How the fight over slavery shaped the borders of Illinois 200 years ago

SHARE How the fight over slavery shaped the borders of Illinois 200 years ago

As a territory, the northern border of Illinois originally ran east-west from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. The border was moved north before Illinois became a state so that it was less likely to become a slave state.

As Illinois enters its 200th year, consider this: We could have been cheeseheads or worse yet, a slave state.

Under provisions of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance that set the future of the upper Midwest, the northern boundary of what would be Illinois extended to the Canadian border.


The border was adjusted in 1809 when Illinois Territory was created. The northern boundary then was fixed on an east-west line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. The future Chicago, Waukegan, Rockford, Galena and other points north were to remain part of the yet to be established Wisconsin Territory. That remained the case in 1818 when the act to enable statehood was introduced in Congress, but controversy over the boundary was stewing.

It had nothing to do with cheese and was mostly about slavery and the future of the Union. The concern among northerners was that an Illinois so shaped could well attach to the slave states of the South. An Illinois existing only south of Lake Michigan would naturally develop ties with the South thanks to commerce along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, it was feared. So Nathaniel Pope, the Illinois Territory congressional delegate, introduced an amendment to the statehood act to draw the line to where it now stands.

Pope, who played a key role in the organization of Illinois Territory, was a Kentuckian whose parents came from Virginia and who thus might be expected to have Southern sympathies. But he was opposed to creation of new slave states.

In arguing for his amendment, Pope invoked the commercial benefits of extending the line north, an addition of 8,500 square miles that included, according to the book “Chicago: Its History and its Builders,” “fertile country diversified with forests and rivers and within the limits of which … are located 14 counties with many populous and prosperous cities.” Pope argued that keeping the “Port of Chicago” within the new state would strengthen its ties with states to its east. He also noted that a proposed canal linking the Illinois River to the “great freshwater sea” (Lake Michigan) “would not only open up new channels of trade, but would tend to bind together the East and West … by a community of interest .…”

Extending the boundary, Pope argued, would also keep an “equilibrium of sentiment” between North and South “that would forever oppose the formation of separate and independent confederacies on the north, south, east and west.” John Moses, an Illinois politician and banker, wrote in his 1882 “History of Illinois” that Pope acted on his own in introducing the amendment. “The securing of the adoption of the … amendment, fraught with such material results, was of his own motion, and on his own responsibility, without the instruction or advice of his constituents.”

Chicago doesn’t have a Robert E. Lee equestrian monument and no Jefferson Davis Park along Lake Michigan. Maybe we should be thanking Nathaniel Pope.

P.S.: Chicago’s Nathaniel Pope Elementary school was closed in 2013 for lack of enrollment.

Roger Flaherty is a retired Chicago Sun-Times reporter and editor and full-time family historian.

Send letters to:

The Latest
Many of the best quarterbacks in the NFL had the benefit of a great defense during their breakout season. Some had a top running game, too. Will Fields have either?
“They belong on the Mount Rushmore of Latin rock,” says festival co-founder Max Wagner.
The employees seek an affiliation with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
He is desperate and will do anything to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions.
Demand for nurses is expected to grow to 3.3 million in seven years. State representatives and government officials should be encouraged to increase the number of available visas and support policies that bring more immigrant nurses into the U.S.