Ethnic Groups of Illinois

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This entry was originally written by Carol L. Maki and Michael John Neill for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Illinois Family History Research series.
History of Illinois
Illinois Vital Records
Census Records for Illinois
Background Sources for Illinois
Illinois Maps
Illinois Land Records
Illinois Probate Records
Illinois Court Records
Illinois Tax Records
Illinois Cemetery Records
Illinois Church Records
Illinois Military Records
Illinois Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Illinois Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Illinois Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Illinois
Illinois County Resources
Map of Illinois

African American

Most African Americans migrating to Illinois during the early years either came from or through the South. As a result, many slaves arrived in Illinois with their white owners. In September 1807 the indenture law allowed slaves aged fifteen and older to be brought into the state by their white owners. The law stated that they must be registered with the clerk of common pleas. Beginning on 8 December 1812, “free blacks” and “mulattoes” were required to register six months after they arrived in Illinois. These records are extant. Many slaves were leased from slave owners in Kentucky and Tennessee to work the salt wells near Shawneetown.

In 1817 Governor Edwards agreed that the indenture law was illegal. The resulting constitutional compromise of 1818 put a one-year limit on new indenture contracts. The free African Americans may have been issued freedom certificates after 17 January 1829, possibly recorded in the common pleas court files. Records of African Americans in Illinois frequently gave places of origin in the slave state from which they came.

The parish records of the Immaculate Conception Church at Kaskaskia, St. Anne’s at St. Charles, and St. Joseph’s at Prairie du Rocher have records of pre-1916 baptisms, marriages, and deaths of African Americans. The Illinois State Library has a few slave record books from various counties. These include indentured French and freedmen before 1860. See W. Wesley Johnston, “Illinois Free Black Records,” in Illinois State Genealogical Quarterly 14 (Summer 1982):72-73, for a discussion of extant records. For further study of African-American history in Illinois, see the following:

  • Carlson, Shirley J. “Black Migration to Pulaski County, Illinois: 1860–1900,” Illinois Historical Journal 80 (1987). Its focus is southern African Americans who settled in rural areas of the North.
  • Harris, Norman Dwight. The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois and of Slavery Agitation in that State, 1719–1864. 1904. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1969. Also available on microfiche (LAC 12841): Microbook Library of American Civilization. Chicago: Library Resources, 1970.
  • Hodges, Carl G. Illinois Negro Historymakers. Chicago: Illinois Emancipation Centennial Commission, 1964.
  • Johnston, W. Wesley. “Illinois Free Black Records,” Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly 14 (Summer 1982): 72-73.
  • Tregillis, Helen Cox. River Roads to Freedom: Fugitive Slave Notices and Sheriff Notices Found in Illinois Sources. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 1988.

Native American

When Europeans arrived in the Illinois country, the Illinewek or Illinois Native Americans were being dominated by the Iroquois of New York and were anxious to have the protection of a nearby fort or mission. In the Illinois valley region, they had once been the largest tribe, a loosely organized alliance of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Tamroa, Peoria, Michigamea, and Moingwena bands. Warfare and disease took their tolls, and by 1832 there were slightly more than two hundred of the tribe left in Illinois. The last land cession treaty in that year resulted in those few Native Americans being transferred to a Kansas reservation.

Included in the Illinois State Archives are the following: Record Group 103.62, “Executive Section, Executive File” (ca. 1824–32), concerns Native Americans in Illinois (copies of treaties and speeches made by Native Americans and government representatives at peace conferences, and depositions of Illinois citizens taken by state agents dealing with Indian depredations); and Record Group 100, “Records of the Illinois Territory,” has material pertaining to speeches of, trade with, and treaties with Indians, and mention of the Cherokee, Delaware, Fox, Kickapoo, Osage, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Shawnee tribes.

In regard to native lands, see Record Group 952.19, “Board of Commissioners, Ancient Grants Rejected,” which lists names of original and present (ca. 1809) owners, including Indian claims. See also Record Group 953.14, “Terrier of Grants Made to Potawatomi Indians,” describing land grants made under the Treaty of Camp Tippecanoe on 20 October 1832; and Record Group 953.18, “Abstract of Conditions of Surveys of Indian Grants and Reservations,” 1850. Other sources include:

  • Stewart Rafert, “American-Indian Genealogical Research in the Midwest: Resources and Perspectives,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 76 (September 1988): 212-24.
  • Tregillis, Helen Cox. The Indians of Illinois. Decorah, Iowa: Amundsen Publishing Co., 1983.

See also Ethnic Groups of Wisconsin.

Other Ethnic Groups

Illinois has been the home of immigrants from many countries. Settlement patterns within the state frequently varied by nationality. One third of the foreign-born population in Illinois in 1850 was German. Religious, political, and economic factors caused the massive migration. Some of the earliest German settlements were in Dutch Hollow and Darmstadt, St. Clair County. One interesting perspective of early German settlers’ lives is “Ferdinand Ernst and the Germany Colony at Vandalia” in Illinois Historical Journal 80 (Summer 1987), depicting this 1820 settlement in Fayette County.

Many German immigrants came to Illinois as affluent farmers, professionals, and artisans, and were able to continue as such in America. There were also those who came with little or no money to spare. Immigrants came via the Great Lakes to Chicago. Working in the industries of the city, they could make good wages to buy their “American” farm. Unfortunately, living costs were high, savings grew slowly, and land values rose rapidly. The “farmer” often became a city dweller.

The Irish immigrant may have stayed in the cities, employed as a day laborer or factory worker. They moved from place to place within the state, but by 1860 the nucleus of the Irish immigrant community was in Chicago. Many Irish worked on the construction of the Illinois and Michigan canal system. When this project was temporarily abandoned in the early 1840s, large numbers of Irish became farmers.

There was considerable immigration from England, some of it prompted by the London Roman Catholic Emigration Society and the Mormon missionaries sent from Nauvoo by Joseph Smith. Kane County had a considerable Welsh population, and the lead mines brought the Cornish. In 1834 the Scottish began migrating to Illinois, their numbers in 1850 totaling 4,660.

The first Norwegian settlement in the Midwest was founded by a group from New York, in 1834, along the Fox River near Ottawa. Five hundred Swedes established themselves at Bishop Hill in Henry County, and the Mormons settled at Nauvoo. (See Illinois Church Records for further information on both of these religious immigrant groups.)

Although there were scattered French-Canadians in Illinois country very early, there were few immigrants from France before 1830. Metamora in Woodford County was the first important French section, established in 1831, followed by several other French settlements. Bourbonnais, in Kankakee County, with a population of 1,719 in 1850, was a French-Canadian village that maintained Canadian customs for many years.

Colonies of religiously exiled Portuguese immigrants were located at Springfield and Jacksonville in 1849. There was a cluster of Bavarian Jews in Chicago. Although few Swiss immigrated to Illinois, there were settlements in St. Clair County, in Galena, and in Madison County, the most important center of Swiss population in Illinois.

Szucs’s publication, listed under Background Sources above, provides bibliographies of information on the following ethnic groups in Chicago: African Americans, Bohemians, Chinese, Czechoslovakian, Dutch, German, Greeks, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Mexican, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, and Ukrainian. According to Szucs, “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.”

Augustana College (Swenson Swedish Immigration Research, Rock Island, IL 61201) has immigrant letters and immigration indexes, church papers, a large collection of Swedish-American newspapers, and a significant amount of microfilmed church records from Swedish-American congregations in the Midwest. The Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly is published by the Swedish-American Historical Society, 5125 N. Spaulding Ave., Chicago, IL 60625, which is an excellent research center for Swedish-American genealogy, particularly in Chicago. Their collections include letters, family histories, organization records, newspapers, diaries, books, oral histories, reference files, and photographs.

The University of Illinois, Slavic Reference Service, 225 Library Bldg., Urbana, IL 61801 holds a Czech-American collection of over 31,000 volumes of history, periodicals, original documents, and Czech-American newspapers. A collection of Czech family Bibles and 10,000 Czech history volumes are located at Illinois Benedictine College Library, 5700 College Rd., Lisle, IL 60532.

The Newberry Library has an extensive collection of Irish and English materials. For Irish, contact the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave., Chicago, IL 60630 and DePaul University, Lincoln Park Campus Library, 2323 N. Seminary, Chicago, IL 60614, which has an Irish studies collection.

When researching German ancestry in this state, contact the Palatines to America—Illinois Chapter, P.O. Box 3884, Quincy, IL 62305. Szucs (see Background Sources for Illinois) states that the detailed church records of German-American churches must be utilized for that nationality in Cook County. Those with Polish ancestry should use the resources of the Polish Genealogical Society, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 and the Polish collection at the Portage-Cragin Branch Library, 5108 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL, 60641.

Other suggested sources include the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago, 721 N. Oakley, Chicago, IL 60612; Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch, 2353 S. Wentworth, Chicago, IL 60616; and the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, 6500 S. Pulaski, Chicago, IL 60629.

See also 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); and Mark Wyman, Immigration History and Ethnicity in Illinois: A Guide (Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Historical Society, 1989).

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