The 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe was a disaster for the Native Americans
of the Midwest, but it opened the floodgates for European settlers of the
Illinois country. Old Man River would have certainly made an
impression to the people who came West pursuing their manifest destiny.
Only two rivers in the world are longer than the Mississippi River:
The Amazon and the Nile. European settlers of the
Mississippi Valley would probably have never heard of the Amazon, but comparisons
to the Valley of the Nile would have been manifest to them, having had
the stories of Joseph and Moses drummed into their heads every week at
Sunday School or at tent revival meetings. Even in 1799, a wandering
Baptist minister had described the bottomlands around what is now East St. Louis as the "Land of Goshen".
Descriptions of ancient monuments "discovered" by Napoleon's
ill-fated expedition to Egypt would have certainly filtered across the
Atlantic Ocean by this time. What did the settlers find, but earthen
mounds resembling ancient pyramids, and stone fortresses resembling ancient
So it was in 1817 that several Alexandria businessmen
decided to make their fortune selling land in Illinois. The Illinois
Territorial legislature incorporated the "Bank of Cairo" and the "City
of Cairo", to be built on land at the confluence of the Mississippi
and Ohio Rivers. Two years later, the town of Memphis was founded by Andrew Jackson and others a little further
downriver in Tennessee.
The Winter of 1830-1831 was an incredibly cold one; three feet of
snow covered Illinois on a single day, sleet and ice storms kept it from
thawing. Farmers weren't able to plant their crops until June.
What was worse, an early September frost killed off most of the crops long
before any chance of a harvest.
Central Illinois was on the verge of famine: The only hope was the southern
part of the state, whose farmers hadn't lost their crops to the frost.
Wagon trains sent south to buy grain from the southerners. This parallel
with another Biblical story, that of Joseph's brothers coming south to
Egypt to buy grain during a famine, cemented the name of "Egypt" to southern
During the 1830's Cairo1 began to grow into a real town.
Soon, other towns with Egyptian names would spring up: Thebes, Alexandria,
Dongola, Karnak. Stephen Douglas would taunt Abraham
Lincoln during one of their famous debates for the 1858 Senate race,
daring him to declare his abolitionist views in Egypt, an area with heavy
Southern pro-slavery influence2. Despite the area's reputation
as hotbed of secessionism, they would send a volunteer regiment to the
Union army during the Civil War, the Illinois 48th
Infantry, or "Pharaoh's Army".
The extent of the name "Egypt" within Illinois has varied through the
succeeding century and a half. Certainly, the extreme southern counties3
of the swampy Ohio-Mississippi floodplain, separated from the rest of
the state by the Shawnee National Forest, are part of the region.
But Egypt must also include the next two tiers of counties4,
part of Illinois' breadbasket in 1831 and 1832. Important "Egyptian"
towns include Cairo, Mound City, Jonesboro,
Murphysboro, Carbondale, Marion,
At one point, places like Vandalia, Centralia,
and Effingham (now along Interstate 70) claimed to be
part of Egypt, but they were certianly sending their wagons south in 1831.
A case can be made for the "Land of Goshen" (now Edwardsville)
and the nearby Cahokia Mound site, and thus East
St. Louis, but "Egypt", better known as "Little Egypt"5 today, really consists
of the 16 southern Illinois counties listed below.
2Lincoln lost the race.
Pope, Hardin, Alexander, Pulaski (containing
Cairo), and Massac counties
White, Jackson, Williamson, Saline, and Gallatin counties
5"Little Egypt" as an appellation met fierce resistance from residents; One reporter likened the term to "The name of a belly dancer at the World's Columbian Exposition".
"Welcome to Egypt!", John Musgrave, New Heartland
Little Egypt: Features and Information related to Southern Illinois
and its History
John Y. Simon, "Judge Andrew D. Duff of Egypt.", Springhouse Magazine