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The Great Rush — Introduction

With the forced removal of the Kickapoo and remaining Native peoples in 1832, the trickle of settlers moving into the state turned into a great rush of people hoping to acquire new land for farming.

And now out of the west came wonderfull [sic] stories, of grand prairies... miles across, without a stick... or stone to disturb the even furrow of the plow, of marvelous richness... covered with luscious grass... decked with the most beautiful wild flowers... It seemed the fulfillment of holy writ, a land flowing with milk [and]... honey.
— David McFarland Mount Hope migrant from Rhode Island

From 1832 to 1854 migrants from Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, as well as from the New England states, came to Illinois. They traveled by riverboat, covered wagon, and horse, as well as on foot.

Improved transportation, such as the Erie Canal to Buffalo, New York in 1825, the National Road to Vandalia, Illinois in 1839, and improvements to the Ohio River and to steamboats, made getting here easier.

From 1821 to 1850, McLean County’s non-Native population literally exploded. With only two settlers in 1822, by 1850 the population had grown to over 10,000 residents.

Western Migration Encouraged

The benefits and advantages of western land were sometimes exaggerated in the publications circulated in eastern states to encourage migration.

[One will find] a more congenial climate, relief from misfortune, and retreat from agricultural indolence in the rich prairies of the West.
— New Guide for Emigrants to the West
By J.M Peck, 1836

Cover page for J.M. Peck's Guide for Emigrants to the West.

A Journey of More Than Three Weeks

Prior to the completion of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1848, those who came west by boat traveled down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi to St. Louis, and finally up the Illinois River to Pekin, before traveling 40 miles overland to McLean County. This journey from the Northeast could take three or more weeks.

When the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened, it made it cheaper, easier, and faster for those traveling from New England and New York to get to McLean County. In addition, locks along the canal eliminated delays caused by low waters.

Lock No. 6 on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, located at Channahon, Illinois.

Credit: Courtesy the Library of Congress

Where did the people who settled McLean County come from?

Native people made the area we now call McLean County their home for thousands of years. 

Evidence of the Mississippian culture in McLean County was witnessed by early white settlers. The Kickapoo people, forced from their ancestral lands, came to Central Illinois as early as the 1730s.

Shortly after Illinois became a state in 1818, the price of federal land was reduced and white settlers began to arrive in McLean County.

The first arrived in 1822. These individuals and families arrived mostly from the Upland South (Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee). As the population of McLean County grew, more began to arrive from the New England states.

The first Illinois Census took place in 1820, but most of these records were lost. The U.S. Census of 1850 provides the earliest information on where those who settled in McLean County originated.

1850

Census for McLean County

Total Population: 10,163
Born in USA: 9,941
Born Outside the USA: 222

Origin Location Census Count
Ohio 2283
Kentucky 1065
Indiana 729
Pennsylvania 537
Virginia 513
New York 510
Tennessee 204
North Carolina 117
England 84
Massachusetts 81
Maine 78
Vermont 72
Maryland 57
The German Empire 54
South Carolina 48
Connecticut 45
Canada 36
Scotland 27
Michigan 21
Wales 15
New Hampshire 15
Ireland 9
Delaware 9
Alabama 9
Rhode Island 9
Wisconsin 9

1870

Census for McLean County

Total Population: 53,988
Born in USA: 46,309
Born Outside the USA: 7,679

Origin Location Census Count
Ohio 7566
Ireland 2951
German Empire 2893
Pennsylvania 2712
New York 2318
Indiana 2215
Kentucky 2142
Virginia 1561
England 873
Massachusetts 475
New Jersey 385
Missouri 383
Canada 376
Tennessee 348
France 314
Vermont 287
Maryland 272
Michigan 227
Iowa 239
Scotland 230
Connecticut 230
Wisconsin 219
North Carolina 211
Maine 199
New Hampshire 168
Switzerland 147
Wales 79
Rhode Island 58
Sweden 51
Holland 30
Luxembourg 24
Denmark 23
Austria 20
Poland 20

1900

Census for McLean County

Total Population: 67,843
Born in USA: 60,464
Born Outside the USA: 7,379

Origin Location Census Count
Germany 3845
Ireland 1302
Sweden 635
Canada 229
Switzerland 169
Scotland 152
Italy 142
France 102
Wales 47
Poland 36
Denmark 27
Norway 24
Russia 23
Asia 20
Holland 16
Austria 13
Born at Sea 8

1920

Census for McLean County

Total Population: 70,107
Born in USA: 65,553
Born Outside the USA: 4,554

Origin Location Census Count
Germany 2117
Ireland 467
England 407
Sweden 394
Hungary 271
Canada 153
France 111
Switzerland 106
Scotland 98
Poland 74
Italy 66
Austria 55
Russia 52
Denmark 36
Norway 28
Syria 22
Wales 16
Greece 15

1940

Census for McLean County

Total Population: 73,459
Born in USA: 71,354
Born Outside the USA: 2,105

Origin Location Census Count
Germany 983
Sweden 197
England 185
Hungary 146
Ireland 118
Canada 88
Poland 52
Switzerland 51
France 41
Scotland 40
Italy 37
Russia 27
Austria 22
Denmark 21
Norway 14
Greece 13
Wales 4
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