Birkbeck, Morris (Jan. 23, 1764 - June 4, 1825), Illinois pioneer and publicist, was born at Settle, England, the son of an influential Quaker, Morris Birkbeck, and of Hannah Bradford. By 1794, as leaseholder, he was farming an estate of 1,500 acres at Wanborough in Surrey, where he was the first man to raise merino sheep in England, and was master of the hamlet. On Apr. 24, 1794, he married Prudence, daughter of Richard and Prudence Bush of Wandsworth, Surrey, who died Oct. 25, 1804, leaving him with seven children. In 1814, accompanied by his friend George Flower [q.v.], he traveled in France; his Notes on a Journey through France (1814) reveals a good-tempered, fair-minded observer, well grounded in science and the humanities. A liberal in politics and religion, he found it increasingly irksome to be taxed by a government that denied him a vote and tithed by a church whose doctrines he disapproved, and in 1817, with a party consisting chiefly of his children, he emigrated to the United States, where George Flower, who had gone before, now joined him. During 1817-18 Birkbeck either for himself or others entered 26,400 acres of public land in Edwards County, Ill., while Flower was raising more money and colonists in England. Birkbeck's Notes on a Journey in America from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois (1817) was published in Philadelphia, London, Dublin, and Cork, ran through eleven editions in English in two years, and appeared in German at Jena (1818). His Letters from Illinois (1818), published in Boston, Philadelphia, and London, went through seven editions in English besides being translated in 1819 into French and German. In directing settlers to the prairie lands of the west these two books exercised a widespread influence, and incidentally brought down on their author the hearty vituperation of William Cobbett, who was in the pay of eastern land speculators. In 1818 he laid out the town of Wanborough, which has since vanished. That same year he and Flower parted and were never reconciled; the cause of the feud, which did irreparable injury to their colonization scheme, remains conjectural. A little later he became president of the first agricultural society in Illinois and gave a great impetus to the raising of cattle and to the scientific tilling of the soil. In 1823, by cogent articles contributed to newspapers under the name of "Jonathan Freeman," he helped to consolidate the antislavery forces in Illinois and to save the state for freedom. In 1824 an old London acquaintance, Edward Coles, now governor of Illinois, appointed him secretary of state; for three months he served with conspicuous ability, and then was turned out by the pro-slavery element in the state Senate, who refused to confirm the appointment. On June 4, 1825, returning from a visit to Robert Owen at Harmony, Ind., he was drowned while swimming his horse across the Fox River. In person he was below middle stature, spare, muscular, and wiry, his face bronzed and lined by exposure to the weather. He was one of the ablest, most cultured, and most public-spirited men on the frontier. His services to his adopted country were ill requited and soon forgotten.
[R. Birkbeck, The Birkbecks of Westmorland and Their Descendants (London, privately printed, 1900); G. Flower, Hist. of the English Settlements in Edwards Co., Ill. (1882); The English Settlement in the Illinois: Reprints of Three Rare Tracts on the Illinois Country (1907), ed. by E. E. Sparks; J. Woods, Two Years' Residence in the Illinois Country (1822); W. Faux, Memorable Days in America 1819-20, being vol. XI (1905) of Early Western Travels 1748-1846, ed. by R. G. Thwaites; S. J. Buck, Travel and Description 1765-1865, being vol. IX of Ill. State Hist. Lib. Colls.; Bibliographical Series, II, (1914); S. J. Buck, Illinois in 1818, being the Introductory Volume (1917) of Ill. Centennial Publications; T. C. Pease, The Frontier State 1818-48, being vol. II (1918) of the Centennial Hist. of Illinois.]