Our History

We Are #IllinoisProud

Illinois is where the nation’s greatest rivers meet. It’s where the largest Native American city once thrived. Where the most trains cross and daily flights soar. Where automobiles and hard roads got a start. Where sound movies began. Where a nuclear chain reaction was first controlled. Where the first transistor gave rise to the computer age. Where the theory of superconductivity was born. Where the biggest fair in the nation’s history was held. Where the mail-order catalog and the warehouse of goods behind it got its start. Where the Blues echo and comedy is king. Where more than a quarter million men volunteered to fight to end slavery and save the Union. Where the nation’s biggest plant helped make the world safe for democracy. Where the biggest restaurant company, biggest makers of mining equipment, aircraft, and tractors are based and where hundreds of start-up companies each year keep the engine humming. We are #IllinoisProud.

The timeline below is a collection of high points in Illinois’ history. For more detailed information, please visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

1670 - 1780

First Europeans (1673)

Missionary Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Jolliet become the first Europeans to explore Illinois. Following the course of the Mississippi River, they head south and encounter the Peoria tribe. They continue past the mouth of the Arkansas River before turning back north on the Illinois River. While returning to Quebec, They encounter the Kaskaskia tribe and spend the winter at what is now Chicago.

Permanent Settlement (1699)

French missionaries from Quebec establish the Mission of the Holy Family at Cahokia, making it Illinois’s first permanent European settlement. It stands across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis.

du Sable in Chicago (1779)

Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable establishes a trading post at present-day Chicago, becoming the area’s first permanent resident. Du Sable was African American but little else is known about his life before settling in “Eschecagou.”

1781 - 1817

American Control (September 3, 1783)

The Treaty of Paris ends the American Revolution, ceding the Illinois country to the new United States of America.

Northwest Ordinance (July 13, 1787)

Congress appoints Revolutionary War hero, Major General Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory.

Lewis and Clark (May 14, 1804)

Lewis and Clark depart on their expedition into the Louisiana Territory from Camp Wood, near the Wood River in Illinois. They had wintered there to train and prepare for their long journey.

First Newspaper (1814)

Matthew Duncan of Kaskaskia publishes Illinois’s first newspaper, the Illinois Herald. He had previously published the territorial laws in 1813.

First Bank (1816)

Illinois’s first bank opens at Shawneetown. The town, center of the territory’s lucrative salt-making industry, will later be home to the Bank of Illinois.

1818 - 1860

State Constitution (August 26, 1818)

The first constitution of Illinois was adopted at Kaskaskia, Illinois in convention.

Statehood (December 3, 1818)

Illinois, with 34,620 residents, becomes the twenty-first state. Kaskaskia remains the capital and Shadrach Bond is the first governor. Most people live in the south along rivers and forested areas. The prairies are largely unsettled and Chicago is an unimportant village.

New Capital (March 30, 1819)

The Illinois General Assembly votes to make Vandalia the new state capitol. Founded specifically to replace flood-prone Kaskaskia as the seat of government, the town also becomes the western terminus of America’s first interstate, the National Road.

Slavery Rejected (August 2, 1824)

Voters reject a call for constitutional convention to make slavery legal in Illinois. Edward Coles, a former slaveowner and future governor, coordinated the anti-slavery effort.

I and M Canal (July 4, 1836)

Construction begins on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, a 96-mile waterway linking Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. Completed on April 23, 1848, the canal makes Chicago a transportation hub that will flourish in the decades ahead.

John Deere (1837)

In northern Illinois, John Deere design a self-scouring steel plow that will cut through prairie sod, making farming much easier for vast swaths of the country. He then Decides to mass produce it, rather than making it to order, beginning one of the nation’s most successful farm supply companies.

Third Capital (December 9, 1839)

With Illinois’s population moving northward, the Illinois General Assembly votes on February 28, 1837, to move the state capital to Springfield. The move requires intense deal-making, some of which involved Abraham Lincoln and eight other Illinois politicians, known as the “long nine.” On December 9, 1839, The Assembly sat in the session in their new capitol building for the first time.

State Fair Inaugurated (1853)

Illinois’s first state fair is held in September in Springfield. Intended to inspire state agriculture, the week-long event features animal and crop judging as well as pageants and concerts.’

Illinois Central Railroad Completed (September 21, 1856)

Chartered in 1851, the Illinois Central Railroad is completed in 1856, linking the northern and southern parts of the state through Chicago, Galena, and Cairo. It eventually stretches all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Oldest Public University (1857)

Illinois state University, the state’s oldest public college, opens its doors. Originally designed to train teachers, the school expands its curriculum over time, becoming one of Illinois’s largest universities.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1858)

Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, rivals for the U.S. Senate, hold seven debates across Illinois. The topic of slavery’s expansion into the eastern territories dominates the proceedings, with Douglas espousing “popular sovereignty”– the idea that voters in each state and territory should decide whether to accept or reject slavery. Lincoln argues slavery must not be allowed to expand. Douglas wins the Senate seat, but the debates make Lincoln a political star, helping pave his way to the presidency.

Lincoln Elected President (November 6, 1860)

Lincoln wins the presidency of a country that is falling apart. His name did not even appear on ballots in many southern states.


1860 - 1871

Lincoln Re-Elected President (November 8, 1864)

Lincoln wins re-election as president, committing the Union to seeing the Civil War through until the Confederacy is defeated.

The End of Slavery (February 1, 1865)

Illinois is the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. It also annuls the black Laws that had restricted African American migration to the state.

Pullman (1868)

George M. Pullman founds the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago, manufacturing railroad sleeping cars.

The University of Illinois holds its first classes (March 2, 1868)

Established in 1867, the Illinois Industrial University opens its doors to students at Champaign-Urbana. In 1885, it would be renamed the University of Illinois.

President Grant (November 3, 1868)

Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general from Galena, is elected President of the United States. He oversees Reconstruction of the former Confederacy and faces the financial Panic of 1873. He retires after two terms and writes his memoirs, now considered a classic of the form.

Chicago Fire (October 8, 1871)

Raging for almost three days, the Chicago Fire destroys 18,000 buildings, kills about 300 people, and leaves one-third of the city’s residents homeless. The fire starts in the barn of Catherine O’Leary at 137 DeKoven Street but a reporter later falsely claims it resulted from a cow kicking over a lantern. Rebuilding from the fire triggers a period of growth and innovation for Chicago.

1872 - 1900

Chicago Baseball (1876)

Chicago’s first professional baseball team, the White Stockings, is officially founded. It wins the National League title that same year. After taking on various other names, it becomes officially known as the Chicago Cubs in 1902. In 1901, another Chicago team takes on the original name, becoming the Chicago White Sox.

First Skyscraper (1883)

William LeBaron Jenney designs the 10-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago, generally known as the world’s first skyscraper. The building is supported by a steel frame instead of stone, reducing its weight and allowing for large windows. Chicago would continue to be a world leader in architectural innovation for decades.

Sears (1886)

Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck found Sears in Chicago. Originally a watch company, the two men expand their inventory and revolutionize American consumerism by sending out mail order catalogs, a staple of American commercial life.

Preserving the Past (May 25, 1889)

The Illinois State Historical Library, now the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, is established by the state legislature.

First Female Supreme Court Lawyer (1892)

Chicago attorney Myra Bradwell becomes the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

University of Chicago (September 10, 1892)

The University of Chicago is founded thanks to wealthy donors, such as John D. Rockefeller. It quickly establishes itself as one of the nation’s top institutions of higher learning.

World’s Far (May 1, 1893)

The World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago, commemorating the 400th anniversary of European exploratory voyages to the western hemisphere. The enormously successful and influential event lasted until October 30.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1900)

Frank Lloyd Wright establishes a studio in Oak Park for designing “prairie style” architecture.

1901 - 1920

Walgreens (1901)

Walgreens begins with a drug store in Chicago, owned by Galesburg native Charles R. Walgreen Sr. In 1922, the company introduces a malted milkshake and today operates over 8,000 stores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

NAACP (February 12, 1909)

The Race Riot of 1908 in Springfield, Illinois – the state capital and President Abraham Lincoln’s hometown – was a catalyst showing the urgent need for an effective civil rights organization in the U.S. The first NAACP meeting was set for February 12, 1909 in Springfield to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated enslaved African Americans. While the first large meeting did not take place until three months later, the February date is often cited as the founding date of the organization.

Boy Scouts Founded (February 8, 1910) 

Illinoisan and publisher William D. Boyce founds the Boy Scouts of America. His motivation is a chance encounter with a British Boy Scout in London.

Comiskey Opens (July 1, 1910)

Comiskey Park, named for White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, hosts its first game. The White Sox lose to the St. Louis Browns 2-0.

Women’s Vote (June 26, 1913)

The General Assembly grants women the right to vote for presidential electors.

Wrigley Field (April 23, 1914)

Wrigley Field, then called Weeghman Park, opens. The ballpark hosts the Chicago Whales for a year before the Wrigley Company purchases the Cubs and moves them there, renaming the stadium in 1926.

First State Flag (July 16, 1915)

After a three-year contest, the Illinois General Assembly selects a new state flag, based on the design of Rockford’s Lucy Derwent. In 1970, the word Illinois is added to it.

Illini Champions (November 22, 1919)

The Fighting Illini football team closes its season by defeating Ohio State 9-7, going 6-1 overall and claiming its first national championship recognized by the NCAA. However, they share the title with Harvard, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M. The NCAA recognizes two other Illini championships: 1923 and 1927.

1921 - 1950

Chicago Bears (1921)

The Decatur Staleys football team moves to Chicago and becomes the Bears.

State Farm (June 7, 1922)

In Bloomington, George J. Mecherle founds State Farm, then an automobile insurance company, now one of the largest insurance companies in the nation.

Soldier Field (October 9, 1924)

Originally constructed as an exhibition stadium and memorial to American servicemen, Soldier Field does not become the home of the Chicago Bears until 1971.

Chicago Hockey (1926)

The Chicago Blackhawks are founded as one of the NHL’s original six teams. It would win its first Stanley Cup in 1934. To date, the Blackhawks have won six Stanley Cup championships.

Route 66 (November 11, 1926)

Route 66 is officially completed, connecting Chicago to Los Angeles. The road soon becomes a touchstone of American popular culture.

Nuclear Age (1942)

University of Chicago scientists, led by Nobel Prize-winner Enrico Fermi, achieve the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Their reactor – described as “a crude pile of black bricks and wood timbers” – has no radiation shielding or cooling system. A mistake could have led to disaster in the heart of Chicago. The successful test of “Chicago Pile 1” ushered in the nuclear age and allowed the Manhattan Project to move toward an atomic bomb.

Women’s Baseball (1943)

The Rockford Peaches, an all-women’s baseball team, is founded in Rockford, Illinois. They are a founding member of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League and one of its most successful teams, winning four championships.

Penicillin Copyright (May 25, 1948)

Andrew J. Moyer copyrights his method of fermenting and mass producing penicillin form his lab in Peoria. This same process had allowed the drug to save countless lives in World War 2 and would continue to do so for decades.

Chess Records (1950)

Blues music originated in the Deep South but the influx of African Americans into Chicago during the first half of the 20th Century makes the city a major center for the genre. The most prominent Blues label in Chicago is Chess, founded by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. Among its roster of musicians are Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1950)

Chicago writer Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, earned for her poetry.

1951 - 1980

Daley Elected (February 22, 1955)

Richard J. Daley is elected to the first of six terms as Chicago mayor. Daley builds himself into the nation’s most powerful mayor, dominating Chicago and influencing national politics. “Da Mare” maintains the city’s health while midwestern cities like Detroit and Cleveland decline.

McDonald’s serves Its First Burger (April 15, 1955)

California milkshake salesman Ray Kroc opens a burger and milkshake franchise in Des Plaines, modeled on Dick and Maurice McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino. It would eventually spread around the world.

Nuclear Power (1957)

The nation’s first nuclear power generating station is activated at Argonne National Laboratory in DuPage County.

Second City (December 16, 1959)

The Second City improv theater opens its doors, becoming one of the most influential comedy theaters in the world. Among its performers are Bill Murray, John Belushi, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert. Chicago is the birthplace of improv comedy and remains its center.

First Televised Presidential Debate (September 26, 1960)

Echoing the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in Illinois a century earlier, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon square off in the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history. Filmed in CBS’s WBBM studio in Chicago, more than 66 million viewers tune into the nationwide broadcast.

Chicago Bulls (January 1966)

The Chicago Bulls are founded. Although the team does well initially, its glory days would come under Michael Jordan with six national titles in the 1990s.

Democratic Convention (August 26, 1968)

The Democratic National Convention begins in Chicago, The contentious meeting nominates Hubert H. Huphrey as a presidential candidate but protests and violent reactions by city police become its defining feature.

Record Skyscraper (1974)

The Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world, is completed in Chicago. It reaches 108 stories or 1,451 feet into the sky. It would hold the record as the world’s tallest for 25 years. Today the building has been renamed the Willis Tower.

Female Mayor (April 3, 1979)

Jane Byrne becomes the first female mayor of Chicago.

Reagan Elected (November 4, 1980)

Illinois native Ronald Reagan is elected president. He would win reelection in 1984 and become one of America’s most popular presidents.

1981 - Present

Harold Washington (April 12, 1983)

Harold Washington is elected the first African American mayor of Chicago. The achievement requires defeating the incumbent mayor and the son of political legend Richard J. Daley in the Democratic primary and then beating a Republican candidate with substantial Democratic support. As mayor, he faces harsh opposition from many white Democrats on the city council, a period known as “council wars.” Ultimately, additional Washington supporters are elected to the council, giving him more freedom to act.

Chicago Bears (January 26, 1986)

The Chicago Bears win their first Super Bowl with one of the strongest teams in NFL history. Under legendary coach Mike Ditka, players like William “The Refrigerator” Perry and Walter Payton dominate their opponents for a 15-1 season.

Oprah Premieres (September 8, 1986)

The Oprah Winfrey Show, broadcast from Harpo Studios in Chicago, airs nationally. Already a well-known local personality, Winfrey’s show would become one of the most popular in television history.

Chicago Bulls Champions (June 12, 1991)

Led by Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls win their first of six NBA championships. The team’s amazing runs earns titles for the 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, and 1998 seasons.

Historic Senator (November 3, 1992)

Carol Moseley Braun becomes the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She serves until 1999 and then becomes an ambassador.

Obama Elected (November 4, 2008)

Chicagoan Barack Obama elected president, becoming the first African American to reach that office. He serves two terms and establishes his presidential library in Chicago.

Cubs Win! (October 22, 2016)

The Chicago Cubs defeat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years. The ensuing celebration in Chicago is one of the larges gatherings in world history.


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