Madison County Illinois

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Date: 1812 [unknown]
Location: Illinois, United Statesmap
Surname/tag: illinois
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Project: Illinois

Madison County Illinois is on the Mississippi River, just Northeast of St. Louis Missouri.

Established in 1812 as a very large area of land, it reached its present smaller physical size a few years later. Its major cities include county seat Edwardsville, Alton, Granite City, and Collinsville. Its fastest growing city is Glen Carbon.

Historical highlights

Prehistory . Native people lived in the area for several hundred years, including the Cahokia mound-builders.

Native art depicting underwater panthers

The Koster archeological site, in the county just north of Madison County, provides more examples of artifacts of this group of people. Arrowheads are still found during new construction in the county from time to time. These people did not keep written records, so far as we know, and the last speaker of a related dialect died in Iowa in 1954. In Madison County, there is just outside of Alton a re-creation of a petroglyph seen by Pere Jacques Marquette, who said

  • We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish's tail.[1]

French explorers were the first Europeans to see—and claim land rights to—the area.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1804, Clark began from Camp Dubois (now Wood River). The first museum on the historical trail has several exhibits but no original documents.

Soon after, Madison County became a battleground of pro- and anti-slavery forces. In 1837, moderate abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a gang of pro-slavers. Some slaves were brought to the county to be manumitted, and others arrived escaping out of slave states.

In the mid-1800s, the upper Mississippi was more like a series of lakes attached with rapids, and so Alton was as far north as it was easy to take large boats. A number of European immigrants arriving via sea in Texas and Louisiana ports came up to this point and settled in the area. Germans in particular came in large numbers, including vintner Louis Stiritz, who brought Neckar valley grapes to the area[2]. Swiss immigrants speaking German were the main part of Highland's population. Irish famine immigrants swelled the population of the county further. One could still hear German being spoken in rural families in 1960.

In 1833 the first state prison was opened in Alton, and though it was closed in the 1850s, it was reopened as a Military Prison and housed captured Confederate Troops[3], Union deserters, criminals whose crimes were involved with the War in some way (thieves of Union horses, protestors of Union conscription, shooters at camped Union troops, harborers of escaped POWs, and murderers), and spies, including several women. A smallpox epidemic hit the Military Prison in 1863, and though the commander succeeded in having every man there inoculated within a week[4], the disease killed two hundred Confederate men and two hundred Union and civilian men at the prison.

Abraham Lincoln was in Madison county a number of times, including for a senatorial debate with Stephen A Douglas, and for a visit that ended in a quick and bloodless duel

Lincoln and Douglas

Glassworks[5] were among the first industries in the county. Coal mining came next and the railroads came on the heels of mining. A steel mill was built[6], and the oil refineries[7] a few years later.

Wood River refinery in about 1920

Munitions factories[8] employed still more people. By early 1900's, Poles, Slovaks, Greeks, and Serbians were arriving to work in these industries in large numbers and to open businesses. But by today, most of those industries have closed.

Genealogical Resources

current townships and cities of Madison County

State Censuses for 1845, 1855, and 1865

State Archives online (early land purchase, marriage, some death, some prison, some probate records, and more)

Circuit Clerk: slave emancipation and probate records

County Clerk: birth, death, and marriage certificates

The full text here of an early county history doesn't mention Germans, Irish, or black people.

The Madison County Historical Society in Edwardsville has a library.

Alton has a genealogical and local history library and a $5 look-up service by skilled librarians.

St Mary's Catholic Church was an early German-speaking church in Alton. Their baptismal and marriage records, which start in 1858, are currently (2019) being digitized and indexed and should be available by 2020.

Online City of Alton directory, 1866


  4. Cox, Jann. Alton Military Penitentiary in the Civil War: Smallpox and Burial on the Alton Harbor Islands 1988

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Wow! This is a great page. Thanks!!