Illinois Family History Research

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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. Template:Illnois (Red Book)

When Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette arrived in Illinois country in 1673, they found a settler’s paradise: fertile soil, sweeping prairies, forests, and water. A traversable network of rivers, easy low-land portages, and the accessibility of Lake Michigan combined to make the future state of Illinois easy to explore. In 1680 Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, with a vision of the economic promise of the area, erected Fort Crevecoeur at the site of Peoria. Henri de Tonti, an Italian, accompanied La Salle. Two years later the two explorers built Fort St. Louis. By 1691, Tonti, who had taken over the settlement when La Salle left in 1685, moved Fort St. Louis eighty miles downstream. The new fort, known as Fort Pimitoui, included several buildings, Father Marquette’s mission, and a village of fur traders’ European-native families. Cahokia was settled by Seminarian priests in 1699, Kaskaskia by Jesuits four years later. Settlement followed at Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher, St. Phillipe, and St. Genevieve.

In 1717 Illinois country was placed under the French government of Louisiana. France had ceded all possessions east of the Mississippi in 1763, although the British did not take possession, at Fort de Chartres, until two years later. From 1778 to 1782 the present state of Illinois was a territory of Virginia and known as the county of Illinois. The American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris in 1783 extended the American boundary to the Mississippi, thus making the present Illinois part of the United States.

The establishment of the Northwest Territory in 1787 included Illinois land, but the area became part of the Indiana Territory in 1800. Nine years later the Illinois Territory was established, followed by statehood in 1818.

By 1800 the population of 2,000 included Americans from Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England. In the spring of 1817 a group of English immigrants settled in Edwards County. Rhode Island farmers established a colony at Delavan, Tazewell County, in 1837. The states served as a conduit for the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.

Migration from Illinois was also significant and should not be overlooked by the genealogist as many Illinois settlers eventually migrated to Kansas and Nebraska. In addition, the gold rush to California, the wagon trains of the Oregon Trail, and the open prairies of Iowa all tempted the populace of Illinois to venture farther west.

From the late nineteenth century to the present, Chicago’s accessibility and employment possibilities attracted a cross-section of all the nationalities. Many ethnic groups either settled in or passed through the state, leaving a great diversity of nationalities that have or are populating the city and state.