reality with the inception of Black Hawk College - East Campus.
The college is in the country a few miles south of Kewanee, making it easily accessible not just to students from Kewanee but to those from other nearby communities.
Black Hawk College recently opened its Community Education Center in the heart of Kewanee. This state-of-the-art educational facility offers a large conference room with audio-visual facilities and a catering kitchen, a smaller conference room, a large computer lab that's open to the public and four classrooms equipped with computers and other learning tools.
The last few decades have seen Kewanee expand and attract new businesses as well as the remodeling of a number of facilities and services.
New projects in recent years include the development of a bilingual school, two industrial sites ready for development, a new juvenile correctional facility, a new family aquatic center, new city hall and municipal building, a new water tower and Moss Gymnasium at Wethersfield School.
Extensive renovation has been completed at the Kewanee Public Library, and an expansion program added Petersen Auditorium, Good's Gym, the Pines-Great Dane Strength Room, the Moss Wrestling Gym and Good's Elementary Learning Center — all made possible by generous donors in the community — at Kewanee High School.
The Housing Authority of Henry County has renovated the former Hotel Kewanee into apartments for seniors.