Illinois law, 200 years ago: Inside the quest to digitize state’s legal history

SPRINGFIELD — During its first 47 years of statehood, Illinois stood at the forefront of the transportation revolution, massive population increases with changing immigration patterns, the rise and fall of American slavery and the rise of a world-class city.

Conservationist Jason Blohm displays historic photos from the Illinois State Archives. 

Erin Henkel

Thanks to preservation efforts, the story of the state can be told through the legal history that was brought before the state’s highest court.

A committee charged with preserving historic Illinois Supreme Court documents has received a $135,000 grant from the National Archives to digitize court records dating from the state’s infancy through the end of the Civil War.

The digitization effort expands on work already underway through the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission, which was created in 2007. In 2021, the commission hired conservator Jason Blohm to repair and restore court documents housed at the Illinois State Archives.

Meticulous work to preserve historic legal documents takes place in the Illinois State Archives conservation lab. 

Erin Henkel

The archives, overseen by Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, house some 7,400 cubic feet of case files from 1820 to 1974. They take up roughly 3,700 filing cabinet drawers.

Of those, the digitization grant covers 3,634 files from cases between 1818 and 1865. These documents will be scanned and eventually made available online, limiting how often they are handled and the potential risk for resulting damage.

“Digitizing more records and placing them online for researchers and the public to use and access for future generations are critical to our modernization efforts,” said Giannoulias, who took office in January.

‘The evolution of law’ 

Here’s a look at some of the issues explored in the documents.

Transportation revolution

As the state began to develop, advancements in transportation and infrastructure were reflected in matters before the high court. Some case topics included the sale of stock to the public to fund infrastructure projects, liability of transporters, taxation, and right-of-way ordinances for different rail lines.

“It really shows the evolution of law, and not just law but social history, economic history, railroad history, because railroads blossomed at that point through the first 50 years of Illinois’ existence,” said John Lupton, director of the court’s historic preservation commission.

The Illinois Supreme Court documents housed at the Illinois State Archives could fill roughly 3,700 filing cabinet drawers. 

Erin Henkel

The court also heard cases regarding boundary lines for railroad companies. Some of the digitized pages will include maps of rail lines that were presented before the court as evidence.

According to the commission, when Illinois was founded it had an estimated population of 40,000. By 1870, that number exceeded 2.5 million.

Individuals relied on the court to decide on cases dealing with urbanization, industrialization and new immigration into the state.

Women and children did not have equal protections under law when Illinois gained statehood, and the court documents illustrate the everyday struggles they faced without legal protections.

The court examined issues ranging from divorce cases to poverty law for single moms. These documents provide firsthand accounts of early Illinoisans’ lives and insight into their influence on social structure today.

Some historic Illinois Supreme Court files have already been damaged over time by string used to bind the documents. 

Erin Henkel

Illinois is known as “The Land of Lincoln” for its connections to the nation’s 16th president, and it was the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. Still, the state has a muddled history in regards to racial equity and justice.

Some old Illinois Supreme Court documents are tri-folded because they were once kept in a slot-style filing system. 

Erin Henkel

Illinois entered the Union as a “free state” in which slavery was banned, but it still enacted harsh “Black codes” and a voluntary servitude system.

A majority of the early residents settled from southern states, bringing pro-slavery ideas with them. There was a failed push in 1824 to legalize slavery in the state.

The cases argued before the court examine the ways in which slavery and racism shaped Illinois and the country as a whole.

“One thing we highlight here is Illinois’ slavery-related cases,” Lupton said. “Illinois was a free state but de facto slavery kind of existed in Illinois. There were (enslaved people) from the French period before Illinois was a state.”

Some of the laws prevented Black immigration into the state, required certificates of “freedom” and charged Black residents fees for settling.

Conservationist Jason Blohm’s work area includes a variety of tools to repair and preserve aging papers. 


Materials from that early legal history allow researchers to study ways in which the systemic inequities created from years of legal oppression could continue to affect Black residents today.

Civil War and Abraham Lincoln

The grant funding allows the commission to digitize documents through 1865. The Civil War, which ended that year, prompted the court to consider a number of unique legal scenarios.

Issues include civil liberties during war, such as suspending constitutional protections when individuals are arrested, as well as freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the context of the war.

From left to right: Shanta Thoele, Kathryn Powell and John Lupton. 

Erin Henkel

An attorney before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was among those who appeared before the high court. While his cases have already been digitized, adding others from the same period creates an opportunity for researchers to better understand their context.

“One of the early practitioners before the Illinois Supreme Court was Abraham Lincoln,” said David Joens, director of the state archives. “His case files were scanned and put online a few years ago, which has resulted in an increased look at and understanding of his law career.”

Beyond legal history

The grant funding enabled the preservation commission to hire Shanta Thoele and Kathryn Powell as technicians to digitize the cases.

This floor of the Illinois State Archives houses historic cases from the state’s high court. 

Erin Henkel

Thoele has over 30 years of experience in preserving Illinois history, most recently working at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

“It’s fascinating, just to read about, and it’s important for researchers,” Thoele said.

Powell has a background in archaeology and archiving work after attending University of Illinois Springfield.

“It is really interesting seeing the sort of everyday sort of situations (in the historic case files),” Powell said. “You get more of the working man situations.”

The cases reflect the economic, social and political climate at the time they were decided.

“It’s not just legal history but we’re learning about all of history. All of history is encompassed in legal history and its cases,” Lupton said.

Documents associated with larger cases, such as those dealing with railroads, were sent to printers to be typed while other cases were handwritten. Local county clerks were responsible for transcribing a case’s history before it reached the high court.

Files from a historic Illinois Supreme Court case are shown. 

Erin Henkel

Because there were no standard paper sizes, Thoele and Powell must scan each page individually. As of mid-February, they had scanned 2,067 cases — or 48,615 individual pages — since August.

Thoele and Powell are matching them to written opinions found in Illinois Reports, a law publication that is the official reporter of the Illinois Supreme Court. They are also creating summaries of the cases to help with the research process.

Easier access to a searchable database of primary documents could allow researchers to ask new questions and better understand American and Illinois history, advocates say.

Continuing efforts 

Illinois Supreme Court case files comprise nearly 10% of the state’s archives collection and are among most in-demand materials, officials said.

Some of the oldest files from the state’s high court are handwritten. 

Erin Henkel

“We know how important they are and how much use they get,” said Joens, the state archives director. “Although we are not a part of this grant, we are happy to be a part of the Illinois collaborative team.”

The records have been kept in flat-file folders since a restoration project was completed in the 1980s. But archivists worry that the current preservation methods are ineffective with the frequency in which the documents are examined.

Currently, people interested in examining documents from the court’s distant past must visit the archives in person and request specific documents.

The new online database will be searchable by topic. Digital records will be available to new audiences, such as middle and high school students, college students and faculty, genealogists, writers, legal professionals and historians.

In order to preserve the documents, they are kept at the archives building during the digitization process. The archivists want to encourage the public examination of these documents, but also want to ensure that future generations will be able to view them as well.

“We don’t want to jostle these records anymore,” Joens said. “Once they are scanned and online, the need to actually use these records physically is going to go down a lot, which will also help with our preservation.”

Historic legal documents are kept in gated sections at the Illinois State Archives. This area of the building was once used to store separate state agency documents, with each agency having a key to its gated section, officials said. 

Erin Henkel

The committee says that this project is just the beginning of their modernization efforts. They plan to continue digitizing court records after the two-year grant ends.

Blohm, the conservationist hired in 2021, is working to restore cases from after the Civil War. He hopes the digitization effort could expand to those next.

“We want to get all these online so people can search them and go through everything,” he said, “so in 1,500 years, if these do happen to be completely brittle and you can’t even hold them anymore, you can at least get the information and see everything.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker appeared March 14 at Heartland Community College to promote higher education investments in his proposed 2024 budget.

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