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The long-forgotten story of how northern Illinois almost became a part of Wisconsin

The current buzz about a proposal to make the Chicago area a separate state of its own (HERE) brings to mind the little-known story of how Rockford and a sizable chunk of Northern Illinois almost became part of Wisconsin.

The following account is adapted from the book “Rockford — Big Town/Little City,” which was written by some brilliant local historian whose name escapes me:

When Europeans “discovered” North America, a period of disputes followed among England, France and Spain over control of the Rock River region. After the British were defeated in the American Revolution, Illinois became part of the Northwest Territory (above) and then, in 1809, a territory unto itself.

Finally, in 1818, Illinois became a state. And therein lies a tale of sectionalism that had the potential for great political ramifications.

When the Illinois Territorial Legislature petitioned for statehood, the original resolution set the northern boundary on a straight line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. That would have left what are now Winnebago and 13 other northern Illinois counties in the Wisconsin territory. But it also would have left Illinois with no shoreline on Lake Michigan. So, just before Congress voted on the statehood resolution, it was amended to move the boundary northward by 50 miles. But that didn’t settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction.

For years afterward, settlers in the northern tier of Illinois counties were not always sure they wanted to be in Illinois. These were mostly people from New York and New England whose social and political attitudes differed greatly from those of the settlers in the southern part of the state, many of whom came from Kentucky and Tennessee.

The folks of the north were “thrifty, industrious and progressive,” as Royal Brunson Way described them in his book “The Rock River Valley,” while their brethren in southern Illinois “were generally poor and unprogressive, having a low social status.”

Not surprisingly, considering their respective roots, these two peoples also tended to disagree on slavery, which would remain a sticky issue in Illinois politics right up to the Civil War. Because of these differences, agitation for secession of the northern tier to the Wisconsin territory persisted for decades and eventually was aggravated by money matters.

By 1840, the rustics in southern Illinois, who controlled state government by force of their numbers, managed to run up a public debt of more than $14 million, and the people of the sparsely settled northern counties felt no responsibility for its payment. Suddenly, secessionism reached a fevered pitch. Rallies and referendums were held all over the place.

In 1842, Winnebago County voted 972-6 to join the Wisconsin territory. (History hasn’t recorded the fate of the half-dozen Illinois loyalists.) Similar majorities were achieved in adjoining counties. But these votes carried no legal weight, and the whole effort came to naught. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the boundary with Illinois remained where it had been for 30 years.

This was no trivial matter, however. Had the secession movement prevailed, the subsequent history of the nation — and hence, the world — would have been different. Delicate political balances would have been tipped. Illinois might have become a slave state. Abraham Lincoln probably would not have become president. The Civil War and the struggle over slavery would have transpired in other ways.

In that sense, I’m glad, in retrospect, that things worked out the way they did. An America without Lincoln is something I can’t even imagine.

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