Though Illinois presented unique challenges to immigrants unaccustomed to the soil and vegetation of the area, it grew to become a bustling and densely populated state.
The challenge of the prairies slowed emigration into the region; when Illinois was granted statehood in 1818, the population was only about 35,000, and most of the prairie was still largely unsettled. Gradually, though, a few tough Illinois farmers took on the difficult task of plowing the prairie and discovered that the soil was far richer than they had expected. The development of heavy prairie plows and improved access to wood and other supplies through new shipping routes encouraged even more farmers to head out into the vast northern prairie lands of Illinois.
By 1840, the center of population in Illinois had shifted decisively to the north, and the once insignificant town of Chicago rapidly became a bustling city. The four giant prairie counties of northern Illinois, which were the last to be settled, boasted population densities of 18 people per square mile. Increasingly recognized as one of the nation’s most fertile agricultural areas, the vast emptiness of the Illinois prairie was eagerly conquered by both pioneers and plows.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D