Illinois During the Gilded Age

Settlement and Immigration in Gilded-Age Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

 By the beginning of the Civil War Illinois had ceased to be the frontier. Land-seekers had pushed into Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas and struggled to define their societies as slave or free. Gold prospectors had raced to California by way of Panama. And white settlers had followed John C. Fremont into the Rocky Mountain West. Illinois' Native American population had either succumbed to disease or scattered to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

Northern Illinois was the last region of the state to be settled by white Americans, but it grew the most rapidly. The Erie Canal had connected the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, effectively linking Illinois with New York City. New railroads grew with greater rapidity after the Civil War, and Chicago's advantageous location at the nexus of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley made it a natural rail center as well. The city became the West's major staging area for further settlement.1

The emergence of Chicago as a major rail hub signaled the decline of the thriving commercial traffic that had plied the Mississippi River in the antebellum era. Increasingly towns like Quincy, Alton and Cairo fell upon hard times as the Illinois Central Railroad served Gulf of Mexico ports and the nation's further settlement pushed beyond the Great River. Many farmers also faced declining prospects in the post-war era, prompting rural youth to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Illinois Central Railroad Map, 1871

The new railroads carried manufactured goods from the East into Chicago, where the city's merchants organized them for sale, marked them up in price, and distributed them across the western states. Likewise, the city's entrepreneurs gathered in the vast region's agricultural products, including timber as well as livestock and grain, into vast warehouses and factories. Such economic activity made Chicago a wealthy city, and attracted individuals eager to share in the prosperity. The city's disastrous fire of 1871 proved only a temporary inconvenience, as New York capital poured in to finance rebuilding. The work attracted even more new arrivals eager to find jobs building new structures.

In the years after the Civil War a growing number of African-Americans found their way to Chicago, seeking new opportunities. The city became a center of black cultural and intellectual life, but African-American workers found their progress blocked by trades and labor unions excluding them from membership, and many white consumers balked at the idea of doing business with black businessmen.

Most overseas immigrants came to America from southern and eastern Europe, as well as Ireland. Many arrived in cities where friends or family members had already established themselves. This strategy identified favorable locations for immigration, and helped to build new communities. Nevertheless, many immigrants faced housing segregation and limited opportunities in business, the trades and unions. Often immigrants responded by asserting themselves in economic sectors largely overlooked by native-born whites.

Frances WillardIn the 1870s and 1880s Chicago became a city of newcomers, with a large population that dwarfed the native-born elites who had arrived before the Civil War. This often-unstable mix clashed over issues like the regulation or outright prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Many Yankee reformers such as Frances Willard (pictured at left) identified alcohol abuse as a leading cause of poverty, family disintegration, and violence against women. All too often, they believed, men squandered their paychecks on strong drink, leaving their families to starve.2 But many of the new immigrants came to America from societies in which beer and wine played central roles. Many German-Americans, outraged at the Republican Party's tilt toward the reformers' position, switched their allegiance to the Democrats in this period.

Many Irish had come to Illinois in the decades before the Civil War to help build the Illinois and Michigan Canal. In the years after the conflict they formed increasingly strong community organizations, many times around the Catholic Church. The cause of Irish independence from England also informed many groups, including an unfortunate armed sortie into British Canada at the Civil War's close. In the Gilded Age Irish-Americans played significant roles in the formation of labor unions, especially the Knights of Labor. The Irish technique of the boycott gave the Knights and other unions a powerful new tool in their struggle to match the economic, political and legal power of employers.

Other immigrants brought radical intellectual and political traditions to America. German and Eastern European immigrants played large roles in the organization of Chicago's socialist and anarchist movements. When these movements emerged in the spotlight caused by the Great Strike of 1877 and, especially, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, many middle-class, native-born whites quickly came to associate radicalism and labor violence with immigrants.

Jane Addams, the daughter of a wealthy Illinois businessman, reached out to the city’s recent immigrants with the founding of Hull House in 1889. Following the example of a group of English reformers who took up residence in an impoverished London neighborhood, Adams and a growing community of female volunteers from similarly privileged backgrounds provided immigrants with access to medical care, a variety of free educational programs, a summer camp for children, and clubs for children and adults. Adams and her fellow volunteers also performed detailed studies of the surrounding neighborhood pertaining to such issues as sanitation, housing, and working conditions, and successfully lobbied for new laws bearing on these and other matters at different levels of government. In spite of Hull House’s efforts, most immigrants and their children continued to face discrimination and limited opportunities, and often relied upon their own ethnic communities for social life and business activities.3

  • 1. William Cronon Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991)
  • 2. Ruth B.A. Bordin Frances Willard: A Biography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986)
  • 3. Jane Addams Twenty Years at Hull-house (New York< Macmillan, 1911)