Long after the voyages of Columbus, long after Spain and France and England and Holland had planted their colonies in America, the valley of the Mississippi was an unknown region. Although DeSoto’s journey to the “father of waters” gave Spain a claim to the Illinois country, and though this claim was confirmed by the Pope, the Spanish did nothing to explore or colonize it. Not until 1673, when the first of the French arrived, does Illinois history really begin….”1

Illinois, the “Prairie” State

“Illinois, the “Prairie” state, one of the north-central group of the United States of America, situated between approximately 37° and 42° 30′ N. and 87° 32′ and 91° 31′ W. It is bounded on the north by Wisconsin, east by Lake Michigan and Indiana, southeast and south by the Ohio river, which separates it from Kentucky, and southwest and west by the Mississippi river, which separates it from Missouri and Iowa. The enabling act of congress, which provided for the organization of Illinois territory into a state, extended its jurisdiction to the middle of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi river. The state’s greatest length is 379-1/4 miles and its extreme width is 211 miles. The total area of the state, exclusive of its Lake Michigan jurisdiction, is 56,400 square miles of which 55,935 square miles are land.

“The first Europeans to visit the region now known as Illinois were the French. In 1659 Pierre Radisson and Medard Chouart des Groseilliers seem to have reached the upper Mississippi. It is certain that in 1673 part of the region known as the Illinois country was explored to some extent by two Frenchmen, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit father. Marquette, under orders to begin a mission to the Indians, and Jolliet, who acted under orders of Jean Talon, intendant of Canada, ascended the Fox river, crossed the portage between it and the Wisconsin river, and followed that stream to the Mississippi, which they descended to a point below the mouth of the Arkansas. On their return journey they ascended the Illinois river as far as Lake Peoria; they then crossed the portage to Lake Michigan, and in 1675 Marquette founded a mission at the Indian town of Kaskaskia, near the present Utica, Illinois. In 1679 the explorer Rene’ Robert Cavalier, sieur de La Salle, desiring to find the mouth of the Mississippi, ascended the St. Joseph river, crossed the portage separating it from the Kankakee, which he descended to the Illinois, and built in the neighborhood of Lake Peoria a fort which he called Ft. Crevecoeur. The vicissitudes of the expedition and opposition in Canada to his plans prevented him from reaching the mouth of the Illinois until Feb. 6, 1682. After such preliminary explorations, the French made permanent settlements, which had their origin in the missions of the Jesuits and the bartering posts of the French traders. Chief of these were Kaskaskia, established near the mouth of the Kaskaskia ariver, about 1720; Cahokia, a little below the mouth of the Missouri river, founded at about the same time; and Ft. Chartres, on the Mississippi between Cahokia and Kaskaskia, founded in 1720 to be a link in a chain of fortifications intended to extend from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. A monument of the labors of the missionaries is a manuscript dictionary (c. 1720) of the language of the Illinois, with catechism and prayers, probably the work of Father Le Boulanger.”

“In 1712 the Illinois river was made the northern boundary of the French province of Louisiana, which was granted to Antoine Crozat (1655-1738), and in 1721 the seventh civil and military district of that province was named Illinois, which included more than one half of the present state, the country between the Arkansas river and the line 43° N. latitude, as well as the country between the Rocky mountains and the Mississippi; but in 1723 the region around the Wabash river was formed into a separate district. The trade of the Illinois country was then diverted to the settlements in the lower Mississippi river, but the French, although they were successful in gaining the confidence and friendship of the Indians, failed to develop the resources of the country. By the treaty of Paris, 1763, France ceded to Great Britain its claims to the country between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, but on account of the resistance of Pontiac, a chief of the Ottawas, who drew into conspiracy most of the tribes between the Ottawa river and the lower Mississippi, the English were not able to take possession of the country until 1765, when the French flag was finally lowered at Ft. Chartres.

“The policy of the British government was not favorable to the economic development of the newly acquired country, since it was feared that its prosperity might react against the trade and industry of Great Britain. But in 1769 and the succeeding years of English control, this policy was relaxed, and immigration from the seaboard colonies, especially from Virginia, began. In 1771 the people of the Illinois country, through a meeting at Kaskaskia, demanded a form of self-government similar to that of Connecticut. The petition was rejected by Gen. Thomas Gage; and Thomas Legge, earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801), secretary of state for plantations and president of the board of trade, drew up a plan of government for Illinois in which all officials were appointed by the crown. This, however, was never operative, for in 1774, by the famous Quebec act, the Illinois country was annexed to the province of Quebec, and at the same time the jurisdiction of the French civil law was recognized. These facts explain the considerable sympathy in Illinois for the colonial cause in the American Revolution. Most of the inhabitants, however, were French, and these were loyalists. The English authorities instigated the Indians to make attacks upon the frontiers of the American colonies, and this led to one of the most important events in the history of the Illinois country, the capture of the British posts of Cahokia and Kaskaskia in 1778, and in the following year of Vincennes by George Rogers Clark (q.v.), who acted under orders of Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia. These conquests had much to do with the securing by the United States of the country west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio in the treaty of Paris, 1783.

“The Virginia house of delegates, in 1778, extended the civil jurisdiction of Virginia to the northwest, and appointed Capt. John Todd (1750-82), of Kentucky, governor of the entire territory north of the Ohio, organized as “the county of Illinois.” This government was confined to the old French settlements and was entirely inefficient. In 1787, Virginia and the other states having relinquished their claims to the country west of the Alleghenies, the Northwest territory was organized by congress by the famous ordinance of 1787. Two years later St. Clair county was formed out of the southwest part of the Illinois country, while the eastern portion and the settlements around Vincennes, Indiana, were united into the county of Knox, and in 1795 the southern part of St. Clair county was organized into Randolph county, with Kaskaskia as the seat of administration. In 1800 the Illinois country was included in the territory of Indiana, and in 1809 the western part of Indiana from Vincennes north to Canada was organized as the territory of Illinois; it included, besides the present state, all of Wisconsin except the northern part of the Green Bay peninsula, a large part of Michigan and all of Minnesota east of the Mississippi. In 1812, by permission of congress, a representative assembly was chosen, a territorial constitution was adopted and the territorial delegate in congress was elected directly by the people.

“In 1818 Illinois became a state of the American union, the enabling act fixing the line 42° 30′ as the northern boundary, instead of that provided by the ordinance of 1787, which passed through the south bend of Lake Michigan. The reason given for this change was that if the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were the only outlets of Illinois trade, the interests of the state would become identified with those of the southern states; but if an outlet by Lake Michigan were provided, closer relations would be established with the northern and middle states, and so “additional security for the perpetuity of the Union” would be afforded.

“Throughout the territorial period there was conflict between French and English land claims. In 1804 congress established land offices at Kaskaskia and Vincennes to examine existing claims and to eliminate conflict with future grants; in 1812 new offices were established at Shawneetown and Edwardsville for the sale of public lands; and in 1816 more than 500,000 acres were sold. In 1818, however, many citizens were in debt for their lands, and “squatters” invaded the rights of settlers. Congress therefore reduced the price of land from $2 to $1.25 per acre and adopted the policy of pre-emption, preference being given to the claims of existing settlers. The Indians, however, resisted measures looking toward the extinguishment of their claims to the country. Their dissatisfaction with the treaties signed in 1795 and 1804 caused them to espouse the British cause in the war of 1812, and in 1812 they overpowered a body of soldiers and settlers who had abandoned Ft. Dearborn (Chicago). For a number of years after the end of the conflict, the Indians were comparatively peaceful; but in 1831 the delay of the Sacs and Foxes in withdrawing from the lands in northern Illinois caused Gov. John Reynolds (1788-1865) to call out the militia. The following year Black Hawk, a Sac leader, opened an unsuccessful war in northern Illinois and Wisconsin (Black Hawk War); and by 1833 all Indians in Illinois had been removed from the state.

“The financial and industrial policy of the state was unfortunate. Money being scarce, the legislature in 1819 chartered a state bank which was authorized to do business on the credit of the state. This bank never operated and a second was chartered in 1820. In a few years the bank failed, and the state in 1831 borrowed money to redeem the depreciated notes issued by the bank. A third state bank was chartered in 1835; two years later it suspended payment, and in 1843 the legislature provided for its liquidation. The state also undertook to establish a system of internal improvements, granting a loan for the construction of the Illinois and Michigan canal in 1836, and in 1837 appropriating $10,000,000 for the building of railroads and other improvements. The experiment proved unsuccessful; the state’s credit declined and a heavy debt was incurred, and in 1840 the policy of aiding public improvements was abandoned. Through the efforts of Gov. Thomas Ford (1800-50) a movement to repudiate the debt was defeated, and a plan was adopted by which the entire debt could be reduced without excessive taxation, and by 1880 practically the entire debt was extinguished.

“A notable incident in the history of the state was the immigration of the Mormons from Missouri, about 1840. Their principal settlements were in Hancock county. They succeeded in securing favors from the legislature, and their city of Nauvoo had courts and a military organization that was independent of state control. Political intrigue and claims of independence from the state, as well as charges of polygamy and lawless conduct, aroused such intense opposition to the sect that in 1844 a civil war broke out in Hancock county which resulted in the murder of Joseph Smith and the removal of the Mormons from Illinois in 1846.

“The slavery question, however, was the problem of lasting political importance. Slaves had been brought into the Illinois country by the French, and Gov. Arthur St. Clair (1734-1818) interpreted the article of the ordinance of 1787, which forbade slavery in the Northwest territory, as a prohibition of the introduction of slaves into the territory, not an interference with existing conditions. The idea arose that Negroes could be held as indentured servants, and such servitude was recognized in the Indiana code of 1803, the Illinois constitution of 1818 and statutes of 1819; indeed, there would probably have been a recognition of slavery in the constitution of 1818 had it not been feared that such recognition would have prevented the admission of the state to the union. In 1823 the legislature referred to the people a resolution for a constitutional convention to amend the constitution. The aim, not expressed, was the legalization of slavery. Although a majority of the public men of the state, indeed probably a majority of the entire population, was either born in the southern states or descended from southern people, the resolution of the legislature was rejected, the leader of the opposition being Gov. Edward Coles (1786-1868), a Virginia slaveholder, who had freed his slaves on coming to Illinois. The opposition to slavery, however, was at first economic, not philanthropic. In 1837 there was only one abolition society in the state, but chiefly through the agitation of Elijah P. Lovejoy (q.v.), the abolition sentiment grew.

“In 1842 the moral issue had become political, and the Liberty party was organized, which in 1848 united with the Free Soil party; but as the Whig party approved the policy of non-extension of slavery, these parties did not succeed so well united as under separate existence. In 1854, however, the Liberty and Free Soil parties, the Democrats opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and some Whigs united, secured a majority in the legislature, and elected Lyman Trumbull U.S. senator. Two years later these elements formally organized as the Republican party and elected their candidates for state offices. This was the first time that the Democratic party had been defeated, its organization having been in control since the admission of Illinois to the union. An important influence in this political revolution was a change in the character of the population. Until 1848 the southern element predominated in the population, but after that year the immigration from the northern states was greater than that from the south, and the foreign element also increased. The influence of immigration and sectionalism upon Illinois politics is well illustrated by the fact that the first six governors (1818-38) were born in the southern states, six of the eight U.S. senators of that period were also southern-born and all of the representatives, which one exception, also came to Illinois from the southern states. After 1838 the eastern states began to be represented among the governors, but until 1901 no governor was elected who was a native of Illinois. (See E. B. Greene, Sectional Forces in the History of Illinois, Publications of the Historical Library of Illinois, No. 8, 1903.)

“The opposition to slavery continued to be political and economic rather than philanthropic. The constitution of 1848, which abolished slavery, also forbade the immigration of slaves into the state. In 1858 occurred the famous contest for the office of U.S. senator between Stephen A. Douglas (Democrat) and Abraham Lincoln (Republican). Douglas was elected, but the vote showed that Illinois was becoming more northern in sympathy, and two years later Lincoln, then candidate for the presidency, carried the state. The policy of Illinois in the early period of secession was one of marked loyalty to the union; even in the southern part of the state the majority of the people had no sympathy with the pro-slavery men in their efforts to dissolve the union. The legislature of 1861 provided for a war fund of $2,000,000; and Capt. James H. Stokes (1814-90) of Chicago transferred a large amount of munitions of war from St. Louis, where the secession sentiment was strong, to Alton. The state contributed 255,092 men to the federal armies. From 1862-64, however, there was some opposition to a continuance of the war. This was at first political; the legislature of 1862 was Democratic, and for political purposes that body adopted resolutions against further conflict and recommended an armistice and a national convention to conclude peace. The same year a convention met to revise the constitution. Among its acts was the assumption of the right of ratifying a proposed amendment to the constitution of the United States which prohibited congress from interfering with slavery within a state, although the right of ratification belonged to the legislature. The convention also inserted clauses preventing Negroes and mulattoes from immigrating into the state and from voting and holding office; and although the constitution as a whole was rejected by the people, these clauses were ratified. In 1863 more pronounced opposition to the policy of the national government developed. A mass meeting, which met at Springfield in July, at the instance of the Democratic party, adopted resolutions that condemned the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, endorsed the doctrine of state sovereignty, demanded a national assembly to determine terms of peace, and asked President Lincoln to withdraw the proclamation that emancipated the slaves, and so to permit the people of Illinois to fight only for “Union, the Constitution and the enforcement of the laws.” The Knights of the Golden Circle (q.v.), and other secret societies, whose aims were the promulgation of state sovereignty and the extension of aid to the Confederate states, began to flourish, and it is said, that in 1864 there were 50,000 members of the Sons of Liberty in the state. Capt. T. Henry Hines, of the Confederate army, was appointed by Jefferson Davis to co-operate with these societies. For a time his headquarters were in Chicago, and an elaborate attempt to liberate Confederate prisoners in Chicago (known as the Camp Douglas conspiracy) was thwarted by a discovery of the plans. In the elections of 1864, the Republicans and Union Democrats united, and after an exciting campaign they were successful. The new legislature was the first among the legislatures of the state to ratify (Feb. 1, 1865) the 13th amendment.

” From the close of the Civil War until the end of the 19th century the Republican party was generally dominant, but the trend of political development was not without interest. In 1872 many prominent men of the state joined the Liberal Republican party, among them Gov. John M. Palmer, Sen. Lyman Trumbull and Gustavus Koerner (1809-96), one of the most prominent representative os the German element in Illinois. Economic depression gave the Granger movement considerable popularity, and an outgrowth of the Granger organization was the Independent Reform party of 1874, which advocated retrenchment of expenses, the state regulation of railways and a tariff for revenue only. A Democratic Liberal party was organized in the same year, one of its leaders being Governor Palmer; consequently, no party had a majority in the legislature elected in 1874. In 1876 the Greenback party, the successor in Illinois of the Independent Reform party, secured a strong following; although its candidate for governor was endorsed by the Democrats, the Republicans regained control of the state administration.

“Government.—Illinois has been governed under two territorial acts of congress and three constitutions, the Territorial Constitution acts of 1809 and 1812, and the three state constitutions of 1818, 1848 and 1870 (subsequently amended). A new constitution, submitted to the people on Dec. 12, 1922, was defeated by a vote of 921,398 to 185, 298. Amendments by a constitutional convention or a two-thirds vote of all members elected by each house of the legislature, ratification by the people being required in either instance. A constitutional convention may be called by the general assembly when two-thirds of the members of each house concur and their action, when submitted to the people, is approved by the voters…”2

Footnotes

  1. “Illinois The Story of the Prairie State,” Centennial Edition by Grace Humphrey, Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers, 1917, pg. 4. 
  2. “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., William Benton, Publisher, Chicago: London: Toronto, 1958