Stretching from the shore of Lake Michigan to the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the state of Illinois is the most populous state in the Midwest. Although its rich farmlands have earned it the nickname of the "Prairie State," Illinois is also home to Chicago, a thriving metropolis of industry and culture and a major transportation hub in North America. The state capital, Springfield, lies in the center of the state; it was here that Abraham Lincoln embarked on his political career (in 1837) and Ulysses S. Grant began his Civil War campaign (in 1861). Illinois' intriguing blend of urban and rural, combined with its sprawling suburbs, factories, mines, and mills have earned it a reputation as a "microcosm of the United States."
The state of Illinois takes its name from the Illinois River, which in turn was named for the Illiniwek tribes that once thrived in the region. Father Jacques Marquette, accompanied by Louis Jolliet, first navigated the Illinois River in 1673, where they encountered the Illiniwek people. Marquette claimed that the name Illiniwek meant "tribe of superior men," but it has since been discovered that a more likely translation is "plain spoken people."
Illinois remained a part of the French empire until the end of the French and Indian War (which was actually an extension of the Seven Years' War in Europe). With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded its North American holdings to Britain. In an effort to ease tensions and establish peaceful relationships with the native tribes, many of whom were sympathetic to France, King George issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that outlawed the private purchase or selling of Native American land. Disregarding this proclamation, a group of merchants from Philadelphia organized the Illinois-Wabash Company and began purchasing tracts of land from the natives in 1773. However, Great Britain refused to acknowledge these transactions.
When the second Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the lands north of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachians were ceded to the U.S. The Illinois Territory was created in 1809 and, in 1818, Illinois joined the Union as the 21st state. In the meantime, officials from the Illinois-Wabash Company had been appealing to Virginia (which had originally laid claim to the Illinois region) and the U.S. to recognize their land purchases in the area, but to no avail. The matter was ultimately resolved in the 1823 Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, in which it was ruled that only the U.S. government could buy and sell Native American lands. Thus, the Illinois-Wabash Company purchases were invalid.
Settlers flocked into southern Illinois from Kentucky and quickly spread throughout the state, encroaching on the lands of the Fox natives and driving them northward. The Fox turned to their allies, the Sauk, for assistance and, under the leadership of war chief Black Hawk, fought against the local militia and the U.S. Army to regain possession of the land in the Black Hawk War of 1832. (Popular legend has it that Abraham Lincoln, a captain in the Illinois militia, and Jefferson Davis, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, fought side by side in this conflict.) The war lasted for several months, finally ending in September with Black Hawk's surrender in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. This conflict marked the end of hostilities between the natives and the settlers in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
The city of Nauvoo was founded by Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers in 1839 on the Mississippi River. This settlement, a self-proclaimed utopia, flourished until 1844, when a schism developed among the Mormons. Smith's enemies published an inflammatory newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, in which they levied criticisms and cited grievances against him. Smith, who was mayor of Nauvoo, responded by declaring the Expositor a public nuisance and ordering the paper and press destroyed. The non-Mormon population of Illinois, already suspicious of Smith and his community, saw the persecution of the Expositor as a blatant disregard of the First Amendment. Smith and his associates were arrested and taken to Carthage to await trial. Sadly, Smith and the other prisoners were killed when a mob of about 200 stormed the jail and opened fire on them. The city of Nauvoo, which had grown in size to rival Chicago, declined rapidly as the Mormons abandoned Illinois to move west.
Illinois is known as the "Land of Lincoln" because it was here that young Abraham Lincoln embarked on his political career. It was Lincoln who, in 1837, argued before the General Assembly to have the state capital moved from Vandalia to Springfield. That same year, Lincoln argued in the Illinois House of Representatives against the institution of slavery, stating that it was "founded on both injustice and bad policy." During the Civil War, Illinois served as General Ulysses S. Grant's jumping-off point for his campaigns to seize control of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. Over 250,000 Illinoisans served in the Union Army and, while no major battles were actually fought on Illinois soil, many of the river towns served as supply depots and "brownwater" naval yards. Illinois was also home to a number of prisoner of war camps, in which thousands of Confederate captives were incarcerated. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War, his remains were transported to Springfield for burial at what is now the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site.
Following the Civil War, modernization continued in Illinois, both socially and economically. Chicago, which had emerged as Illinois' largest city and major transportation hub, was the site of the first modern skyscraper (the Home Insurance Building, completed in 1886). In 1893, Chicago hosted the World's Fair, demonstrating to the rest of the nation (and the world) Illinois' viability and potential. Since that time, Illinois has continued to flourish while maintaining the tenuous balance between industrial growth and agriculture.
Illinois is situated in the Midwestern U.S., where it borders on Lake Michigan. The Mississippi River flows along Illinois' western boundary, separating it from Iowa and Missouri. With a population of nearly 12.5 million, Illinois is the 5th most populous state in the U.S. The state is generally divided into three distinct geographic regions: Northern Illinois, Central Illinois, and Southern Illinois.
Northern Illinois is dominated by the Chicago metropolitan area, which includes Chicago, its suburbs, and adjoining areas. Almost 75% of the population of Illinois lives within this region, which is also one of the world's busiest freight railroad and truck traffic corridors. A number of Fortune 500 companies are based in this industrialized region, including John Deere, Boeing, and Motorola. However, the farms in the rural areas of Northern Illinois are highly productive and are considered part of the Corn Belt.
Central Illinois is comprised mainly of flat prairie dotted by small towns and mid-sized cities. Known as the "Heart of Illinois," this region is known for its massive corn and soybean farms and its manufacturing centers, as well as its numerous colleges and universities. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the oldest and most prestigious educational institution in Illinois, with sister campuses in Chicago and Springfield. Prominent cities within this region include Peoria, Decatur, and state capital Springfield.
Southern Illinois has earned the nickname "Little Egypt" for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Most likely, the name stems from 1818, when developers purchased the tracts of land between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and compared the region to Egypt's Nile delta. Southern Illinois is home to a number of towns and cities with Egyptian or Middle Eastern names - Cairo, Thebes, Palestine, and Lebanon to name a few. The city of Memphis, located on the banks of the Mississippi in Tennessee, was also influenced by this Egyptian motif. However, other theories abound as to the origin of the "Little Egypt" moniker. During the Winter of Deep Snow (1830-31), Northern and Central Illinois lost many of their crops to an early September frost. Southern Illinois experienced milder weather, however, and was able to provide grain to the rest of the state, much as ancient Egypt provided grain to its neighboring nations during times of famine. Others believe the nickname stems from a less-than-flattering comparison between the pro-slavery Confederate sympathizers in Illinois and their biblical counterparts in Egypt, who inflicted bondage and suffering on the Hebrews. Unlike the rest of Illinois, which consists of vast plains and prairies, Southern Illinois is marked by massive rocky hills. With the exception of the Gulf Coastal Plain, much of the land in this region is simply not farmable. The Shawnee National Forest lies in the southernmost part of the state, covering the hills and spanning the stretch between the Mississippi and the Ohio.