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Change and Evolution
on the Illinois Frontier

Maria Conley
Crystal Lake South High School, Crystal Lake

Fifty years ago, Clarence W. Alvord wrote that the rapid and successful settlement of the Mississippi was not only one of the greatest accomplishments of the English-speaking people, "but the most important event in the history of the United States and one of the most momentous in the history of humanity." That amazing conquest of Indian land was especially prevalent in Illinois, where the population increased 350 percent between 1810 and 1830. But to make room for these new settlers, the Indians had to unwillingly cede most of their land to the great influx of newcomers in central and southern Illinois. Conditions were not easy for the settlers, either. Government was primitive. Throughout the transition from territory to statehood in Illinois, the cultural, political, and physical environment was constantly changing.

The first English-speaking pioneers to the Illinois territory, which covered present-day Wisconsin and Illinois, were German and British, primarily from the southern uplands. Some also came down the Ohio River from the Middle Atlantic states. As a result of the predominantly southern upland settlements, their beliefs and prejudices controlled the Illinois political scene for years to come.


Kaskaskia, a southern city along the Mississippi River, became the first territorial capital, and along with it came an appointment by President Madison for a Kentuckian, Ninian Edwards, to become the first governor. During the territorial period, several treaties between the whites and Indians in Illinois gained land for the white settlers. It was necessary for the settlers to acquire these lands because, without a legal title to the land, the government could not sell and survey the area. A few of the important Indian land cessions were the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis, which gained 767,411 acres for Illinois and the Treaty of Edwardsville in 1818, which ceded 7,138,398 acres to Illinois.

As the territorial period drew to a close, the federal government held the legal title to the majority of Illinois land. Though Indians still held some northern lands, the government had firm control of the land and would be able to take over Illinois whenever it wanted.

That time approached quickly. Some settlers floated in on the Ohio River from the eastern states, while others trekked in on various crude trails, such as the National Road, from the southern uplands.

It was this flood of settlers to the Mississippi region that raised the question of statehood. Westward migration had continued after 1812, peaking between 1816 and 1818. Even so, Illinois' request for statehood was premature. The major obstacle was the sparse population of the territory.

Though not a delegate to the constitutional convention, Daniel Pope Cook wielded influence in his role as clerk of the territorial House of Representatives.
Daniel Pope Cook

It was a sickly twenty-two-year-old named Daniel Pope Cook who was responsible for Illinois' premature bid for statehood. In fact, Illinois had the distinction of being the least populous state ever admitted to the Union. After turning down a state-department clerkship with an excellent salary, Cook returned to his native Kaskaskia. There in the capital he became clerk of the House of Representatives. In that position, he was able to influence legislation.

When the legislative session opened December 2, 1817, the governor proposed a census so that the statehood issue could be acted upon in the 1818 session. The two houses formulated a bill for statehood. Cook and a few others reported the bill on January 23. Meanwhile, Cook's uncle, delegate Nathaniel Pope, was in Washington. He had serious doubts about his nephew's project, fearing that the population of Illinois was too small to be granted statehood. Nevertheless, he decided to get congressional approval for the petition. Starting April 4, the bill went very quickly through the amendment and approval processes. Only two weeks later, on April 18, 1818, the president signed it.

A major forerunner in support of the bill was Pope, a brilliant statesman and eloquent speaker. He campaigned for two major amendments to the bill. The first of his appeals was to change the northernmost boundary of Illinois from ten miles above the southern tip of Lake Michigan to some forty-one miles northward, which expanded the territory by approximately eight thousand square miles. Pope believed that Illinois should have a share in the Great Lakes trade. By extending the boundary by only about thirty miles, Pope drastically altered the path of history. Without this amendment, Chicago—the greatest population base of the state—and the mineral-rich mines of Galena would be located in Wisconsin.

Equally impressive was Pope's second amendment. As an early form of public aid, 5 percent of the money received from the sale of public lands was set aside for the use of newly established states. By Pope's urging, 3 percent of this fund went to the legislature "for the encouragement of learning, of which one-sixth part shall be exclusively bestowed on a college or university." The other 2 percent was to be used by Congress "in making roads leading to the state." Though this addition to the bill was controversial, and somewhat hindered the passing of the bill, it was largely positive for the young state.

Unfortunately, Pope's original apprehensions concerning the bill proved to be correct. Congress would not omit the minimum population requirement; thus, a census was started on April 2, 1818. In order to inflate the population past the required 40,000, the census was a series of frauds. Commissioners reportedly listed settlers passing through on the way to Missouri and counted some families two or three times. Eventually, the count reached 40,258, and that number was reported.


After accepting the population count at face value, a constitutional convention that had been voted upon earlier in the year convened in Kaskaskia and began to devise the laws for the young state.

The final product of the convention, which had only been assembled for twenty-one days, was very simple. Not surprisingly, in a few years, it proved inadequate for the growing state. The constitution duplicated the form of the three-branched systems of the older states. The legislative power consisted of two sections meeting twice a year, elected by white males over the age of twenty-one who had resided in the state for six months preceding the election. Judiciary power was also vested in the legislature. The executive branch was headed by a governor, who was somewhat limited in his veto power and patronage.

The main problem was slavery. The convention was not prepared to take a definite stand on the issue, and it took a moderate position in the constitution. Historian Clarence A. Alvord remarked that, "Briefly, it forbade further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude, but specified that existing indentures and contracts must be fulfilled and provided that the Negroes might still be bound to serve for not more than one year."

A few objections on that issue were raised in Congress. However, the president overlooked those arguments and on December 3, 1818, made Illinois a state in the Union.

Few things changed in the quiet transition from territory to state, with a new governor, Shadrach Bond, at the helm. In 1819, due to a desire to be on the edge of civilization because of the great profits of land speculation and the need to be in a more central position, the state capital was moved from Kaskaskia to Vandalia, about eighty-two miles upstream along the Kaskaskia River.

Mirroring the first primitive state government and the farmer-turned-governor (Bond, who one historian claimed had "barely mastered the basics of grammar"), the average Illinois settler lived in a primitive way, the great majority as subsistence farmers. Indeed, nearly 91 percent of the 13,635 people in the state were engaged in agriculture. Land was cheap and could be obtained without paying rent or taxes. Corn was the main crop raised, due to

Vandalia, the second capital city in Illinois, relinquished its title to Springfield
in 1837. The Vandalia Statehouse is now a historic site operated by the Illinois
Historic Preservation Agency.

Vandalia Statehouse


its large yield, its great potential usage, and its suitability to the rich soil. Wheat was also cultivated, with less care and in less quantity. Wheat and flour, made at the few flour mills scattered about Illinois, were the main exports.

Whites concentrated in the southern part of the state; Indians inhabited mainly the northern portion of the state. In the southern region, the climate was the cause of unhealthy conditions. Because of the swampy lowlands found in the "American Bottom," as it was aptly named, many people were forewarned of the sicknesses that awaited them as they entered the hot, fly-infested cabins of the Illinois wilderness.

In 1818 only two settlements could be rightfully called towns: Shawneetown and Kaskaskia. Shawneetown, Illinois' only commercial center, had been laid out previously by the federal government. It boasted "thirty cabins, several taverns, a bakehouse, a log bank, and annual spring floods," in the words of one historian. A passerby in 1809 noted that Shawneetown had "more appearance of business than I have seen on this side of Pittsburgh." Kaskaskia held a somewhat similar position across the state, being the home of an estimated fifteen thousand settlers who resided between the Kaskaskia and Mississippi rivers.

Good roads were nonexistent. Travel was basically restricted to the muddy paths between settlements, often impassable in southern Illinois due to floods. Mail was irregularly received because the nearest post office was in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Books were not readily available to the common settler, but several newspapers were founded between 1809 and 1818. There were few schools, and the schools that did exist deserved little respect. In most cases, these "schools" consisted of a teacher who boarded with the student and often accepted his payment in produce. But the large majority of settlers had little need for these teachers, and believed that education was a waste of time. They did not expect state-funded schools; hence, these institutions were long in coming. One settler, John Reynolds, observed the occasional low moral character of the traveling school teacher and felt that the bad company, society, and books brought on by education would "sow the seeds of passion in the breast of a tender, kind-hearted and hitherto honest girl." Indeed, the large majority of early Illinois settlers were illiterate, and concentrated on survival. In the harsh atmosphere, there was little time for anything else.

Indians lived in the northern and eastern portions of the state, far from the settlers' eyes. Ever since Illinois had become a territory, a steady flow of white settlers migrated into the Mississippi region, pushing the Indian domain further westward. It was easy for the settlers to ignore the "strange red men." The two races had little understanding of each other, and by 1818, only dislike and fear existed between them as the Indians were forced to sell their lands in numerous land cessions.

The white population growth of the state, especially in the northern half of the state, was stunted by the presence of Indians. Even at the end of the territorial period, Indian problems still existed.

Perhaps as a premonition to the war that he would start years later, Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk and Fox Indians wrote:

We always had plenty; our children never cried from hunger, neither were our people in want .... The rapids of Rock river furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land, being very fertile, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes .... Here our village stood for more than a hundred years, during all of which time we were the undisputed possessors of the Mississippi Valley. . . . If a prophet had come to our village in those days and told us that the things were to take place that have since come to pass, none of our people would have believed him.

An uneasy situation existed in Illinois by 1818. Indians lived in the shadow of the coming white man. Their hunting grounds were being rapidly transformed into endless miles of cornfields.

In summary, the transition from territory to state was a gradual one for Illinois, and one that affected the entire nation as a great flood of settlers vacated the older southern and eastern states to settle the rich Mississippi valley. The first government of the state often paralleled the life of the common subsistence farmer settler in Illinois. Both were often very primitive in nature. But as the white man began to establish the young state, the Indians were forced out of their native homes. As Theodore C. Pease once observed, "Change and evolution sound the keynote of frontier Illinois." The only constant in the Illinois environment was change, the gradual change to transform Illinois from Indian territory to the flourishing, white-dominated state of Illinois.—[From Clarence A. Alvord, The Illinois Country, 1673-1818; Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A history of the American Frontier; Arthur Clinton Boggess, The Settlement of Illinois, 1778-1830; John Clayton, The Illinois Fact Book and Historical Almanac, 1673-1968; Ninian Edwards, History of Illinois from 1778 to 1833; Ferdinand Ernst, "Travels in Illinois in 1819," Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 7, 1903; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A history of the Prairie State; Robert P. Sutton, The Prairie State: A Documentary history of Illinois, Colonial Years to 1860; Donald F. Tingley, "Anti-Intellectualism on the Illinois Frontier," in Essays in Illinois History in Honor of Glenn Huron Seymour.]


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