Frontier Illinois

By Burnette, Rand | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Frontier Illinois


Burnette, Rand, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Frontier Illinois. By James E. Davis. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Pp. xxi, 515. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00.)

James E. Davis' Frontier Illinois is the fourth volume in a series of frontier histories of the trans-Appalachian states published by Indiana University Press. Dr. Davis is a Professor of History and Geography at Illinois College in Jacksonville. His study is also the longest volume in the series and the first to be fully documented. His note section runs 56 pages and includes 380 references. It would be a mistake to skip the notes in Dr. Davis' study since many are explanatory and add to the descriptions given in the body of the work.

The works cited section exemplifies Professor Davis' extensive research in primary as well as secondary sources. I doubt that any historian of the American frontier is as well acquainted with travel narratives as Dr. Davis. The greatest strength of this volume is his extensive use of such sources throughout the study to demonstrate what conditions were like on the Illinois frontier according to first-hand witnesses.

About three-fourths of his book deals with the period after 1800, which is not surprising since at that time there were only around 2500 whites in the area, approximately the same number as in 1750. The "natural environment, the settlers, and outsiders" all contributed to shaping the frontier in Illinois. In his 428 pages of text, Dr. Davis takes this observation and follows it through in splendid fashion.

Although he gives better than average coverage to the neglected French period in Illinois history, his understanding of New France and its government seems to reflect the views of Francis Parkman rather than W. J. Eccles. Count Frontenac is the "Iron Governor" of Parkman rather than the ineffective, corrupt "Courtier Governor" of Eccles. His section on Illinois to 1800 will supplement and update, but will not replace Clarence W. Alvord's The Illinois Country 1673-1818 (1920). His brief coverage of political and military history throughout the period is always adequate, but the bulk of his study on frontier Illinois, especially the social and economic history from 1800-1860, is unsurpassed anywhere in the historical literature on the period.

The growth of Illinois between 1800 and 1812 was remarkable. With the Louisiana Purchase and the Mississippi River opened to New Orleans, the southern half of the state, which was settled first, could orient itself to the south. The middle ground which existed in the 17th and 18th centuries between the whites and the Indians was no longer an element to consider because by 1807 the Indians had ceded most of their land claims and the Indian question, except for the Black Hawk War of 1832, was settled by the War of 1812. Illinois today has no Indian reservations.

The French were allowed to keep their slaves when the United States took over the territory, but Illinois rejected a call for a constitutional convention that would have permitted slavery in the early 1820s. Dr. Davis concludes that Illinoisans were against slavery, but also were against allowing blacks to have political equality in the state. …

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