You might think your town is old, but it probably isn’t the oldest in the country.
That is unless you live in St. Augustine, FL. Which looks pretty good for being 454 years old.
That’s older than America for those playing at home.
So that got us thinking, what is the oldest city in Illinois? And how old is that when you put it into perspective of St. Augustine or American Independence in 1776?
Because even if your Illinois city or town is old, it isn’t really all that old in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Pyramids in Egypt were built around 2600 BC, a cool 4100 years before St. Augustine.
And now that we have you thinking about how the time line of your existence is really kind of unimpressive on the timeline of history, let’s drop right into the analysis.
These are the 10 oldest cities and towns in the Prairie State according to their ‘date of foundation’:
- Chicago (Photos)
- Des Plaines (Photos)
- East St. Louis (Photos)
- Springfield (Photos)
- Danville (Photos)
- Antioch (Photos)
- Oak Park (Photos)
- Princeton (Photos)
- St. Charles (Photos)
- Jerseyville (Photos)
For being 238 years old, Chicago doesn’t look a day over 40. And the newest city in Illinois? That would be Spring Grove — a brand spanking 16 years old.
How We Determined When A City Was Founded In Illinois… Or Is It Settled?
Surprisingly, there’s not a definitive data set that contains the dates of incorporation or settlement for cities in America. Put differently, there’s no official data set from the Census that contains when every place in America was founded.
So what did we do instead?
Use the internet’s version of official government data — Wikipedia of course!
For the majority of cities in Illinois, Wikipedia offers data on some kind of ‘date of foundation’ in the infobox. Unfortunately, because it’s Wikipedia and not a sprawling government bureaucracy, that can take the form of any of the following nomenclature (plus others):
And then even more stuff — for example Atlanta has a ‘Terminus’ date, whatever that is.
If no ‘date of foundation’ was found in the infobox, we looked to the general text in the History section of the city for ‘Founded in XXXX’.
All in all, we were able to collect data on 267 out of 336 in Illinois with over 5,000 people. That’s good for a 79.5% completion rate.
We then ranked them from oldest to newest with Chicago turning out to be the matriarch of Illinois at the ripe old age of 238.
Here’s a look at the top ten and a snippet of their history from Wikipedia.
The name ‘Chicago’ is derived from a French rendering of the Miami-Illinois word Shikaakwa, known to botanists as Allium tricoccum. The first known reference to the site of the current city of Chicago as ‘Checagou’ was by Robert de LaSalle around 1679 in a memoir. Henri Joutel, in his journal of 1688, noted that the wild garlic, called ‘Chicagoua’, grew abundantly in the area. According to his diary of late September 1687:
when we arrived at the said place called ‘Chicagou’ which, according to what we were able to learn of it, has taken this name because of the quantity of garlic which grows in the forests in this region.
2. Des Plaines
Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Ojibwe (Chippewa) Native American tribes inhabited the Des Plaines River Valley prior to Europeans’ arrival. When French explorers and missionaries arrived in the 1600s, in what was then the Illinois Country of New France, they named the waterway La Rivière des Plaines (River of the Plane Tree) as they felt that trees on the river resembled the European plane tree. The first white settlers came from the eastern United States in 1833, after the Treaty of Chicago, followed by many German immigrants during the 1840s and 1850s. In the 1850s, land in the area was purchased by the Illinois and Wisconsin Land Company along a railroad line planned between Chicago and Janesville, Wisconsin. In 1852, the developers built a steam-powered mill next to the river, to cut local trees into railroad ties. Socrates Rand then bought the mill and converted it into a grist mill, which attracted local farmers. The Illinois and Wisconsin Railroad made its first stop in the area in the fall of 1854.
3. East St. Louis
Native Americans had long inhabited both sides of the Mississippi River. The Mississippian culture rulers organized thousands of workers to construct villages and complex earthwork mounds at what later became St. Louis and East St. Louis, as well as the urban complex of Cahokia to the north of East St. Louis within present-day Collinsville, Illinois. Before the Civil War, settlers reported up to 50 mounds in the area that became East St. Louis, but most were lost to 19th-century development and later roadbuilding.
Springfield’s original name was Calhoun, after Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. The land that Springfield now occupies was originally settled by trappers and traders who came to the Sangamon River in 1818. The settlement’s first cabin was built in 1820, by John Kelly. It was located at what is now the northwest corner of Second Street and Jefferson Street. In 1821, Calhoun became the county seat of Sangamon County due to fertile soil and trading opportunities. Settlers from Kentucky, Virginia, and as far as North Carolina came to the city. By 1832, Senator Calhoun had fallen out of the favor with the public and the town renamed itself Springfield after Springfield, Massachusetts. At that time, Springfield, Massachusetts was comparable to modern-day Silicon Valley—known for industrial innovation, concentrated prosperity, and the celebrated Springfield Armory. Most importantly, it was a city that had built itself up from frontier outpost to national power through ingenuity – an example that the newly named Springfield, Illinois, sought to emulate. Kaskaskia was the first capital of the Illinois Territory from its organization in 1809, continuing through statehood in 1818, and through the first year as a state in 1819. Vandalia was the second state capital of Illinois from 1819 to 1839. Springfield became the third and current capital of Illinois in 1839. The designation was largely due to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln and his associates; nicknamed the ‘Long Nine’ for their combined height of 54 feet (16 m).
The Potawatomi Trail of Death passed through here in 1838.
Danville was founded in 1827 on 60 acres (240,000 m2) of land donated by Guy W. Smith and 20 acres (81,000 m2) donated by Dan W. Beckwith. The sale of lots was set for April 10, 1827 and advertised in newspapers in Indianapolis, Indiana and the state capital of Vandalia. The first post office was established in May of the same year in the house of Amos Williams, organizer of Vermilion and Edgar Counties and a prominent Danville citizen. Williams and Beckwith drew up the first plat map; the city was named after Dan Beckwith at Williams’ suggestion, although Beckwith suggested the names ‘Williamsburg’ and ‘Williamstown’. Beckwith was born in Pennsylvania in 1795 and moved to Indiana as a young man; in 1819 he accompanied the first white explorers to the area where Danville later existed because of his interest in the salt springs of the Vermilion River. He died in 1835 of pneumonia contracted on a horseback ride back from Washington; he was 40 years old. Danville became a major industrial city in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. From the 1850s to the 1940s, Danville was an important coal mining area; some of the first open pit mining techniques were practiced here. The coal formation underlying eastern Illinois and western Indiana is named the ‘Danville Member,’ after the area where it was first discovered. With the closure of the mines and many factories, Danville’s economic base suffered in the latter half of the 20th century. The former mines were converted into lakes, creating fishing and recreation opportunities at parks such as Kickapoo State Recreation Area and Kennekuk Cove County Park.
The Pottawatomi Indian Tribe, semi-nomadic hunters who lived in wigwams, inhabited Antioch when white men began to arrive. They fought with the British in the War of 1812 and then with the American settlers in the Blackhawk War of 1832. It was in 1832 that the American Indians began to leave the area, although arrowheads and other remnants of their history can still be found today if one knows where to look. The winding Highway 173 was once an Indian trail and Highway 83 was the Muquonago Trail.
7. Oak Park
In 1835, Joseph Kettlestrings, an immigrant from England, purchased 172 acres (70 ha) of land just west of Chicago for a farm and their home. Once their children were born, they moved to Chicago for the schools in 1843, and moved back again in 1855 to build a more substantial home a bit east on their quarter section of land. More farmers and settlers had entered the area. Their land was called by several names locally, including Oak Ridge. When the first post office was set up, it could not use the name Oak Ridge as another post office was using that name in Illinois, so the post office chose Oak Park, and that name became the name for the settlement as it grew, and for the town when it incorporated in 1902.
Bureau County was a New England settlement. The original founders of Princeton consisted entirely of settlers from New England. These people were ‘Yankees,’ descended from the English Puritans who settled New England in the 1600s. They were part of a wave of New England farmers who headed west into what was then the wilds of the Northwest Territory during the early 1800s. Most of them arrived as a result of the completion of the Erie Canal. When they arrived in what is now Bureau County there was nothing but a virgin forest and wild prairie, the New Englanders laid out farms, constructed roads, erected government buildings and established post routes. They brought with them many of their Yankee New England values, such as a passion for education, fueling the establishment of many schools, as well as staunch support for abolitionism. They were mostly members of the Congregationalist Church though some were Episcopalian. Culturally Bureau County, like much of northern Illinois, would be culturally very continuous with early New England culture for most of its history. During the time of slavery, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad at the home of Owen Lovejoy.
9. St. Charles
St Charles was the location of the Native American community for the chief of the Pottawatomie that inhabited the area. A city park overlooking the river was dedicated to this Native American past. After the Black Hawk War in 1832, the entire area of the Fox Valley was opened to American settlement. Evan Shelby and William Franklin staked the first claim in what is now St. Charles in 1833. They came back in 1834 with their families from Indiana, and were joined by over a dozen other families later that year. The township was initially known as Charleston, but this name was already taken by the downstate city of Charleston, Illinois so the name of St. Charles (suggested by S. S. Jones, a lawyer) was adopted in 1839. St. Charles became incorporated as a city February 9, 1839 and reincorporated October 17, 1874 (under the 1870 Illinois Constitution).
In 1827, James Faulkner, a Pennsylvania native, and his family built a small framed structure that was named the ‘Little Red House,’ in the area that is now known as Jerseyville. The ‘Little Red House’ served as the first stagecoach station, first tavern, first school, and first bank in the immediate area. By 1834, the small settlement that grew up around Faulkner’s home, then known as Hickory Grove by its residents, was surveyed and platted by two immigrants from New Jersey, John Lott and Edward M. Daly. Lott and Daly’s involvement marked the beginning of a proportionally large number of merchants, businessmen and settlers from New Jersey. A meeting was called in that same year at the ‘Little Red House’ to vote for a town name, so a post office could be established. The name of Jerseyville was chosen to honor the native state of many of its inhabitants.
Oh How Time Flies For The Oldest Towns And Cities In Illinois
So there you have it, a look at some of the oldest places to live in Illinois. If we missed your city’s ‘date of foundation’, let us know in the comments. Or feel free to take a look at the table of the oldest places in Illinois.
And now, let’s raise our glasses, to the next 100 years of existence for these cities and towns in the Prairie State.
And for those wondering, here are the newest additions to Illinois:
- Spring Grove (Founded in 2002)
- Homer Glen (Founded in 2002)
- Bolingbrook (Founded in 2002)
Detailed List Of The Oldest Cities In Illinois
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