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Why Is Illinois Called the Prairie State?

By Donna Tinus
Updated May 17, 2024
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Illinois is called the prairie state because the state has an abundance of prairie grasses. The nickname for Illinois probably dates back to around 1842, maybe even earlier. Before the first European settlers came to Illinois, the state was mostly covered in prairies. Illinois has never forgotten its roots, and continues to celebrate the prairie, designating a week in September just for this purpose. During this week of celebration, the schools, and townships, hold events to pay homage to the native prairies in Illinois.

Many different types of native grasses grow in Illinois, and there are different types of prairies in different parts of the state. The central part of the state is where most of the tallgrass prairies were found, with big bluestem one of the main grasses in these prairies. In 1989, it was designated as the state's official prairie grass. Little bluestem was found in Illinois prairies as well, along with Eastern gamagrass, Indian grass, and switchgrass.

In addition to being called the prairie state, the official state slogan for Illinois is the Land of Lincoln. The political career of President Abraham Lincoln began in the state, even though he was born in the state of Kentucky. Lincoln was living in the prairie state in 1832 when he ran for the General Assembly, as well as when he began his term as United States president.

The prairie state is one of Illinois' nicknames, but it does have a few other, less used, nicknames. An older nickname for Illinois is the Garden of the West. This name was used to describe the state's rolling prairies and cultivated fields. The state was one of the leading producer of soy beans and corn, which lead to the occasional use of the nickname The Corn State. The area often known as the Corn Belt is located in Iowa and Illinois.

The Sucker State is an interesting nickname for Illinois with a few possible origins. Some say the name refers to a common term for Illinois lead miners, or possibly a type of fish common in Illinois rivers. Others say the nickname refers to the free slaves or the "suckers" that are plucked from tobacco plants. Still others insist the name is derived from travelers sucking water from crawfish holes with long, hollow reeds.

The state was named by a French explorer for the Illinois River and the people who lived along it. Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle named the river in 1679. The name comes from "iliniwok," which means "warriors" or "men," and Illinois is the French variation of this Peoria Indian word.

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Discussion Comments
By Izzy78 — On May 14, 2012

@titans62 - I remember when I was a kid in third grade and how my teacher my a major deal about the conservation of prairie grass in Illinois.

That was nearly twenty years ago and even today the conservation of this state treasure is still as emphasized as ever, so it is not a brand new thing or a trend.

People continually overlook Illinois besides Chicago and do not realize that a lot of the states history lies in the frontier of Illinois or at least what it was back then.

Illinois was considered a western state and people explored not knowing what they would find. Prairie Grass is a reminder of what the state once was and the roots of the people that live within the state lines.

By titans62 — On May 14, 2012

@cardsfan27 - One other thing to consider is that the state of Illinois still has many wild prairie grass areas still around.

Whenever I am walking in the woods I will occasionally come across an authentic prairie grass field that is something that makes me swell with pride.

Some people may see it as an odd thing to be proud of, but a lot of rural Illinoisans take pride whenever they see a patch of prairie grass that was left over from the days that the state was being discovered by the original tenants.

The Department of Conservation in Illinois also goes to great lengths to ensure that the prairie grass that is still around is kept untouched and preserved as a reminder to the history and heritage of the state of Illinois.

By cardsfan27 — On May 14, 2012

@TreeMan - You are correct. Back in the 1800's the state of Illinois was basically a wilderness type of state and although there are an abundance of trees in the South, the Middle part of Illinois up to Chicago is flat land that was made up by a lot of prairie grass.

Although it seems like farmers took down a lot of trees in order to create their farmland the truth is that the prairie grasslands that were available made it a lot easier for the farmers to simply til their land, because they did not have to waste time cutting down a lot of trees.

This is what made Illinois the state's legacy and not the industrial center of Chicago. Chicago merely came about because of it's location on the Great Lakes in which to ship the agricultural goods.

All this prosperity was due to the fact that most of Illinois had land that was readily available for farmers to easily create successful farmland and be able to live and prosper in the state.

By TreeMan — On May 13, 2012

I am from Illinois and I always hear people complain about how the state should not be called the Prairie State because there is not really a lot of prairie in it and is not thought of to be a grassland state like the Great Plains.

I will have to admit though there is some truth to this statement as the state of Illinois is divided into two separate parts, that being the few industrial and urban centers, like Chicago, and the rest of the state which is rural in nature and known for the abundance of farmland.

I will have to say I bet the name comes from back when the state was founded when Illinois was not as explored and did not have people til the land up for farm plots or build the major cities.

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