Illinois: Commentary

Illinois Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Gordon DenBoer, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director and Digital Compiler; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2008

Illinois land was once part of the national public domain and, as such, was divided for sale according to the federal rectangular survey system. Although the earliest county creations and boundary changes in present Illinois were based principally on river systems and extended arbitrary lines, lawmakers quickly recognized the utility of basing boundaries on the survey system. Thus the Illinois territorial legislature began incorporating range, township, and section lines into county boundary descriptions early in its tenure, and the state legislature continued the practice. The lines laid down by those early land surveyors are still in use and remain a prominent and important feature of the modern maps used to make this atlas. Given the persistence of the survey lines and their appearance on modern federal maps, plotting county lines based on the land survey is easier and more precise than working with metes and bounds descriptions that depend on ridge lines, river systems, and local landmarks.

A few boundary lines cannot be precisely drawn. Some involve natural features or local landmarks difficult to locate, while a few reflect the vagueness and imprecision of the laws on which they are based. These uncertain boundaries are identified by "estimated line" and "indefinite limit," respectively. Occasionally a boundary line cannot be drawn as described, due to some oversight or error in the legislation or typographical error in the printed statute. The legislature's intent is usually apparent, however, in other provisions of the law in question or in later boundary changes, and in these cases the intent-rather than a rigid interpretation-of the law has been followed.

For example, when Fayette County was created on 14 February 1821, it was to include all territory north of its prescribed southern boundary. It is clear, however, that the legislature intended Fayette to extend north only to the Illinois River, not to the state boundary with Wisconsin, since Pike County (created on 31 January 1821) covered all of Illinois north of the Illinois River. A literal interpretation of the statute creating Fayette, then, would split Pike in two-an interpretation clearly at odds with future boundary changes. Also, a provision of the statute creating Cook County in 1831 cannot be mapped. The law directs that all territory north of Cook's northern boundary (defined as the state line with Wisconsin), to the Rock River, be attached to Cook County. In 1831 there was no territory in Illinois north of Cook County (the Illinois-Wisconsin boundary was established in 1818), and thus the legislature's intent is unclear.

The General Assembly's first restriction on creation of new counties was enacted in 1827, when it directed that existing counties could be divided only on petition of a majority of the county's qualified voters. In 1845 the legislature further required that all new counties contain at least 400 square miles, that existing counties not be reduced below 400 square miles by boundary changes, and that altered boundary lines must be at least 10 miles from the county seats of existing counties.

The state constitution of 1848 incorporated the provisions of the 1827 and 1845 laws, and also required that all boundary changes be approved by a majority of the voters of the affected areas. Beginning in 1837, the legislature had submitted many boundary changes to the voters for approval, so the constitutional requirement made mandatory what had up to that time been common practice. This democratic approach to creating counties is reflected in the fact that twenty-six proposed creations were submitted to the voters for approval between 1837 and 1867. The voters approved thirteen (Bureau, Cass, DeKalb, Douglas [on second attempt], Ford, Hardin, Jersey, Kankakee [on second attempt], Pulaski, Richland, Saline [twice], and Williamson), and rejected thirteen (Allen, Audubon, Benton, Coffee, Douglas [on first attempt], Harrison, Holmes, Kankakee [on first attempt], Lincoln, Michigan, Milton, Okaw, and Oregon). Voters also rejected fifteen proposed boundary changes between existing counties. The constitution of 1870 continued the provisions of the 1848 constitution, while the 1970 state constitution simply states that all county boundary changes must be approved by the voters of the affected counties.

A prolonged controversy over the creation of Saline County was eventually settled by the state supreme court. Saline was created from Gallatin County, by referendum, in August 1847. However, a bitter legal contest over the location of Gallatin's county seat finally induced the legislature, in 1851, to abolish both Gallatin and Saline counties and to combine the territory of the two counties into a "new" county named Gallatin. The state supreme court declared the creation of the "new" county unconstitutional on the grounds that the voters of Gallatin and Saline had not approved the change, as required by the state constitution. The legislature responded by providing for a referendum on the creation of the "new" Gallatin County in August 1852. The voters rejected the proposal, and Saline County was thereby resurrected.

In 1873 the General Assembly essentially made county boundary changes a local matter. It required that all changes involving more that one-half township (i.e., 18 sq. mi.) could only be initiated on petition by a majority of the legal voters in the area to be transferred, to the county officials of the two affected counties. County officials were then required to hold an election within three months, and if the voters in each affected county approved the boundary change, the election result was to be reported to the secretary of state and the change took effect on 1 March following the election. When the area petitioned to be transferred was less than one-half township, the county officials could-at their discretion-either reject the petition or hold the required election. All of these basic provisions were included in the Revised Statutes of the State of Illinois, 1885.

Many counties were created in Illinois before there was adequate population to support them. The legislature therefore devised a system of attachments, whereby newly created counties were attached to existing counties for varying terms and purposes. The process by which unorganized territory was attached to existing counties changed over time and contained many ambiguities. Furthermore, the precise nature of the attachment is not always clear: in some laws the unorganized area was simply "attached" to an existing county, but in other cases the attachments were "for county purposes," "for all judicial and other purposes," or "for all judicial and other county purposes."

The earliest attachments, 1818-1823, were the least complicated. The legislature simply directed that the attached area (generally non-county or unorganized territory) was to remain attached to the host county until formed into a separate county or "otherwise disposed of" by the General Assembly. However, beginning with the creation of Hancock, Mercer, and Warren counties in 1825, the legislature frequently required that new counties have at least 350 inhabitants before a circuit court judge could authorize elections for the first county officers. In 1836, when Kane, McHenry, Ogle, Winnebago, and Whiteside were created, the law required that the counties prove-by petition to a circuit court judge-that they contained at least 350 "white inhabitants" before elections could be held. This population requirement superseded any dates for organizing counties included in the text of the laws.

The statutes creating Boone (1837), DeKalb (1837), DeWitt (1839), Kane (1836), Livingston (1837), Ogle (1836), Stephenson (1837), and Winnebago (1836) "attached" them to existing counties, but it is clear from other provisions of the statutes that the period of attachment was merely the time required to set the new counties in motion. In each case, the statute creating the county also set the date for the election of the first county officers-usually several months after formal creation. In this volume, these counties are not defined as being attached.

Of the ten Illinois counties attached to existing counties at creation, seven were later detached (i.e., "organized") by separate statutes: Effingham, Jasper, McHenry, Mercer, Rock Island, Warren, and Whiteside. For the others (Iroquois, McDonough, and Hancock), the statute creating them authorized a circuit court judge to order elections for the first county officers when each had at least 350 inhabitants. In these cases, in the absence of a specific statute of organization, the compilers have used the date of the elections for the first county officers as the date each was detached (i.e., "organized"). Henry and Knox counties, although not attached to existing counties at their creation, were also required to have a population of 350 and thus had their organization dates as functioning counties delayed considerably.