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Reflections: There's a story behind each of Illinois' 102 county names

Despite what you may gather from listening to the electronic media and reading newspapers, Illinois is not composed solely of Chicago, Cook County and someplace called Downstate. Illinois has 102 counties, and each of their names comes with a story.

The state of Illinois was formally established by an act of Congress in December 1818, and at that time already boasted several counties.

The Northwest Territory, all of the area north and west of the Ohio River that would one day encompass the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, was established under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Three years after the territory was established, Gov. Arthur St. Clair established St. Clair County, naming it after himself. Five years later, St. Clair established Randolph County. Both counties were situated in the area that would one day become the state of Illinois.

In 1801, the two became counties of Indiana Territory when Congress established the new territory and then, in 1809, the two became counties of the new Illinois Territory.

Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards created three new counties – Madison, Gallatin and Johnson – by proclamation in 1812. Two years later, the Territorial legislature divided Gallatin and Madison counties to create Edwards and White counties.

In 1816, as settlement moved farther north, the legislature created Monroe, Jackson, Pope and Crawford counties, following in 1817 with Bond County.

The last three counties of Illinois Territory, Franklin, Union and Washington, were established by acts of the Territorial Legislature in January 1818. Then on Dec. 3, 1818, the U.S. Congress formally established the state of Illinois. We got a running start with 15 counties, which eventually expanded to our full 102 counties as settlement finally filled out the state’s boundaries.

Not surprisingly, most of the state’s counties are named after national or Illinois politicians, while many other counties are named for military heroes.

Kendall County, for instance, was named after Amos Kendall, a political crony of President Andrew Jackson. Our county’s name was pushed through during a time of heavy Democratic representation in the General Assembly.

Six counties are named after U.S. presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams and Jackson. It’s interesting to note, however, that Adams County is named after John Quincy Adams, not his famous father, John Adams.

Four Illinois counties are named after early governors of the state. Bond, Coles, Edwards and Ford counties all carry the names of former governors, respectively the first, second, third and seventh governors of the state. And, of course, St. Clair is named after the first Northwest Territorial governor.

A total of 16 other counties are named after other citizens of Illinois, most of whom were active in politics during some point in their lives.

Cook County, for instance, was named for Daniel Pope Cook, a pioneer lawyer, U.S. congressman from Illinois, and Illinois’ first attorney general in 1818.

Kane County carries the name of Elias Kent Kane, another lawyer, territorial judge, member of the first state constitutional convention in 1818, and first Illinois Secretary of State. He later served in the U.S. Senate from Illinois.

McHenry County is named for William McHenry, a soldier, state representative and state senator.

Will County was named for Conrad Will, a pioneer politician and businessman, and member of the 1818 constitutional convention who served nine terms in the Illinois General Assembly.

Of the state’s 102 counties, 22 are named for military heroes – mostly from the Revolutionary War – while three more are named for naval heroes.

For instance, DeKalb County is named after Johann DeKalb, a German baron who served in the Colonial army during the Revolution. He was fatally wounded at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780.

JoDaviess County carries the name of Joseph Hamilton Daviess, a Kentucky lawyer, U.S. District Attorney, and a major of militia for Kentucky. Daviess was killed in 1811 at the Battle of Tippecanoe, when U.S. forces routed an allied Native American army.

Three excellent Revolutionary War generals, Stark, Greene and Morgan, all are honored by having counties named after them. Stark, a dour New Englander who served under the charismatic Maj. Robert Rogers in the French and Indian War, distinguished himself at the battles of Trenton, Breeds Hill, Princeton and Bennington. Green was without peer as a tactical commander in the Revolution, overshadowed in that respect only by Benedict Arnold. And Morgan fought in every major theater of the war, winding up his career at the Battle of Cowpens, where he thrashed the British under Tarleton.

Lawrence, McDonough and Perry counties honor War of 1812 naval heroes Capt. James “Don’t Give Up the Ship” Lawrence, Commodore Thomas McDonough, and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

Some 21 other distinguished Americans, including John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Henry Clay and DeWitt Clinton, also have counties named after them.

New York Gov. Clinton, who spearheaded the construction of the Erie Canal, opening up Illinois and other western states for settlement, was a favorite of early Illinoisans. DeWitt County and Clinton County, plus the town of Clinton in DeWitt County, are all named after the governor.

Nine Illinois counties borrowed county names from other states: Champaign and Richland counties from Ohio; Christian, Hardin, Henderson, Mason, Scott and Woodford from Kentucky; and Williamson from Tennessee.

Seven counties have names of American Indian origin: Iroquois, Kankakee, Macoupin, Peoria, Sangamon, Wabash and Winnebago.

Of the others, one is named after an English lord (Effingham), another for another state (Jersey), some for early settlers or explorers (DuPage; Bureau, after Pierre Buero, a French fur trader; LaSalle; and Boone); a few for rivers or creeks (Saline, Vermilion); one for a steamship inventor (Fulton); and one for a road (Cumberland, named for the Cumberland Road running from Maryland west through the Cumberland Gap).

All things considered, the origins of Illinois’ county names aren’t so much different from those in other states. It’s fortunate, come to think of it, that we never wound up with a county named “Downstate.”

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