When Illinois was admitted to the Union on Dec. 3, 1818, a small frontier settlement on the Mississippi River became the first capital city.
It was the French who settled Kaskaskia in 1703. It then passed to the British, who fortified the place. George Rogers Clark and his intrepid Virginia militiamen captured Kaskaskia in 1778. Clark immediately declared Illinois to be a county of Virginia with Kaskaskia as the seat of government. The name “Kaskaskia” was taken from the American Indian tribe which had been the principal member of the Illinois confederation.
The first state Capitol building in Kaskaskia was a small two-story brick affair. The state rented the building for $4 a day. The 29-member House of Representatives met on the first floor while the chamber for the 14 senators was on the second floor.
Eager for a more central location, the state legislature secured a federal land grant for a site on the Kaskaskia River. Known then as Reeve’s Bluff, this would become the city of Vandalia. A rather drab two-story building was erected to house state government. The House of Representatives continued to meet on the first floor, while rooms for the Senate and committees were upstairs. Other state officials rented offices elsewhere in the city.
Fire destroyed the Capitol, forcing the hasty construction of a new structure which opened for business in 1824. However, there was growing public agitation to move the capital further north. So in 1833, the legislature voted to allow state residents to make their views known on the site of a capital. Voters were asked to decide between Alton, Jacksonville, Peoria, Springfield, Vandalia and the geographical center of the state. Though Alton received the most votes, it was felt the city’s slim margin of victory was insufficient to declare it the victor. Besides, most legislators did not like the idea of Alton as the capital. In grand Illinois fashion, the results of the vote never were officially released.
During the 1836-37 session of the General Assembly, young Abraham Lincoln and eight of his colleagues (known as the “Long Nine” because their collective height was 54 feet) began lobbying to move the capital to Springfield.
Unwilling to toss in the towel, Vandalia residents in 1836 built an attractive two-story brick structure to serve as the new state Capitol. Unfortunately, the $16,000 project was conducted in haste. Numerous problems were encountered when the legislature returned and fumes reportedly sickened some officials.
On Feb. 25, 1837, the General Assembly authorized the relocation of the capital. Three days later, Springfield was officially selected. Some protests were heard, most notably from Vandalia, Jacksonville and Alton, but their pleas would fall on deaf ears.
The Vandalia Capitol was given to Fayette County, but was purchased back by the state in 1919. It now serves as a permanent memorial and museum.
Next: Illinois’ fifth Capitol.