Theories Abound On Little Egypt Origin

Editor's note: The following article is reprinted from the Daily Egyptian, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and was dated April 17, 1978.

By Jeff Powell

A winter that brought sub-zero temperatures and more than 20 inches of snow might lead one to wonder why Southern Illinois is known as Little Egypt.

The area called Little Egypt is bordered by the Wabash River on the east, the Ohio on the south and the Mississippi on the west. Its northern boundary is much less definite but is generally accepted to be around where U.S. Highway 50 crosses the state.

There are several theories of how Egypt got its name. Two are described by Baker Brownell in his book "The Other Illinois".

"A whimsical influence has a part, perhaps in naming little, new places hereabouts, in Cairo, Karnak, Thebes, Dongola and from them the regional name may have followed. But the legend does not have it so.

"Although the legend was probably invented after the fact, it is persistent. There was a drought in the northern counties, says the legend, the wheat fields dried up, the streams died in their beds. But in Southern Illinois rain fell and there were good crops, and from the north came people seeking corn and wheat as to Egypt of old. Thus the name Egypt."

John W. Allen elaborated further on the subject in his book "Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois" and in a 1967 article.

The article states that in 1799, the Rev. David Badgley, the pastor of a Connecticut church, was sent west on a mission to find a suitable location for a new settlement. Badgley settled on an Illinois spot after exploring much of the area.

The article goes on to say, "In a report sent back to his group, Badgley used a quotation from the Bible to describe the land and said it was 'a fertile land and free from plaque.' The phrase quoted is from the Biblical description of the land where the Israelites once dwelled in ancient Egypt.

"The site Badgley chose was located south and west of present day Edwardsville and some of the land is today occupied by SIU-E."

In his book Allen said that the settlers from Connecticut began calling their settlement Goshen or Land-O-Goshen. It became one of the most important settlements in the early years of Illinois and the name Goshen Road was given to a trail from Vandalia.

The book also refers to an account by Judge A.D. Duff, Professor of Law at Southern Illinois Normal University in the 1860s. This story is believed to be the true reason for the name Egypt.

The story deals with the winter of 1830 to 31 which makes last winter seem like a heat wave. "That was the winter of the deep snow, the longest and most severe winter that the residents of Southern Illinois had known."

"Snows came early, reached a depth of three feet or more, and remained until May." According to Duff it was a "very backward spring. The summer was extremely cool and killing frosts came on September 10."

This short growing season killed much of the crops in the northern counties and farmers were forced to head south to find feed for their livestock. Allen said that Duff watched the progression of the farmers headed south on the road as a boy, "many farmers driving these wagons were Bible readers who remarked that they like the sons of Jacob, were 'going down to Egypt for corn.' The designation of the southern counties of Illinois as Egypt thus came into use."

Egypt might have become a more significant name had the Civil War gone the other way. At a meeting held in Marion on the eve of the war, a group of Southern sympathizers talked of creating a separate state aligned with the South comprised of several Southern Illinois counties. They planned to call the new state Egypt.

Four towns in Southern Illinois bear Egyptian names. Cairo, the oldest of these towns was so named because it was thought that the site at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers resembled the site of the Egyptian capital.

Thebes, which lies 23 miles northwest of Cairo on the Mississippi was named after the capital of ancient Egypt. Ancient Thebes occupied both sides of the Nile River about 420 miles south of Cairo. Out of the ruins of Thebes sprang the village of Karnak. There is a Karnak, located 25 miles north of Cairo near the Cache River.

Dongola, isn't near a river but it was named for a river town and sub-district in the north of the Republic of Sudan.

The comparison of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to the Nile seems to be the major factor in the Egyptian influence on names in  Southern Illinois.

For those who fail to see a resemblance between the desert heat of Egypt and the weather in this area, the temperature in July might make the similarity clearer.