By Jared Olar
This week we’ll continue with our review of the names of the counties of Illinois, beginning with the three counties that the State Legislature established in 1824: Clay, Clinton, and Wabash counties.
Clay County was named after Henry Clay of Kentucky, a notable American leader during this period who served in both the U.S. House and Senate, best remembered for negotiating the important Missouri Compromise of 1820 that safeguarded the nation’s fragile equilibrium between slave and free states. Clinton County is named in honor of New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), who spearheaded the building of the Erie Canal that bolstered the U.S. economy.
Wabash County takes its name from the Wabash River, which was in turn named by the Algonquin-speaking Miami and Illini tribes. The Wabash forms a part of the Illinois-Indiana border. The Native American name for the river, Waapaahšiiki, means “water over white stones,” a reference to the limestone river bottom in Huntington County, Indiana.
In 1825, the Illinois General Assembly established 10 new counties – the most that had been founded in Illinois history up till then. The counties were Adams, Calhoun, Hancock, Henry, Knox, Mercer, Peoria, Putnam, Schuyler, and Warren counties.
Adams County is named in honor of John Quincy Adams, sixth U.S. president. Calhoun County is named after U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who also became the seventh U.S. vice president. Hancock County is named for Founding Father John Hancock of Massachusetts, famous for his over-sized signature on the Declaration of Independence. Henry County is named after another Founding Father, Gov. Patrick Henry of Virginia who reportedly declared, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Five of 1825’s new counties were named after men who fought in the Revolutionary War. Knox County is named for Gen. Henry Knox, who became the first U.S. Secretary of War. It is noteworthy that there had formerly been a Knox County that included parts of Illinois, back in the days of the Indiana Territory – but with the formation of the Illinois Territory in 1809, the original Knox County became an Indiana county. Illinois’ Knox County of 1825 was never a part of the original Knox County.
Mercer County is named for Gen. Hugh Mercer. Putnam County – the smallest Illinois County, covering only 160 square miles – is named in honor of Gen. Israel Putnam, U.S. commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Schuyler County is named after Gen. Philip Schuyler, who also served as a U.S. Senator from New York. Warren County is named for an American patriot who was killed very early in the Revolutionary War, Joseph Warren.
Peoria County was, of course, named for the Peoria tribe of the Illiniwek, who formerly lived on the shores of Lake Pimiteoui (Peoria Lake).
Only two new counties were founded in 1826: McDonough and Vermilion counties. McDonough County is named after Commodore Thomas Macdonough, who commanded U.S. naval forces at the Battle of Plattsburgh in New York, where the U.S. thwarted Britain’s final invasion of the northern states during the War of 1812.
Vermilion County is named for the Vermilion River, a tributary of the Wabash River. This tributary was called the Piankeshaw by the Miami tribe, but European settlers renamed the river from the reddish color of the earth or chalk found in the bluffs above the river, which the Native Americans used for face paint.
Besides Tazewell County, three other counties were established in 1827: Jo Daviess, Perry, and Shelby counties. Jo Daviess County is named after Joseph Hamilton Daveiss, who commanded the Indiana Dragoons at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Curiously, although his last name was spelled “Daveiss,” in all of the places named for him the misspelling “Daviess” is used instead. Perry County is named for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who led American naval forces to victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. Shelby County is named after Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby, a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Two counties were founded in 1829: Macon County, named after Nathaniel Macon (1758-1837), sixth Speaker of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator for North Carolina; and Macoupin County, which is named from an Algonquin word that is believed to mean “white potato.”
The Illinois General Assembly formed two new counties in 1830. One of them, Coles County, was named for Edward Coles, second Governor of Illinois (1822-1826), who devoted his political career to the cause of the abolition of slavery, striving mightily to prevent the legalization of slavery and end the practice of indentured servitude in Illinois.
The other, McLean County, formed from Tazewell County the same year that Pekin was founded, was named for Illinois Congressman and Senator John McLean. McLean is geographically the largest county in Illinois, covering 1,184 square miles.
Illinois’ most populous county, Cook County (with a current population of about 5.2 million), was established in 1831, and is named after Illinois’ first Attorney General Daniel Pope Cook (1794-1827), a newspaper owner and editor who had advocated for Illinois statehood in his newspapers.
Also founded in 1831 were Effingham County, named for Thomas Howard, 3rd Earl of Effingham, who resigned from the British Army rather than fight against the 13 colonies; Jasper County, named for Revolutionary War hero Sgt. William Jasper (c.1750-1779); LaSalle County, named after the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle; and Rock Island County, named for Rock Island, a notable island in the Mississippi where Fort Armstrong was built in 1816 and an arsenal was established in the 1880s.
In 1833, the year after the Black Hawk War – Illinois’ final war against its Native American population – two more counties were added: Champaign County, named after Champaign County, Ohio, from which pioneers of the county had come (“champaign” in French means “battlefield”), and Iroquois County, named after the New York-based League of the Iroquois that had controlled the Illinois Country during their expansionist wars of the 1600s.
By this time Illinois had been subdivided into 60 counties. Another 42 counties would be established over the next 26 years. We will continue down the roll of Illinois counties next time.