Little Egypt & the Golden Circle
by Caveat Lector
One of the more interesting nicknames associated with the South is ‘Little Egypt,’ a term for the mostly-rural, lower third of the State of Illinois. This area is culturally, politically, geographically and demographically distinct from the rest of Illinois and is essentially an extension of the Upper South beyond the northern banks of the Ohio River. A description of the region from Wikipedia is excerpted below:
Southern Illinois (also known as “Little Egypt” or “Egypt”) is the southern third of the state of Illinois. With the area code 618, the southern part of Illinois is geographically, culturally, and economically distinct from the rest of the state. The region is surrounded on three of four sides by the most voluminous rivers in the United States: the Wabash and Ohio rivers to the east and south, and the Mississippi River and its connecting Missouri River to the west.
…The area has a population of 1.2 million people, who live mostly in rural towns and cities separated by extensive farmland and the Shawnee National Forest.
…The first settlers migrated from the Upland South, traveling by the Ohio River, and the region was affiliated with the southern agricultural economy and rural culture. Some settlers even owned slaves before the territory was organized and it was prohibited. Many areas developed an economy based on coal mining. Except for the counties in the St. Louis MSA, much of Southern Illinois is still culturally affiliated with western Kentucky, southwestern Indiana, and southeast Missouri, and the people speak with the same accent. Southern Illinois, the earliest settled and once the wealthiest part of Illinois, is known for its rich history and the abundance of antebellum architecture remaining in its small towns and cities.
There are a few interesting things to note about the history of Little Egypt. The region was first settled by Southerners in the early 1800s:
European-American settlers were initially slow to arrive in Illinois after the United States victory in the American Revolutionary War. By 1800 fewer than 2,000 European Americans lived in Illinois. Soon more settlers came from the backwoods areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. These early settlers were mostly of English, German, and Scots-Irish descent.
The politics of the area has traditionally favoured conservative Democrats (whereas the Chicago area and the northern part of the State generally voted for Northern Republicans), like the rest of the South until the 1960s:
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. Democratic roots in Southern Illinois relate to the region’s shared culture with the South, where the Democratic Party before the American Civil War [sic] and after Reconstruction was dominant until the 1960s.
The people of southern Illinois, with their cultural and family ties to the South, often supported the Confederate States in the 1860s, though they were unable to prevent Union military forces from occupying their region:
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas. A debate was held in seven towns in Illinois, one being near Jonesboro. Many of the people living in Southern Illinois were first or second-generation Southerners. Cairo, Illinois, at the southern tip where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi, was of strategic importance. On either side of the rivers were states which, despite remaining in the Union, had numerous residents who were sympathetic to the South. Some leaders in this area had been active in the Knights of the Golden Circle, which proposed a southern pan-Caribbean confederation based on slave states and nations.
The outbreak of the American Civil War [sic] drew from the mixed loyalties in this region, and some residents enlisted in the Confederate Army. The Union Army used Cairo as a staging area for its expeditions into the border states of Missouri and Kentucky, and also the Confederate states of Tennessee and Mississippi.
When Southerners proclaimed their independence in 1860-61, the people of the town of Marion, Illinois (named after South Carolina’s Revolutionary War hero ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion) voted to secede along with the rest of the South:
In the early months of the Civil War [sic], some residents in Williamson County 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 was soon repealed, but General Benjamin Prentiss left a company of men near Marion for defense as he passed by on his way to agarrison in Cairo.
The culture of Little Egypt, along with the history, politics and demographics of the region, is linked to the Upper South:
Culturally, Southern Illinois draws influences from the rest of Illinois but also from neighboring Missouri and 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, with most of these being of northern English and Scots-Irish descent, who formed the last major migration from the British Isles to the colonies before the Revolutionary War, and settled mostly in the backcountry. 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.
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 a 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 Hackett Fischer in his book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways to America, the dialect of this region is Southern Highland. It was derived from the linguistics of the people of the Southern Appalachian region. This is consistent with the majority of the early settlers of this region migrating from the Upper South. The older term for this type of dialect was “Scotch-Irish” speech (the correct term today is Scots-Irish.)
The name Little Egypt itself is an indication of the area’s connection to Dixie. One of the numerous distinctions between Southern civilisation and that of New England and the North was the classical inspiration for the South. Agriculturally-rooted, hierarchical and traditional, Southerners looked to the classical world of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome as a model for how to build a stable and successful civilisation. One indication of this is the name that Southerners, most of whom had their ethnic origins in the British Isles, chose for their cities: Athens, Rome, Memphis, Corinth, Sparta, etc. The Southern settlers of Little Egypt upheld this tradition north of the Ohio:
The nickname “Egypt” may have arisen in the 1830s, when poor harvests in the north of the state drove people to Southern Illinois to buy grain. Others say it was because the land of the great Mississippi and Ohio River valleys were like that of Egypt’s Nile delta. According to Hubbs, the nickname may date back to 1818, when a huge 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 the area were also given names with Egyptian, Greek or Middle Eastern origins: The Southern Illinois University Salukis sports teams and towns such as Thebes, Dongola, Palestine, Lebanon, New Athens, Sparta, and Karnakshow the influence of classical culture. (Greek names were also related to the contemporary national pride in the new republic of the early 19th century, and were given to towns throughout the Midwest.) Egyptian names were concentrated in towns of Little Egypt but also appeared in towns further south. For instance, about 100 miles south of Cairo, along the Mississippi, lies Memphis, Tennessee, named after the Egyptian city on the Nile.
One point already mentioned above is the historic popularity of the Knights of the Golden Circle in Little Egypt:
In the fall of 1861, Democrats took a majority of seats in the state legislature. They 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. Northern Illinois residents 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.” When Lincoln commissioned the Southern Illinois Democrat, John Alexander McClernand, as a brigadier general, he told him him to “keep Egypt right side up”.
In addition, southern Illinois had become 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, U.S. Marshal David Phillips arrested several Democrats who allegedly belonged to the Knights, including men in respectable positions: Congressmen, 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.
Had the South won its independence – had Robert Barnwell Rhett’s grand vision of a vast, Southern-led confederation of classical societies not been crushed by Lincoln’s hordes – Little Egypt would have been along the northern boundary of that great circle, definitely part of the greater South.