Biggest cities in Illinois 150 years ago

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May 23, 2022
Bettmann // Getty Images

Biggest cities in Illinois 150 years ago

After the completion of the 1860 census and the election of President Abraham Lincoln, America imploded. Eleven southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, instigating four bloody years of the Civil War and fundamentally altering the social history of the U.S. The estimates of deaths caused by the Civil War begin around 600,000, but some claim as many as 750,000 individuals died throughout the conflict.

With so many families looking for a new start after combat finally ended and approximately 4 million Black Americans emancipated from slavery, it was time for many Americans to look for a new home to put down roots. The obvious choice for many was to move west, where there was more land to buy, settle, and cultivate. Many traveled by covered wagon, spending months on the dusty trail. Others who could afford better accommodations took a 25-day ride by stagecoach. All of them picked new cities and towns to make their homes, spreading the U.S. population more evenly across different states and territories.

On May 10, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad route across the United States was completed, ushering in a new era of transportation. The project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, though with the loss of many lives, including those of the many Irish and Chinese immigrants hired to work 12-hour days in the hot western sun. Riding by steam engine, passengers could cross the entire country in four days, enabling waves of Americans and immigrants to quickly occupy land that would otherwise take months to settle.

The years of Civil War reconstruction, coupled with wagon, stagecoach, and railroad passengers finding new lives across the U.S., made the urban development reflected in the 1870 census incredibly interesting. Stacker compiled a list of the biggest cities in Illinois from 150 years ago using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. By transcribing Table XXV of the Ninth Census of the U.S., which was previously only available as a PDF, it's easy to explore what the urban landscape looked like less than a decade after the end of the Civil War as America healed and grew.

The largest city in Illinois ranked #5 among all cities nationwide in 1870. Of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., 4 were in Illinois. Keep reading to find out more about the historic metropolitan landscape in your home state or check out the data on your own on our site, GitHub, or data.world.

You may also like: Best counties to raise a family in Illinois

People standing in front of a general store with painted signs
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#25. Monmouth, Warren County

- Total population: 4,662 (#595 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,291
--- Female population: 2,371
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,386
Two story wooden building with porch and people in rural town.
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Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

#24. Mattoon, Coles County

- Total population: 4,976 (#525 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,560
--- Female population: 2,407
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,544
Blacksmith shoeing a horse
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Alexander Alland, Sr./Corbis via Getty Images

#23. Kankakee, Kankakee County

- Total population: 5,189 (#488 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,509
--- Female population: 2,680
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,739
Group of people sitting on porch
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Carleton E. Watkins/Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

#22. Elgin, Kane County

- Total population: 5,441 (#451 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,691
--- Female population: 2,750
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,527
Group of children pose with their teacher outside schoolhouse
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#21. La Salle, La Salle County

- Total population: 5,452 (#448 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,811
--- Female population: 2,641
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,746
Group of six sitting at outdoor picnic
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Camerique/ClassicStock // Getty Images

#20. East St. Louis, St. Clair County

- Total population: 5,644 (#425 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,219
--- Female population: 2,425
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,506
Doctor making medical rounds in horse buggy.
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#19. Pekin, Tazewell County

- Total population: 5,696 (#418 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,893
--- Female population: 2,803
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,692
Large trees shading dirt road on residential street
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Detroit Publishing Company // Library of Congress

#18. Moline, Rock Island County

- Total population: 5,754 (#406 nationwide)
--- Male population: 2,936
--- Female population: 2,818
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,643
Farrier shoeing a horse with blacksmith and two other men standing nearby.
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#17. Cairo, Alexander County

- Total population: 6,267 (#356 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,008
--- Female population: 3,259
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 1,673
Men on steps of rural General Store
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#16. Galena, Jo Daviess County

- Total population: 7,019 (#298 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,428
--- Female population: 3,591
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,408
Waiters and waitresses pose for a group picture
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#15. Joliet, Will County

- Total population: 7,236 (#284 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,638
--- Female population: 3,625
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,222
Horse and wagon outside general store
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Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

#14. Ottawa, La Salle County

- Total population: 7,736 (#265 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,780
--- Female population: 3,956
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,508
Group of young women out for a trip in a horse drawn Surrey
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Transcendental Graphics // Getty Images

#13. Freeport, Stephenson County

- Total population: 7,889 (#255 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,852
--- Female population: 4,037
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,480
Man standing in door of ice cream parlor
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Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

#12. Rock Island, Rock Island County

- Total population: 7,890 (#254 nationwide)
--- Male population: 3,973
--- Female population: 3,917
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,360
Group of men in front of a billiard parlor
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#11. Belleville, St. Clair County

- Total population: 8,146 (#246 nationwide)
--- Male population: 4,055
--- Female population: 4,055
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,750
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Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

#10. Alton, Madison County

- Total population: 8,665 (#228 nationwide)
--- Male population: 4,246
--- Female population: 4,419
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,817
Group of workmen seated and standing
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

#9. Jacksonville, Morgan County

- Total population: 9,203 (#213 nationwide)
--- Male population: 4,449
--- Female population: 4,754
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,757
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#8. Galesburg, Knox County

- Total population: 10,158 (#178 nationwide)
--- Male population: 4,944
--- Female population: 5,214
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 2,790
Two carriage horses being watered on city street
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Alexander Alland, Sr./Corbis via Getty Images

#7. Rockford, Winnebago County

- Total population: 11,049 (#152 nationwide)
--- Male population: 5,239
--- Female population: 5,810
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 3,304
People in street scene with horse and buggy and bicycles
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Underwood Archives // Getty Images

#6. Aurora, Kane County

- Total population: 11,162 (#148 nationwide)
--- Male population: 5,465
--- Female population: 5,697
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 3,270
Postman delivers mail by horsedrawn carriage
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Vintage Images // Getty Images

#5. Bloomington, Mc'Lean County

- Total population: 14,590 (#108 nationwide)
--- Male population: 7,307
--- Female population: 7,283
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 4,092
Men standing next to horse drawn carriages in front of shops
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American Stock/ClassicStock // Getty Images

#4. Springfield, Sangamon County

- Total population: 17,364 (#88 nationwide)
--- Male population: 8,579
--- Female population: 8,785
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 5,321
Men and women sitting with bicycles in park.
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Chicago History Museum // Getty Images

#3. Peoria, Peoria County

- Total population: 22,849 (#59 nationwide)
--- Male population: 11,386
--- Female population: 11,463
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 7,813
Woman seated in horse drawn carriage with three people standing
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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

#2. Quincy, Adams County

- Total population: 24,052 (#55 nationwide)
--- Male population: 11,969
--- Female population: 12,083
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 7,202
Man walking across busy cobblestone street with tall buildings
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Bettmann // Getty Images

#1. Chicago, Cook County

- Total population: 298,977 (#5 nationwide)
--- Male population: 152,828
--- Female population: 146,149
--- Child population, ages 5-18: 78,959

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