Illinois celebrates 200 years of statehood in 2018
The 200th birthday of the adoption of the Illinois Constitution on August 26, 1818, followed by admission of Illinois to the Union on December 3, 1818, allows us an opportunity to celebrate our rich history.
Prior to statehood, the Illinois prairie was populated by native peoples, initially of two main tribes, the Illiniwek (or Illinois) and Miami tribes. Maps of the state reflect other local tribes, including Winnebago, Potawatomi, Fox, Kickapoo, and Shawnee.1
The first non-native explorers were French Canadians, Father Marquette, a Jesuit priest, and Louis Joliet, a fur trader, who recognized the importance of the Chicago and Illinois rivers for portage and were the first to map the Mississippi River in the late 1600s.2 During their journey, the Illinois tribe gave them a peace pipe or “calumet,” which helped them when they encountered other tribes. They returned north, passing by what is now Chicago, to avoid Spaniards farther south on the Mississippi River.3
In the late 1700s, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, a French-educated mixed-race man believed to have been born in what is now Haiti, traveled up the Illinois River and helped settle Peoria. He later married a Potawatomi woman in a Catholic ceremony in Cahokia. Even before Fort Dearborn was built in 1803, he understood the importance to trade of the mouth of the Chicago River, then known as “Eschikagoa” meaning wild onion. With an appreciation for culture and languages, he became a wealthy trader who settled his home and commercial buildings near what is now the Tribune Tower, creating a center for trade in the area. In 1968, he was recognized by the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois as the first permanent resident and founder of the Chicago.4
In 1803, as part of their exploration of the American West for Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed the Ohio River into Illinois territory. At Fort Massac, they hired an interpreter of French Canadian and Shawnee heritage, fluent in several languages. They next arrived in St. Louis, a settlement of French Canadians four decades old that served the region’s fur trade, then crossed the Mississippi River east to trading posts at Cahokia and Wood River and to Fort Kaskaskia for supplies and their careful selection of men. Their expedition to find passage to the Pacific Ocean became known as the Corps of Discovery and included a slave named York, a dog named Seaman, and Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman.
In 1818, as a prelude to statehood, Illinois adopted its first constitution and selected Kaskaskia as its first state capital. Settled by French Jesuits, Kaskaskia was an important trading post and the capital of the Illinois territory. But Kaskaskia as our capital was short-lived; it is now an island with a population of less than 100.5
In 1820, the state capital was moved 80 miles east to a site selected by land speculators on an unpopulated bluff on the Kaskaskia River. Then known as Reeve’s Bluff, Vandalia had three different buildings that served as the capitol for 20 years. Local businessmen built one of them, hoping to sway the general assembly to remain in Vandalia as rumors circulated of its potential move. Abraham Lincoln, then a legislator elected from Sangamon County, began his historic political career in the last capitol building constructed in Vandalia in 1836, which still stands today.6
As the state’s population grew northward, Lincoln helped convince colleagues to move the capital. Several locations were considered and a popular vote was taken. But instead of the popularly approved location, Lincoln convinced officials to move the capital to Springfield, centrally located within the State.
The first capitol building in Springfield, begun in 1837, was the location of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech and debates with Stephen A. Douglas. It was moved from its original location stone-by-stone in 1961. Carefully researched for authentic restoration, it is deemed “one of the most handsome and historic buildings in Illinois” where historic and cultural events in downtown Springfield take place, including citizenship ceremonies.7 Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president at this Old State Capitol, and later his choice of Joe Biden to serve as vice president.
Obama was one of four presidents from Illinois, starting with the renown and respected Abraham Lincoln, whose homes in New Salem and Springfield have carefully been restored, then Ulysses S. Grant and Ronald Reagan, whose Illinois homes have also been preserved.
The current statehouse was authorized in 1867; it is the sixth capitol building of Illinois.8
1. Native Americans: American Indian Tribes of Illinois, www.museum.state.il.us.
2. Then & Now: Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, www.theherald-news.com.
3. Marquette & Joliet Explored the Mississippi River, www.robinsonlibrary.com.
4. Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, www.blackhistorynow.com.
5. The Story of Kaskaskia Island, Illinois’ First State Capital, by Isaac Smith, www.thesouthern.com.
6. Old State Capitol, www.vandaliaillinois.com.
7. Past Illinois Capitols, copied from the 1975-1976 Blue Book at The Illinois State Capitol, www.ilstatehouse.com.
8. The Illinois State Capitol, www.ilstatehouse.com.