Illinois {il-uh-noy'}

Illinois is a leading agricultural, manufacturing, and urban state of the north central region of the United States. It is bordered by Wisconsin on the north, Lake Michigan on the northeast, Indiana on the east and southeast, and Kentucky on the south. The Ohio River follows its southern border, and the Mississippi River in the west and southwest of the state lies along its borders with Iowa and Missouri. Illinois was first settled thousands of years ago by Indians and was explored by the first Europeans—French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette and frontiersman Louis Jolliet—who reached the area on June 20, 1673. The French changed the Indian name for the area, Illiniwek, meaning "the men," to Illinois. Illinois became a state on Dec. 3, 1818. Although the 25th largest state in size, its population is ranked only sixth-largest of all states, and its growth rate has been non-existent or very low since the 1980s. Springfield became the capital in 1837. Since 1850, Illinois has been a major state in all economic sectors. Now it faces the problems of increasing urbanization and interregional economic competition.

If you have information you would like to share for this website, please contact the coordinator, Celia Snyder.

Thousands of years before the French reached Illinois, Paleo-Indians, a nomadic people, and their descendants, archaic Indians, had explored Illinois. The culture of these hunters, dated before 5000 BC, can be studied at the Modock Rock Shelter in Randolph County. Woodland Indians were their descendants. By ~900, Middle Mississippi Indians, who succeeded the Woodland Indians, built large earthen mounds and developed complex urban areas. These cities disappeared possibly because of overpopulation, disease, and exhaustion of resources. The descendants of the Mississippians were the Illiniwek tribes of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. After years of losing land and wars to other Indian groups and European colonists, the Illiniweks were moved to a Kansas reservation.

The French controlled areas along the Mississippi River valley in the American Bottoms between Cahokia and Kaskaskia. Their occupation, from about 1675 to 1763, left few lasting marks, as did the ineffective British rule. European control was ended by the U.S. militia of George Rogers Clark in 1778, whereupon Virginia claimed Illinois as within its territory.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 charted this region and organized counties, and in 1809 the Territory of Illinois was created. During the early years of settlement by fur trappers, southern Illinois was the focus of migration to the area, especially along the Mississippi River valley and the Wabash and Ohio rivers. Granting of statehood in 1818 was controversial. The population numbered less than the required 60,000. Moreover, in order to include the Chicago port area, territorial representatives induced the U.S. Congress to draw the Illinois border 51 miles to the north of the original boundary as delimited by the Northwest Ordinance. The first capital was Kaskaskia, followed by Vandalia, along the Kaskaskia River, which held the position for 20 years. After strong pressure from Abraham Lincoln, the capital was moved to Springfield by an 1837 legislative vote.

Early statehood problems engulfed Illinois. In the 1830s the state was near bankruptcy because of government financing of canals and railroad construction. The Black Hawk War in 1832 was fought by the Indians and newly arrived settlers over possession of Illinois land. Disease was rampant and death common. Adherents to Mormonism, who had migrated from Missouri in 1839, were charged with many illegalities and finally driven from the state after their leader, Joseph Smith, had been murdered in 1844.

The Civil War caused mixed loyalties among Illinoisans, many of whom were first- or second-generation Southerners. However, many took pride in the fact that the Union was led by a native son, Lincoln, and the state provided 250,000 soldiers to the Union army. It also was the weapons manufacturer, supplier of iron products, and major grain and meat supplier for the North.

By 1880, Illinois had become the fourth most populous state. It was a leader in grain production and manufacturing. Large-scale European immigration provided labor to mine coal, run steel mills, and enhance the economy and culture of the state. By 1920, Illinois was counted among the foremost states in nearly every significant growth variable—coal mining, industry, farming, urbanization, transportation, and wholesaling. Its leadership was achieved despite the economic slumps of the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s; the labor disputes in coal mining and railroading; the Chicago fire of 1871; and the problems caused by organized crime. World Wars I and II boosted the economy of Illinois, which soon had five ordnance depots and numerous military training camps.

The post-World War II era was a time of industrial modification to the production of consumer goods. Even though meat-packing companies began to move away from Chicago and East Saint Louis, in part because of obsolete physical plants, Illinois farms were being mechanized and upgraded for increased output. The use of hybrid seed, chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides resulted in larger crop yields. Post-World War II Illinois experienced rapid population growth. The rising number of school-age children brought about public school reform, rural school consolidations, and huge suburban educational plants. Migration streams of blacks from the South, Hispanics from Mexico and Puerto Rico, and whites from Appalachia reshaped neighborhoods in Chicago, its suburbs, and other large Illinois cities. By 1990 Chicago's minorities accounted for nearly 55% of its population.

Farming areas and several towns were much affected by the great Mississippi River flood that occurred in 1993. The river, forming Illinois's western border, was the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, as flooding of the river and its tributaries involved nine Midwestern states and put several Illinois communities at risk. Rural Keithsburg was flooded, and some little towns were wiped out. Damage to crops, land, and property was in the billions of dollars.

More detailed early history

- Copyright 1999-2008 -
Celia G. Snyder, for The ILGenWeb Project
All rights reserved.