Immigrants were plentiful in early Illinois

Immigrants were plentiful in early Illinois


By 1850, Illinois was one of the leading states in America for immigrants, ranking fifth in percentage of foreign-born residents. The Prairie State was heavily influenced by the arrival of these European transplants, who helped define the course of Illinois history into the next century.

In 1850, some 11 percent of the nation’s total population of 20 million was foreign. Eastern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio had the most foreign residents. But Illinois led the Midwest in both raw numbers and percentage of foreigners. In 1850, some 13 percent of the state’s population, or 110,856, were either native-born or foreign-born immigrants.

Europeans in Illinois had made the journey for a variety of reasons. Many were political refugees, fleeing the failed German revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and other European uprisings. Some sought religious freedom, while others wanted economic opportunity. Concerned about declining conditions in their homeland, they were drawn to fertile Midwestern land at low prices. Still others were escaping disasters, such as the Irish potato famine of 1846-50.

Not unexpectedly, Germans comprised the highest number of immigrants. In 1850, about 38,000 Germans were living in Illinois, a number that jumped to 131,000 10 years later. Germans comprised 35.9 percent of all foreign-born adult males in the state in 1850. 

Many Germans found homes in St. Clair County, across from St. Louis, where some had disembarked after sailing up the Mississippi from New Orleans following their ocean voyages. An estimated 90 percent of the foreigners in Belleville were German. Nearby, the southwestern Illinois counties of Monroe, Madison and Randolph also had disproportionate numbers of Germans.

Other Illinois towns with German concentrations included Quincy, Alton, Springfield, Galena and Peoria. In the Illinois River town of Peru, Germans accounted for 1,000 of the town’s population of 3,500 in 1854. In Chicago, one-sixth of the population was German.

Viewed as industrious and frugal, Germans worked as laborers, built their own houses and barns, and wielded considerable political influence. Gustave Koerner, a prominent German-American from St. Clair County, was elected lieutenant governor in 1852.

Next were the Irish, with 27,800 across Illinois in 1850, or 27.8 percent of the foreign population. That figure would rise to 87,600 in the next 10 years. Many Irish had fled the devastating potato famine with little more than their lives, and their poverty held back their progress in their new land.

Irish laborers played crucial roles in digging the Illinois-and-Michigan Canal, as many responded to recruiters urging immigration to America and the promise of work. Largely because of the canal, 41.3 percent of La Salle County’s population was foreign. 

The Irish also helped lay large portions of the Illinois Central Railroad in the early 1850s. But while Germans enjoyed respect among their American neighbors, many saw the Irish as hard-drinking, ne’er-do-wells whose Catholic devotion aroused suspicion.

English settlers made up 17.9 percent of Illinois foreigners in 1850, though their impact was hardly new. In 1818, English communities were established in Edwards County, particularly at Albion, and in 1850, English immigrants still comprised 80.6 percent of the county’s foreign population. Vermilion County also had a concentration of English, as did other areas along the rivers of eastern Illinois.

Elsewhere, some French still had a presence in the American Bottom, reflective of their glory days of a century before, while some French-Canadians settled near Kankakee. Swedish immigrants settled in Chicago and in the northern portions of the Military Tract, while Norwegians and other Scandinavians found homes in the Ottawa area.

German-speaking Swiss were dominant in the Highland area, in Madison County. Several hundred Dutch settlers arrived in Chicago in the late 1840s and 1850s, and some migrated a few miles south, founding communities like South Holland and Roseland.

An English visitor to Randolph County in 1842 noticed the “Dutch, Germans, Swiss, Yankees, Irish, Scotch, a few English and a number from the more southern states.” Unlike some of the Europeans, the Yankees and Southerners would find the most discord in the amalgamated population of Illinois.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or


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