Illinois County

Virginia's claim to the Illinois Country was based on conquest by George Rogers Clark during the American Revolution, plus the Second Charter of 1609
Virginia's claim to the Illinois Country was based on conquest by George Rogers Clark during the American Revolution, plus the Second Charter of 1609
Source: Library of Congress, A new map of the western parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina (Thomas Hutchins, 1778)

The land northwest of the Ohio River and stretching to the Mississippi River was not organized as part of any Virginia county until 1735. Illinois County was not created until 1778. The Virginia-based local government lasted only six years. Illinois County was extinguished when Virginia ceded its claims to the Northwest territory to the United States in 1784.

Virginia's legal claim to the Illinois country dated back to its Second Charter, issued in 1609, when King James I granted the Virginia Company of London control over inland territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean:1

all that Space and Circuit of Land, lying from the Sea Coast of the Precinct aforesaid, up into the Land throughout from Sea to Sea, West and Northwest

In 1609, no one had a clue how much land was included within that grant. Few, if anyone, in England cared that the land granted to the Virginia Company investors was already occupied by Native Americans.

The first Europeans to travel through the Illinois country were French fur traders and explorers. They walked, rafted, and canoed westward from Quebec and Montreal on the St. Lawrence River to trade with Native American groups. The French presence allowed them to claim authority over lands in the Ohio and Mississippi River watersheds by "Right of Discovery." The English based in Virginia were slower to reach the Ohio River valley and the Mississippi River, and had to rely upon "Right of Conquest" to claim the land.

John Lederer was the first to document exploration westward to the Blue Ridge in 1669. Franz Ludwig Michel explored and mapped the Shenandoah River in 1706.

In 1716, Governor Spotswood organized the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe to explore across the Blue Ridge. He then helped to negotiate the 1722 Treaty of Albany in which the Iroquois agreed to stay to west of the Blue Ridge. The Iroquois relinquished claims to lands further west in the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster and the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. The English uncritically accepted the Iroquois claim that the had the right to cede those lands, because the Iroquois had defeated the Native American groups who lived on those lands.

In 1735, as the colony disputed the boundaries of the Fairfax Grant on the Northern Neck, the General Assembly of Virginia started to create local governments west of the Blue Ridge. It divided Spotsylvania County to create Orange County on its western edge, defining the county's boundaries to include:2

all that territory of land... bounded southerly by the line of Hanover County, northerly by the grant of the Lord Fairfax, and westerly by the utmost limits of Virginia

There were plenty of Native Americans living in the area, but none were consulted or compensated. No Native Americans considered Williamsburg to be the location of their leaders.

the Illinois Country in 1785
the Illinois Country in 1785
Source: John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, A map of the north west parts of the United States of America (John Fitch, 1785)

Starting in 1738, Orange County's land west of the Blue Ridge was incorporated into Augusta and Frederick counties. As settlers moved west of the Blue Ridge and then the Appalachian mountains, the county courts began to meet in Frederick (1743) and Augusta (1745) counties.

Augusta's western edge was undefined, "extending from thence northerly, westerly, and southerly, beyond the said mountains, to the utmost limits of Virginia." The 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War/French and Indian War, defined the western boundary of the English claims in North America at the Mississippi River.3

In the 1740's, Virginians obtained large land grants in the Ohio River watershed. The Ohio Company and the Loyal Land Company obtained rights to survey and claim hundreds of thousands of acres, despite the claims of the Cherokee, Iroquois, Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot, Miami, or other nations who lived and hunted on that territory.

The oversized county was gradually reduced by the creation of new jurisdictions. The District of West Augusta was carved out in 1774, but "counties" were not created then to avoid violating the prohibitions in the Proclamation of 1763. After Virginia chose to declare independence in 1776, the General Assembly created Monongalia, Yohogania and Ohio counties from that district.

In 1778, George Rogers Clark seized control of British forts on the Wabash and Mississippi Rivers at Vincennes, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia. The French inhabitants of the area declared their allegiance to Virginia, largely because Clark ensured their property would not be seized. He promised they would not be disturbed in their customs, which was significant since the French were Roman Catholics. It also helped that France had allied with the United States against Great Britain.

The General Assembly responded in December 1778 by creating Illinois County, promising religious freedom to the inhabitants:4

WHEREAS by a successful expedition carried on by the Virginia militia, on the western side of the Ohio river, several of the British posts within the territory of this commonwealth, in the country adjacent to the river Mississippi, have been reduced, and the inhabitants have acknowledged themselves citizens thereof, and taken the oath of fidelity to the same, and the good faith and safety of the commonwealth require that the said citizens should be supported and protected by speedy and effectual reinforcements, which will be the best means of preventing the inroads and depredations of the Indians upon the inhabitants to the westward of the Allegheny mountains; and whereas, from their remote situation, it may at this time be difficult, if not impracticable, to govern them by the present laws of this commonwealth, until proper information, by intercourse with their fellow citizens, on the east side of the Ohio, shall have familiarised them to the same, and it is therefore expedient that some temporary form of government, adapted to their circumstances, should in the mean time be established.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That all the citizens of this commonwealth who are already settled, or shall hereafter settle, on the western side of the Ohio aforesaid, shall be included in a distinct county, which shall be called Ilinois county...

Virginians retained their claim to that territory until 1784, when the Northwest Territory was ceded to the US Congress.

Clark's Grant (1781)

"Missing" Counties of Virginia

The Revolutionary War in Virginia

Virginia's Cession of the Northwest Territory

Virginia Military District

Winning the Illinois Country in the American Revolution

Illinois County, Virginia, existed from 1778-1784
Illinois County, Virginia, existed from 1778-1784
Source: Newberry Library, Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

Illinois County was abolished in 1784, and the US Congress gained control over the Northwest Territory
Illinois County was abolished in 1784, and the US Congress gained control over the Northwest Territory
Source: Newberry Library, Atlas of Historical County Boundaries



1. "The Second Charter of Virginia; May 23, 1609," The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, (last checked April 5, 2016)
2. William Wallace Scott, A History of Orange County, Virginia: From Its Formation in 1734 (O.S.) to the End of Reconstruction in 1870, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1974, p.23, (last checked April 8, 2016)
3. "An Act, for erecting two new Counties, and Parishes; and granting certain encouragements to the Inhabitants thereof," Hening's Statutes at Large, Chapter XXI,; "Treaty of Paris, 1763," US Department of State, (last checked January 18, 2021)
4. "An act for establishing the county of Ilinois, and for the more effectual protection and defence thereof," Hening's Statutes at Large, Chapter XXI, (last checked January 18, 2021)

Virginia Counties
Virginia Places