Southern Illinois in the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century was an era of rapid settlement, industrialization, and cultural adjustment as newcomers streamed in from the East and Europe to homestead and work in mines. At first, farmers from Tennessee and Kentucky concentrated in the hills of Southern Illinois. Statehood in 1818 saw greater immigration to Central and Northern Illinois as conflicts with Native Americans diminished. The state capital was moved from Kaskaskia to the more central Vandalia for the 1820 meeting of the Illinois General Assembly.

Kettle used to make salt
Kettle used by Conrad Will to make salt in Jackson County, displayed by his grandson, Edward Worthen

One of the first major industries in Southern Illinois was making salt from springs along the Saline River in Gallatin County. Brine water from the springs was boiled down in large kettles to produce salt. The springs had been a source of salt for Pre-Columbian settlers beginning about 3000 years ago during the Early Woodland Period.

Located near the border of Kentucky, the salt operation profited from slaves loaned from owners in southern states where slavery was legal. In 1818, the salines became the property of the state, which allowed slavery to continue because the operation contributed a third of the state's revenue. Illinois law only allowed African slaves to be imported to the site until 1825, but slavery persisted in the form of indentured servitude. Salt mines in West Virginia made the salines unprofitable by 1870.

Gallatin County was not the only source of salt in Southern Illinois. A number of sixty gallon kettles were purchased from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, around 1815 by Conrad Will, who used them to make salt on the Big Muddy River in Jackson County.

Illinois capitol in Springfield
Illinois capitol in Springfield, photographed by Yinan Chen

Abraham Lincoln’s family arrived from Indiana in 1830, in time for Lincoln to volunteer in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Fought between the United States and the Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo tribes, the conflict removed the last threat to settlement around Chicago. The increasing population to the north drained political power from Southern Illinois. The movement of the capital to Springfield in 1837 was spearheaded by Abraham Lincoln while he served as a state representative.

Charter Oak school house
Charter Oak school house in Randolph County, built in 1873, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Nyttend

Once rare, schools proliferated as Southern Illinois grew, increasing literacy in the region. In the early part of the nineteenth century, even wealthy families depended on sporadic traveling tutors for their children’s education. Determined to generate its own supply of educators, the state legislature chartered what is now Southern Illinois University in 1869 as Southern Illinois Normal College, the second teachers' college founded in Illinois. Classes began as a summer institute with eight faculty and fifty-three students.

Illustration of the death of Reverend E. P. Lovejoy in 1837
Woodcut depicting the 1837 Alton, Illinois, murder of abolitionist Presbyterian minister Elijah Parrish Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob

The institution of slavery challenged Illinois before and following statehood. Although slavery was still allowed in salt mines, and pre-territorial slave owners were allowed to keep their slaves, anti-slavery sentiment was rising, inspired by the American Enlightenment movement and religious leaders from the East. Virginian minister James Lemen began promoting emancipation in 1809 near Waterloo and later worked with Governor Edward Coles from 1822 to 1824 to prevent Illinois from becoming a slave state. Coles had relocated to Illinois in 1819 to free the nineteen slaves he had inherited from his father, believing they would have more rights in Illinois. But by 1837, an almost unanimously supported state resolution condemned the formation of abolition societies. Abraham Lincoln was one of only six opposing state representatives. In 1853, the Illinois General Assembly proposed a bill to limit the rights of free blacks and threaten new arrivals with indentured servitude. Spearheaded by newly elected state representative John A. Logan, the bill passed in 1855, becoming known as "Logan's Black Law". While Logan switched parties and supported black rights following the Civil War, his early legislative record continued to haunt his political career.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1958 American Civil War commemorative issue postage stamp
Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1958 commemorative issue postage stamp

The extension of slavery into the territories became the main issue in a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas as they campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 1858. Although the Democratic majority in the Illinois General Assembly meant victory for Douglas, popular support generated by the debates enabled Lincoln to win the 1860 presidential election. Desiring mainly to preserve the Union, Lincoln originally intended only to block the expansion of slavery to the territories, but in 1863 he ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation. African American settlement in Illinois increased following the Civil War. A number of African American Civil War soldiers took up residence in Southern Illinois.

Illinois Central Railroad engine
Illinois Central Railroad engine, photographed by Sean Lamb

In spite of their political differences, both Douglas and Lincoln supported the Illinois Central Railroad, chartered in 1851. When the line opened in 1856, it was the longest in the world, running from Chicago to Cairo. By that time, clearcutting for farming and lumber exports had decimated the forests of Southern Illinois, leading the Illinois Central Railroad to instead look to coal for steam engine fuel. Southern Illinois mines grew with railroads hungry for their hot burning bituminous coal. Mine owners hired experienced labor from Great Britain and Europe and paid low wages, undercutting the labor market. Denied the fruits of their labor, mine workers organized and came into violent conflict with management as the century drew to a close.