In 1835 Charleston organized as a village, and by 1837 had a population of 200. It was named for Charles Morton, one of its most industrious citizens, owner of the first store, first postmaster, and first president of the local bank.
The city became the county seat in 1831, and the arrival of the railroads heightened growth in the community in 1850. Just four years later, the first Coles County Fair opened. Eastern Illinois University was founded in Charleston as a Teachers College in 1895. A significant, more modern event in the city's history was the 1966 dedication of nearby Interstate 57, creating a major link between Coles County and the entire nation.
The Charleston area is rich in the history of Abraham Lincoln, and many of the sites to visit in and around Charleston are connected with our 16th president. Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, south of Charleston, was the last home of Abraham Lincoln's father and stepmother, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln. Today, the 86 acre site includes a Visitor Center, pavilion and shaded picnic areas as well as the reconstructed Lincoln Cabin and the Stephen Sargent farmstead. Daily domestic and farming activities come alive on the 1840's "living history farm."
The Charleston square has been the seat of county government since 1831. Several historically-significant events are associated with previous buildings of the site. As a young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln unsuccessfully defended a slave owner in what was to become known as the Matson Slave Trial. A marker on the southeast Courthouse lawn commemorates the "Charleston Riot" which occurred on March 28, 1864 between Southern sympathizers or "Copperheads" and soldiers of the 54th Illinois infantry on furlough at the time.
The Coles County Fair is the oldest, continuous running county fair in the state. The first fairs were held in 1841, ’42 and ’43. probably due to lack of funds, no fairs were held for the next eleven years until 1854. The fair has been held every year since, growing to a weeklong event. The grounds cover 19 acres and more than $80,000 in prizes are awarded each year. The fairgrounds were also the site of the fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, held on September 18, 1858. A museum commemorating the debate is located at the east entrance to the fairgrounds.