Illinois History: Early Migrations & Achieving Statehood

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

For Illinois, the journey from territory to state was not a very lengthy process, but it did bring up some important questions. In this lesson, we'll look at Illinois' early history and see how, when, and why it entered the Union.


It's been called the Land of Lincoln and the Prairie State. It's home to deep-dish pizza, the Windy City, and the world's first Ferris Wheel. Contrary to popular belief, its capital is not Chicago, but Springfield. The state of Illinois has a deep and complex history. It was admitted into the Union in 1818, but how did it get here? Let's take a look at how America's favorite place for hot dogs covered in toppings came to be.

The State Flag of Illinois

Early Migrations

The first Europeans into what is now Illinois were French fur trappers, who arrived sometime in the early-mid 18th century. It came into British control after the French and Indian War, before becoming an American territory after the colonies rebelled against the British Empire. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the newly developed United States passed the Northwest Ordinance, officially incorporating newly-acquired land. The ordinance also set up the process for admitting that land first as territories, then as states. People started moving into this new area, and in 1809 the government officially created the Illinois Territory. The territory started growing as people realized that there were plenty of good economic opportunities in Illinois. Why? Any major bodies of water around Illinois jump out at you? Between the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Ohio River a lot of money could flow through Illinois. It would only take a decade until the people of the territory would be ready for statehood.

18th century map of North America, showing disproportionate Great Lakes


As the people of Illinois became serious about statehood around 1817, there were a couple of problems. For one, the territory was short of the minimum 60,000 population required for statehood. That was basically overlooked due to the fact that making Illinois its own state would give the people there the ability to govern it themselves, thus taking a burden off of the federal government.

The other problem to be addressed was what the state would actually look like. Should Illinois be accepted into the Union exactly as it was, or should the borders be redrawn? Three of the state's borders were pretty obvious. To the south and east were the already established states of Indiana and Kentucky. The west border of Illinois was easily identifiable as the natural border of the Mississippi River. But what about the northern border? At the time, there were several different ideas about where the top of Illinois should be. As Illinois prepared for statehood, their delegate to Congress Nathaniel Pope claimed that the new state had to have access to the small trading port of Fort Dearborn on Lake Michigan, a site later renamed Chicago. This, he argued, would connect the Midwest to New England and keep the area developing. So, the northern border of Illinois was moved 31 miles north, encompassing Chicago and giving Illinois its current shape.

Fort Dearborn

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