Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How Cook County Became Part of Illinois

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How Cook County Became Part of Illinois

As Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, advocates to kick Cook County out of Illinois, we would like to remind him that it only became part of the state at the insistence of his fellow Central Illinoisan, Nathaniel Pope of Springfield. And Pope wanted it for the very same reason Mitchell wants to get rid of it: because it would add a metropolitan, Northern character to Illinois.

Pope was the territorial delegate to Congress in 1817, as Illinois was preparing to enter the union. Originally, the Northwest Ordinance had declared the new state’s northern border would run along a line defined by the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Had that been followed, the border would have stretched from Calumet City to Moline. What we now know as Chicago would have been part of Wisconsin.

But Pope wanted more. He proposed pushing the boundary line 31 miles north. Illinois needed more people to qualify for statehood. And there were both commercial and political advantages to possessing a port on Lake Michigan. The new state could build a canal connecting the Mississippi Valley to the Great Lakes. Most of the Illinois Territory’s settlers were Southerners, like Pope, who was born in Kentucky. Pro-slavery sentiment was strong. But since Mississippi had just been admitted to the union, and would soon be followed by Alabama and Missouri, it was essential that Illinois be a free state, to preserve the balance in the Senate.

According to a paper from Northern Illinois University:

The reason for Pope’s bold move was "too obvious" for him to spell out in detail, although he did speak pointedly about the necessity of connecting the new state with the northern interests of New York and New England through a port at Chicago. He also suggested that a canal connecting Lake Michigan with the Illinois River would do more than facilitate commerce, swinging Illinois into the political orbit of the northern states, thus "affording additional security to the perpetuity of the Union."

In other words, Pope wanted Chicago because it would bring liberal, Yankee values to Illinois, and prevent it from becoming a copperhead state…like Indiana. Pope’s mapmaking helped preserve the Union during the Civil War. The president who led the nation was nominated by the Republican National Convention in Chicago, as the favorite son of the anti-slavery Illinois delegation. Without the northern counties, Lincoln would not have had as much support in the state. The general who led the army was from Galena.

At the time, of course, no one imagined that the unincorporated settlement at the mouth of the Chicago River would become one of the world’s great cities. But Pope realized it would be essential to shaping the state’s character.

Illinois is not an average state. But without Chicago, it would be. 

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