Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People

By Hall, Greg | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People


Hall, Greg, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People. By Roger Biles (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. Pp. X, 341. Maps, notes, illus., bib., index. Cloth, $37.00, Paper $22.00).

Roger Biles's new book, Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People, offers students of the state's history a scholarly and highly accessible survey text that balances the rural and urban experience. He presents a thorough historical examination from the seventeenth to the end of the twentieth century. Throughout this comprehensive work, Biles moves through time at a steady chronological pace and examines all of the important periods and themes in the history of the state. At the conclusion of each chapter, Biles leaves room to examine in depth a town or city and an individual who has made a significant contribution to the state's history. He also provides the reader with an excellent bibliographic essay for those interested in further study of Illinois.

For Biles, the history of Illinois begins tens of thousands of years ago with the Ice Age, which had a profound affect on the soil and on the contours of the prairie due to massive glaciers that covered the region. Although he then moves on to examine the first human presence in Illinois, he does not linger on the history of Native Americans. Unfortunately, the reader is only given a brief treatment of the rich prehistory of the state. However, with the exploration and settlement of the French in the Illinois country, Biles's history becomes much more thorough and quite insightful. He skillfully explains the distinctive society that the French established in the region and the role that the Illinois country played in their riverine empire. His inclusion of Marie Rouensa's story at the end of the first chapter is a nice addition to the more familiar stories of French Illinois figures such as Marquette, Jolliet, La Salle, and Tonti. The French loss in the war for imperial control of North America then sets the stage for the brief and light rule of the British. Soon, in Biles's tale, Americans wrestled Illinois away from the tenuous British grasp through the exploits of George Rogers Clark, thereby beginning the process by which the Illinois country will become a territory and then a state.

Biles spends several chapters dealing with the major issues during Illinois's frontier stage. Politically, he provides in ample detail the machinations that led to the state being carved out of the Northwest Territory, including an examination of the state's first constitution. But he tempers political history with social history in these chapters and throughout the book. Settlement patterns feature prominently in his analysis of the period, especially in regard to the societal impact that southerners, Yankees, and Europeans had on Illinois.

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