Europeans first visited Illinois in the 1670s, when Father
Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit priest, led a small party of explorers
west from Lake Michigan. Marquette's band examined lands the French crown
had claimed sight-unseen during this period of empire-building.
The French, British and Spanish each established colonial
footholds on the vast American continent in the seventeenth century and
vied with one another for supremacy. Between the 1670s and 1763, the French
controlled the sparsely populated Illinois country.
French voyageurs, trappers and missionaries built a hybrid
society many historians have come to call a "middle ground."
Although priests converted a significant number of Native Americans to
Christianity, French settlers in North America generally respected Indian
society and culture. Frenchmen and Indians mingled freely, exchanged ideas
and cultural practices, and frequently intermarried. Native American tribes
had for centuries practiced hunting, gathering, fishing and subsistence
agriculture. The French found that their preference for hunting and trapping,
and distaste for intensive agriculture, meshed easily with Native Americans'
approaches to living in nature.
In the middle of the eighteenth century the French and
British empires clashed in a conflict that has come to be known as the
French and Indian War. French and Indian troops, sensing their mutually
beneficial arrangement in the American backcountry, pulled together to
oppose British forces. But the powerful British Empire briefly strengthened
its hand in North America with victory in this struggle. The French slowly
pulled out of North America. The British, for their part, determined that
the territory west of the Allegheny mountains and north of the Ohio River
should serve as a large Indian preserve closed to general settlement by
By 1783 the American Revolution had produced an amazing
reversal of fortune in North America. The United States of America stood
as a new nation, and British redcoats retreated to a few forts in the northwest
(today's Michigan and Ohio).
Americans eyed these lands, which the British had sought
to set aside for Indian tribes, intently. As Americans pushed westward
into the new frontier, they replaced the French and Indian "middle
ground" social arrangements with a legal system emphasizing private
property, economic goals emphasizing intensive agricultural and eventually
industrial development, and cultural ideals that posited the rise of Christian
civilization, marked Indians as savages, and mandated a firm distinction
in gender roles.
Eastern officials struggled to administer lands west of
the Alleghenies. In 1778 Virginia had announced that it considered huge
tracts of western lands its own, and formed the County of Illinois, an
entity that included all of present-day Illinois. By 1783 the Virginians
had ceded these claims under pressure from the other new states. The Illinois
country became part of the national lands, and eventually fell under the
jurisdiction of Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance.
The Northwest Ordinance organized lands comprising the
modern-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin as
the Northwest Territory. The Ordinance provided for a systematic surveying
of the territories, laying out townships on a simple grid. Such an arrangement
helped ensure that arriving settlers secured good title to their lands,
and solved the persistent land disputes that had so disrupted the settlement
The Northwest Ordinance also barred slavery in the new
territory, but American settlers brought the peculiar institution west anyway,
insuring a future of political contention and Civil War.
Illinois remained sparsely populated until the conclusion
of the War of 1812. The federal government set aside large tracts of land
between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers for war veterans. While many
veterans never made it to Illinois to stake their claims, the introduction
of these federal lands to the open market sparked the large-scale settlement
of central Illinois.
Before these developments American settlers had concentrated
along southern Illinois' waterways, mirroring the French pattern of settlement.
Most early settlers sought to maintain close contact with available water
and timber, and feared pushing into the unknown prairies. Many southerners
followed the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers west and north to the new Illinois
country, and forged lasting ties with their southern homeland.
In 1818 Illinois officials succeeded in producing a population
count sufficient to support a petition for statehood. Nathaniel Pope,
Illinois' quick-thinking Territorial Delegate to Congress, moved the new
state's northern boundary north from a position near the southernmost
tip of Lake Michigan to its present position forty-one miles to the north.
In doing so, Pope secured Lake Michigan coastline and the Chicago-Illinois
River portage, each of which proved very important in American economic
In 1820 55,211 souls made Illinois their home (a figure
considerably below the 60,000 supposedly required for admission to statehood,
suggesting Illinois officials' chicanery in 1818). By 1830
population had increased to 157,445. The 1830s proved to be a decade of
enormous growth, and by 1840 476,183 Illinoisans lived on the prairie.
By 1850 Illinois had grown to include over 850,000 inhabitants; on the
eve of the Civil War, in 1860, over 1.7 million occupied the State of
The large growth of the period after 1830 stemmed largely
from improvements in the American transportation system. In 1825 New York
State had completed the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River with Lake
Erie. The canal greatly facilitated westward migration from New England,
and opened northern Illinois to a generation of Yankee immigrants.
New Englanders infused Illinois with their zeal for improvement
and organization, which many described as the process of civilization.
While many southerners in Illinois reveled in their individual liberty
and casual living arrangements, Yankee settlers brought a firm set of
social and cultural norms west with them.
Foremost among these was the idea that women should refrain
from working outside the home and focus their energies upon their families,
while men worked to support the entire household. A scarcity of labor
had pushed many frontier men and women into roles in which they shared
the farm and house work alike. Yankee ideals of feminine domesticity and
civilization pushed this notion of household economy aside, and set the
tone for social life well into the twentieth century.
Improved transportation networks also made Illinois a
part of an increasingly national economic system that made Chicago its
western hub. The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal linked
the Great Lakes (and their eastern extension the Erie Canal) to the navigable
Illinois River and, ultimately, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.
By 1850 railroads had begun to link Chicago with the new west, and populated
the city with large warehouses storing both products harvested in western
fields and forests as well as eastern manufactured goods for sale to western
By 1860 Illinois was no longer the frontier. Farmers had turned the soil
on a majority of the Prairie State's acreage. Small towns and
cities dotted the landscape, and Chicago had grown into a national commercial
center. In the years after the Civil War Americans would populate new,
more westerly lands, subdue their Indian inhabitants, and fashion their
distinctive system of legal, political, and cultural institutions.
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and Democracy on the Illinois Frontier. Carbondale, IL: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1996.
Crellin, John K. Medical Care in Pioneer Illinois.
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School of Medicine, 1982.
Davis, James. Frontier Illinois. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Doyle, Don Harrison. The Social Order of a Frontier
Community. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Faragher, John Mack. Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois
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Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher The American West: A New Interpretive History New Haven: Yale University Press.
Jeffrey, Julie Roy. Frontier Women. New York:
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Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.,
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Springfield, IL: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1918.
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