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Illinois's own Southland, introduced

Nature of Illinois

Spring/Summer 1988

Illinois is a big state, and I bought a lot of groceries over the years by writing essentially tourist guides introducing different parts of Illinois to Illinoisans who had never seen them. This guide to far southern Illinois has a distinctly natural resources slant, appropriate to a magazine devoted to that aspect of Illinois.

I reordered one paragraph of the original to improve readability.


On hazy, humid summer days, the gorges where the fern forests grow are always cool. But the upland rivers often slow to trickles, and only the bigger swamps—where cottonmouths curl between the cypress trees—never dry up. The hills provide only poor farming, although sorghum does well enough and the apple and peach crops are fine if it isn't too cold. There are jobs in the tripoli mines, but cheap imports from Mexico have made the future doubtful for the fluorspar miners.

Louisiana? Kentucky? No, Illinois. The southernmost 16 counties of the Prairie State comprise the warmest, lowest, hilliest, treeiest part of Illinois. Nestled in the arms of the Mississippi, Wabash, and Ohio rivers, the region is Illinois in a cartographic image. But geologically, climatalogically, and ecologically it is closer kin to the border-state South.


To its historically minded residents, southern Illinois is still "Egypt," the nickname attached to it in the 1840s in honor of its fabled (and ultimately short-lived) fertility. To the rest of the state, southern Illinois is no particular place at all. One of the standard guide books to Illinois—the one authored by the old Works Progress Administration, published in 1939 and revised in 1974—profiles only one southern town of the 22 Illinois towns and cities which get special mention. Even that one—Cairo—interests the authors more for what it once was than what it then was.


Part of the problem is that southern Illinois is physically remote from the economic and political centers of Illinois. Geography is destiny, and Carbondale, the region's largest city, is 331 miles from Chicago. That puts Carbondale farther from Chicago than Chicago is from Indianapolis, Dubuque, Louisville, Cincinnati, or Detroit.


The war of water and stone


It is not mere distance which explains southern Illinois's distinctiveness but nature. Repeated invasions of glacial ice physically transformed most of the rest of the state during the Pleistocene Age. More than 90 percent of Illinois (including the northern edge of southern Illinois) lies in what geographers call the Central Lowland of the United States, a physiographic region which is about as interesting as its name suggests. By comparison, the unglaciated south of the state is a riot of topography. The Shawnee Hills (the northernmost extension of the Ozark Mountains) are part of the Interior Low Plateau which peeks into Illinois from the east. The Ozark Plateau reaches into southern Illinois from the west, and the Coastal Plain—coastal as in “Gulf coast,” a bit of the bayou country gone upriver—forms the extreme southern tip of the state.


Glacial ice repeatedly interrupted erosional processes in the north, obliterating old landscapes and depositing new and flatter ones, most recently about 12,000 years ago. In contrast, the south's hillsides tend to be steeper and its valleys deeper than elsewhere in Illinois. As Richard Berg, an environmental geologist with the Illinois Geological Survey explains, "Mother Nature has had a long time to operate on it and carve it out. The land is much more dissected and the streams are more entrenched." The thin mantle of surface deposits has been washed or blown away to reveal bedrock in many places; once exposed, that rock has been carved into steep canyons, even natural stone bridges.


Time and physiographic variety combined to produce a local landscape of exhilarating diversity. There are clay plains, sandstone ravines, muddy floodplains, gravel hills, cliffs, caves, and swamps—each feature a treaty of sorts in the wars which have been fought for tens of thousands of years between water and stone.

If geology supplied the canvas on which southern Illinois's face was drawn, climate provided the brush. Harrisburg, Illinois, lies farther south than does Louisville, Kentucky. Mean annual snowfall on southern Illinois is only nine inches, compared to the 30-odd inches which usually fall every winter on northern Illinois. Season by season, the southern counties are 16 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than their upstate cousins. They are also wetter, a fact owed partly to terrain. As Wayne Wendland of the Illinois Water Survey explains, the hills in southern Illinois push moist air masses upward as they pass, cooling them and making local precipitation rates roughly ten percent higher than they would be otherwise.


Natural Divisions


Together, geology and climate define not just the landscape but the possibilities for life in any region. Diverse habitat explains why five of the 14 "natural divisions" identified in Illinois are represented in southern Illinois even though the region encompasses only 11 percent of the state's land area. The plant and animal life which has come to occupy these niches is as different from that of the rest of the state as the terrain. The Shawnee National Forest sprawls across parts of ten of the 16 southern Illinois counties. A recent study found that the forest was home to more than 500 wildlife species, many of them rare Many creatures are found in Illinois only in these counties. A few, such as the crayfish Orconcetes illinoiensis, are found only in these counties period, being known nowhere else.


In the 1970s, Illinois Natural History Survey botanist Robert Evers (now retired) and fish taxonomist Larry Page described a few of the region's riches in Biological Notes No. 100, "Some Unusual Natural Areas in Illinois." They described insects which stroll about in the snow and grasshoppers which look like lichens, grass that grows eight feet tall and plant communities which dwell on floating logs, cavefish and rice rats and bird-voiced tree frogs and beetles bigger than some mammals, and mosquito fern so thick that it makes open water look like a manicured lawn.


Because southern Illinois sits on the continental cusps between north and south, east and west, its flora and fauna comprise quite cosmopolitan communities At Jackson Hollow, filmy ferns grow in the shady, moist undercuts of cliffs on whose sun-baked crowns rock selaginella grows on solid sandstone The local staphylinid beetle is a truant from its original eastern habitat, as are relict populations of northern fishes who have found refuge in the cool spring-fed waters of Hardin County's Big Creek. Visit LaRue swamp in Union County, however and (in the words of Evers and Page), "The plaintive calls of the chuck-will's-widow and the mockingbird remind one that he is now in the southland."

Why the ranges of certain plants and animals are limited to these counties is not well understood. Some explanations are obvious. As Page puts it, a swamp creature will usually be found where the swamps are. But Glen Sanderson of the Natural History Survey notes that even though stream bottom habitat suitable for southern Illinois's swamp rabbit, for example, exists in other parts of the state, the animal has never strayed far from its present home. "We just can't put our finger on it, although it's probably the climate,” Sanderson suggests, speculating that differences in the species' enzyme system may leave it less adaptable to cold.

Southern Illinois was the most heavily forested part of presettlement Illinois. The oak-hickory forest common to the rest of the state occurs here, but so does beech-maple forest from the east and such southern species as cypress, pecan, tupelo, and catalpa. Most of the present stands are second-growth timber at best and thus pale shadows of their 19th century ancestors, but a few majestic patches of presettlement forests survive "Certainly there are places which have never been lumbered," confirms Louis Iverson, Natural History Survey botanist. Cypresses have reached 100 feet, and some sycamores in the Wabash River bottomland stand 150 feet tall.


Extracting the past


To drive through southern Illinois is to take a tour of Illinois's past. Southern Illinois today probably looks much the way the rest of Illinois looked before it was buried under the thick blankets of sands, silts, and gravels left behind by the glaciers. The major plant communities in turn constitute a museum of climatological change. Remnants of the northern boreal forests which covered Illinois during cooler eras survive in the shade of cliffs. Prairie openings on blufftops are reminders of warmer, dryer intervals, while relicts of more recent moist forest types still grow in ravine bottoms.


Here and there, the traveler can glimpse an even more ancient past. The bedrock of the Illinois Basin is cupped, the strata of succeeding geologic ages stacked like spoons. Buried under hundreds of feet of glacial debris elsewhere, the edges of these strata emerge at or near the surface in western and southern Illinois. The exposed rock is Pennsylvania-era sandstones and limestones mostly, along with older Mississippian, Silurian, and Ordovician formations.

In these fossil landscapes are hidden minerals which are no less exotic in their origins than the modern plants and animals which dwell atop them. Tripoli, or amorphous silica, is a very fine-grained quartz used to polish glass, among other industrial uses. The only known deposits of it occur in Union and Alexander counties, where it has been mined since early in this century. "Those rocks in other parts of the state tend to contain lots of cherty materials," explains John Masters of the Geological Survey. "For some reason that material has been altered in that local area, perhaps as a result of a very ancient period of weathering."


Fluorspar is another unique mineral extensively used in the manufacture of steel, aluminum, and chemicals. Only Mexico and China have larger deposits than the United States, and most U.S. output comes from Hardin and Pope counties. The deposits were created when fluorine-rich solutions seeped into limestone from deep in the earth, dissolving the host stone and replacing it with fluorite. "The process is fairly common," says Masters, "but the occurrence of deposits of minable quantity is not."

Mineral extraction was southern Illinois's first industry, and remains its largest. In the mid-19th century, salt was evaporated from brackish spring water along the Saline River for export up and down the Ohio River. Today the river barges carry coal, not salt. There is coal under most of Illinois, but in few other spots are the deposits so thick at minable depths. Springfield and Herrin coals occur here within reach of giant strip mine shovels, in veins as thick as 8 to 15 feet. At greater depths lie most of the few sizable deposits of relatively low-sulfur coal in Illinois. As a result, coal is mined in nine of the 16 southernmost counties. Combined, their mines account for nearly two-thirds of the state's total output in recent years.


Our Southern brethren


Such natural wealth, along with its network of river highways, explains why southern Illinois has a record of continuous human habitation stretching back at least 15,000 years. Archaeological surveys of the Shawnee National Forest grounds alone have so far found more than 900 prehistoric sites. The Indians, such as those who repeatedly camped at the rock shelter at Modoc as long as 10,000 years ago, found plentiful game, nuts, and fish. The French, whose 18th century occupation of the region is revealed in the names of Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres and the architecture of Kaskaskia and Cahokia, grew rich trading in grains and furs.


The French were only the first phase of European settlement in the region. In the 19th century, white settlement began in earnest. Most of the newcomers came across the Ohio from Kentucky and the mid-Atlantic states to the east in the years before the Erie Canal and then the railroads opened up the flatter, more fertile parts of the state. Local culture historically reflects the traits of hill people everywhere, including independence, clannishness, and skepticism of outsiders. (For example, poaching on public land is considered less a crime than a tradition.) Even today, many southern Illinoisans speak with more of a drawl than a twang. It should not surprise the visitor that some southern Illinoisans are more southern than lllinoisan. Marion, after all, lies 150 miles south of the old Mason-Dixon Line.


The French came as artisans. missionaries, and traders and they prospered. Later American arrivals were largely poor and unskilled, and thus were doomed, at least at first, to subsistence farming. Making a living in southern Illinois has never been easy. For as long as there has been a rest of the state, the southern part of Illinois has lagged behind it in income and employment. The hills and heavy clay soils leave much of the region ill-suited to Illinois's more familiar farm staples. Instead, fruit orchards profitably combine agriculture and forestry in some areas. Union and Saline counties lead Illinois in the production of such horticultural exotica as cucumbers, sweet peppers, and popcorn. But in general, farms in southern Illinois have been smaller than elsewhere in Illinois, and earn less. Sorghum and wheat are more drought-tolerant than corn and soybeans but they do not earn as much.


A fragile delta

As the region became more heavily populated, the fertility of this new Egypt quickly proved to be fragile. Over-hunting decimated the birds and large game which had astonished travelers such as the young John James Audubon. Huge tracts of timber were cleared for farming, building, and fuel. (At the height of the salt industry, for instance, the state legislature set aside 180,000 acres of timber just to keep the salt-maker's kettles boiling.)


Unfortunately, soil which can sustain a forest often cannot sustain a farm. The soils of southern Illinois were only a few inches thick in places. Exposed to weather for 60,000 years (far longer than the newer soil of the north), they were often acid and nutrient-poor as a result of leaching. Erosion quickly chewed away the hillsides once the protective cover of trees was removed. The clay pan which lies just beneath the surface across much of the region keeps rain and melting snow from soaking into deeper soil layers. Surface water runs off quickly, leaving many areas prone to flooding when it rains too much and prone to drought when it doesn't rain enough.

As a result, the attempt to wrestle a living from land not well-suited for it damaged both the farms and the farmers. By the 1930's the region was littered with thousands of acres of fields which had been abandoned because either the soil or the farmer was too poor ('"You can't grow corn on bedrock," observes Berg.) Timberland had been over-cut in places and pasture overgrazed. The federal government bought up nearly 90,000 acres of spent land, the nucleus of what is today the more than quarter-million-acre Shawnee National Forest.

As forests go, the Shawnee is an oddity, and its oddness tells a lot about the often careless human occupation of southern Illinois. To save the soil, federal agencies planted some 46,000 acres in pine populations, which some ecologists today regard as weeds in the garden compared to the native deciduous woods they replaced. The wooded tracts are not continuous in any event, being interspersed with towns, farms, and mines.


The wholesale despoliation of land inside the forest boundaries has ceased, of course, but elsewhere the region's natural resources are still often misused. Forested private land is still being cleared to plant highly erodible row crops. Man-made fires are fairly common, and unrestricted grazing of woods by livestock has killed off native understory plant species and left woods open to invasion by non-native weeds.


And the future? How long the coal will last can't be predicted, and agriculture may never be dependably profitable. But southern Illinois's terrain and wildlife are proving to be a profitable base for expanding tourism and recreation industries. Cairo may or may not be the "Goose Capital of the World," as it has claimed, but it certainly is the goose capital of Illinois Hundreds of thousands of waterfowl such as Canada geese make their homes in the region's many wildlife refuges. Settings of such striking beauty are making the region a refuge for humans too. specifically the ex-urbanites who began moving to the region to live in the 1970s. Not for the first time, the past of southern Illinois may well be its future.  ●




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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