How an eleventh-hour border shift kept the suburbs in Illinois

Editor's note: Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire and the apocryphal cow blamed for starting it by kicking over a lamp in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn in 1871, but there’s a lot more to Illinois history than that. Native American settlements thousands of years old, the battle over slavery, the transfer of influence from southern to northern Illinois, wars and riots, the leaders and gangsters and politicians and artists and athletes that shaped our state all will be part of a yearlong series of articles to mark Illinois’ bicentennial. The Daily Herald and dozens of publications across the state are joining forces on the series, which will continue until Illinois’ 200th birthday on Dec. 3, 2018.

Were it not for the action of an enterprising lawyer 200 years ago, the northern portion of Illinois would have the badger as the state animal and the Green Bay Packers as the home football team.

Indeed, the shrewd move in 1818 by Nathaniel Pope, the Illinois Territory's delegate in Congress, to relocate the original proposed boundary from the southern tip of Lake Michigan is regarded as a decisive event in Illinois history.

The shift meant Chicago, then an unincorporated backwater, became part of the nascent state with a port on the Great Lakes.

How Illinois' northern boundary was designated at 42 degrees, 30 minutes latitude was a tactical maneuver that effectively set Wisconsin statehood back 30 years.

Pope's move provided the groundwork for Chicago to become Illinois' economic juggernaut and literally turned state politics upside-down as the area grew. But it also had the national implication of ensuring Illinois would be a free state at a time of percolating political unrest over slavery.

"This was not a matter of people interested in the Chicago area. It was actually farsighted people who were about to become the leadership in the new state," said John Reda, associate professor of history at Illinois State University.

At the time, construction of the Erie Canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes had just begun and Chicago was contemplated as one end of a canal providing a path to the Illinois River and on to the Mississippi.

This map shows the original and approved northern Illinois boundary lines Courtesy of Mic Greenburg

By placing that terminus in Illinois, the state would be connected to New York and New England via the Great Lakes shipping channels, providing security for the perpetuity of the Union, Pope argued to Congress, and aligning Illinois firmly with the northern states.

Even then, "there was the possibility of a civil war," said Ken Olson, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, who has written about the Illinois border controversy.

Congress "wanted to have a water route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for shipping supplies and soldiers if needed, since the Ohio River route could become contested," said Olson, co-author of a new book "Managing Mississippi and Ohio River Landscapes" that includes a chapter on the northern border.

Along with giving Illinois access to Lake Michigan, Pope's border modification raised the population nearly to the 40,000 required for statehood, Olson said in an article he co-authored for the Journal of Earth Science and Engineering.

  A historical marker along Route 47 south of Hebron tells how the area ended up in Illinois instead of Wisconsin. Mick Zawislak/

By the time Illinois territory was considering statehood, only the northern border was in question. Kentucky and Indiana already were established and the Mississippi River formed a natural boundary on the west.

How did the situation come to be? The genesis was in the Northwest Ordinance Act of 1787 approved by Congress that set guidelines for vast tracts ceded to the new government after the Revolutionary War.

At first, the original 13 colonies thought they could simply extend their borders to the west, said Gregory M. Gordon, a history professor at the College of Lake County.

"What we call the northern part of Illinois was supposed to go to Connecticut, and the southern part of Illinois was supposed to be part of Virginia," he said.

Instead, the Northwest Ordinance set up the framework allowing three to five areas to apply for statehood on equal footing with other states.

"It was a pretty radical plan," Reda said.

Nathaniel Pope lobbied for an Illinois boundary that was more north so that the state could gain power from shipping pathways that would lead to Lake Michigan. Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Kaskaskia was the capital of the Illinois territory and home to Nathaniel Pope, a Kentucky native who became the first territorial secretary of Illinois and its delegate in Congress. His petition for statehood, presented to Congress in January 1818, was referred to a committee, with the northern boundary still to be set.

While some communities in the northwest part of the Illinois territory, such as Galena with its lead mining industry, were hopping, the northeast landscape was bleak.

Chicago "was a nothing place," Gordon said. "Southern Illinois was where the action was."

According to an article in the Illinois Periodicals Online project, the 1787 ordinance intended for the northern borders of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to be aligned, touching the southern tip of Lake Michigan. However, the map used by Congress mistakenly showed the southern shore of Lake Michigan to be about 6 miles north. And when Indiana became a state, its northern boundary was approved about 10 miles north of the originally intended boundary.

  Welcome to Illinois, but it would have still been Wisconsin if not for some maneuvering 200 years ago to move Illinois' boundary northward. Mick Zawislak/

Those precedents helped Illinois, as did a sense of urgency.

When a slave state entered the union, as Mississippi did in late 1817, there was a push by the North to counter with a free state. Some feared Missouri, a slave territory, would seek statehood and the ensuing national crisis could put Illinois' bid on hold.

Pope took a bold stance. In pushing for a more generous northern boundary, he "got an extra 50 miles," Reda said.

Illinois became the 21st state on Dec. 3, 1818, including an additional 8,500 square miles comprising what now are the 14 counties north of the original boundary line.

  Wisconsin's border with Illinois is about 50 miles north of where it was envisioned before 1818. Mick Zawislak/

Wisconsin became a territory in 1836 and for several years protested against the northern Illinois boundary, claiming the southern tip of the lake as the true boundary. In 1840, delegates in northern Illinois meeting in Rockford declared the property properly belonged to Wisconsin.

But nothing came of the efforts and the matter ended in 1848, when Wisconsin was admitted as a state with its southern border where it exists today.

When Illinois was admitted, Pope was made U.S. judge of the district, which included the entire state. Pope County on the southern tip of the state is named for him.

• Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Watch for stories until Dec. 3, 2018, our state's 200th birthday.

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