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Bill Thayer

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History of Illinois

Some American states form sharply defined natural units — the islands of Hawaii for example, or the Florida peninsula — and others, like Kansas or North Dakota, are bounded by lines traced across the endless plains of the Midwest as arbitrary as can be; Illinois, the first of the Great Plains states encountered by the early colonists, is somewhere in between. Six hundred kilometers long and three hundred wide and mostly flat, the state is framed by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and to a lesser extent, by an almost accidental afterthought as the Illinois statehood enabling act was pending before the U. S. Congress, by a bit of shoreline on Lake Michigan: which latter, now comprising the city of Chicago and its suburbs, became the tail that wags the dog, as it were.

The importance of Chicago, though, is a recent phenomenon, and much of Illinois' history was forged along the rivers: the north-south axis of the Mississippi by which French trappers crossed Greater Louisiana on their way to and from New Orleans; and the Ohio down which poured the first waves of American settlers from the east. Thus in Illinois, East meets West, as the place where European civilization for the first time fanned out onto the wide American prairies; but, sometimes forgotten, both meet the South: the earliest history of the state is to be found in its southern part, and has much of its roots in the South.

Now it so happens that I live in Illinois; so I expect to be expanding my site regularly to bring some of this rich history onboard. Right now, this is what I have, in chronological order of the subjects:

[image ALT: A small detail of J.‑B. Homann's map of North America, 1687, showing the name Ilinois (sic) twice. Superimposed on the map, a fleur de lis; the image serves as the icon on this site for the biography of her by Sidney Breese.]

Rather more than what its title suggests, Early Illinois History does deliver a readable account of the ninety years of French presence in Illinois, from Marquette and Joliet's first exploration in 1673 to the loss of the territory to England in 1763; but also a curiously interesting tract promoting the transcontinental railroad — twenty years before it was built; and detailed biographical material on Senator Sidney Breese, the author, who died as the book was about to go to press.

[ 422 printed pages
presented in 38 webpages, 2 maps, 1 photo ]

[image ALT: A woodcut of a group of people in the dress of working people of the late 19c, many of them armed with muskets, in front of a wooden fort. It is the icon on this site for George Rogers Clark's Memoir, 'The Conquest of the Illinois'.]

George Rogers Clark's The Conquest of the Illinois is one of the best books on my site, a fascinating record of the American Revolutionary War campaign that gave us the Northwest Territory without which our history would have taken a vastly different and less happy turn. A key primary source written by the victorious commander himself, it describes the winning of the French settlements of Kaskaskia and Cahokia in southern Illinois — which were then used as a base for the crucial capture of Vincennes just across today's Indiana border — and gives an interesting picture of conditions on our western frontier at the time of the birth of the Republic. (Source document.)

[ 175 + xxv printed pages, 1 photo,
presented in 9 webpages ]

[image ALT: A woodcut of a small house, ground-floor, upper floor and a pair of chimneys.]

Illinois in 1818: a very good book by Solon J. Buck that served as the introductory volume to the Centennial History of Illinois. It covers the pioneer history, the land and economy of what would become the state of Illinois, its various territorial governments, and its pathway to statehood.

[ 327 printed pages
presented in 14 webpages, 3 maps, 3 engravings ]

[image ALT: A photograph of a small log cabin. It has a single story and an attic with a window; on the right side part of a porch is seen. It is an early‑19c log cabin in Charleston, Illinois.]

John Drury's Old Illinois Houses is an anecdotal survey partly of the buildings, but somewhat more of the people who made them, or made them famous. The book is atrociously written and often fawns on the rich and influential of the day — yet gathers interesting material adequately laid out. Together, the eighty-eight houses provide an impressionistic, pointillistic view of 19c Illinois.

[ 216 printed pages
presented in 92 webpages, 88 photographs, 3 small maps ]

Onsite link

Among the journal articles collected in my American History Notes section, these deal specifically with Illinois history; again, in roughly chronological order:

Old Fort Belle Fontaine (which, mind you, is in Missouri)

Fort Massac (a three-part article)

Nathaniel Pope (a key figure in the achievement of Illinois statehood)

The Trappists of Monks Mound (an unsuccessful Cistercian foundation at Cahokia Mounds)

Travels in Illinois in 1819 (a German traveler in the Mississippi bottoms: source document)

An Illinois Burnt Offering (giving us a view of the evening entertainments in a pioneer community)

When the Gratiots came to Galena (the Gratiot family and Galena in the early 19c)

Dutch Reformed Beginnings in Illinois

Icaria and the Icarians (including their colony at Nauvoo)

An Old Adobe House (the Cunningham House in Sugar Grove)

Illinois' Oldest Memorial — The Stephen A. Douglas Monument

Chicago's Camp Douglas, 1861‑1865

Illinois at West Point: her Graduates in the Civil War

[image ALT: A stylized eagle, standing on a rock, fa­cing to the viewer's left, with its wings half spread. In its talons it also grips a heraldic shield with the arms of the United States (thirteen alternating stripes and an upper rectangular of stars), and in its beak a ribbon with the words 'State Sovereignty National Union'. Behind this bird, an expanse of water and a stylized sunrise. It is the seal of the State of Illinois.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite: the central device on the flag of the State of Illinois.

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Site updated: 11 Sep 16