Little Egypt (region)

Little Egypt (region)

:"Southern Illinois" redirects here. For the university, see Southern Illinois University"

Little Egypt is a term for the extreme southern region of the American state of Illinois. The southern part of Illinois is geographically, culturally, and economically different from the rest of the state. It has been more affiliated with the agricultural economy and rural culture that previously existed in the Southern United States.

Definition of region

The northern boundary of the Little Egypt region has never been precisely defined, and different references give varying descriptions of what is included in the region.

One potentially defining aspect is geography: Southern Illinois becomes generally flatter as one goes north. Little Egypt is known for being hilly, but where the hills end is not clear. One popular boundary is the imaginary line created by the cities of Marion, Carbondale, and Harrisburg. Inhabitants north of these places refer to the region simply as "Southern Illinois." A popular boundary for Southern Illinois is U.S. Highway 50, as it runs nearly straight east-west across the top of the region.

Another aspect of difference is degree of forestation and prairie: Trees become fewer and farther between as one travels north from Southern Illinois. Before settlement, the far south was completely forested. Toward the north "prairies", large, open grasslands appeared within the forest. To the north, the prairies became larger. Near what is now Centralia, the area of prairie became greater than the area of forest. From a prairie, a bystander would see a wall of trees on the horizon. Near Effingham, the smaller prairies merged into the great prairie. There was no longer a wall of trees on the horizon, but only groves and isolated trees.

A third involves culture. Little Egypt and much of Illinois was originally settled by Southerners traveling by the Ohio River. By the 1840s, however, canals and railroads brought settlers from the Northern Tier directly west from New York and Ohio to northern Illinois. Little Egypt received fewer of the migrants from northern states. Salem, Illinois, had the main east/west rail line from Baltimore, Maryland, to St. Louis. The regions of the state reflected the heritage of their respective settlers.

Origin of name

Due to the similarity of the land of the great Mississippi and Ohio Rivers with that of Egypt’s Nile delta, the region soon came to be called "Little Egpyt." According to Hubbs, the nickname may date back to 1818, when a large tract of land was purchased at the confluence of the rivers and its developers named it Cairo. Today, the town of Cairo still stands on the peninsula where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi. Other settlements in that area were also given names with Egyptian, Greek or Middle Eastern origins: The Southern Illinois University Salukis,Thebes, Dongola, Palestine, Lebanon, New Athens, Sparta, and Karnak. (Greek names were also related to national pride in the new republic, however, and were given to towns throughout the Midwest.) Egyptian names were concentrated in Little Egypt but also appeared in towns further south. About one hundred miles south of Cairo, along the Mississippi, lies Memphis, Tennessee, which was named after an Egyptian city on the Nile.

Although Illinois was a free state prior to the American Civil War, some people still owned slaves in Little Egypt. Illinois law generally forbade bringing slaves into Illinois, but a special exemption was given to the salt works near Equality and to slaveholders who held long-term indentured servants or descendants of slaves in the area before statehood.

The nicknames for this region arose from the settlement factors that brought political tensions prior to and during the American Civil War, as regions of the state allied differently with North and South. Because southern Illinois was settled by southerners, they maintained a sympathy for many issues of their former states. They supported the continuation of slavery. They voted Democratic, when the northern part of the state was supporting Republicans. The meaning comes across in this quote:

"In 1858, debating in northern Illinois, Douglas had threatened Lincoln by asserting that he would 'trot him down to Egypt' and there challenge him to repeat his antislavery views before a hostile crowd. The audience understood Douglas: overwhelming proslavery sentiment and Democratic unanimity in Egypt had led to the nickname."
[ [ John Y. Simon, "Judge Andrew D. Duff of Egypt"] , "Springhouse Magazine Online", Apr 2006, accessed 3 Jul 2008]

In the fall of 1861, Democrats surprisingly took over the state legislature and worked to pass provisions of a new constitution, an initiative begun in 1860. They proposed reapportionment so the southern region's less populous counties would have representation equal to those in the north, which was growing more rapidly. People worried about the state coming under the political will of the southern minority. "Shall the manufacturing, agricultural and commercial interests of northern Illinois be put into Egyptian bondage?" wondered the "Aurora Beacon"." [ [ Drew E. VandeCreek, "Politics in Illinois and the Union During the Civil War"] , "Illinois During the Civil War", 2002, Northern Illinois University Library, accessed 3 Jul 2008]

In addition, southern Illinois became the center of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret group devoted to supporting the Confederacy. With concern rising about armed southern sympathizers, in August 1862, US Marshal David Phillips arrested several Democrats who allegedly belonged to the Knights, including men in respectable positions: Congressmen and state representatives, and judges. One was Circuit Judge Andrew Duff. They were sent to Washington, DC, where they were held for 68 days before release, but they were never charged. Democrats won across the state in the fall election. [ [ John Y. Simon, "Judge Andrew D. Duff of Egypt"] , "Springhouse Magazine Online", Apr 2006, accessed 3 Jul 2008]

After the war, other reasons were put about for the nickname, but political divisions continued in the state. In the later 19th century, the central and southern agricultural areas joined the Populist Movement. Chicago and the industrial North aligned with similar areas and continued Republican. [ [ Drew E. VandeCreek, "Politics in Illinois and the Union During the Civil War"] , "Illinois During the Civil War", 2002, Northern Illinois University Library, accessed 3 Jul 2008]

In 1871 Judge Duff wrote an article ignoring the war years and claiming the name of Egypt related to Southern Illinois’ role in supplying grain to northern and central Illinois following the "Winter of the Deep Snow" in 1830–31. Following a long winter and late spring, Upper Illinois lost much of its harvest in an early September frost. Southern Illinois's weather gave it good crops, so it could ship grain and corn north. Wagons came to the southern region to carry back grain. The nickname supposedly arose from similarities to the well-known Bible story of Jacob’s sons going to Egypt for grain to survive a famine. [ [ Judge Andrew D. Duff, "Egypt" (23 Nov 1871 article from "The Golconda Weekly")] , "Springhouse Magazine Online", April 2006, accessed 3 Jul 2008]

Belly dancer Farida Mazar Spyropoulos' appearance as "Little Egypt" at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago brought notoriety to the name, but she had no other connection to the Illinois region. The name of the region did shift after her performances; before then "Egypt" was used, but later "Little Egypt" became more popular.Fact|Jun 2008|date=June 2008


Illinois has been partially covered at times by glaciers. However, Southern Illinois was covered only partially by the Illinois Glacier and not at all by the Wisconsin Glacier. Thus, the geography of Southern Illinois is considerably more hilly and rocky than central or northern Illinois. Areas of Southern Illinois are more similar to the Ozarks than to central or northern Illinois.

Additionally, the rich farm land of northern and central Illinois is generally not found in Southern Illinois. Significant exceptions are the American Bottom along the Mississippi River and the alluvial soils of the Gulf Coastal Plain or Delta, a large region which has its northernmost extent in the two river valleys of Southern Illinois. The Mississippi Delta reaches north from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and ends near Thebes in Alexander County.

The region's other major river, the Ohio River, winds generally southwest, past Shawneetown, Cave-in-Rock, Elizabethtown, and Golconda. Its waters join the Mississippi at Cairo. In ancient times, the Ohio is thought to have flowed a more northerly course through Pope and Pulaski counties. It carved a broad valley there, fit for a major river. But today the underfit Bay Creek and Cache River occupy those valleys.

The hills of Little Egypt can be divided into two areas. The western area, more closely related to the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, is chiefly in southern Jackson, Union, northern Alexander and Johnson counties. The eastern area, more closely related to the Wabash Valley Fault System, is mostly in northern Pope, southern Saline, Gallatin, eastern Johnson and southern Williamson counties. The Shawnee National Forest covers a large territory, including seven wilderness areas: Garden of the Gods, Bay Creek, Clear Springs, Bald Knob, Burden Falls, Lusk Creek, and Panthers Den. [ [ Shawnee National Forest] , US Forest Service]

Of southern Illinois' rivers, only the Mississippi and the Ohio are navigable for modern commerce. The Big Muddy River, Marys River, Saline River and Cache River run their courses in deep southern Illinois. The Kaskaskia River and Wabash River are nearby.


Depending on the definition of Little Egypt's boundaries, there are three interstates in the region. Interstate 57 is the main north-south highway through Southern Illinois. It runs through the center of the area. South of Marion is the western terminus of Interstate 24. It runs southeast, crossing into Paducah, Kentucky near Metropolis. South of its junction with Interstate 24, Interstate 57 bends to the southwest and crosses into Missouri near Illinois' southernmost point by Cairo. Interstate 64 runs east-west from St. Louis to southern Indiana. It is coextensive with Interstate 57 for a short stretch at Mt. Vernon.

Illinois Route 13 is a four-lane divided highway through the most populated part of the region outside the St. Louis area, from Murphysboro to Harrisburg.

U.S. Highway 51 roughly follows the Illinois Central Railroad line north-south through the middle of the entire state. Illinois Route 1 runs north-south along the eastern edge of Little Egypt; Illinois Route 3 parallels the Mississippi River along the western edge of the area.

The Metro-East area near St. Louis has these additional highways:
* Interstate 55
* Interstate 255
* Interstate 70
* Interstate 270

Bridges for automobiles across the Ohio River into Kentucky:
* Illinois Route 13 at Old Shawneetown
* U.S. Highway 45 at Brookport
* Interstate 24 near Brookport/Metropolis
* U.S. Highway 51/60 near Cairo

Bridges for automobiles across the Mississippi River into Missouri:
* U.S. Highway 60 near Cairo
* Interstate 57 near Cairo
* Illinois Route 146 at East Cape Girardeau
* Illinois Route 150 at Chester

Bridges for automobiles across the Mississippi River in the St. Louis area:
* Interstate 255 in Monroe County - Jefferson Barracks Bridge
* Interstate 55/70/64 at East St. Louis - Poplar Street Bridge
* Eads Bridge at East St. Louis
* Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge at East St. Louis
* McKinley Bridge at Venice (Reopened November 17, 2007)
* Interstate 270 near Granite City - Chain of Rocks Bridge
* U.S. Highway 67 at Alton - Clark Bridge

A free ferry crosses the Ohio River at Cave-in-Rock. A toll ferry crosses the Mississippi at Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, near Chester, Illinois. Four other ferries operate in Calhoun County, which is north of the area considered Little Egypt.

Amtrak passenger rail's City of New Orleans provides service to Effingham, Centralia, and Carbondale. Amtrak's Illini Service, with morning afternoon trains, also serves DuQuoin, as well as the above three stops.


Southern Illinois has historically been a conservative Democratic region. Even as the political parties have changed, Southern Illinois has consistently voted for Democratic candidates more times than not since 1818. In the months before the Civil War, some residents voted for secession from the Union.

On April 15, 1861 the citizens of Marion passed a resolution calling for the division of Illinois and the secession of Southern Illinois. The resolution stated:

Resolved: 1. That we, the citizens of Williamson County, firmly believing, from the distracted condition of our county---the same being brought about by the elevation to power of a strictly sectional party---the coercive policy of which toward the seceded States will drive all the border slave States from the Federal Union, and cause them to join the Southern Confederacy.
2. That, in such event, the interest of the citizens of Southern Illinois imperatively demands at their hands a division of the State. We hereby pledge ourselves to use all means in our power to effect the same, and attach ourselves to the Southern Confederacy.
3. That, in our opinion, it is the duty of the present administration to withdraw all the troops of the Federal government that may be stationed in Southern forts, and acknowledge the independence of the Southern Confederacy, believing that such a course would he calculated to restore peace and harmony to our distracted country.
4. That in view of the fact that it is probable that the present Governor of the State of Illinois will call upon the citizens of the same to take up arms for the purpose of subjecting the people of the South, we hereby enter our protest against such a course, and, as loyal citizens, will refuse, frown down, and forever oppose the same.
The resolution was soon repealed, but General Benjamin Prentiss left a company of men near Marion as he passed by on his way to a garrison in Cairo.

Similar to the realignment of conservative voters in southern states since the 1960s, the voters in southern Illinois have been voting Democratic in state and local elections while choosing Republicans at the federal level. In 1960 all but four Southern Illinois counties voted for Richard Nixon. In the 1980 presidential election, Republican Ronald Reagan won all but two southern Illinois counties. In 1984 Reagan won all but four counties in southern Illinois. Democrat Bill Clinton easily won the southern Illinois region in both 1992 and 1996, but he was also a regional son from Arkansas. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Republican George W. Bush carried most of Southern Illinois.

In the mining region of southern Illinois and counties such as Franklin, Saline, Gallatin, Hardin, Perry, Union and Williamson, Democrats generally hold most local elected positions. Jackson County and Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, tend to align with the national Democratic Party. For example, Jackson County was one of only fifteen in Illinois to support John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential Election. The Metro-east area of Illinois, adjacent to St. Louis and included in the "downstate" or Southern Illinois region, also votes consistently for national Democrats.

In the 1998 gubernatorial election, Democrat Glenn Poshard won in every county in Southern Illinois over his moderate Republican opponent, George Ryan. This was likely in part due to his being a native of Southern Illinois.

In the 2006 gubernatorial election, southern Illinois played a decisive role in the reelection of Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich against Republican challenger Judy Baar Topinka. The election results showed Blagojevich's winning every county in Southern Illinois except five. The fact that two Southern Illinois politicians ran on third party tickets probably helped Blagojevich's race.


There are two main centers of commerce for Southern Illinois. They consist of the of St. Louis, Missouri metropolitan area (home to approximately 2.8 million people), and the Carbondale, Marion, Herrin, Harrisburg area (home to approximately 245,000 people).

The main agricultural products of Southern Illinois are crops such as corn, soybeans and apples. In recent years there has been development of wineries in the Shawnee region.

Southern Illinois also has significant coal deposits; however, since the late 1980s, the coal industry has suffered significant decline due to the decreased demand for high sulfur coal, which causes more pollution. The collapse of the coal industry has had profound and lasting impact on the region's economy.

The Illinois oil basin is located mostly in Little Egypt. During the early 1940s and 1950s, Little Egypt had a modest oil boom in towns such as Carmi, McLeansboro, and Lawrenceville. Oil production reached more than 140 million barrels per year in the 1940s, but dropped to 10 million barrels per year by 1995. Oil wells in the region have relatively low yield and produce oil with a high sulfur content, making it expensive to process. There has been no significant drilling activity in the basin since the late 1970s.

Manufacturing in Southern Illinois is typically clustered in the largest towns of each county, with the people of smaller towns and villages often commuting to work in the factories. Many of these towns have a number of light factories and other industrial facilities in their industrial parks. Products include industrial electronics, minor electrical items, automobile parts, and packaging materials. Related services include large-scale printing as well as transportation and distribution of warehoused materials and goods. A high percentage of local jobs are in these light industries.


Culturally, Southern Illinois draws influences from the rest of Illinois but also from Upper Southern states like Kentucky and Tennessee. The immigration route from the east coast ran along the Ohio River, which joined settlements on both sides. In addition, the Cumberland River flowed northwest through Kentucky and Tennessee before joining the Ohio near Paducah, Kentucky, affording a migration route from the interior of those states. Thus, settlers who came to Southern Illinois were from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, most of these being of Scotch-Irish and North British descent. Some migrated further west into Missouri. A road between Golconda and Jonesboro carried settlers and commerce across Southern Illinois, as well as the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. [ [ "Trail of Tears"] , Illinois History]

Little Egypt exists at the confluence of the North Midland and South Midland dialects of American English. South Midland becomes more prominent as one approaches the Ohio River. The dialect change is not pure continuum, but rather occurs in pockets, with certain towns and regions notably favoring one dialect over the other. This difference can be found between lifelong residents of the same town. No stigma is associated to either dialect within southern Illinois. According to David Haskett Fischer in his book "Albions seed: Four British Folkways to America" the dialect of this region is Southern Highland being derived from the linguistics of the people of the Southern Appalachian region. This would make comparatively more sense as the majority of the early settlers of this region were from the South. The older term for this type of dialect is "Scotch-Irish" Speech.

Cities of more than 10,000

* Belleville
* O'Fallon
* Shiloh
* Carbondale
* Centralia
* Herrin
* Marion
* Murphysboro
* West Frankfort
* Mount Vernon


These counties are included wholly or partially in Little Egypt.
*Madison (partially in Little Egypt, primarily in the far southeast portions of the county, around Highland)
*St. Clair (partially in Little Egypt, primarily the southern and eastern areas of the county)

"See also:" List of Illinois regions


External links

* [ "Civil War Democrats and Republicans in Illinois"] , Northern Illinois University Library
* [ "The Southern" newspaper]
* [ Southern Illinois University Carbondale]


*Baker Brownell, "The Other Illinois"
* Paul M. Angle, "Bloody Williamson"
* "Egypt in Illinois", "Chicago History" (1965) 7(9), pp. 266-70.
* Richard Jensen, "Illinois: A History", (2001)
* David Haskett Fisher, "Albions Seed: Four British Folkways to America (1989)

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