The most southern portion of Illinois has been known as Little Egypt at least since the 1820s, and maybe earlier. Many early European settlers viewed the Mississippi River as America’s Nile, which, coupled with evidence that the area was inhabited by an ancient civilization (earthen mounds that often looked a lot like pyramids) probably had something to do the region’s nickname.
The first connection between southern Illinois and Egypt was probably the one made in 1799 by Baptist preacher John Badgley. He looked down from the bluffs over the American Bottoms (the wide floodplain that stretches from Alton to Chester) and proclaimed the area the “Land of Goshen,” an exceptionally fertile area in Egypt located in the delta of the Nile River. Badgley’s reference pre-dates all of the Egyptian town names in the region, as well as the stories of caravans of central Illinoisans traveling to southern Illinois for food after crop failures.
Those crop failures rolled through central Illinois the early 1830s. The winter of 1830-31 was especially harsh, with snow on the ground from September to April; the growing season didn’t start until June, then was cut short by a September frost. The only corn that survived grew on the farms in the most southern part of the state. Farmers from central Illinois were forced to travel there to buy corn and other food, just like Jacob went to Egypt for his grain when Canaan was hit by drought. Or so the story goes.
The first place in southern Illinois with an Egyptian name was Cairo. Investors in the Bank of Cairo and City of Cairo bought land at the Ohio/Mississippi confluence in 1817, but it took a while for an actual town to be built. Thebes sprang to life in the early 1840s, and a town called Alexandria was proposed between Cairo and Thebes but never developed. Other towns with Egyptian names that survived included Dongola and Karnak.
So where exactly is Little Egypt? It depends on whom you ask. At times, it seemed to include the southern half of the state. Folks today would probably say it’s just the bottom third, some 16 or 17 counties.
Folks in southern Illinois continue to embrace the name. The official seal for Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg includes a sphinx (and its logo incorporates a pyramid). There’s a Little Egypt Off Road Motorcycle Club based in Marion and Little Egypt Golf Cars in Salem. You can tap your toes to the tunes of a quintet called the Little Egypt Brass or send your kids to the Little Egypt Christian Youth Camp.
The name is so well known that it has appeared in popular music, like the sweet song by James Talley called Little Egypt Land (find it on his 2008 CD called Journey: The Second Voyage). Check out the YouTube video below.
©Dean Klinkenberg, 2018
**Want to know more? Thebes and Cairo, plus other southern Illinois communities are covered in Road Tripping Along the Great River Road, Vol. 1. Click the link above for more. Disclosure: This website may be compensated for linking to other sites or for sales of products we link to.