Illinois State History

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Illinois is located in the United States Midwest. It is in the northern central part of the Midwest. In the past 200 years or so, it has turned from a wilderness land into a populated state, with both farmland and cities. Illinois became the 21st U.S. state on December 3, 1818. Illinois now has a vast industrial and agricultural impact on the rest of the United States.

The first French explorers to come to the area arrived in 1673. They found that the area was rich in natural resources, including water, forests, and fertile soil for planting. They also found that the area was easy to explore, thanks to access from Lake Michigan and a large group of rivers. Fort Crevecoeur, which stood where Peoria is now located, was constructed in 1680 by Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle. He and his partner, Henri de Tonti, had visions of expanding the economy of the area.

Fort St. Louis was constructed by those two explorers in 1682. La Salle left in 1685, but Tonti stayed behind. In 1691, he moved Fort St. Louis downstream 80 miles. The fort was re-named Fort Pimitoui and became home to the mission of Father Marquette. Several European fur traders also settled there. In 1699 Seminarian priests came to Cahokia. Jesuits came to Kaskaskia in 1703. Settlements were later established at St Phillipe, St. Genevieve, Prairie du Rocher, and Fort de Chartres.

The French government of Louisiana took control of Illinois country in 1717. In 1763 France ceded the lands to the Mississippi River’s east to the British. However, the British didn’t actually come to Fort de Chartres until 1765. What is now the state of Illinois was considered the county of Illinois and a part of Virginia Territory from 1778 to 1782. Illinois became part of the United States when the Treaty of Paris was signed, which was in 1783. That treaty extended the United States boundary to the Mississippi River.

In 1787, the Northwest Territory was created. That included part of what is now Illinois. However, in 1800, Illinois became part of Indiana Territory, instead. Then, in 1809, Illinois Territory was formed. In 1818, the state of Illinois was established.

Settlers came to Illinois from all of the following areas, by 1800, they were Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New England. The total population of the Illinois region at the time was around 2,000 people.

Edwards County was settled by English immigrants in 1817. In 1837 Delavan in Tazewell County became home to a group of farmers from Rhode Island. Illinois was also an active part of the Underground Railroad in the Civil War era.

Researchers should note that several Illinois settlers didn’t stay in the area. Many of them chose to move on and settle again in Nebraska or Kansas. The California Gold Rush, the Iowa prairies, and the Oregon Trail’s wagon trains also tempted many settlers to move out to the western regions.

The city of Chicago has attracted immigrants from all over throughout its history, particularly in the late 1800s. The city offered many different employment opportunities for residents. As a result, the ethnic diversity in Chicago and the surrounding areas has always been quite high.

Illinois Ethnic Group Research

Illinois African AmericanAfrican American – Many African Americans came to Illinois with white settlers as slaves. They were brought up from the south. A law was passed in September of 1807 that allowed slaves who were over 15 to be brought into the region. However, the law stated that the clerk of common pleas had to be given a document registering the slave in question. On December 8, 1812 another law was passed that required all “mulattoes” and “free blacks” to register within 6 months after coming to Illinois. Those records still exist today. Salt wells located near Shawneetown drew several slave owners to the area and brought several slaves who were leased from Tennessee and Kentucky owners to white settlers in Illinois.

Governor Edwards declared the indenture law to be illegal in 1817. That led to the constitutional compromise of 1818, which stated that all indenture contracts were limited to one year. From January 17, 1829 onward, freedom certificates were issued to free African Americans. Some of the common pleas courts may have recorded copies of those certificates in their records. African American records may list places of origin as well.

African American death, marriage, and baptism records for Illinois before 1916 may be found in the following records: Immaculate Conception Church at Kaskaskia, St. Anne’s at St. Charles, St. Joseph’s at Prairie du Rocher.

Some county slave record books can be found at the Illinois State Library. Those records may include freedmen and French prior to 1860.

Illinois native american researchNative American – The Illinois Native Americans, or Illinewek wanted protection from the Europeans when the Europeans first came to Illinois. The New York Iroquois were trying to dominate them and they liked having the protection of European missions and forts. At one time, they were comprised of bands of Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Peoria, Tamroa, Moingwena, and Michigamea, making them the biggest tribe in the region.

Unfortunately, both disease and war led to the decimation of the Illinewek. As of 1832, only around 200 of them remained in the area. They ceded their lands that year and moved to a reservation in Kansas.

The Illinois State Archives is home to Record Group 103.62, “Executive Section, Executive File” (ca. 1824-32), as well as Record Group 100, “Records of the Illinois Territory.” The former includes peace conference speeches and treaties from Native Americans in Illinois. The latter includes similar information, as well as trade agreements and information about various tribes, which include: Cherokee, Delaware, Fox, Kickapoo, Osage, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sauk, Shawnee.

Record Group 952.19, “Board of Commissioners, Ancient Grants Rejected” discusses Indian claims and land owner names for native lands. Record Group 953.14, “Terrier of Grants Made to Potawatomi Indians” lists land grants that were created as a result of the October 20, 1832 Treaty of Camp Tippecanoe. Record Group 953.18, “Abstract of Conditions of Surveys of Indian Grants and Reservations,” 1850 also contains useful Native American land grant information.

Immigrants from many different countries have come to Illinois over the years. In most cases, immigrants from a certain country or region settled together, forming their own communities. As of 1850, Germans made up about one third of the immigrants in Illinois. They were brought to the region by economic, political, and religious factors. Darmstadt and Dutch Hollow in St. Clair County were home to some of the early German settlers. “Ferdinand Ernst and the Germany Colony at Vandalia,” which was published in 1987 in Illinois Historical Journal 80, lists information on the Fayette County German settlement in 1820.

Several German immigrants were farmers, although there were also some artisans and professionals who came to the area and managed to stay in the same trades they were in back in Germany. Some also came with no money in their pockets just hoping to start a new life. They came to Chicago across the Great Lakes. Several of them worked in the city until they could afford to buy farms. That took quite a while, since the cost of living was so high in the cities and the cost of land for farming kept going up. Some people chose to stay in the city and give up on their farming dreams entirely.

Irish immigrants also came to Illinois. Many of them worked as day laborers or worked in factories within the cities. Some of them moved around to wherever new work could be had. As of 1869, most of the Illinois immigrants that were Irish had settled in Chicago. Some of them also worked on the Michigan and Illinois system of canals. However, that project was stopped temporarily in the beginning of the 1840s, leading many of the Irish workers to get into the farming industry, instead.

Several immigrants came to Illinois from England as well. Some were enticed by the London Roman Catholic Emigration Society, while others came to the area as a result of Joseph Smith sending Mormon missionaries from Nauvoo. Several Welsh immigrants settled in Kane County, while Cornish immigrants came to the area to work in the lead mines. The Scottish came to the area beginning in 1834 and, as of 1850, their population had grown to 4,660.

A group of Norwegians from New York created the first Midwest Norwegian settlement near Ottawa and the Fox River in 1834. Henry County’s Bishop Hill became home to a group of about 500 Swedish immigrants.

Illinois was home to a few French-Canadian immigrants in its early days. However, immigrants from France were scarce in the region until 1830. In 1831 the first major French section was established at Metamoram which was in Woodford County. Other French settlements soon followed. Kankakee County became home to Bourbonnais, which had 1,719 people living in it as of 1850. It was a French-Canadian settlement and its Canadian customs remained for many years after the settlement was founded.

In 1849, Portuguese immigrants who had been exiled for religious reasons settled in Jacksonville and Springfield. Some Bavarian Jews settled in Chicago. There were not many Swiss in Illinois, but some did settle in Madison County and others settled at Galena, in St. Clair County.

Informational bibliographies on different ethnic groups in Illinois can be found in a publication by Szucs. Szucs states that “At different times in its history, Chicago has been the largest Lithuanian city, the second largest Ukranian city, and the third largest Swedish, Irish, Polish, and Jewish city in the world.” Groups covered in that publication are: African Americans, Bohemians, Chinese, Czechoslovakian, Dutch, German, Greeks, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Mexican, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Ukrainian.

Swedish-American newspapers – Church records, and other Swedish documentation from Illinois Swedes can be found at Augustana College Swenson Swedish Immigration Research, Rock Island, IL 61201. The Swedish-American Historical Society publishes Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, which also contains useful genealogical information. Some of that information consists of family histories, newspapers, books, photographs, reference files, letters, and organization records.

A collection of more than 31,000 volumes of Czech-American documents can be found at the University of Illinois, Slavic Reference Service. The Illinois Benedictine College Library also holds a large collection of Czech historical documents, including family Bibles.

English and Irish reference materials can be found at the Newberry Library – The DePaul University, Lincoln Park Campus Library and the Irish American Heritage Center also hold many records relating to Irish immigrants in Illinois.

The Palatines to America – Illinois Chapter is home to many Illinois German records. The Cook County church records can also be quite useful when searching for information on German ancestors.

The Polish collection at the Portage-Cragin Branch Library and the Polish Genealogical Society can both provide Polish records.

Other facilities which may have information on Illinois ethnic groups include: Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago,
Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch,
Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture

  • Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A. Jones, eds., Ethnic Chicago (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, ca. 1984);
  • Melvin G. Hilli and Peter d’A. Jones, eds., The Ethnic Frontier: Essays in the History of Group Survival in Chicago and the Midwest (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, ca. 1977);
  • Ellen M. Whitney’s Illinois History: An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995)
  • Mark Wyman, Immigration History and Ethnicity in Illinois: A Guide (Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Historical Society, 1989).

Illinois History Databases and other Helpful Links

The websites below will provide state-specific details to those in search of information for Illinois genealogy work.

State Genealogy Guides