A Place Called “Egypt”

Southern Illinois became known as “Egypt” in the 1830s. Various origins have been suggested for the nickname. The two best known represent the cultural divide between the earliest settlers, who established farms in southern Illinois, and those who arrived in the 1830s and settled to the north.

“Egyptians” traced the origin to providing grain for northern Illinois after the horrible winter of 1831-1832. Northern Illinoisans (and the nation) connected it to the southern region’s “intellectual darkness” and pro-slavery attitudes. Both explanations come from allusions to the Old Testament, the first from the story of Joseph and the second from the “darkness” which spread over the land in Exodus.

While the origin of “Egypt” may remain a mystery, Southern Illinois maintains pride in its “Egyptian” identity. The Mississippi River reminds many of the Nile River in Egypt, and Native American mounds at Cahokia recall the pyramids. Some Southern Illinois towns, such as Cairo and Thebes, are named for cities in Egypt. Even the SIU Saluki mascot traces its origins to ancient Egypt.

Salukis
Six pet Salukis, circa 1960, from the SIUC Photographs collection

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to P. Michael Jones, director of the General John A. Logan Museum, for contributing information about the history of "Egypt".