Kankakee Wonderful Land


Photo of Pottawatomie Indian

Kankakee is an Indian word meaning “Wonderful Land.” Kankakee was the home of the Pottawatomie Indians. LaSalle discovered Kankakee valley in December 1679 and stayed here one month. The non-Indian settler was Noel LeVasseur, a French trapper, who worked for the American Fur Company. LaVasseur settled Bourbonnais Township in 1832. The Pottawatomie Indians left the area around 1835 pursuant to the Treaty of Camp Tippecanoe wherein they relinquished all their land for a reservation near Iowa City, Iowa, $15,000.000 per year for 20 years and $75,000.00 in merchandise.

On February 11, 1853, the legislature approved Kankakee County’s formation. On June 21, 1853, the town of Kankakee, then known as Bourbonnais or Kankakee Depot, was selected as the county seat and remained the county seat since that time. The 1st courthouse was built in 1855 on the town square.


1st Courthouse Circa 1868

Prior to the Civil War, Kankakee was a political hotbed. Stephen A. Douglas spoke in front of the courthouse during his campaign for Senate in 1858. In 1860, Owen Lovejoy, brother of martyred Elijah Lovejoy, spoke in a grove near the Kankakee River in front of a mass meeting. For the 1860 presidential election, Kankakee County gave Lincoln 1977 votes, Douglas 803 votes, Breckenridge 16 votes, and Bell 9 votes. In the 1864 presidential election, Kankakee County gave Lincoln 2133 votes and McClelland 564 votes. In the presidential campaign of 1880, ten thousand people attended a great Democratic rally in Kankakee. The Republicans followed with a rally attracting between fifteen and twenty thousand. General Logan, a popular Civil War Hero and former Senator Lyman Trumbull were among the speakers at the rallies.


Kankakee has three native sons who became state government leaders, Len Small, governor from 1921 – 1929, Samuel H. Shapiro, governor from 1968 – 1969, and George H. Ryan, governor from 1999 – 2003. The county’s earliest lawyers included C.R. Starr, Thomas P. Bonfield, Stephen R. Moore, C.A. Lake, Harrison Loring, and R. N. Murray.

Len Small
1921-1929

Samuel Shapiro
1968-1969

George Ryan
1999-2003