Welcome to New Egypt!

American Weekend

HARRISBURG--Southern Illinois has long been known as Egypt to its residents, but few people realize how the region received the name.

There are two schools of thought on how this Land Between the Rivers became known as Egypt. The first says the regional name developed because of the existence of Egyptian place names such as Cairo and Thebes. The second argument says the region was named after settlers in the northern part of the state had to travel to Southern Illinois to buy grain after a series of bad winters or droughts. The settlers in their wagon trains were similar to the ancient Israelites traveling unto Egypt to buy grain.

The trouble with both of these arguments is that they are both right, and they're both wrong as well, because the Egyptian city names and the bad winters occurred after the region got its moniker. But both stories are true to the extent that they helped spread acceptance of the name.

One of the first persons to associate Southern Illinois with Egypt was John Badgley, a Baptist missionary to the French and Indian villages in the American Bottoms. Badgley was a preacher in the newly-settled American towns of New Design and Bellefontaine in what's now Monroe County. They were settled after the Revolutionary War during the 1790s.

In 1799, during his travels among the French settlements, he went up on top of the bluffs in the area of what's now Edwardsville and dubbed the fertile highlands and bottoms the "Land of Goshen." Being a preacher, he knew that the Bible referred to Goshen as the best land of ancient Egypt. It was the land the pharaoh gave to Joseph's family after they came to Egypt.

That Bagdley is the one is credited with the name "Goshen" is not disputed. Neither is the Biblical reference to Egypt. So why did he give the area the Egyptian name? If the land was so good, why not call it Canaan, the land the Bible describes as a land of milk and honey?

Regrettably, Badgley didn't give us the answer, but the answer may be visible even today. As you stand on top of the bluffs above the American Bottoms you see a grand river valley that even in 1799, settlers knew contained the longest river on the continent, if not the world. There are only two rivers longer than the combined Missouri-Mississippi Rivers, and those are the Amazon and the Nile.

Baptist preachers on the frontier probably did not know much if anything about the Amazon, but the Nile was well known to European Civilization. Thus the Mississippi itself probably led to the first reference to Egypt.

Another reason why Badgley may have chosen Goshen over Canaan, was that Canaan represented home to the Israelites, where Goshen was part of a foreign country. In 1799, Illinois was almost like a foreign country. New Spain was just across the river. The predominant European language in the state was French, not English. The American Bottoms were so named because at that time they were the western border of the United States.

But this part of Illinois was not just foreign, it was ancient, like Egypt itself. In the Carolinas, when settlers traveled west they met the Cherokees, an Indian nation that had lived in the southern Appalachians for centuries. Beyond that was Kentucky, a pristine wilderness untouched by permanent settlement, even by the Indians. Even further west was Southern Illinois.

Like Kentucky, Southern Illinois was mostly a hunting ground without large permanent Indian villages, at least until the French came and encouraged the Illini to settle among them. But unlike Kentucky, there was a mysterious air to the region. Along the rivers one could see various mounds, in the hills, ancient stone forts, and up the Mississippi itself, the largest mounds of them all near Cahokia.

During the past two centuries many of the mounds have disappeared, but when settlers first came there were mounds at Shawneetown, the mouth of the Saline River and the Black Bottoms east of Brookport now known as the Kinkaid Mounds. Appropriately, there were mounds at Mound City and Mounds as well.

Archeologists have found the ruins of 11 ancient stone forts in the Shawnee Hills, the largest and best known is the one three miles east of Stonefort. Centuries-old Spanish maps show an ancient fort on the Salinas (now Saline) River. Early French maps also mark the ruins of an ancient fort at Cairo.

So the Mississippi Valley not only served as a reminder to the Nile, the local mounds gave a faint physical resemblance to the pyramids of Egypt. The mounds and ruins of stone forts gave evidence of an ancient culture that had been more advanced than the Indian cultures that inhabited the state at the end of the 18th Century.

If Goshen was the first Egyptian name, how did the others come about? The first to develop was Cairo, although it's not known whether the city of Cairo at the confluence at the southern end of the state was first, or a place known as Mount Cairo in Hardin County.

Cairo the city shows up as early as 1817, when the Illinois Territorial Legislature incorporated the City and Bank of Cairo. The place called Mount Cairo shows up in the Gallatin County records in 1820, but it refers to a place where improvements were first made in 1808. So it's unsure which came first.

Mount Cairo was located about three miles east of Cave-in-Rock (then Rock and Cave) along the Ohio River. During the 1810s, a succession of entrepreneurs approached the Gallatin County Court for permission to operate a ferry from that point. They were all turned down, probably because of the ferry at Rock and Cave and another five miles upstream called Flin's Ferry.

The backers of the Bank of Cairo and the City of Cairo bought 1,800 acres of land at the southern tip of the state during the summer of 1817. After the legislature approved the incorporation, the governor signed the bill on Jan. 9, 1818.

The bank opened up next to the federal land office in Kaskaskia, but the town never got off the ground. Cairo the city wouldn't really develop until the mid-1830s, after the Winter of the Deep Snow. This maybe the reason why there has always been confusion between the place-name version and the wagon-train version of how Southern Illinois was named Egypt.

Nine men made up the incorporators of the bank and town. They included Shadrach Bond, who a year later would be the Illinois' first state governor. The group also included two men from Alexandria, Va., Thomas Herbert and Charles Slade.

Although there was more than one ancient Alexandria the most prominent one was the Mediterranean port city in Egypt where its lighthouse was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

It's possible that one or both of these men suggested the Egyptian name of Cairo to go along with their grand schemes of a river metropolis.

Before Cairo got off the ground, another Egyptian city sprang to life in the early Alexander County seat of Thebes. Another attempt, this time a failure, was the platted town of Alexandria which would have been on the Mississippi River between Thebes and Cairo. Dongola was an ancient city on the upper Nile in what's now Sudan. The fifth truly Egyptian name was Karnak which was created early this century as a lumber town.

Then there are the names that use Egypt itself. Egyptian Mills was a timber town in Hamilton County that faded, but those type of names continue to be used even to the present. The Lake of Egypt south of Marion was developed in the early 1960s. The Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad was developed in the 1970s to serve Marion.

The other reason why the region is known as Egypt, is because Southern Illinois was the feedbarn for the rest of the state in the early days before agriculture took hold. The most widely quoted story is about the Winter of Deep Snow.

The Book of Genesis talks about how a famine struck Canaan and Egypt.

"The famine was over all the face of the earth . . . and all countries came into Egypt for to buy grain; because the famine was so sore in all the lands."

Early newspaper accounts written by survivors of the winter of 1830-31, tell of snowfall that covered the ground from September through April. Then the growing season of 1831 didn't start until June, and was then cut short by a killer frost in September and another bad winter. The only corn in the state was what was grown in what's now the southern 16 counties of the state.

The 1912 History of Southern Illinois written by George Washington Smith described the winter like this:

"The winter of 1830-31 was long remembered as the Winter of Deep Snow. It is said that the winter was a mild one til Christmas. During the Christmas holidays a snowstorm began and for nine weeks, almost every day, it snowed. The snow melted little or none and was found more than three feet in places. The old fashioned 'stake & rider' fences were buried in many places with the drifted snow. The long country lanes were covered over so that no sign of the road was left."

"On top of this snow fell rain and sleet and formed such a crust that people and stock might walk on top of the snow. The birds and small game suffered very much for want of food, while larger wild game became very tame."

Area historian Barbara Burr Hubbs wrote in the first issue of the Egyptian Key in 1943, "caravans of eight and ten wagons formed, to go south and buy bread stuff, grain for the cattle, and seed for the next crop."

These pioneers were familiar with their Bibles, and a common answer to a greeting on the road became, 'We are the sons of Jacob, going into Egypt to buy corn.' Southern Illinois became known as the granary of the State. The name Egypt was accepted proudly."

Those early Bible scholars were probably familiar with the verse, "The famine is sore in the land of Canaan; now therefore let thy servants dwell in the land of Goshen."

The settlement of Goshen had long since changed to Edwardsville, but the state road laid out between Goshen and the salt works at Equality were still known as the Goshen Road. This road which went through what's now Eldorado, Mount Vernon, and Carlyle, was a line residents coming south in wagons either had to cross or travel on to buy food.

Apparently, the winter of 1830-31, was not the first bad winter that caused treks to Southern Illinois to buy food and seed. Earlier winters and droughts caused migrations as well.

The 1876 Complete History of Illinois has the following footnote: "'Fifty years ago, or in the summer of 1824,' writes Robinson, of Arnzville, under the date of Feb. 8, 1872, in the Chicago Journal, 'there was not a bushel of corn to be found in Central Illinois. My father settled in that year 23 miles west of Springfield. We had to live for a time on venison, blackberries, and milk, while the men were gone to Egypt to harvest and procure breadstuffs.'..."

"The southern part of the state, known as Egypt, received this appellation, was here indicated, because being older, better settled and cultivated, it gathered corn as sand of the sea, and the immigration of the central part of the state, after the manner of the children of Israel in their want, went thither to buy and bring then that they might live and not die."

This idea of Egypt as a breadbasket may go back even earlier than 1824. In 1816, the village of Carmi was platted on the Little Wabash River. For people who study the genealogical lists in the Bible, Carmi was one of Jacob's grandsons and Joseph's nephew who came with his father Rueben to settle in the land of Goshen.

Also in 1816, a severe drought hit the region of central North Carolina. Many residents were forced to migrate westward. Since Kentucky was in the midst of a land boom, many settlers continued west to Southern Illinois.

If this is the history of how Southern Illinois became known as Egypt, then what's the geography? Just how large an area should be considered Egypt?

Many people today consider only the southern 16 or 17 counties of Illinois (Mount Vernon south) as Egypt. This area kept the name because all of the current Egyptian place names are in this area as well. Plus, this was the region where people could get grain and corn after the Winter of Deep Snow.

But if Southern Illinois got the name from Goshen which came about from the fertile valley of the American Bottoms and the remnants of an ancient civilization at Cahokia Mounds, then shouldn't the area be larger?

Indeed it was. During the 1920s and 30s, Egypt was considered to include the southern third of the state. During that time there was a newspaper association called Egypt's Associated Dailies. One of the lead papers was the Centralia Sentinel, which was definitely outside the 17 county region. Even today, visitors to the paper can marvel at the Egyptian architectural motif both inside and outside of their headquarters building.

The Southern Illinois Development Association promoted the "Egyptian Empire" of the southern 32 counties of Illinois. In 1939, The Chicago Egyptian Club showed 34 counties on its letterhead which included towns as far north as Effingham and Vandalia.

It's interesting to note that at one time Egypt may have covered an even larger area. In 1833, the Sangamo Journal mentioned a settlement called Egypt in Morgan County west of Springfield. Egypt post office was first established on Feb. 12, 1858, in Mason County north of Springfield. In 1861, the post office name changed to Manito and is still active.

Before Marion became known as the Hub of the Universe it started out small in terms of self-promotion and called itself the Heart of Egypt. In 1922, the Marion Daily Republican published an industrial attraction booklet which defined Egypt as "that portion of Illinois, south of the Vandalia railroad, bounded roughly on the north by a straight line from St. Louis, Mo., to Terre Haute, Ind."

A side note to the efforts to promote Southern Illinois. During the Civil War the residents of southeastern Illinois presented a horse named "Egypt" to Gen. U.S. Grant in hopes that the name would become famous along with the general's exploits.

The year 1922 was a good year for the region according to the paper which quoted from the Jan. 21, 1922 issue of Editor and Publisher's Market Survey of Illinois.

"Egypt is that prosperous empire of payrolls which during the 1921 business depression produced more business and orders than any section in the middle west. Business is good in Egypt; business has been good in Egypt for several years. Depression has been known only by reading of it in other sections. Egypt is the fastest growing part of Illinois. Egypt is a peculiarly rich store-house of wealth and opportunity where thriving cities are many, where living is easy and where payrolls have plenty of money for those who have the will to earn by business their share."

The growth of the interurban railroads that interconnected the coal fields of Southern Illinois in the first two decades of this century, and later the growth of modern highways, led to the consumer market of Southern Illinois today. That market is generally along I-57 and Route 13.

Although some people fought against it, the name Little Egypt was used more and more for the southern 16 or 17 counties. Will Griffith, publisher of the Egyptian Key magazine of the 1940s was one of the fiercest opponents of Little Egypt.

To Griffith who was also the founder of the Greater Egypt Association, "Little Egypt" was the name of a "hootchie-kootchie" dancer at the 1893 Columbian Exposition at Chicago, and to use it for Southern Illinois was an insult. In the early 1950s Hollywood made a risque movie about the dancer Little Egypt and her famous shakes and wiggles. Fans of the television hit series "M*A*S*H" may notice that in one episode, Col. Potter refers to the camp water tower in high wind as "having more shakes than Little Egypt."

Eventually Griffith ended up one for one. More people today use "Little Egypt" than "Egypt," but his name of Greater Egypt lives on in the Greater Egypt Regional Planning Commission which covers Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Perry and Williamson Counties.

The preceeding article was printed in the Jan. 6, 1996, issue of American Weekend, a special weekend section of the following Southern Illinois newspapers: Benton Evening News, DuQuoin Evening Call, Eldorado Daily Journal, Harrisburg Daily Register, Marion Daily Republican and the West Frankfort Daily American.

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Created July 13, 1996 by Jon Musgrave