Two hundred years ago, on December 3, 1818, Illinois became the 21st state in the Union. When we think of Illinois today, we think of Chicago with 2,707,120 people, skyscrapers, trains, four lane highways, and world-class hospitals. We think of Chicago as the economic engine of the state. Things were quite different two hundred years ago.
The area originally known as the Illinois Territory was blessed with navigable rivers, fertile prairie land, dense timber, and a climate suited for agriculture. Hidden beneath the surface were seams of coal and layers of limestone. The area also had a rich history of Indian occupation, as evidenced by the following:
- Thousands of years before Illinois became a state, Paleo-Indians, a nomadic people, and their descendants, archaic Indians, lived in Illinois. According to “Illinois History” at http://www.illinoiscourts.gov, the culture of these Indians dated before 5000 B.C. Their descendants were the Woodland Indians.
- By 900 A.D., Middle Mississippi Indians had built huge earthen mounds in Illinois, such as Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis. They also had developed complex urban areas. The largest city, Cahokia, was estimated to have had a population of between 10,000 to 40,000 at its peak.
- The descendants of the Middle Mississippi Indians were the Illiniwek tribes. You probably recognize some of the names of the twelve Illiniwek tribes such as the Winnebago, the Fox, the Kikapoo, the Macoutins, the Miamis, and the Illinois.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 charted this region and organized counties. Early villages in Illinois were primarily in the southern part of the state along the Mississippi, Kaskaskia, Wabash, Big Muddy, and Ohio rivers. A map courtesy of the Illinois State Museum shows numerous early villages including Alton, Vandalia, Salem, Lawrenceville, Vienna, and Edwardsville.
In 1818, prior to achieving statehood, Illinois adopted its first constitution and selected Kaskaskia as its first state capitol. However, according to “Illinois History,” an Illinois Courts article at http://www.illinoiscourts.gov, the granting of statehood was controversial. First, the population was less than the 60,000 which was required. Second, in order to include the Chicago port area in the new state, Congress had to draw the Illinois border fifty-one miles to the north of the original Northwest Territory boundary.
Two years later, the state capitol was moved eighty miles east to Vandalia. During the next twenty years, three different buildings in Vandalia served as the state capitol. The last one, which still stands today, was built in 1836.
The population of Illinois was growing northward, and it seemed prudent to locate the capitol in the middle of the state. Abraham Lincoln, a legislator from Sangamon County, helped convince colleagues to move the capitol from Vandalia to Springfield. The new building was begun in 1837.
—By Karen Centowski