Frontier Settlement

by Drew VandeCreek

The French, British and Spanish each established colonial footholds on the vast American continent in the seventeenth century and vied with one another for supremacy. Between the 1670s and 1763, the French controlled the sparsely populated Illinois country.

Europeans first visited Illinois in the 1670s, when Father Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit priest, led a small party of explorers west from Lake Michigan. Marquette's band examined lands the French crown had claimed sight-unseen during this period of empire-building.

Father Marquette Introduces Joliet to the Indians

French voyageurs, trappers and missionaries built a hybrid society many historians have come to call a "middle ground." Although priests converted a significant number of Native Americans to Christianity, French settlers in North America generally respected Indian society and culture. Frenchmen and Indians mingled freely, exchanged ideas and cultural practices, and frequently intermarried. Native American tribes had for centuries practiced hunting, gathering, fishing and subsistence agriculture. The French found that their preference for hunting and trapping, and distaste for intensive agriculture, meshed easily with Native Americans' approaches to living in nature.1

In the middle of the eighteenth century the French and British empires clashed in a conflict that has come to be known as the French and Indian War. French and Indian troops, sensing their mutually beneficial arrangement in the American backcountry, pulled together to oppose British forces. But the powerful British Empire briefly strengthened its hand in North America with victory in this struggle. The French slowly pulled out of North America. The British, for their part, determined that the territory west of the Allegheny Mountains and north of the Ohio River should serve as a large Indian preserve closed to general settlement by English colonists.

By 1783 the American Revolution had produced an amazing reversal of fortune in North America. The United States of America stood as a new nation, and British redcoats retreated to a few forts in the northwest (today's Michigan and Ohio).

Americans eyed the lands that the British had sought to set aside for Indian tribes intently. As Americans pushed westward into the new frontier, they replaced the French and Indian "middle ground" social arrangements with a legal system emphasizing private property, economic goals emphasizing intensive agricultural and eventually industrial development, and cultural ideals that posited the rise of Christian civilization, marked Indians as savages, and mandated a firm distinction in gender roles.

Eastern officials struggled to administer lands west of the Alleghenies. In 1778 Virginia had announced that it considered huge tracts of western lands its own, and formed the County of Illinois, an entity that included all of present-day Illinois. By 1783 the Virginians had ceded these claims under pressure from the other new states. The Illinois country became part of the national lands, and eventually fell under the jurisdiction of Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance.

The Northwest Ordinance organized lands comprising the modern-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin as the Northwest Territory. The Ordinance provided for a systematic surveying of the territories, laying out townships on a simple grid. Such an arrangement helped ensure that arriving settlers secured good title to their lands, and solved the persistent land disputes that had so disrupted the settlement of Kentucky.

The Northwest Ordinance also barred slavery in the new territory, but American settlers brought the peculiar institution west anyway, insuring a future of political contention and Civil War.

Illinois remained sparsely populated until the conclusion of the War of 1812. The federal government set aside large tracts of land between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers for war veterans. While many veterans never made it to Illinois to stake their claims, the introduction of these federal lands to the open market sparked the settlement of central and western Illinois.

Before these developments American settlers had concentrated along southern Illinois' waterways, mirroring the French pattern of settlement. Most early settlers sought to maintain close contact with available water and timber, and feared pushing into the unknown prairies. Many southerners followed the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers west and north to the new Illinois country, and forged lasting ties with their southern homeland.

In 1818 Illinois officials succeeded in producing a population count sufficient to support a petition for statehood. Nathaniel Pope, Illinois' quick-thinking Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, moved the new state's northern boundary north from a position near the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan to its present position forty-one miles to the north. In doing so, Pope secured Lake Michigan coastline and the Chicago-Illinois River portage, each of which proved very important in American economic development.

In 1820 55,211 souls made Illinois their home (a figure considerably below the 60,000 supposedly required for admission to statehood, suggesting Illinois officials' chicanery in 1818). By 1830 population had increased to 157,445. The 1830s proved to be a decade of enormous growth, and by 1840 476,183 Illinoisans lived on the prairie. By 1850 Illinois had grown to include over 850,000 inhabitants; on the eve of the Civil War, in 1860, over 1.7 million occupied the state.

Farming Lands of Illinois

The large growth of the period after 1830 stemmed largely from improvements in the American transportation system. The 1825 completion of New York State’s Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie, greatly facilitated westward migration from New England, and opened northern Illinois to a generation of Yankee immigrants.

While many southerners in Illinois reveled in their individual liberty and casual living arrangements, Yankee settlers brought a firm set of social and cultural norms west with them.

Foremost among these was the idea that women should refrain from working outside the home and focus their energies upon their families, while men’s earnings supported the entire household. A scarcity of labor had pushed many frontier men and women into roles in which they shared the farm and house work alike. Yankee ideals of feminine domesticity and civilization pushed this notion of household economy aside, and set the tone for social life well into the twentieth century.

Improved transportation networks also helped new settlers to push beyond Illinois, making the state, and especially Chicago, an important supplier of tools and other things that they could not fashion with their hands. By 1850 railroads had begun to link Chicago with the new west, and populated the city with large warehouses storing both products harvested in western fields and forests as well as eastern manufactured goods for sale to western settlers.

By 1860 Illinois was no longer the frontier. Farmers had turned the soil on a majority of the Prairie State's acreage. Small towns and cities dotted the landscape, and Chicago had grown into a large city. In the years after the Civil War Americans would use improved transportation networks to continue to populate new, more westerly lands, subdue their Indian inhabitants, and fashion their distinctive system of legal, political, and cultural institutions.

  • 1. Richard White The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)