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Schrader: How Nathaniel Pope put us in Illinois

Anyone taking a leisurely drive around south DeKalb County may discover an interesting chapter in Illinois history that is probably unknown to most residents.

Along Route 34 between Somonauk and Sandwich is the Sannauk Forest Preserve, and in the middle of that 72-acre woodlands is a state historical marker placed there in 1989. It reveals how this county and 13 others in northern Illinois almost ended up in Wisconsin. I just came across this bit of trivia last week and went to the library to learn more about Nathaniel Pope’s influence on Illinois.

In 1818, the U.S. Congress was considering making a state out of the territory of Illinois. A line had been drawn in 1787 due west from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River to map out the territory; everything south of that line was Illinois, and north of it eventually would become Wisconsin.

The bill to make Illinois a state was already written, but the Illinois delegate to Congress, Nathaniel Pope, saw an opportunity to expand the new state’s area. He believed Illinois needed more access to Lake Michigan, so he pushed through an amendment to move the line 61 miles north, thus adding 8,500 square miles of land that has become the most valuable real estate in our state.

Pope was one of the greatest influences in Illinois’ history when you think of what the state would be without this valuable land and Chicago. (Well, I’m not so sure about the value of having Chicago in our state, but that’s another issue.)

He also knew that to become a state, Congress wanted a population of at least 40,000 people, which this territory did not have at the time. So another census was taken by counting every traveler on major roads.

This method was questionable because many people traveled on more than one major road during the census, thus boosting the total to the critical number to meet the minimum requirement.

He wrote an article for the Western Intelligencer newspaper explaining his maneuvers in Congress. It turned out to be a brilliant plan because it gave Illinois a better foothold on the Great Lakes to help commerce, added thousands of acres of fertile farmland, and because half the population lived in this northern section, it later proved valuable in assuring the state would vote to stay in the Union and oppose slavery.

Could Abraham Lincoln even have become president if he didn’t have this part of the state behind him?

Pope did well in his political career, which began when he was appointed secretary of the Illinois territory by President James Madison – probably because of the influence of his brother, John Pope, who was a U.S. senator from Kentucky. Beside this, his cousin was territorial governor of Illinois at the time. After serving two terms as a delegate – when the state was admitted into the Union – he was appointed first a register of the land office at Edwardsville, then a district court judge.

He later lost a bid for the U.S. Senate, but he continued to serve as a federal judge until he died at age 66. He did have a downstate county and an elementary school in the Chicago area named after him.

So now you know more about this forest preserve marker and Nathaniel Pope than you ever thought you would.

• Barry Schrader was editor of the Daily Chronicle from 1969-1972. He and his wife, Kay, are retired and live in DeKalb. He can be reached at or by mail at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115.

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