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Why Is Illinois Called the Prairie State?

Illinois is dubbed the Prairie State due to its vast expanses of prairie land that once flourished across the region. These grasslands were a defining feature of the state's landscape, supporting a rich ecosystem and shaping early settlement patterns. Discover how these prairies have left an indelible mark on Illinois's identity and continue to influence its culture and environment. Ready to explore more?
Donna Tinus
Donna Tinus

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.

Although called the Prairie State, Illinois' official state slogan is "Land of Lincoln."
Although called the Prairie State, Illinois' official state slogan is "Land of Lincoln."

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of Illinois' nickname, "The Prairie State"?

Illinois earned the nickname "The Prairie State" due to its extensive and lush prairies that once covered much of the state. When European settlers first arrived, they encountered vast stretches of tallgrass prairie, which are ecosystems dominated by grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass. These prairies were a defining feature of Illinois's landscape, leading to the adoption of the nickname.

How much of Illinois was originally covered by prairie?

Originally, prairies covered about 60% of Illinois, amounting to approximately 22 million acres. This expansive coverage of prairie land was primarily due to the state's flat topography and fertile soil, which were ideal conditions for prairie grasses to thrive. Over time, much of this land has been converted for agricultural use and urban development, significantly reducing the prairie's presence.

What efforts are being made to preserve prairies in Illinois?

Conservation efforts in Illinois include the restoration and preservation of prairie lands through various initiatives. Organizations like the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy actively work to protect and manage remaining prairie ecosystems. These efforts involve controlled burns, reseeding native plants, and removing invasive species to maintain the biodiversity and ecological health of these areas.

Are there any famous prairies in Illinois that can be visited?

Yes, there are several notable prairies in Illinois that visitors can explore. The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located near Joliet, is the largest prairie restoration project in the United States. Another significant site is the Nachusa Grasslands, which is home to a diverse array of plant and animal species, including bison. These locations offer a glimpse into the state's natural heritage and the beauty of its original prairies.

Why are prairies important to Illinois' ecosystem and history?

Prairies are crucial to Illinois' ecosystem as they provide habitat for a wide range of wildlife, support pollinators, and contribute to soil health. Historically, prairies have played a significant role in shaping the state's agricultural prosperity due to their rich, fertile soils. They are also an integral part of Illinois' cultural heritage, reflecting the landscape encountered by early settlers and indigenous peoples.

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Discussion Comments


@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.


@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.


@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.


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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    • Although called the Prairie State, Illinois' official state slogan is "Land of Lincoln."
      By: ra3rn
      Although called the Prairie State, Illinois' official state slogan is "Land of Lincoln."