Building the Canal

Canal Operation

Passenger Travel on the Canal

Canal Significance

Architecture and the Canal

Agriculture and the Canal

Industry and the Canal


People Before Us

Natural History


People Before Us

People have lived in the Heritage Corridor for at least 10,000 years. Although little is known about the first Native Americans who lived here, we do know that by 2,000 years ago they had developed elaborate civilizations. By 1700 the rapid spread of large-scale pioneer settlements seriously jeopardized Indian cultures. Tribes forced from their homelands in the eastern part of the U.S. encroached on the territories of Midwestern tribes, resulting in wars and the disruption of tribal traditions. The Black Hawk War of 1832 ended in defeat for a mixed band of Indians, and as a result the federal government implemented its policy of removing all Native Americans from Illinois. The tribes were forced to sign the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 and gave up their territories in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi River.


Remnants of the Indian tribes that once inhabited northern Illinois can be found in Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Indiana. Today over 20,000 Native Americans live in Chicago alone, but most are not related to the tribes that once held sway here.


The French also had a hand in shaping our culture. French Canadian fur trappers and missionaries began to arrive in the Midwest in the late 1600s. Many Frenchmen intermarried with the Native Americans and some adopted their customs. Two of the most famous Frenchmen in Illinois were Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette. In 1673, following the suggestion of Native Americans who had long known of the route, they traveled from the Illinois River to the Chicago River and on to Lake Michigan. Jolliet was the first, but by no means the last, to suggest that a canal be built to connect Lake Michigan and the waters that flowed to the Mississippi River.


The English were also a presence in northern Illinois. The Kinzies, early Chicago's "first family," were among the earliest English traders at Fort Dearborn. By 1850 the English were an important presence in La Salle and Grundy Counties. Many were farmers, and by the 1860s others had moved into mining.


Towns along the I&M National Heritage Corridor tell the story of the many immigrant groups who came to live and work in the region. The people who came to Illinois in the early nineteenth century were either recent immigrants or migrants from the eastern part of the US. In either case, they constituted a special breed, willing to start fresh, take any job, and work hard in a largely undeveloped place. They shared the American dream of freedom and economic prosperity.


The Irish, German, and Scandinavians were among the earliest groups to make the bold choice of living on the prairie frontier. These groups all worked on the construction of the I&M Canal. They transplanted their culture as best they could, but many of the amenities that they had grown accustomed to were not available in the Midwest.


The Irish began arriving in northern Illinois in large numbers in 1836, to work on the I&M Canal. They continued to pour into the area during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-7, during which time the population of Ireland decreased by over two million people through death and emigration. After 1848 many Irish moved to the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, where they worked in meat-packing plants and brickyards. Other Irish spread throughout northern Illinois, often becoming farmers in canal towns.


From 1860-1920 hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived in the United States. Most were from southern and eastern Europe. Poles, Italians, Czechs, Greeks, Slovaks, Russians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and Slovenians all flocked to the Corridor, taking jobs in a variety of industries. The tradition of closely-knit ethnic neighborhoods still characterizes many communities in the corridor today.


African Americans have lived in northern Illinois since the earliest days of the fur trade. The earliest African American in the corridor was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first known person to settle in what is now Chicago. In the early nineteenth century, portions of the Heritage Corridor were stops on the Underground Railroad. This informal network of individuals ferried blacks to freedom in the North. One of the stops was the American House Hotel in Joliet. The first blacks to migrate to the region in large numbers arrived to work on the construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal between 1892 and 1900, and migration from the south increased dramatically during the first half of the twentieth century.


Today, the Chicago-area and surrounding communities have become even more ethnically diverse. Immigrants from all over the world are attracted to the jobs and quality of life here. In recent years Illinois has seen an influx of people from Asian countries such as Korea, India, and Japan. In addition, immigration from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba have added to the rich ethnic mix of the canal region.


The Underground Railroad


By the 1840s Illinois had become one of the battlegrounds over the issue of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Laws, which allowed for escaped slaves who had fled to the North to be sent back to slavery, aroused fierce opposition in parts of Illinois. In Illinois the Underground Railroad-a system of safe houses and support-helped African Americans in their escape from slavery. The case of Henry Belt, a free African American barber in Joliet, came to epitomize the violent emotions surrounding slavery. Falsely arrested as an escaped slave and turned over to bounty hunters, Belt ran to freedom when a group of abolitionists staged a disturbance in the court house. He was then sheltered by a sympathetic shop owner. Although his ultimate fate is unknown, Belt's tale illustrates how conscience and friendship sometimes won out over the racism of the day.


Canal Corridor Association, 754 1st Street, LaSalle, IL  61301   phone 815.220.1848
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