Illinois Statehood in 1818

When Illinois became the 21st state in 1818, its population of around 35,000 was still concentrated in the southern region. Settlers from the forested hills of Tennessee and Kentucky had avoided the unfamiliar prairies, assuming that the lack of trees meant poor soil.

Kaskaskia, Our First State Capital

Kaskaskia had been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years before French explorers and pioneers arrived. The Illini peoples traded with the early French colonists, who named the town after the Illini word for the Kaskaskia River. Hoping to convert the Illini to Catholicism, French Jesuits established a mission in 1703, and Kaskaskia’s first stone church was built in 1714. The village also had a fur trading post.

Ruins of the Kaskaskia Statehouse, photographed by L. J. Smith in 1899 before it fell into the river, from the George Washington Smith papers of the Special Collections Research Center

During the eighteenth century, Kaskaskia grew into a regional center. Following Britain’s 1763 victory in the French and Indian War, Kaskaskia served as an administrative location for the British Province of Quebec until George Rogers Clark and his Virginia militia captured it in 1778 during the American Revolutionary War. Later home to Shadrach Bond, the first governor of Illinois, Kaskaskia was the capital of Illinois Territory from 1809 and became the first Illinois state capital in 1818. Its population declined after the capital was moved in 1819 to the more central Vandalia.

Catastrophic Kaskaskia Island flood in 1993, contributed to Wikimedia Commons by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Paul Griffin

Deforestation of river banks during the nineteenth century from steamboat and railroad activity led to the destruction of most of Kaskaskia in 1881 when the Mississippi River shifted eastward to run through part of the Kaskaskia River. In 1993, the few remaining residents had to be evacuated when Kaskaskia was inundated with flood waters more than nine feet deep. Although the Mississippi River now runs east of town, Kaskaskia remains part of Illinois.

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Portrait painting of Shadrach Bond by Samuel Lovett Waldo, from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Shadrach Bond, First Governor of Illinois

Shadrach Bond served as the first governor of Illinois from 1818 to 1822. Bond’s uncle had been a scout for George Rogers Clark during the American Revolutionary War and advised Bond to come to Illinois to farm the fertile American Bottom river basin in Kaskaskia. Before his term as governor, Bond had served Illinois Territory in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a new state, Illinois began with poor infrastructure and funding. Focusing on improved transportation, Bond signed bills to construct privately operated toll roads and bridges, including a road from Kaskaskia to Shawneetown, connecting the Mississippi River to the Ohio River, which is now largely Illinois Route 13. He also advocated for a canal connecting Lake Michigan with the Illinois River, but the canal was not built in his lifetime. Bond was also tough on crime, making arson, rape, and murder punishable by death. However, he worked to abolish the whipping post and pillory as punishment for misdemeanor offences. To his credit, Bond attempted to prevent the creation of a non-capitalized State Bank of Illinois that would issue banknotes based on predicted economic growth.  Without enough gold and silver to support banknotes, the undercapitalized bank soon went bankrupt.

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Portrait painting of Pierre Menard, from the Pierre Menard Home State Historic Site, operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Pierre Menard, First Lieutenant Governor of Illinois

Pierre Menard (1766-1844) was a French Canadian businessman and fur trader. After serving from 1803 to 1809 as a member of the Indiana Territorial Legislature, and presiding over the Illinois Territorial Legislature from 1812 to 1818, Menard served as the first lieutenant governor of Illinois from 1818 to 1822. His home at the bottom of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River is an example of French Colonial architecture, featuring a double-hipped roof and broad porch along the front and ends.