Illinois History

Historic Facts & Overview of Illinois History

Take a peek at Illinois history. Discover an overview of Illinois' rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

Named for the Illinois Indians, Illinois became the 21st state in 1818. Its capital is Springfield, which is the home of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. 

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French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, in 1673, were the first Europeans of record to visit the region paddling by birch bark canoe along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. They traveled the length of the state - from what is now Chicago to the southernmost reaches of Illinois.

In 1699 French settlers established a fur-trading post and the first permanent settlement at Cahokia, near present-day East St. Louis. More French explorers followed, building military outposts and establishing a fur trading empire with local Indians. In 1675, Father Jacques Marquette founded a mission at the Kaskaskia Indian Village near present-day Ottawa.

In 1717, France placed Illinois into the Louisiana Colony. Great Britain obtained the region at the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1763 at the close of the French and Indian War, the Treaty of Paris ceded to England all lands France had claimed east of the Mississippi River, except for New Orleans in Louisiana. Many of the French settlers in Illinois moved across the river into Iowa. Only missionaries, fur traders, a few settlers, and English soldiers remained in the Illinois region.

During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), George Rogers Clark of Virginia and a group called the "Big Knives"raided English forts in Illinois. The British continued to control what is now Illinois until 1778 when George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero, and his band of American colonists captured Fort Kaskaskia. The Illinois country became a possession of Virginia until 1787 when it joined the Northwest Territory under the government of the United States.

In 1809, the Illinois Territory was created. The area figured prominently in frontier struggles during the Revolutionary War and in Indian wars during the early 19th century. Hundreds of settlers began moving to Illinois from Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland. Indians, angry with the settlers for taking their lands, sided with Britain in the War of 1812. Many settlers were massacred as they attempted to leave Fort Dearborn near the mouth of the Chicago River.

Illinois was one of the five states created from the Northwest Territory. Six different forms of government operated in Illinois before its first constitution took effect in 1818. That first document was followed by constitutions in 1848, 1870, and 1970.

Illinois became the 21st state on December 3, 1818. Construction of the Erie Canal in 1825 provided easy transportation to the Midwest. Kaskaskia became Illinois' first capitol. Two years later the seat of Illinois government was moved to Vandalia.

Hundreds of people from the eastern states and Europe rushed to settle the new state following the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The federal government forced Indians living in the state to cross the Mississippi River into Iowa. In 1832, the Sauk and Fox Indians fought state militias for their land. The Black Hawk War ended that same year, and all Indians were forced out of Illinois which virtually ended the Indian troubles in the area.

In 1839, largely through the efforts of a young legislator named Abraham Lincoln, the capitol was again moved - this time to Springfield, where it is now open to the public as an historic site. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for the US Senate. Lincoln's stand against slavery during several debates in Illinois, gave him national attention. He lost the election, but became president of the United States two years later. Six southern states seceded from the Union and the Civil War (1861-1865) began after Lincoln's inauguration.
Ulysses S. Grant, general of the Union Army, and 250,000 soldiers fought from Illinois during the war.

After the war, industry boomed in Illinois. Railroads were expanding, bringing immigrants to work factories in Chicago, Joliet, and Rockford. Chicago led the nation in grain and meatpacking production. On Oct. 8, 1871 the city of Chicago was destroyed; the Great Chicago Fire burned for almost two days killing over 300 people.

The Capitol in use today dates back to 1868, when ground was broken for its construction. Although the General Assembly moved in eight years later in 1876, it took 20 years to complete the building at a cost of $4.5 million.

During the late 1800s, unrest swept throughout the nation's farmers and factory workers. Farmers were paying high prices for land and farm equipment while receiving low prices for crops. Factory workers were paid low salaries in unsafe working conditions. In 1886, a riot occurred in Chicago's Haymarket Square, killing eight policemen and several bystanders.

The early 1900s brought great reform in Illinois. Laws were passed to help workers, especially women, and a state board established to help settle strikes. Laws were also passed banning the manufacturing and selling of alcohol. During the years of Prohibition (1920-1933), Al Capone's mob and other mafia gangs selling illegal liquor caused much violence and killings while in gang warfare.

Industrial expansion greatly increased in Illinois until the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. Manufacturing slowed and thousands lost their jobs. The federal government began construction of roads and waterways. This and the discovery of oil in southern Illinois provided many with jobs and helped the economy begin to recover in the late 1930s.

Illinois produced hundreds of aircraft and ammunition during World War II (1939-1945). The first controlled nuclear chain reaction, a major step in the development of the atomic bomb, also took place at the University of Chicago. Since the war, many new laboratory and research centers developed nuclear technology in Illinois. Other industries, such as chemical, steel, and auto production, have also expanded.

Its 1970 constitution included protection from discrimination for women, protection for a healthy environment, and the right of suffrage for more citizens by relaxing residency requirements. The senate and house of representatives, constituting the state's general assembly, are selected from 59 districts, each represented by one senator and two at-large representatives. The executive branch includes a team-elected governor and lieutenant governor, assisted by an attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller, and treasurer. The supreme court consists of seven judges elected from five judicial districts for 10-year terms. The appellate court judges, also elected for 10-year terms, serve each of the state's judicial districts, hearing appeals from state circuit courts, whose judges are elected for 10-year terms.

Recently, Illinois is striving to decrease the air and water pollution problems in the state. Taxes were raised to create needed public services and a state lottery was adopted in 1973, to help raise money for education. Industries are continuing to grow and expand.

During 1988, Illinois celebrated the centennial of the completion of the Statehouse.

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