Harper professor's new book looks at Illinois statehood

  • James Edstrom, a longtime Harper College professor, recently combined his passion for history and storytelling in the new book "Avenues of Transformation, Illinois's Path from Territory to State."

    James Edstrom, a longtime Harper College professor, recently combined his passion for history and storytelling in the new book "Avenues of Transformation, Illinois's Path from Territory to State." Courtesy of Harper College

 
 
Updated 1/17/2023 11:45 AM

A lifelong passion for Illinois history, research, storytelling and teaching is embodied in the new book "Avenues of Transformation, Illinois's Path from Territory to State," written by James Edstrom, a longtime Harper College professor.

The book incorporates several decades of far-reaching research and 10 years of writing. It explores the intrigue surrounding Illinois statehood, which explains many of the state's unique characteristics.

 

"This book helps readers understand our country and state as it is today," Edstrom said. "The statehood narrative is part of the history of the state itself -- and no one had written about this topic before."

The seeds for the book were planted in 1987 when Edstrom was asked a reference desk question about the original proposal to align the Illinois border with southern Lake Michigan. (The border was eventually shifted northward to encompass Chicago.)

That simple reference question, posed to him at the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library, ignited his curiosity and laid the foundation for his master's thesis.

Edstrom earned a Master of Arts degree in history in 1990 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and had previously earned a Master of Science degree in library and information science in 1984.

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The book started to take shape later in his professional career.

"I always had in mind that I would write a book," said Edstrom, library technical services coordinator and professor of library services and history at Harper. "I was at the conference of the Illinois Library Association 10 years ago when I started talking to publishers."

Researching and writing a history book while also holding his appointment at Harper required "a lot of late nights." As databases went online, the research process became much more accessible and easier, he said. He enjoyed pursuing new leads and sources, discovering insightful diaries, newspaper articles and memoirs that bring lively detail to his storytelling.

"As a librarian and teacher, I'm always connected to my research -- I don't separate my scholarly work from working at the reference desk," he said. "Research is so central to what I do. The joy of discovery is what matters most."

Readers will discover a multitude of storylines that unite history and the present day. Throughout his book, Edstrom presents key themes and interesting details:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

• Illinois' statehood is a story of geography. The state's juxtaposition to Lake Michigan on the east and the Mississippi River was critical to building an infrastructure for commerce and trade. In fact, the book's title plays off a quote from territorial delegate Nathaniel Pope: "We may say, with truth, that we will enter upon a state government with better prospects than any other state ever did. Our avenues for navigation are toward the east and the west, the north and the south."

• Illinois' statehood and constitutional convention was mired in the political debate of permitting or forbidding slavery. Many white settlers were in favor of continuing the practice. In the end, the delegates who were against slavery won the debate, but it was only a partial victory, as some form of slavery continued for another 30 years.

• U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams played a role in Illinois statehood.

• The state's first capital, Kaskaskia, still holds the "Liberty Bell of the West," but is now separated from Illinois by the Mississippi River. Visitors reach the site by traveling through Missouri.

Edstrom decided to organize his narrative into three sections representing the key players in statehood: Daniel Pope Cook, an ambitious politician who spurred the statehood campaign; Nathaniel Pope, who became a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from the territory and guided the enabling act authorizing the first stages of statehood in 1818; and Elias Kent Kane, who was a delegate to the first constitutional convention in Kaskaskia in August 1818, and helped author the state's new documents of governance.

Cook County is named for Cook and Kane County is named for Kane.

The comprehensive index concluding the book also represents Edstrom's work.

The people who shaped his own life are honored in his book. Edstrom's late wife Nancy, a map librarian, introduced him to the image that graces the cover of the book.

"She taught me that geography is key to history," Edstrom said.

The book is dedicated to his mother, Helen, and late father, Eric, who had the opportunity to read early drafts of the book before he died. Eric Edstrom was a history teacher at Maine West High School. His father's words are always present in any discussion of the book.

"He taught me that learning is a journey of discovery for the teacher and student alike."

Want to learn more?

"Avenues of Transformation" is available for purchase at Southern Illinois University Press and national booksellers.

Attend a Harper College Community Education seminar taught by Edstrom, "Year of Decision, 1818: Illinois Joins the Union," at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16.

For more information, visit ce.harpercollege.edu.

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