The Great Lakes are to its northeast, the Mississippi River to its west, and the Wabash and Ohio rivers to its south. Its largest metropolitan areas are Chicago and the Metro East region of Greater St. Louis. Other metropolitan areas include Peoria and Rockford, as well as Springfield, its capital, and Champaign-Urbana, home to the main campus of the state’s flagship university. Of the fifty U.S. states, Illinois has the fifth-largest gross domestic product (GDP), the sixth-largest population, and the 25th-largest land area.
Illinois has a highly diverse economy, with the global city of Chicago in the northeast, major industrial and agricultural hubs in the north and center, and natural resources such as coal, timber, and petroleum in the south. Owing to its central location and favorable geography, the state is a major transportation hub: the Port of Chicago has access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway and to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River via the Illinois Waterway. Chicago has been the nation’s railroad hub since the 1860s, and its O’Hare International Airport has been among the world’s busiest airports for decades. Illinois has long been considered a microcosm of the United States and a bellwether in American culture, exemplified by the phrase Will it play in Peoria?.
What is now Illinois was inhabited for thousands of years by various indigenous cultures, including the advanced civilization centered in the Cahokia region. The French were the first Europeans to arrive, settling near the Mississippi and Illinois River in the 17th century in the region they called Illinois Country, as part of the sprawling colony of New France. Following U.S. independence in 1783, American settlers began arriving from Kentucky via the Ohio River, and the population grew from south to north. Illinois was part of the United States’ oldest territory, the Northwest Territory, and in 1818 it achieved statehood. The Erie Canal brought increased commercial activity in the Great Lakes, and the small settlement of Chicago became one of the fastest growing cities in the world, benefiting from its location as one of the few natural harbors in southwestern Lake Michigan. The invention of the self-scouring steel plow by Illinoisan John Deere turned the state’s rich prairie into some of the world’s most productive and valuable farmland, attracting immigrant farmers from Germany and Sweden. In the mid-19th century, the Illinois and Michigan Canal and a sprawling railroad network greatly facilitated trade, commerce, and settlement, making the state a transportation hub for the nation.
By 1900, the growth of industrial jobs in the northern cities and coal mining in the central and southern areas attracted immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Illinois became one of America’s most industrialized states and remains a major manufacturing center. The Great Migration from the South established a large community of African Americans, particularly in Chicago, who founded the city’s famous jazz and blues cultures. Chicago became a leading cultural, economic, and population center and is today one of the world’s major commercial centers; its metropolitan area, informally referred to as Chicagoland, holds about 65% of the state’s 12.8 million residents.
Two World Heritage Sites are in Illinois, the ancient Cahokia Mounds, and part of the Wright architecture site. Major centers of learning include the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, and Northwestern University. A wide variety of protected areas seek to conserve Illinois’ natural and cultural resources. Historically, three U.S. presidents have been elected while residents of Illinois: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Barack Obama; additionally, Ronald Reagan was born and raised in the state. Today, Illinois honors Lincoln with its official state slogan Land of Lincoln. The state is the site of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and the future home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.