The names of Illinois’ counties

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In the last few weeks we have recalled how Tazewell County was founded and named, and how the county boundaries were redrawn during the 1830s and 1840s. As we noted previously, Tazewell County was named for a Virginia state governor and U.S. Senator named Littleton Waller Tazewell.

But what of the names of the other 101 counties of Illinois? Where did they get their names? Starting today and continuing over the next few weeks, we’ll present the counties of Illinois in order of their founding, telling the years they were established and the origins or meanings of their names. Most of our state’s counties were named for notable men of U.S. and Illinois history.

St. Clair County was established in 1790 when Illinois was a part of the Northwest Territory. It was named for Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair (1737-1818), first governor of the Northwest Territory.

Randolph County was established in 1795 during the time when Illinois was part of the Northwest Territory. It was named after Edmund Randolph (1753-1813), the first U.S. Attorney General as well as a U.S. Secretary of State.

Three counties were founded in 1812, three years after the formation of the Illinois Territory: Gallatin County, named for Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), the fourth U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (and the one who served the longest); Johnson County, named for Richard Mentor Johnson (c.1780-1850), ninth U.S. vice president and a U.S. senator from Kentucky; and Madison County, named for President James Madison (1751-1856).

In 1814, Edwards County was formed, named after Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards (1775-1833) who later served as Illinois’ third state governor. The city of Edwardsville, county seat of Madison County, is also named after Ninian Edwards.

White County was formed the following year, being named for Isaac White (1776-1811), an Illinois settler who joined the Indiana Territorial Militia and was slain at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The next year, in 1816, Crawford County was founded, named after William H. Crawford (1772-1834), ninth U.S. Secretary of War and seventh Secretary of the Treasury.

Also founded in 1816 were Jackson and Monroe counties, named for Presidents Andrew Jackson and James Monroe (it was Monroe who would admit Illinois to the Union two years later), and Pope County, named for Illinois Territorial Delegate Nathaniel Pope who played a central role in getting Illinois admitted as a state. Then in 1817, Bond County was formed, being named for territorial congressional delegate Shadrach Bond (1773-1832), who would be elected the first Illinois state governor just one year later.

Three new counties were formed in the preparation for Illinois’ admission to the Union as the 21st state in 1818, which explains the very patriotic names they were given: Franklin County, named after the famous Founding Father Benjamin Franklin; Union County, named in honor of the national Union of the states; and Washington County, named for the first U.S. President George Washington.

This map, from the “Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties,” shows the boundaries of Illinois’ counties at the dawn of statehood in 1818.

The year after Illinois statehood, 1819, saw the creation of four new counties: Alexander County, named for William M. Alexander, a pioneer settler of Illinois who was elected to the Illinois General Assembly; Clark County, named for George Rogers Clark who led the Illinois Campaign during the Revolutionary War; Jefferson County, named for Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president; and Wayne County, named for Gen. Anthony Wayne (1745-1796), who fought in the Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War.

In 1821, the state legislature created seven new counties: Fayette, Greene, Hamilton, Lawrence, Montgomery, Pike, and Sangamon. The county seat of Fayette County is Vandalia, second Illinois state capital (1820-1839). The current state capital, Springfield, is also the Sangamon County seat of government.

Fayette County was named in honor of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), a French aristocrat who won the enduring love of the American people by aiding the nascent U.S. army during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette later was a leader of the French Revolution, whose hopes to create an American-style republic in France were dashed by the violent insanity of the Reign of Terror and the rise of the self-crowned despot Napoleon. Lafayette returned to tour the U.S. in 1824-25, visiting with Illinois Gov. Edward Coles and other Illinois dignitaries at Kaskaskia, the former state capital, on April 30, 1825. When the U.S. entered World War I to support the British and French in 1917, the U.S. Expeditionary Force formally proclaimed their arrival in France with the words, “Lafayette, we are here!”

Greene County was named for Nathanael Greene (1742-1786), a Revolutionary War major general. Hamilton County was named after Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (Hamilton’s son William, a pioneer settler of Springfield and Peoria, was one of the dignitaries who met Lafayette at Kaskaskia in 1825).

Lawrence County was named for Capt. James Lawrence (1781-1813), commander of the U.S.S. Chesapeake in the War of 1812, remembered for his command, “Don’t give up the ship!” Montgomery County was named for Gen. Richard Montgomery (1738-1775), a Revolutionary War leader who led a failed American invasion of Canada.

Pike County is named after the explorer Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), after whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named. Finally, Sangamon County is named for the Sangamon River that flows through it. “Sangamon” comes from a Pottawatomi term, Sain-guee-mon, meaning a place where food is plentiful.

Four more counties were added in 1823: Edgar County, named for John Edgar (c.1750-1832), a very wealthy settler who served as an Illinois delegate to the Northwest Territory’s legislature; Fulton County, named after Robert Fulton, the famous inventor of the steamboat, which greatly aided Illinois commerce and transportation; Marion County, named in honor of Revolutionary War Gen. Francis Marion (c.1732-1795); and Morgan County, named after Revolutionary War Gen. Daniel Morgan who later served as a U.S. Congressman for Virginia.

That brings us to the eve of the arrival of Pekin’s first pioneer settler Jonathan Tharp in 1824 (the future site of Pekin was then in Sangamon County), which is a convenient place for us to pause. Next week we’ll continue with the three counties founded in 1824 – Clay, Clinton, and Wabash counties.

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