Academic journal article The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Sciences

Teaching Illinois History through Primary Sources

Academic journal article The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Sciences

Teaching Illinois History through Primary Sources

Article excerpt

Many students in my undergraduate History of Illinois class hail from Illinois. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUe) draws from a primarily local undergraduate population of students who live in southwestern Illinois. Though the area is commonly referred to as the "Metro East," linking it to St. Louis a mere 35 miles west, the students and the region define itself as wholly Illinois. These students learn about the history of their region periodically throughout their primary and secondary schooling, but when they arrive in my 300-level class, much of what I teach is new.

I am from Chicago. Chicago's location in the northeast corner of the state places it geographically north of almost all of the rest of Illinois. Interstate 80 serves as a southern boundary to which all Chicagoans deem "southern Illinois." Drivers still have almost 400-miles to go before reaching the southern border. Students who hail from SIUe's surrounding counties clearly identify themselves from southwestern Illinois--geographically and culturally distinct from Carbondale or even Cairo - "southern" Illinois cities. My colleagues questioned my instruction of this course: "But you study Chicago, not Illinois!" Indeed. And while my predecessor taught the class without any mention of Chicago, the Windy City did not emerge until 1837--a lifetime in the history of Illinois. From Cahokian civilization through industrialization, Illinois' history is vast, varied, and integral to understanding core themes in American history.

As I have developed the course over the past 6 years, I personally have uncovered a tremendous amount of new research on Illinois, specifically in the "frontier" period. Our area, our city of Edwardsville specifically, holds important lessons in the history of as a territory, state, and a frontier outpost of a new America. One of the older towns in Illinois, Edwardsville had a place and a history for itself long before statehood (and even the University!). Illinois' development and settlement presents many themes in American history in a concise and limited geographic locale. Through our study of early Illinois, students can learn of cultural diversity, the slave trade, Native American traditions, British and French colonial policies, and the development of American land settlement patterns. There are a variety of primary sources that illuminate these themes for undergraduate students. Using primary sources as the main method of instruction also reinforces the experiential side of history and engages students to ask critical questions of their region and the source. This article will highlight some key primary sources available online that enhance students' understanding of early Illinois history and how these varied primary sources can yield creative findings.

Slavery and the Black Codes

When people settled in the American Bottom, they brought slaves. The French brought slaves with them from Europe. French Jesuit priests were the largest landowners and largest slave owners in the eighteenth century. France brought slaves to Illinois up the Mississippi River from the port of New Orleans, but banned the import of slaves to "Illinois Country" in 1747. Black slaves continued to reproduce and increased in numbers despite the ban on new purchases. French Codes Noir (Black Codes) (1) governed slaves in the colonies and offered some rights, but still enforced the condition of bondage. (2) Most familiar with nineteenth-century American slavery, students are slow to see the reasons why these proscriptions existed. Students grapple with how these laws were really enforced and why, given their rudimentary knowledge of American slavery, the French would enact laws that seemed to protect the human condition, even if the status of bondage still remained. These codes come into sharp relief when students later study Illinois' Black Laws passed by new state residents in 1819 to restrict the civil rights of free blacks. …

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