A Short History of Southern Illinois
The Early Years
Southern Illinois is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers. Several other rivers traverse its countryside, including the Big and Little Muddy, Little Wabash, Saline, and Cache rivers. The southern part of the state is characterized by wooded hills, farms, underground coal mines, strip mines, and low marsh lands.
The Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois covers over 277,500 acres of the region. The Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuse contains many different wildlife including deer, geese, ducks, owls, wild turkeys, and many other bird species. Fifteen State Parks, recreation, and conservation areas are located within the region (see Sites and Recreation.)
The earliest inhabitants of Illinois were thought to have arrived about 12,000 B.C. They were hunters and gatherers but developed a primitive system of agriculture and eventually built rather complex urban areas that included earthen mounds. Their culture seemed to die out around 1400-1500 A.D.
The Illini Indian tribes, after whom the state is named, and other Indian tribes arrived in Illinois around 1500 A.D. Archeologists are not certain if these Indians are were related to the previous inhabitants. They left behind all manner of artifact including burial sites, burned-out campfires along the bases of bluffs, pottery, flints, implements, and weapons. Interesting structures that were built by Indian tribes are known as stone forts or pounds. Visitors can see a stone fort built in Giant City State Park near Makanda. At least eight other structures are known in the region.
The French were the first Europeans to reach Illinois in about 1673. When they arrived, the Indians welcomed them. It was French explorers who gave Illinois its name by referring to the land where the Illini Indians lived as the Illinois.
The French explored the Mississippi River, establishing outposts and seeking a route to the Pacific Ocean and the Orient. Because of increasing Indian unrest and warfare in northern Illinois, the French concentrated on building outposts in the southern part. The earliest European settlers in Southern Illinois concentrated along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers at the southern end of the state. Their settlements became important way stations and supply depots between Canada and ports on the lower Mississippi River. Important early outposts in Southern Illinois were located at Shawneetown and Fort Massac on the Ohio River.
The English ruled the Lower Great Lakes region after defeating the French in the French and Indian War and with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Their rule of this area was short lived.
During the American Revolution in 1778, the state of Virginia backed a military expedition led by 23 year old George Rogers Clark. Landing at Fort Massac in Illinois (which was abandoned a decade earlier), his force of 175 soldiers marched across Southern Illinois and defeated the English at forts in Kaskaskia, Illinois and Vincennes in western Indiana. This laid the claim by the Americans to this territory. When news of the conquest by Clark reached Virginia, it claimed Illinois as one of its counties. Virginia ceded the county of Illinois to the federal government in 1784 when it realized that it could not govern so sparsely populated and distant land.
Non-French speaking settlers were slow to arrive in Illinois probably less than 2,000 non-Indians lived in Illinois in 1800. But soon thereafter many more settlers came from the backwoods areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. These early settlers were of English, German, Scottish, and Irish descent. They chose to settle in the southern part of Illinois as its wooded hills reminded them of the mountains they left behind. They found an abundant amount of wood and lived off the land; growing some crops, fishing, and hunting for game.
In 1787, the federal government included Illinois in the Northwest Ordinance that included Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Illinois became a part of the Indiana Territory in 1800. Illinois settlers wanted more control over their own affairs and Illinois became a separate territory in 1809.
On December 17, 1811 a great earthquake awakened the settlers in Illinois with a violent trembling. Fields rippled like waves on an ocean. Trees swayed, became tangled together, and snapped off with sounds like gunshots. In some places sand, coal, and smoke blew up into the air as high as thirty yards. People as far away as Canada and Maryland felt the tremors. It was reported that the earthquake shook so violently that tremors were felt as far away as Boston.
It was reported that this earthquake made the Mississippi River flow backward momentarily. The river changed its course in several spots as a result of the earthquake as new islands appeared and others disappeared in the river. The earthquake is estimated to have been equivalent to an 8.0 on the Richter scale, although the Richter scale did not exist at that time. Fortunately, few people lost their lives because the quake centered in a sparsely populated area. Called the New Madrid fault, seismic activity is a threat to this region today.
There was very little violence in the Illinois frontier. Murders and violent assaults were rarely reported. However, for a few decades there were bandits and river pirates operating along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. On the Ohio River, these bandits and pirates often located in or near Cave-in-Rock, a natural cave facing the river. The bandits and pirates added to the hazards and uncertainties of pioneer life and made settlers eager to have law enforcement agencies nearby.
In 1818 the U.S. Congress approved an Act that enabled the Illinois territory to become the 21st state of the Union. Immigration to Illinois increased after it became a state as more settlers arrived from New England and foreign countries. These settlers tended to migrate to central and northern Illinois, causing a noticeable Yankee influence in northern Illinois as opposed to the southern influence in the southern region due to a majority of settlers coming from southern states. The states population exploded from 40,000 people in 1818 to 270,000 in 1835. The 1850 census reported that 900,000 people lived in Illinois.
Early statehood problems engulfed Illinois. In the 1830s the state was near bankruptcy because of government financing of canals and railroad construction. The national financial panic of 1837 added to the states problems before the prosperity of the 1850s relieved this situation. Railroads, such as the Illinois Central Railroad, were built to allow the state's agricultural products to be shipped to market.
Sometime in the 1830s, Southern Illinois became known as Egypt or Little Egypt. The most likely reason this region is known as Little Egypt is because settlers from northern Illinois came south to buy grain during years when they had poor harvests in the 1830s just as ancient people had traveled to Egypt to buy grain (Genesis 41:57 and 42:1-3). Later, towns in Southern Illinois were named Cairo, Thebes, and Karnak, just as in the country of Egypt.
In 1830, Congress passed a bill permitting the removal of all native Indians living east of the Mississippi River. For the next 20 years, Indians were marched west to reservations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, including the bands of the Illini Indians in Illinois. In the Fall and Winter of 1838-39, Cherokee Indians were marched out of Georgia and the Carolinas across Southern Illinois to reservations in the west. It was estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 Cherokee men, women, and children died during this 1,000 mile journey west. It became known as the Trail of Tears due to the many hardships and sorrows it brought to the Indians.
The first bank to be chartered in Illinois was located at Old Shawneetown in 1816. The first building used solely to house a bank in Illinois was built in 1840 in Old Shawneetown and was used until the 1920s. The Old Shawneetown State Bank has been restored as an historical site.
Cotton and tobacco was grown in the extreme southern region of Illinois. Cotton was grown mostly for the home weaver, but during the Civil War enough cotton was grown for export since a regular supply of cotton from the South was not available. Enough tobacco was grown to make it a profitable crop for export. Cotton and tobacco are no longer grown for export in the region. Other crops grown for export included maple syrup, honey, grapes, roots, berries, crab apples, plums, persimmons, mushrooms, nuts, fish, deer, fowl, hogs, cattle, and poultry. The invention of the steamboat greatly expanded the profitability of crops exported from Illinois.
The County of Saline was named for its ancient salt works along the Saline River. It attracted deer, buffalo, and antelope that obtained salt simply by licking the mud banks along the river where Indians and the French made salt. From 1810 until 1873 their was commercial production of salt that produced as much as 500 bushels a day. The owner of one of the salt works built a large house in the 1830s on the Saline River near Equality, known today as the Old Slave House. Still standing, its small attic rooms were thought to be used to house slaves or indentured servants who toiled in the salt works.
Even though it was prohibited since the 1780s under the Northwest Ordinance that established the territory, slavery continued in Illinois. Indian tribes were the first to have slaves (usually captives from another tribe) and the French introduced it in the 1700s. Laws were passed in Illinois after it became a territory in 1809 and later when it became a state, which allowed people to own indentured servants in Illinois, an equivalent to slavery, and other laws were enacted that prohibited people from coming to Illinois for the purpose of freeing their slaves. Many of these Black Laws or codes remained on the books until the end of the Civil War.
As many of the original settlers in Southern Illinois came from southern states, many had pro-southern sympathies and a fear that freed blacks would flood into their new homeland. The underground railroad existed in Southern Illinois but was not as active as in other parts of the state. The Civil War caused many families to have divided loyalties.
Next, the Civil War and Late 19th Century in Southern IL
Return to History & Sites in Southern IL
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