Illinois Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Situated between the major waterways of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, and possessing unusually rich soil for agricultural purposes, Illinois has been an important area of human activity since the earliest days of habitation.

History of Illinois

Situated between the major waterways of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, and possessing unusually rich soil for agricultural purposes, Illinois has been an important area of human activity since the earliest days of habitation. The historical development of the region has been sharply divided among the urban northeast area, dominated by Chicago; the central area, a mixture of urban and rural cultures; and the rural southern area, which resembles its southern neighbors, Missouri and Kentucky, more than it does the rest of the state.

Early History

The earliest humans to inhabit the area were hunters and gatherers who roamed the southern part of the region ten thousand years ago. Over the next several thousand years, cultures developed that built permanent villages and depended primarily on the growing of corn. By the year 1300, the Mississippian culture, a highly developed society based on the raising of corn, squash, and beans, dominated central North America. This society, the largest Native American culture north of Mexico, built large, fortified cities and extensive earth-mound monuments. The largest of these monuments were found at Cahokia, the culture’s religious center, located in southwestern Illinois.

By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, a large number of Native American peoples, belonging to the Algonquin language group, inhabited the region. Among these were the Kickapoo, Sauk, and Fox in the north; the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Ojibwa near Lake Michigan; the Illinois, a confederation of five peoples, in the central prairies; and the Cahokia and Tamaroa in the south. These societies relied on agriculture and buffalo hunting for survival. By the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, all these peoples had sold, ceded, or been forced off their native lands and had settled in other areas.

Exploration and Settlement

The first Europeans to visit the Illinois area were led by the French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette in 1673 as they traveled south from Wisconsin along the Mississippi River as far as Arkansas. This expedition also explored the Illinois River on its return journey north. In 1680 the French explorers René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and Henry de Tonti founded Fort Crevecoeur near the modern city of Peoria, followed two years later by Fort Saint Louis near the modern city of Ottawa. After a century of French settlement, the area became British territory at the end of the French and Indian War.

British policy was unfavorable to the economic development of the area, and settlements often lacked any form of government. Combined with violent encounters with Native Americans living in the area, these factors tended to discourage settlers. By 1773, the number of Europeans in Illinois had declined to about one thousand. The population also included a few hundred slaves.

During the American Revolution, American forces under George Rogers Clark captured British settlements at Kaskaskia and Cahokia in May of 1778, winning the region for the newly created United States. American control of the area was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war in 1783. At first a part of the state of Virginia, the region became part of the new Northwest Territory in 1787; part of the new Indiana Territory in 1800; a separate territory, including parts of modern Wisconsin and Minnesota, in 1809; and a state, with its modern borders, in 1818.

Conflict with Native Americans

Battles between European settlers and Native Americans began long before statehood. In 1730 French forces defeated Fox forces in east central Illinois. In 1803 the Kaskaskia ceded their lands to the United States. In 1812 Potawatomi forces killed fifty-two Americans and destroyed Fort Dearborn, a military establishment on the site of modern Chicago. The Kickapoo left their native lands in 1819, followed by the Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi in 1829. The Illinois sold their land in 1832.

One of the most violent encounters between settlers and American Indians was the Black Hawk War of 1832. Although some leaders of the Sauk and Fox had ceded their lands to the United States in 1804, others refused to leave. Black Hawk, a leader of these people, was driven into Iowa in 1831 but crossed back over the Mississippi River into Illinois the next year with about one thousand followers. Although at first Black Hawk was able to defeat the Illinois militia, lack of supplies forced him to retreat northward into Wisconsin, where most of his followers were killed. The destruction of Black Hawk’s people, including women, children, and the elderly, was an important factor in the decision of nearly all Native Americans to leave the area by 1837.

Slavery and the Civil War

At the time of statehood, slaves in Illinois were given the status of indentured servants, due to the fear that permitting slavery would block admission to the Union. In 1824 voters rejected a proposal to hold a constitutional convention for the purpose of making slavery legal. Increasing numbers of settlers from free states in the 1830’s and 1840’s led to a new state constitution in 1848, which abolished slavery and made it illegal to bring slaves into Illinois.

During the Civil War, most residents of the state were loyal to the Union and to President Abraham Lincoln, who was himself from Illinois. An attempt was made to unite southern Illinois, which was less sympathetic to the Union cause, to the Confederacy, but it ended in failure. About 250,000 residents of Illinois fought for the Union, including Ulysses S. Grant, one of its most capable generals.

The Rise of Chicago

During the early nineteenth century, about two-thirds of the population of Illinois lived in the southern part of the state. Although Jean Baptist Point du Sable, known as the father of Chicago, founded a trading post at the site in 1779, it remained a small settlement for nearly half a century. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, linking the Hudson River to Lake Erie, made transportation from eastern states to northern Illinois much easier. In 1837 Chicago had a population of 4,200 and was incorporated as a city.

The opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 linked Lake Michigan and the Illinois River, providing Chicago with a waterway to the Mississippi River. By 1852 two railroad lines linked Chicago to eastern states. By 1856 it was the nation’s most important railroad center.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw rapid economic growth in Chicago, with the city becoming dominant in iron and steel production, lumber distribution, slaughtering and meat packing, and marketing of produce. The Great Chicago Fire, lasting for two days in October, 1871, killed more than two hundred people, left ninety thousand homeless, and destroyed $200 million worth of property. Despite this disaster, Chicago continued to experience rapid growth. From 1850 to 1880 the population of the city grew from about thirty thousand to more than half a million.

The Twentieth Century

Although Illinois harbored a number of German and Irish immigrants in the 1840’s, it was not until the turn of the century that large numbers of immigrants from other nations, including Poland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Austria, and Russia, arrived in the state. Chicago was the center of immigration, with more than three-fourths of its population in 1900 consisting of those born in other countries and their children.

The same period also saw a large increase in the number of African Americans in Illinois. From 1870 to 1910, the population of African Americans increased from 29,000 to more than 100,000. Prior to World War II, large numbers of European Jews immigrated to Illinois. In later years, increasing numbers of Asians and Latin Americans immigrated to the state.

The late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century brought Illinois a reputation for violence, particularly in Chicago, where the Haymarket Riot of 1886 resulted in numerous deaths in a confrontation between police and labor activists. Railroad worker strikes in Chicago in 1894 also led to violence. Elsewhere in the state, strikes by mine workers led to violence in 1898 and 1922. Race riots broke out in Springfield in 1908, in East St. Louis in 1917, and in Chicago in 1919. The 1920’s saw an increase in violence against African Americans by the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Chicago was a center of organized crime. Perhaps the most infamous event in the history of crime in Chicago occurred in 1929, when crime leader Al Capone had seven rivals killed in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Democratic and Republican parties struggled for control of Illinois. This fact, combined with the state’s large number of electoral votes, made Illinois a key target of presidential election campaigns. In general, the city of Chicago has been strongly Democratic, the suburbs and farmlands of the north and central regions strongly Republican, and the southern region mixed.

After the economic recession of the 1970’s, the electronic and computer technology industries in Illinois became an important part of the state’s economy in the 1980’s. Illinois also became a leader in nuclear-power production in the 1990’s, when it had thirteen operating nuclear-power plants, more than any other state. These plants supplied more than half of the state’s electricity.

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