French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to visit Illinois in 1673. The region was ceded to Britain following the French and Indian War. After the American Revolution, Illinois became a territory of the United States and achieved statehood in 1818.

Located on Lake Michigan, and connected to the eastern ports via the Erie Canal, Chicago became a booming metropolis, and even the fire of 1871 could not stunt its growth. In the second half of the 19th century, the great need for workers in the mills, rail yards and slaughterhouses made Chicago a popular destination for immigrants and freed Blacks. During Prohibition, Chicago became synonymous with bootleg liquor and gangsters like Al Capone.

Illinois Native American History

The first people arrived in the area now known as Illinois an estimated 12,000 years ago. These nomadic hunter-gatherers eventually organized into many different nations, including the Sauk, Mesquakie, Potawatomi, Kickapoo and Winnebago. The state is named after the Illiniwek Nation, who were called the Illinois by the French. The Illiniwek Nation was originally comprised of 12 smaller nations, including the Cahokia, Peoria and Kaskaskia.

When the first Europeans arrived in Illinois in the late 1600s, there were more than 10,000 Indigenous people living in the area. Over time, most of these nations merged with other nations or disappeared. Many died of smallpox and other diseases and warfare with enemy nations, including the Siouan and Dakota (Sioux), who often allied with European colonists and American settlers. By the 1700s, there were only a handful of nations left in Illinois.

In the late 1700s, a growing number of white American settlers in the Ohio river valley displaced Native American nations. The Black Hawk War was the last major Native American resistance to these settlements. Sauk leader Black Hawk and his people, who were expelled from Illinois in 1831, returned the following year and were attacked by an American militia. When they fought back, the United States sent in army troops. Most of the Sauk fighters were killed, and Black Hawk surrendered.

With President Andrew Jackson’s signing of the Indian Removal Act in 1832, the remaining Indigenous people ceded their last claims to Illinois land. The Kaskaskia and Peoria left Illinois and settled on a joint reservation in modern-day eastern Kansas. In 1854, the nations merged again with the Wea and Piankashaw to become the Confederated Peoria Tribe. In 1867, the group moved to “Indian territory” in modern-day Oklahoma.

Today there are no federally-recognized Native American nations in Illinois, although Indigenous people from over 100 tribal nations continue to live in the state. The descendants of the Illiniwek (Illinois) Nation are known as the Peoria Indian Tribe of Oklahoma.

French Colonization of Illinois

The first Europeans to set foot in Illinois were explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, who claimed the territory for France in 1673 and founded a Jesuit mission two years later at Starved Rock. The French colony of Canada initially governed the Illinois territory. In 1680, French Jesuit René-Robert Cavelier de la Salle built a mission near present-day Peoria, and in 1691 the Starved Rock settlers moved their mission to Peoria.

In 1699, a small group of French settlers from Canada created Cahokia, Illinois. It was the first permanent settlement on the Mississippi River, which they coveted in order to control trade and travel all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. After Kaskaskia was established in 1703, the colony started trading with Louisiana, and French settlers began arriving from New Orleans. The governance of Illinois passed from Canada to Louisiana in 1718, and in 1719 the center of Illinois governance was founded at Fort de Chartres.

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British Colony to American State

After the British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, France passed Illinois and other lands east of the Mississippi to the British with the Treaty of Paris. French settlers in Illinois began leaving for settlements in Spanish St. Louis and French New Orleans. The Kaskaskia and Peoria Native American nations, who had been allies with the French, resisted the transfer and held off British soldiers until they eventually took over Fort de Chartres in 1765. The British destroyed the fort in 1772, and more French fled the area around the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

In 1778, American troops claimed Illinois and made the territory a county of Virginia, and American settlers began arriving the following year. The U.S. federal government took over the territory of Illinois in 1784. In 1786 it was declared as part of the Northwest Territory by the Northwest Ordinance, then part of Indiana Territory in 1800.

On December 3, 1818, Illinois became the 21st state admitted to the Union. In the 1800s, the state was populated by American migrants and immigrants from Germany, Ireland, England, Canada, Scotland and France.

Slavery and Abraham Lincoln

The French brought the first slaves to Illinois in the early 1700s. When Illinois became part of the Northwest Territory in 1786, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the state. Some Illinois slaveholders interpreted the Ordinance to mean no new slaves could be brought into the area, and they kept the slaves they already had. When the state entered the Union in 1818, the federal government required it to do so as a “free state.” However, Illinois included “black codes” in its first constitution. Preexisting slave owners were also allowed to keep their slaves, and all residents could have indentured servants. The slave population continued to increase. Although Illinois banned slavery within its own borders beginning in 1848, slaves were still found in the state until 1863.

Illinois also had its share of abolitionists. In 1830, politician Abraham Lincoln moved to the state with his family near present-day Decatur. In 1831, he moved to New Salem, and in 1834 he was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Three years later, he moved to Springfield, where he lived for most of the rest of his life.

In 1846, Lincoln was elected to the United States House of Representatives for Illinois, and in 1849 he proposed banning slavery in Washington, D.C. Lincoln ran for United States Senate in 1855, lost, and ran again in 1858. At the time, the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dredd Scott case banned slaves and descendants of slaves from citizenship and pitted northern free states against southern slaveholding states. A mostly unfamiliar candidate, Lincoln engaged with incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas in a series of debates throughout Illinois. Although Lincoln lost the race, his “House Divided” speech—where he warned against a nation divided between free and slave-holding states—drew the nation's attention. Just two years later, in 1860, Lincoln was elected president—and pro-slavery states soon began seceding from the Union.

Despite some pro-secessionist sentiment in the southern part of the state, Illinois remained in the Union during the Civil War. The state was an important supplier of corn, wheat and livestock and more than 250,000 Union soldiers. The Underground Railroad also ran through Illinois beginning in the 1830s, helping slaves escape from Southern states.

Civil Rights Movement

In 1865, Illinois became the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. Illinois then passed a state law in 1874 forbidding segregation, and the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885 banned discrimination in public facilities and venues such as restaurants, hotels, theaters and trains. This allowed for the rise of Black visionaries, such as doctor Daniel Hale Williams, who founded Provident Hospital in 1891 to train Black doctors and serve Black patients and became the first person to perform open heart surgery in 1893.

Racial tensions in Illinois, however, remained high. On August 14, 1908, an angry mob formed outside the city jail in Springfield, seeking revenge against two Black men accused of separate crimes against whites. Policemen escorted the prisoners out the back door to safety, and the violent Springfield Race Riot ensued. Buildings in the Black section of Springfield were destroyed and looted, and two unrelated Black members of the community were lynched. The appalling event led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) a few months later.

From 1920 to 1930, Black residents of southern states began moving to northern states, including Illinois, in what became known as the Great Migration. The Black population of Illinois increased by 81 percent during the decade, and many Black people were elected to public office in the state. As early as the 1930s to 1940s, Black Chicago residents staged sit-ins and other protests against segregation and discrimination, so the city was largely integrated by the early 1960s.

However, segregation continued in some schools leading to the 1963 “Freedom Day” protest. The struggle culminated in 1966 with the Chicago Freedom Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., which aimed to end housing discrimination and gain equal rights for all Chicago residents. The government eventually agreed to build more public housing in Illinois and open mortgages to people of all races.

The Windy City

Black pioneer and entrepreneur Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable is widely considered to be the founder of Chicago. DuSable, the son of a French man and a Black woman from Haiti, peacefully co-existed with Indigenous nations in the region and married into the Potawatomi when he wed a woman named Kitihawa. DuSable and Kitihawa helped lay the foundation for the city's growth by establishing the first permanent trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1779.

By the 1800s, Chicago became one of the largest cities in the country, as John Deere, the inventor of the steel plow, and Cyrus Hall McCormick, the creator of the wheat reaper, set up manufacturing plants in the city.

Chicago’s status attracted the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The event brought 27 million visitors during its six-month operation—more than 40 percent of the United States’ total population at the time. Among the many inventions exhibited was the first Ferris wheel, made to rival the Eiffel Tower built for the Paris Fair in 1889. The 250-foot diameter wheel carried 36 cars with up to 60 riders each. The fair also introduced some of the first automobile prototypes, the Morrison electric and a German gasoline-powered car, leading to annual auto shows in the city starting in the early 1900s. Although Chicago never quite matched Detroit as the king of the auto industry, it was already well set up as an industrial manufacturer and became a hub for the manufacturing of automotive parts throughout much of the 20th century.

In the 1920s, Prohibition gave rise to Chicago speakeasies and gangsters. The port city had many poor immigrants looking for opportunities, some of whom went on to become mobsters. Johnny Torrio and Al Capone famously launched some of the nation’s biggest bootlegging, brothels and illegal gambling operations out of Chicago. The subsequent “Beer Wars” of 1922 to 1926, when mobsters battled their rivals and police, led to the death of nearly 500 Chicago mobsters. Many gangsters found more legal businesses when alcohol was legalized in 1933.

Chicago remains a major U.S. city and manufacturing center. The city and surrounding area are home to the U.S. headquarters for many major companies, including Walgreens, Boeing, Caterpillar, Abbott Laboratories, McDonald’s and the Kraft Heinz Company, among others. Chicago’s famous Willis Tower, formerly named Sears Tower, was completed in 1973. At 1,450 feet high and 110 stories tall, it’s the second tallest building in North America, after One World Trade Center in New York City.

Date of Statehood: December 3, 1818

Capital: Springfield

Population: 12,812,508 (2020)

Size: 57,916 square miles

Nickname(s): Prairie State; Land of Lincoln

Motto: State Sovereignty, National Union

Tree: White Oak

Flower: Violet

Bird: Cardinal

Interesting Facts

  • What began as an ordinary fire in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn on October 8, 1871, quickly turned into what became known as the Great Chicago Fire, which devastated roughly 18,000 buildings, left close to 100,000 inhabitants homeless and killed between 200 and 300 people.
  • On May 4, 1886, after weeks of protests in which workers were demanding an eight-hour workday, a bomb was thrown during a demonstration at the Randolph Street Haymarket. Eight officers were killed and 60 were injured, spurring a public cry for justice. Although the bomber was never identified, eight anarchists were tried and convicted of murder in what is often referred to as a grave miscarriage of justice.
  • The Illinois Coal Basin covers 65 percent of the state’s land. Illinois has an estimated 2 billion tons of coal lying underground, 38 million tons of which can be mined economically—giving the state the largest recoverable bituminous coal reserve in the United States.


United States Census Bureau, Illinois Quick Facts.

Illinois State Museum, The Arrival of Native Nations (11,700-4,000 years ago).

Illinois State Museum, The Illinois.

Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, The Illini.

Illinois State Museum, The Illinois Decline.

Illinois State Museum, The Illinois Today.
State of Illinois Central Management Services, Native American FY2020 Employment Plan Report.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Colonial Era, 1763-1776.

Northern Illinois University Libraries, Illinois as a French Colony.

Illinois State Museum, French Settlement in the Illinois Country.

Illinois State Museum, Time Line: 1673-1800.

Canadian Museum of History, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle 1670-1687.

Illinois State Museum, The British (1763-1778).

Illinois State Museum, Early Statehood (1818-1848).

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, The “House Divided” Speech, ca. 1857–1858.

National Park Service, Lincoln Chronology.

Encyclopedia of Chicago, Black Hawk War.

Illinois State Museum, Illinois Fights the Civil War.

National Public Radio, Illinois Issues: Slave State.

Northern Illinois University Libraries, Politics in Illinois and the Union During the Civil War.

Southern Illinois University Libraries, The Underground Railroad in Southern Illinois.

Northern Illinois University Libraries, Foreign Immigrants in Illinois 1850.

Encyclopedia of Chicago, Civil Rights Movements.

Northern Illinois University Libraries, Springfield Race Riot of 1908.

Stanford University, Chicago Campaign.

Library of Congress, Illinois Entered the Union as the 21st State, on December 3, 1818.

Willis Tower, History & Facts.

Crain’s Book of Lists 2020, Chicago’s 50 Largest Publicly Traded Companies.

Encyclopedia of Chicago, Automobile Manufacturing.

The Mob Museum, Prohibition Profits Transformed the Mob.

Sierra Club, Coal Mining Basics.