The State Capitals: Illinois

The State Capitals: Illinois

The city of Springfield, Illinois is the capital city of that state. It was not the first capital, but the third. Yet, it came to be the most important city in the state, besides Chicago. Here is the story of Springfield, and how it rose from a wilderness outpost to a national prominence.

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The city of Springfield is the capital of the state of Illinois. It is also the county seat of Sangamon County. It has a population of about 115,000 in the present day, making it the sixth most populous city in the state, and the largest city in Illinois outside of Chicago. The Springfield Metropolitan Statistical Area includes Sangamon and Menard Counties.

The city of Springfield was originally called Calhoun, which was a name honoring Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. While Native Americans lived in the area for thousands of years before Europeans showed up, including some of the famous Mississippian mound building Native American tribes, the first European explorations of the area were by fur trappers and traders who came in about 1818.

The first cabin owned by a European was built there in 1820, by a man named John Kelly. The cabin was located where the corner of Second Street and Jefferson Street is now located. By 1821, the area was already known as Calhoun, and the town of Calhoun was designated as Sangamon County’s county seat, thanks to the fertile soil and lucrative trading opportunities that were there.

After John Kelly built his cabin, other settlers were not far behind. They came from Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. As new settlers moved in, Senator Calhoun fell out of his previously enjoyed favor with the public, and so the residents of Calhoun re-named the town Springfield, after the town of Springfield, Massachusetts. At that time, in 1832, Springfield, Massachusetts was known as a seat of industry, innovation, and prosperity, so it was a greatly admired town in the United States; this made it seem like an excellent new name for the previously named town of Calhoun.

When the Illinois Territory was first formed, the capital of the territory was a town called Kskaskia. This town continued to be the capital from the formation of the territory in 1809 until Illinois achieved statehood in 1818. The year after statehood was achieved, the capital was moved to Vandalia, and that was the capital of Illinois for the next two decades. Springfield became the capital in 1839, as the third capital of the territory/state, and has been the capital to the present day. The move of the capital to Springfield was largely thanks to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln and a group of his friends; these friends called themselves the “Long Nine,” because there were nine of them, and their combined height was over fifty-four feet tall.

Native Americans were marched through Springfield in 1838, on what was known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death, as part of the U.S. government’s Native American removal policy. The Natives marched through Springfield were on their way west into what would be called Indian Territory, which is the location of present-day Oklahoma.

Abraham Lincoln is closely associated with Springfield, having arrived there as a young man in 1831. Lincoln actually lived in New Salem, which was near Springfield, until 1837, and moved to Springfield itself then. He began his legal career there, joined the Illinois state militia, and became elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Lincoln lived in Springfield for the next twenty-four years, working as both a lawyer and as a politician. He gave his famous Lyceum address there, and the farewell speech he gave to the city when he left for Washington, D.C. to be President of the United States is considered to be one of the classic American speeches of all time.

In the early to mid-1800s, Springfield was a strong enclave for the Whig party in a state that was mostly made up of Democrats. The Whig Party originally arose in the late 1830s in opposition to the candidacy of Martin Van Buren for President of the United States. The people of Springfield seemed to vote consistently Whig for as long as the party existed. This was true whether they were native-born in Springfield or came from New England, and no matter their occupation. Springfield voters from farmers to lawyers and other professionals voted Whig. The rise of Abraham Lincoln as a politician is tied to the rise of the prominence of the Whig party in Springfield.

The Whig Party began to lose its prominence in Springfield in the 1840s, as new European immigrants arrived in the city. By 1860, Springfield was solidly Democratic, like the rest of the state, and Abraham Lincoln, still running for offices as a Whig, was barely able to win in his home city anymore. He just scraped by to a win there during the 1860 presidential election.

After Lincoln was elected and the Civil War became a real thing, Springfield was a major city for activity for the war. The Illinois regiments trained there, including the first ones to train under Ulysses S. Grant. Springfield was a strong center of political and financial support for the Union. In fact, brand new businesses, industries, and even railroads were built there to help the Union war effort. Also, interestingly, the first official death of a soldier in the Civil War was Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, a resident of Springfield.

A prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers called Camp Butler was built seven miles northeast of Springfield in 1861, initially as a training camp for Union soldiers. After it moved more toward a prisoner of war camp, local residents who used to come to watch the military exercises came instead to attend to the ill and wounded Confederate soldiers who were held there.

After being such an important location during the Civil War, Springfield continued to be prominent in the United States once peace returned to the country. It was a major hub along the Illinois railroad and was a powerful and influential center for farming and government. By the turn of the twentieth century, the city was also invested and involved in coal mining and processing, which became another important industry for the city.