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Suggestions for the Curious Reader

Works on mid-Illinois history, annotated



My final draft of Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves was slightly over the agreed word limit. Among the cargo that had to be cast overboard was an annotated list of works for readers who might wish to learn more about mid-Illinois history. New books have rendered the list already out-of-date, of course, but it’s a place to start.

R reviewed several of these books; see here


While not all the works mentioned here focus exclusively on mid-Illinois people, places, or events, each offers information and insights of value in understanding the region.

General works of statewide focus are not listed, nor are dissertations and hard-to-find titles from small presses. Oral histories are rich mines of anecdote but are not here described as such. Arcane and technical works such as archeological site reports also are omitted.


Also scanted are many works of local history. The surge of interest in local history since the 1960s has made authors of hundreds of genealogists, social engineers, and antiquarians. Peoria alone has dozens of works on offer by commercial and non-profit publishers—histories of  Bradley University basketball teams, local railroads, local high schools and churches, the symphony and other music groups and musicians, woman artists, local gangsters, the Peoria State Hospital, sensational murders, unsensational ethnic and fraternal societies, hospitals, doctors, dentists and firefighters, sports from bicycling to baseball, labor unions and business boosters. Some are of a surprisingly high standard, although few treat their subjects in more than a local context. Happily, some works that once languished unread—house histories, biographical sketches of local notables, excerpts from arcane books—are now available via the internet.



Libraries, journals, and historical anthologies


The Stevenson-Ives Library in Bloomington calls itself one of the finest local history and genealogy research libraries in downstate Illinois, with reason. It contains more than thirteen thousand books and periodicals with a focus on McLean County and central Illinois history and genealogy, including the collections of the McLean County Museum of History, the McLean County Genealogical Society, and the Letitia Green Stevenson Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution.


In spite of its name (changed in 2005), the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield is not only a library of Lincolniana, but a library of the history of Illinois, in particular Downstate Illinois. Its collections, a-building since it opened in 189 as the Illinois State Historical Library, comprise nearly twelve million manuscript items, more than four hundred thousand photographs, more than five thousand newspaper titles from every one of Illinois's counties, more than 172,000 books and pamphlets, three thousand maps, and twelve hundred periodical series.


The private Illinois State Historical Society has published the peer-reviewed Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (published from 1984 to 1998 as Illinois Historical Journal) since 1908; it is an essential resource. Most the contributors to the society's bimonthly popular magazine, Illinois Heritage, are not academics but professional and amateur historians, museum professionals, teachers, genealogists, or journalists, but they offer well-researched articles for a large readership interested in the state's past. Western Illinois Regional Studies was a semi-annual journal published from 1978 through 1991 by Western Illinois University. Mention must also be made of Journal of Illinois History, the popular quarterly published in Springfield since 1998 by the Illinois State Preservation Agency.


A very few of the many scholarly articles worth reading appear in the more convenient form of the anthology. An Illinois Reader, edited by Clyde C. Walton (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1970), offers a sampling of twenty-five articles from publications of the Illinois State Historical Society, several of which touch on life in mid-Illinois through the Civil War. The state’s sesquicentennial in 1968 spurred the publication of Prairie State: Impressions of Illinois, 1673–1967, by Travelers and Other Observers, which was compiled and edited by Paul M. Angle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).


For Illinois: Its History and Legacy  (St. Louis: River City Publishers, 1984), Roger D. Bridges and Rodney O. Davis collected eighteen short articles on selected topics, including Richard J. Jensen on sectionalism in Illinois politics and Robert P. Sutton on experiments in communitarianism. Sutton compiled The Prairie State: A Documentary History of Illinois, which appeared in two volumes subtitled The Formative Years and Civil War To the Present (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976); Illinois's development being what it was, the second volume is devoted almost entirely to northern Illinois and Chicago but the first will interest students of mid-Illinois.


Among the anthologies aimed at the popular audience is A Springfield Reader: Historical Views of the Illinois Capital, 1818–1976, a collection of excerpts from journalism, pamphlets, and memoirs by various authors that was edited by James Krohe Jr. (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamon County Historical Society, 1976). Western Illinois Heritage by John E. Hallwas (Macomb, Ill.: Illinois Heritage Press,1983) collects for a popular audience eighty newspaper columns and abbreviated quarterly articles on miscellaneous western Illinois themes. The author is the Western Illinois University professor who is to the folklore and history of Mid-Illinois's western parts what Sandburg was to Lincoln.


Miscellaneous reference


Illinois Fact Book and Historical Almanac, 1673–1968 by John Clayton (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970) was published in conjunction with the state’s sesquicentennial. It lists public office holders, manufacturing data, and population data as of that date. Interesting and useful by turns, but unfortunately it has yet to be updated.

Virgil J. Vogel studied places named by or for Native Americans; the results appear in Indian Place Names in Illinois (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1963). Illinois Place Names (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1969, updated in 1989) was compiled by James N. Adams and edited by William E. Keller. The work describes the origins of nearly fourteen thousand place names (many of places that no longer exist) as revealed in county histories, atlases, newspapers, and post office records. 

Place Names of Illinois by Edward Callary (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) included fewer entries that its predecessors—roughly three thousand towns, cities, and other geographical features—but the author places each in its historical and cultural context. An interesting general introduction considers Illinois place names in the context of general patterns of place-naming in the U.S. Callary also examines the names of several dozen former communities which survive in the otherwise mysterious names of current roads, schools, cemeteries, or other local features.


Abraham Lincoln


Lincoln looms larger in the historical literature of mid-Illinois than mid-Illinois looms  in the literature of Lincoln. One-volume biographies of conventional length must scant Lincoln’s early years of necessity. In a 2008 review, historian Darrel E. Bigham noted that major recent biographies such as David Donald's Lincoln (1995) devote only about three percent of their text to the early life, including that spent in Illinois. Michael Burlingame’s unconventionally lengthy two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) was able to devote all of its first volume to the period from birth until 1860. Burlingame might not have said all that might be said, but he said much more than is usually said. (An untrimmed electronic version is available via the internet thanks to Knox College’s Lincoln Studies Center.)


After having been discounted for years by historians more interested in his presidential years, Lincoln’s crucial Illinois years are again considered a fit subject of specific attention. The insights that can be gleaned from a careful attention to those years fill Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years (University of Illinois Press, 1997) and Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (Vintage, 1999), both by the indispensable Douglas L. Wilson.


Lincoln spent most of his mid-Illinois years as a lawyer. Abraham Lincoln, Prairie Lawyer by John J. Duff (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1960) has been rendered out of date by recent scholarship. The Lincoln Legals Project collected all surviving documentation of Lincoln as a lawyer, published as the four-volume The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, Daniel Stowell, editor (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008). Among the works that draw on this trove to throw light on this long neglected aspect of Lincoln’s life are An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln by Mark E. Steiner (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006) and Lincoln the Lawyer by Brian Dirck (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007); the latter is praised by one grateful reviewer as “a readably nontechnical study.” The essay collection Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President by Roger Billings and Frank J. Williams (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012) is similarly pertinent to students of mid-Illinois, considering that Lincoln’s cases reflect the evolving social and economic life of the region.


Lincoln first forayed into national politics as a mid-Illinois congressman. Among the works on the subject are Lincoln Runs for Congress by Donald W. Riddle (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1948), Riddle’s Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957), and Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress by long-time mid-Illinois congressman Paul Findley (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979).


Three of the seven debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were held in mid-Illinois cities. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition as edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) is touted as the first rigorously edited and annotated version of the debates. The author of a typical review wrote, “The book combines intellectual and tactile appeal with the best versions we have of what Douglas and Lincoln said . . . . a discovery—or a rediscovery—of what that signal event meant.”


Among the highlights of They Broke the Prairie by Earnest Elmo Calkins (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) is the account of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate at Knox, according to Rodney O. Davis in an introduction that reprint edition. "Calkins's description of the community's involvement in its Lincoln-Douglas debate is the best such account we have for any of the debate sites."


Ohioan Paul M. Angle in 1925 was named executive secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association (originally the Lincoln Centennial Association) in Springfield and later served thirteen years as Illinois State Historian. While Angle never essayed a full-length narrative biography of Lincoln, he did contrive to write a  biography of the city in which he lived for twenty-three years—Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln's Springfield, 1821–1865, published in Springfield 1935 by the Abraham Lincoln Association and again in 1971 by Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Gaps in that work are partly filled by Lincoln's Springfield: The Underground Railroad by Richard A. Hart (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamon County Historical Society, 2006).


Angle borrowed his approach from an earlier book written by a friend and fellow Springfieldian Benjamin P. Thomas. Critic John Hallwas calls Thomas’ Lincoln’s New Salem (Springfield, Ill.: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1934) a “superb achievement” and “a stylistic gem.” Hallwas adds that this extended essay blends cultural description and biog­raphy to produce a portrait in which the man and the place are melded; just as Lincoln’s life shaped the later book about the village, the village had shaped Lincoln’s life. Thomas also was the author of what was for many years considered the best one-volume biography of Lincoln.


It is a measure of the importance given Lincoln that even his colleagues are thought to deserve biographies. Some of those colleagues were mid-Illinoisans. David Herbert Donald wrote the life of one of Lincoln’s Springfield law partners in Lincoln's Herndon: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, repr. New York: Da Capo, 1989). Abe Lincoln in Springfield by A. J. Liebling (New York: F.-R. Publishing, 1950) features interesting interviews with several key figures in Lincoln scholarship of that era. Willard L. King recalled the man who directed Lincoln’s presidential campaigns in Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis (Harvard University Press, 1960), based on the then-newly available Davis papers. “Life in the circuit in the 1830s and 1840s, with greasy, food, dirty taverns, verminous rooms, and tedious Sundays,” wrote Allan Nevins in a foreword, “has never been so well depicted.” Works about others among Lincoln’s political associates are described below in “Politics and government.”


It is not only the people but the places Lincoln knew that have been made subjects of books. Abraham Lincoln in Decatur by Otto R. Kyle (New York: Vantage Press, 1957) was praised by Millikin University history Professor Daniel J. Gage as “all that is likely ever to be known about Lincoln's associations with Macon County and Decatur,” but added that the author’s “frequent use of probably, likely, undoubtedly, and possibly, in earlier pages, makes one aware of the distressing meagerness records of this portion of Lincoln's life, and of the strong temptation to amplify them.”


Interesting new works on crucial aspects of Lincoln's experience in mid-Illinois include Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point by Lewis E. Lehrman (Mechaniscburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 2008). One reviewer notes that Lincoln’s “Peoria speech” in 1854 stood out because it “combined for the first time Lincoln's expansive knowledge of the history of slavery legislation with his innate ability to use logic and humor to create an overwhelming argument against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.”


One is unwise to overlook Mary Todd as a factor in Lincoln’s life. She has excited as much partisan bickering after her death as she did alive. For decades, the pro-Mary faction reached first for Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953); Jean H. Baker’s modestly feminist view in Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987) is probably the best of the lot.


Miscellaneous biographies and memoirs


Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher by Robert Bray (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005) is the first full-length biography of this most famous of the early nineteenth-century Methodist circuit-riding preachers who also was a politician and literary figure. Cartwright had a long and often contentious relationship with Lincoln, which Bray explores in depth. The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, from 1856, is less a modern autobiography than a collection of frontier tales (both tall and regular height). The book was made available in 2005 in a new edition from the University of Illinois Press featuring an introduction by Bray.


Mid-Illinois’ small towns and farms have produced three interesting works that provide rich portraits of the region’s past. Christiana Holmes Tillson was a well-educated Massachusettsan who in the 1820s joined her husband for their new life in Montgomery County. Her A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois was privately published in the 1870s. A 1919 edition was reprinted in 1995 with a new introduction by Kay J. Carr (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995).


Rebecca Burlend arrived in the Military Tract in 1831 from Yorkshire with her husband and children. They set about making a farm on eighty acres worth of Newburg Township of Pike County. An account of her adventures appeared in England in 1848 and later as A True Picture of Emigration, one of the outstanding accounts of frontier life in Illinois. The edition that brought it fame featured an introduction by Milo Milton Quaife (Chicago: Lakeside Press, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1936).


Eliza Farnham’s Life in Prairie Land (New York:  Arno Press, 1972) recalls how that woman came west to Illinois in the spring of 1836 from upstate New York, eventually to wed and begin a family in the Tazewell County village of Tremont. That part of Illinois was just emerging from its frontier phase, and the life Farnham describes—deaths of her sister and her own first-born, battles against disease and wild animals, the daunting labor of building a homestead—reminds us how inadequate is the word “settling” to describe the process of making homes on a frontier.


Two brothers from a remarkable Grand Prairie family have given pictures of life in Hope and Urbana at the turn of the twentieth century. The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958) and part one of Three Worlds by Carl Van Doren (New York: Harper, 1936) concern their years in Champaign County. The latter was published separately as An Illinois Boyhood (New York: The Viking Press, 1939).

First published in 1872, the Autobiography of Silas Thompson Trowbridge M.D.  recounts the life of a young Indianan, trained as a teacher, who undertook a self-study of medicine and starting a medical practice near New Castle, which he later moved to Decatur, only later getting a legitimate MD. After service in the Civil War as a combat surgeon, he returned to practice in Decatur; he was later appointed United States Consul to Vera Cruz by President Grant, at which post he studied and challenged the then-standard treatment of yellow fever. His book was republished with a new introduction by John S. Haller Jr. and Barbara Mason (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004) as part of the Shawnee Classics series.


John Hay: From Poetry to Politics by Tyler Dennett (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1933) recalls the extraordinary life of the boy raised in Warsaw and Pittsfield who became private secretary and biographer to Abraham Lincoln, Civil War officer, U.S ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Secretary of State. 


Carl Sandburg’s memoirs of his boyhood in Galesburg, Always the Young Strangers (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953) and Ever the Winds of Chance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983) are affectionate and rich; they were reprinted in 1991 by Harvest Books. An America That Was: What Life Was Like on an Illinois Farm Seventy Years Ago by Albert Britt (Barre, Mass.: Barre Publishers, 1964) tells us just that.


While he found it poorly produced, Paul T. Nolan of the University of Southwestern Louisiana concluded that American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll by Orvin Larson (New York: Citadel Press, 1962) “will not only find a place on the shelf of anyone interested in American culture; it will be read with enjoyment before it is placed there.”


See also “Politics and government” below.


Social histories


Social history, broadly defined, has occasioned some interesting books about mid-Illinois. Historian John Mack Faragher examines the frontier era through an early Sangamon County settlement south of Springfield in Sugar Creek: Life On the Illinois Prairie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986). Christopher N. Breiseth of Wilkes College was not alone in finding it “an impressive social history.”


The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln by Robert Mazrim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) is an informal report of many years of archeological excavations through which the author brings to life the frontier era of the region.


Facing an uninviting future, Americans in the 1930s looked to the past for reassurance. They did so in sufficient numbers to constitute a market which the publishing house of Farrar & Rinehart and its corporate successors exploited with its Rivers of America Series. Debuted in 1937, the series (as John Hallwas describes it) re-told the story of our nation as a folk saga in the words of poets and novelists assumed to be able to communicate truths that were beyond mere historians.


Two of that epic sixty-five-volume series—James Gray’s The Illinois (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1940) and Edgar Lee Masters’ The Sangamon (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.,1942, republished in 1988 by the University of Illinois Press)—touch on life in mid-Illinois. Both will strike many of today's readers as a little too self-consciously colorful, even quaint. 


The Houses That Sears Built; Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sears Catalog Homes by Rosemary Thornton (Alton, Ill.: Gentle Beam Publications, 2002). Of general interest to readers interested in domestic architecture or of Sears, it is included here because of its treatment of the many Sears prefabricated houses in Carlinville. A long look at the Illinois State Fair is in book form. Illinois State Fair: A 150 Year History (St. Louis: G. Bradley Publishing, 2002) was put together by historians of the Sangamon Valley Collection at Springfield’s Lincoln Library. It recounts the history of the exposition from an annual fair to educate farmers in advanced methods to the general-purpose fun festival it is today.




Native peoples occupied mid-Illinois for thousands of years before any Euro-American saw it, but their presence is documented only by the physical remains they left behind. The Illinois State Archeological Survey's Studies in Archaeology series brings scholarly works in that field to the serious non-specialist reader. Among the titles relevant to the understanding of mid-Illinois is Kenneth B. Farnsworth's Early Hopewell Mound Explorations: The First Fifty Years in the Illinois River Valley (Champaign: Illinois State Archeological Survey, 2004), an historical introduction to the archaeology of the lower Illinois Valley when it was a cradle of Hopewellian cultural development in the Midwest.

Koster: Americans in Search of Their Prehistoric Past by Stuart Struever and Felicia Antonelli Holton (Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979) recounts the discovery and exploration of that important archeological site in Greene County. The book set a new standard for popular works on anthropology.


Euro-Americans of each generation have tended to invent whatever sort of Native Americans they need to believe in. The Indians of post-settlement Illinois thus has been regarded variously as bloodthirsty savages, as noble but doomed warriors, or as mystical guardians of the earth. More recent historians of the region have restored native peoples to their human complexity.


French and Indians of the Illinois River by Nehemiah Matson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001) first appeared in 1874 and was reissued as one of the publisher’s Shawnee Classics, with a foreword by Rodney O. Davis. Davis notes  that Matson combined the attributes of a scholar with the more dubious traits of a salesman and promoter, but that his account based on his own interviews is invaluable. Many of the events he describes took places in mid-Illinois. Judith A. Franke’s French Peoria and the Illinois Country 1673–1846 (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1995) is the authoritative account of that very interesting period. The French traders who came to Illinois looking for pelts brought with them missionaries looking for souls. Among the works that describe the results are The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America by Tracy Neal Leavelle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).


One of the best recent works of Illinois history is Illinois in the War of 1812 by Gillum Ferguson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). Among its virtues are the author's vivid portraits of the Indians of that era.


The fact-filled Making the Heartland Quilt: A Geographical History of Settlement and Migration in Early-Nineteenth-Century Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000) by Douglas K. Meyer is written in Academese, but essential to understanding the Euro-American era.  Daniel J. Elazar’s Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1970) also charts the flow of many population streams into the region; it is described below in “Politics and government.”




Any book about Illinois’s very early years will necessarily include much about farmers and farming in mid-Illinois. Two such works are Solon J. Buck’s Illinois in 1818 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) and James E. Davis’s Frontier Illinois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). Myrna M. Killey begins the story of Illinois agriculture at the very beginning in Illinois’ Ice Age Legacy (Champaign: Illinois State Geological Survey Education Series No.14, 2007).


Allen G. Bogue’s From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, reprinted in 1994 by the Iowa State University Press in Ames) is justly respected as an essential work on its subject. Making the Corn Belt: A Geographical History of Middle-Western Agriculture by John C. Hudson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) persuasively explains how corn cultivation came to dominate mid-Illinois farming. The cattle business is examined in James W. Whitaker’s Feedlot Empire: Beef Cattle Feeding in Illinois and Iowa, 1840–1900 (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975), which is widely regarded as a standard work.


Mid-Illinois’s most famous—and infamous—nineteenth century land baron was the subject of Landlord William Scully by Homer E. Socolofsky (Lawrence, Kan.: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1979). The Illinois Military Tract: A Study of Land Occupation, Utilization and Tenure by Theodore L. Carlson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951) traces the economic development of agriculture in western Illinois until 1900, with attention paid to weather, rail shipping rates, and changes in farm methods and crops. Another essential work on large-scale agriculture in mid-Illinois is Paul W. Gates’s Landlords and Tenants on the Prairie Frontier: Studies in American Land Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), three of whose articles pertain to Illinois.


The Funk family looms large in McLean County history. The founder of the clan, Isaac Funk, is recalled in Funk of Funk's Grove: Farmer, Legislator, and Cattle King of the Old Northwest, 1797–1865 by Helen M. Cavanagh (Bloomington, Ill.: Pantagraph Printing Co., 1952). Cavanagh also contributed Seed, Soil and Science: The Story of Eugene D. Funk. (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1959), an account of the life and work of the key figure in the Funk Brothers Seed Company. Superior to both is Deborah Kay Fitzgerald's The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890–1940 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1990). The book contains much about work in the field at the University of Illinois and by leading seed companies such as Funk Brothers Seed. One specialist in that field praised it, saying “it will endure as a standard work.”


The essential role played by paid farm laborers is explained by David E. Schob in Hired Hands and Plowboys: Farm Labor in the Midwest, 1815–60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975). The rise and rapid decline of the farmer protest movements in Illinois is related in The Agrarian Movement in Illinois, 1880–1896 by Roy V. Scott (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962). Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991) is as much a history of agriculture in Illinois as a history of Chicago, since the city and its Downstate hinterland grew rich together.


John Thompson’s study, Wetlands Drainage, River Modification, and Sectoral Conflict in the Lower Illinois Valley, 1890–1930 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002) has an unappetizing title, but it recounts an important story not previously treated by scholars, namely the drainage of wetlands along the lower Illinois River for farming that changed land and water relationships, destroyed a major riverine fishing industry, and severely damaged a renowned waterfowl hunting grounds.



Most towns of any size have a history (usually commissioned in observation of a centennial or other anniversary) but too many of these were written by boosters, and some can hardly be said to have been written at all. A typical work of the former type is The History of Peoria, Illinois (Peoria, Ill.: N.C. Nason, 1870) by Charles Ballance, the untutored land dealer and mayor of Peoria, which is essential (for want of anything better) but insufficient.


A few town histories rise above that standard. As social history, Paul Angle’s Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln's Springfield, 1821–1865 and Benjamin Thomas’ Lincoln’s New Salem, mentioned above, have been rendered incomplete by subsequent research, but remain valuable to anyone wanting to know something of the social and political context of Lincoln’s life. Another fine town biography is The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois 1825–70 by Don Harrison Doyle (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), which is an academic but still readable history of that interesting city. One review spoke for many others when he called the book “a welcome addition to the slowly growing number of scholarly histories of smaller American cities.”


They Broke the Prairie by Earnest Elmo Calkins earned a placed among the best books about Illinois cities. This history of the Galesburg and of Knox College was first published in 1937, on the occasion of Knox's and Galesburg's sesquicentennial, and was reprinted in 1971. In 1989 the University of Illinois Press brought out a new edition with an introduction by Rodney O. Davis. While it is dated and marred by the prejudices of its era, it remains worth reading. Galesburg also features in Kay J. Carr’s study of the development of community social and political structures, the much-praised Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg: Community and Democracy on the Illinois Frontier (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).


Juliet E. K. Walker investigates the rise and fall of New Philadelphia in Pike County and the career of its remarkable promoter in Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983). Many a visitor finds that the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus is just about the prettiest town in mid-Illinois. How it got that way is chronicled in History of the Growth and Development of the Campus Plan of the University of Illinois by Leon D. Tilton and Thomas E. O'Donnell (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1930). A new book is needed to take into account the subsequent expansion of the campus.


Social experiments


The literature on Mormonism in Illinois is sizable. A good introduction to the episode for the neutral is Robert Bruce Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), which is less about God than about town-making and politics in Illinois.


Nauvoo was the idea of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, whose scarcely believable life is recounted in Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1945; revised ed., 1971) which is generally disdained by believers, and Donna Hill’s, Joseph Smith, the First Mormon (New York: Doubleday, 1977). Joseph Smith’s wife, who remained in Illinois, is recalled by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery in Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith; the book was originally published in 1984 (New York: Doubleday, 1984) and a revised edition was put out in 1994 by the University of Illinois Press. Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier by Benjamin E. Park (New York: Liveright Publishing Co., 2020) is a major work of both Illinois and Mormon history.

A useful collection of essays is Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited: Nauvoo in Mormon History edited by Roger D. Launius and John E. Hallwas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996). The book’s most useful part to the newcomer may be a bibliographical essay that analyzes the historical literature on the Mormon experience at Nauvoo.


Etienne Cabet’s experimental colony in post-Mormon Nauvoo is the subject of Les Icarians: The Utopian Dream in Europe and America by Robert P. Sutton (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Donald J. Abramoske of Chicago’s DePaul University concluded that “this thoughtful volume is an excellent introduction to the world of Utopian socialism.” Sutton also examined mid-Illinois’s nineteenth century utopian communities in the larger Midwestern context in Heartland Utopias (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).


The Sangamon Phalanx is described in Kelley A. Boston’s Utopian Socialism in Sangamon County (Springfield, Ill., Sangamon County Historical Society, 2006). The story of the Swedish colony at Bishop Hill was first fully told (in both English and Swedish) in Bishop Hill: Svensk Koloni Pa Prairien / Bishop Hill, Illinois: A Utopia On The Prairie by Olov Isaksson and Soren Hallgren (Chicago: Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, 1969). Paul Elmen’s Wheat Flour Messiah: Eric Jansson of Bishop Hill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976) provides an excellent account of the religious vision that gave birth to that colony.




The University of Illinois inevitably dominates the literature of education in mid-Illinois. Loyal alumni accounts, department histories, and picture books abound. There is however no up-to-date one-volume history of the university for the general reader. The serious student can delve into Winton U. Solberg’s The University of Illinois, 1867–1894: An Intellectual and Cultural History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968) and The University of Illinois, 1894–1904: The Shaping of the University (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000). These books are highly regarded, but as was noted ruefully in a review by Illinois State University’s Paul Holsinger, “If the Press continues at such a pace, readers will not have an in-depth account of our present day until sometime around the year 2400. By that time, there will be at least ten or perhaps twelve separate volumes and no less than five thousand pages.”


Many other more specialized works take university colleges, departments, and personalities as their topics. They include Teachers for the Prairie: The University of Illinois and the Schools, 1868–1945 by Harry C. Johnson, Jr. and Erwin V. Johanningmeir (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972) and Richard Gordon Moore’s Fields of Rich Toil: The Development of the University of Illinois College of Agriculture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970). John Milton Gregory and the University of Illinois by Harry A. Kersey, Jr. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968) is a “detailed and engrossing” account of the important early regent, said Jerome L. Rodnitzky.

An Illini Century: One Hundred Years of Campus Life, edited by Roger Ebert (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) is composed of news items, quotations, and editorial comments culled from the pages of the Daily Illini, the student newspaper. “Many a book by a professional historian has told less about a university or college and its life and times,” wrote reviewer Irving Dilliard of Princeton University.


Up the road in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois State University is less large and less distinguished, but is much like its cousin in Urbana-Champaign in its eagerness to chronicle itself. Helen E. Marshall’s, Grandest of Enterprises: The Illinois State Normal University, 1857–1957 (Normal: Illinois State University, 1956) and The Eleventh Decade: Illinois State University, 1957–1967 (Normal: Illinois State University, 1967) tell the tale; these works were updated by a series  of so-called "decade" histories, beginning with Roger Champagne’s A Place of Education: Illinois State University, 1967–1977 (Normal: Illinois State University Foundation, 1978) which documents the late 1960s and early 1970s. A new look at ISU’s past comes from John Freed, the university’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, in the form of Educating Illinois: Illinois State University, 1857–2007 (Virginia Beach, Vir.: Donning Company, Publishers, 2009).


The early years of Eastern Illinois State Normal School are recounted in Eastern Illinois State College: Fifty Years of Public Service by Charles H. Coleman (Charleston, Ill.: 1950). For the development of the Western Illinois State Normal School, founded in 1899, see Victor Hicken, The Purple and the Gold: The Story of Western Illinois University (Macomb: Western Illinois University Foundation, 1970).


Not all of mid-Illinois’s fine small colleges have published histories equal to their standing. One that does is Illinois College. Illinois College: A Centennial History, 1829–1929 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928) by Charles Henry Rammelkamp is reckoned by many to be the best; it has been updated (in 1979 and 1982) but not equaled. The sectarian roots of the school are explored in Iver F. Yeager, Church and College on the Illinois Frontier: The Beginnings of Illinois College and the United Church of Christ in Central Illinois, 1829–1984 (Jacksonville, Ill.: Illinois College, 1980). Other works include To Heights and Beyond: The Story of Illinois College, 1955–1973 by L. Vernon Caine (Carbondale: Southern University Press, 1986) and Charles Edward Frank’s Pioneer’s Progress: Illinois College, 1829–1979 (Carbondale: Southern University Press, 1979.


Events on the other side of Jacksonville’s Main Street are recalled in Mary Watters, The First One Hundred Years of MacMurray College (Springfield, Ill.: Williamson Printing & Publishing Company, 1947) and Forward in the Second Century of MacMurray College: A History of 125 Years (Jacksonville, Ill.: MacMurray College, 1972) by Walter B. Hendrickson.


Hendrickson also added to the Jacksonville bookshelf with From Shelter to Self-reliance: A History of the Illinois Braille and Sight Saving School (Jacksonville, Ill., 1972). Unfortunately, few other state institutions have their own histories in book form.

The growth of what is now Illinois Wesleyan University is recounted in The Illinois Wesleyan Story, 1850–1950 by Elmo Scott Watson (Bloomington, Ill.: Illinois Wesleyan University Press, 1950). Liberal Arts and Sciences at Bradley, 1897–1997: A Profile by Warren Dwyer (Peoria, Ill.: Bradley University, 1998) treats the development of Peoria’s premier institution of higher ed. The Disciples of Christ founded Eureka College in 1855, and Harold Adams wrote about it in History of Eureka College (Eureka, Ill.: Board of Trustees of Eureka College, 1982). Today’s Millikin University began life as the Decatur College and Industrial School. Its first century is told in Millikin University: The First 100 years 1901–2001 by Gerald A. Redford (Decatur, Ill.: Millikin University, 2001).

The story of Monmouth College, sponsored for a time by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, is told in F. Garvin Davenport’s Monmouth College: The First Hundred Years, 1853–1953 (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1953) and William Urban’s A History of Monmouth College through Its Fifth Quarter Century (Monmouth, Ill.: Monmouth College, 1979). Lombard College opened in 1851 as a Universalist school; what happened next is told by James A. Swanson in A History of Lombard College, 1851–1930 (Macomb, Ill.: Western Illinois State College, 1955).


Episcopalian-sponsored Jubilee College opened in 1840 and thus deserves the subtitle given it in Roma Louise Shively’s Jubilee: A Pioneer College (Elmwood, Ill.: Elmwood Gazette, 1935). The Lutheran Synod of Northern Illinois also sponsored Carthage College, which moved from Carthage, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1962, as is recounted in The Miracle of Carthage: History of Carthage College, 1847–1974 by Harold H. Lentz (Lima, Ohio: C. S. S. Publishing Co., 1975).


Other schools will dispute whether Knox College is the jewel among mid-Illinois’s private colleges, but there is no question that it is the most writen about among such schools, and arguably the fondest recalled. Southern Illinois University’s William Eaton found Hermann R. Muelder’s Missionaries and Muckrakers—The First Hundred Years of Knox College (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984) to be “far superior . . . to most institutional histories.” Muelder also gave us Fighters for Freedom: The History of Anti-Slavery Activities of Men and Women Associated with Knox College (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959). Knox’s second president is profiled in Clyde S. Kilby’s Minority of One: The Biography of Jonathan Blanchard (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959).


Much of the history of the region’s public school systems remains entombed in scholarly journals. One aspect of the story to see the light is Robert L. McCaul’s The Black Struggle for Public Schooling in Nineteenth-Century Illinois (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009).


A Chautauqua to Remember (A Story of Old Salem) by Kathryn Aird Miller and Raymond H. Montgomery (Bellmore, NY: Silent River Press, 1987) recalls one of the most successful of all turn-of-the-century Chautauquas, near Petersburg.




Long the domain of the buff, railroad history fills a good part of the shelves devoted to Illinois’s past. The Illinois Central, the longest railroad in the nation at the time of its completion, has attracted the most attention. Among many works on the IC are Paul W. Gates’s The Illinois Central Railroad and Its Colonization Work (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934), Carlton J. Corliss’s Main Line of Mid-America: The Story of the Illinois Central (Creative Age Press, 1950), History of the Illinois Central Railroad by John F. Stover (New York: Macmillan, 1975), and David L. Lightner’s Labor on the Illinois Central Railroad, 1852–1900: The Evolution of an Industrial Environment (New York: Arno Press, 1977). The IC also figures in William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, mentioned above.


The Illinois Terminal Railroad: The Road of Personalized Services by Dale Jenkins (Raytown, Mo.: White River Productions, 2005) tells the tale of the largest interurban railroad in the country from its opening as the Illinois Traction in 1901 to its demise in 1981. Illinois Terminal: The Electric Years by Paul H. Stringham (Glendale, Cal.: Interurban Press, 1989) and The Lincoln Land Traction by James D. Johnson (Wheaton, Ill.: The Traction Orange Co., 1965) are more than mere hobbyist treatments of the Illinois Terminal Railroad’s youthful self, the Illinois Traction System. There are many other books of equal quality, and equaly narrow appeal.




Local business histories have common faults. For one thing, there is not enough of them, considering business’s importance to the region. Those that are written tend to chronicle only successful firms, even though such firms are by definition unrepresentative; the fates of the many that fail might tell us more. And biographies of company founders tend to be too kind to their subjects.


Springfield’s surprisingly rich industrial past has been the subject of several such books. Sangamo, A History of Fifty Years by Robert Carr Lanphier and Benjamin Platt Thomas (Chicago: Priv. print., 1949) was augmented by Part Three, Sangamo, 1949–1959: A Supplement To Sangamo, A History of Fifty Years by John H. Schacht (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamo Electric Company, 1960?). The Fabulous Franklin Story: The History of the Franklin Life Insurance Company was told by Franklin’s Francis J. O'Brien (Springfield, Ill.: The Franklin Life Insurance Company, 1972). The Illinois Watch: The Life and Times of a Great American Watch Company by Frederic J. Friedberg (Chicago: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2004) is part history, part collector's guide.


In addition to Seed, Soil, and Science by Helen M. Cavanagh, described above, notable works on Bloomington-Normal’s business history include A History: Building a Greater Community: McLean County Chamber of Commerce, 1900–2000 by Illinois State University history professor M. Paul Holsinger (Bloomington, Ill.: McLean County Chamber of Commerce, 2000). More than one reviewer found that The Farmer from Merna: A Biography of George J. Mecherle and a History of the State Farm Insurance Companies of Bloomington, Illinois by Karl Schriftgiesser (New York: Random House, 1996) over-praised the virtues of its subject, who was in fact not unusual among go-getting businessmen of his time and place.


The Kernel and the Bean: The 75-Year Story of the Staley Company by Dan J. Forrestal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982) is an informative commissioned history of Decatur’s A.E. Staley Company. The official history of Archer Daniels Midland, the food processing giant headquartered in Decatur, is conveyed by The Nature of What's To Come: A Century of Innovation (Decatur, Ill.: The company, 2002).


Working people are often all but invisible in most business histories, except as problems for management to solve. Histories based on oral histories allow the working people of the region to speak for themselves. Among them are The Legacy of the Mines: Memoirs of Coal Mining in Fulton County, Illinois, edited by John E. Hallwas (Canton, Ill.: Spoon River College, 1993) and Bloomington’s C & A Shops: Our Lives Remem­bered (Bloomington: McLean County Historical Society, 1988) by Michael G. Matejka and Greg Koos. Carl Oblinger's Divided Kingdom: Work, Community, and the Mining Wars in the Central Illinois Coal Fields During the Great Depression (Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Historical Society, 1991) focuses on communities and events in the coal fields of mid-Illinois through biographical anecdotes culled from interviews with thirty-six men and four women.


Over a period of a half-century, the labor union wars of mid-Illinois produced many an outsized character, only a few of whom, alas, have been painted on the page. One who was is Mary “Mother Jones” Harris, whose life story, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, was first published in 1925 and has since been republished in several editions. 

The Illinois coal wars are still being fought in the pages of history journals and partisan tracts. Midnight at Noon: A History of Coal Mining in Sangamon County by James Krohe Jr. (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamon County Historical Society, 1975) is useful if limited in scope.


John L. Lewis is usually cast as the villain in the coal mine disputes of the 1920s and ‘30s. The story of Lewis’s union antagonists in  Illinois is partly told in Harriet D. Hudson, The Progressive Mine Workers of America: A Study in Rival Unionism (Bureau of Economic and Business Research Bulletin, University of Illinois, 1952). John L. Lewis, a Biography by Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren van Tine (New York: New York Times Books, 1977) is well documented, for example, but at least one reviewer found that the work scants Lewis's relationship to Illinois’s District 12. The version published by the University of Illinois Press in 1986 is abridged.


Civil rights and social change


Illinoisans’ struggles to cope with difference, diversity, and the dependent citizen are old issues, as one learns from In Tender Consideration: Women, Families, and the Law in Abraham Lincoln's Illinois, edited by Daniel W. Stowell (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).


 Escape Betwixt Two Suns: A True Tale of the Underground Railroad in Illinois by Carol Pirtle comes with a foreword by Rodney O. Davis (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000). The book recounts the efforts of William Hayes to help slaves from southern Ilinois escape to Galesburg. A Little More Freedom: African Americans Enter the Urban Midwest, 1860–1930 by Jack S. Blocker (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008) adds to our understanding of that process in mid-Illinois.


Unsung Heroines: A Salute to Springfield Women by Melinda Fish Kwedar (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamon County Historical Society, 1977) offers biographies of eight of the capital city's outstanding women, including Susan E. Wilcox, mentor to Vachel Lindsay, and Margaret Cross Norton, president of the Society of American Archivists and for many years the nation’s only woman state archivist.


The life of Galesburg’s heroic Civil War nurse is recounted in Nina Brown Baker’s Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke (Boston: Little Brown, 1952) and in Adèle De Leeuw’s Civil War Nurse, Mary Ann Bickerdyke. (New York: J. Messner, 1973). An interesting nineteenth century Galesburg-born educator and temperance worker is the subject of Mary Allen West: A Lady of Grit, Grace and Gumption (Galesburg, Ill.: Zephyr Publishing, 1997).


Hancock County’s anti-Mormon violence is the subject of Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill’s Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975). The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999) is John E. Hallwas’s superior social history told through the life of local desperado Henry "Kelly" Wagle.


Most accounts of the race riots in Springfield in 1908 focus on their effects, such as the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; its causes are the focus of Roberta Senechal’s excellent The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), whose reprint edition the SIU Press sensibly retitled as In Lincoln's Shadow: The 1908 Race Riot in Springfield, Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008).


Politics and government


Most memoirs by Illinois governors have been self-serving, including those from executives with mid-Illinois connections. Most, such as Richard Yates and Catharine Yates Pickering’s Serving the Republic: Richard Yates, Illinois Governor and Richard Yates, Civil War Governor: An Autobiography as edited by John H. Krenkel (Danville, Ill.: Interstate Printers & Publishers, 1966) should not be the first works a curious student of the topic picks up about either of those men.


A better book of this type is Personal Recollections: The Story of an Earnest Life by John M. Palmer (Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1901). A Conscientious Turncoat: The Story of John M. Palmer, 1817–1900 by George Thomas Palmer (New Haven: Yale University Press and London: Oxford University Press, 1941) was written by his grandson; most reviewers found it much duller than its subject.


Biographers of other mid-Illinois governors have done better by readers. The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family by the well-known historian Jean H. Baker (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997) explains the future governor in the context of his important Bloomington commercial and political clan. The first volume of John Bartlow Martin’s The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson, subtitled Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976) is generally honored as the definitive biography covering the Illinois years. While praising Martin for his better-than-average understanding of Illinois campaigning and legislation, Robert P. Howard insisted that “there is still a need for a specialized biography that ignores Washington and the United Nations and concentrates on what happened in Illinois.”


Howard, by the way, is the author of an indispensable collection of biographical sketches of all Illinois governors, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors, 1818–1988 (Springfield, Ill.: Illinois Issues, Sangamon State University, and Illinois State Historical Society, 1988). Mark A. Plummer’s Lincoln's Rail Splitter: Governor Richard J. Oglesby (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001) introduces readers to the man who was Illinois governor from 1865 to 1869 and again from 1885 to 1889 and who—no less significantly in the mid of the larger public—came up with the rail-splitter image for Abraham Lincoln's successful presidential campaign of 1860. Chicago’s Henry Horner was popular in mid-Illinois, and his failure to stop the union wars there in the 1930s was in spite of his good faith efforts—an episode explored in Horner of Illinois by Thomas B. Littlewood (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969). A revised and updated version was published under the title Henry Horner and the Burden of Tragedy (Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2007).


It is often forgotten that Lincoln lost his 1858 race for the U.S. senate to Stephen A. Douglas, another adopted son of mid-Illinois. John Y. Simon called Stephen A. Douglas, Robert W. Johannsen’s biography of the Little Giant (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) “magnificent.” An Uncertain Tradition: U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818–2003 by David Kenney and Robert E. Hartley (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003, reissued in 2012 as The Heroic and the Notorious: U.S. Senators from Illinois) offers limited but interesting looks at the careers of a group that includes several mid-Illinois men.


Holding a seat in the U.S. Senate for thirty years is An achievement if not always a distinction, and James W. Neilson explains how it was done by one Springfieldian at the turn of the twentieth century in Shelby M. Cullom, Prairie State Republican (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962). Fifty Years of Public Service: Personal Recollections of Shelby M. Cullom by Shelby M. Cullom (New York: Da Capo Press, 1969) is “colorful and anecdotal,” writes Joseph G. Gambone of the Kansas State Historical Society, but “not everything he says should be accepted as factual and accurate.”


Robert G. Ingersoll: Peoria's Pagan Politician by Mark A. Plummer (Macomb: Western Illinois Monograph Series, No. 4, Western Illinois University, 1984) explored the failed political career of that singular Peoria personality during the 1860s and '70s. Democratic leader Scott W. Lucas from Havana had a successful political career but has not yet gotten the book he probably deserves.


One politician who did was Joe Cannon, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the pre-World War I era. He is the subject of Tyrant from Illinois: Uncle Joe Cannon’s Experiment with Personal Power (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1951) by Blair Bolles, which was reprinted in 1974 by Westport, Connecticut’s Greenwood Press. Everett Dirksen, Pekin’s gift to oratory, received a biography not quite as colorful as he was in Dirksen of Illinois: Senatorial Statesman by Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985). The memoir Dirksen was writing when he died in 1969 was published as The Education of a Senator (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); it covers the years of his boyhood through his election to the Senate in 1950.


Drought and insect pests were not a mid-Illinois farmer’s only problems. Farmers’ attempts to rid themselves of some of the others is recounted in The Agrarian Movement in Illinois 1880–1896 by Roy V. Scott (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962).

It took a former state representative to think that being a state representative was interesting enough to write a book about it. Then-freshman Illinois state legislator Paul Simon treated the antebellum Illinois General Assembly as a venue for Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). Adlai: The Springfield Years (Nashville: Aurora Publishers, Inc., 1975) by then-reporter Patricia Harris reveals the Stevenson governorship from the perspective of the press room, and makes one wonder why more statehouse reporters haven’t written memoirs.


The eleven essays in Diversity, Conflict, and State Politics: Regionalism in Illinois, edited by Peter Nardulli (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) are pertinent to mid-Illinois. Politics from a different perspective altogether is the topic of Daniel J. Elazar’s important investigation into political cultures of Illinois, Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1970) which casts a sociological light on Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Springfield, and Decatur. The work was updated in The Closing of the Metropolitan Frontier: Cities of the Prairie Revisited by Rozann Rothman, Stephen L. Schecter, et al, with an introduction by Elazar (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986). A similar, if more limited treatment of culture and politics is Richard J. Jensen’s The Winning of The Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).


State agencies and institutions deserve better histories than the civic-book treatment they usually get. One wishes there were more accounts along the lines of Milton D. Thompson’s The Illinois State Museum: Historical Sketch and Memoirs (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1988), written by a long-time museum director. Joan Gittens recounts the pendulum swings between scandal and reform back to indifference and neglect that characterize the State of Illinois’s fitful attempts to do right by vulnerable children; her Poor Relations: The Children of the State of Illinois 1818–1990 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) spends much time discussing the important state institutions in Normal, Lincoln, and Jacksonville. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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