History of Rock Island

Take a tour of Rock Island’s rich and colorful history!

Early Rock Island History

Before European settlers pushed into the Mississippi River Valley, the area that is now rock Island was home to the Sac and Fox Indian tribes. During the 1700s, French merchants traded with the Indians for animal pelts and corn. The Sac and Fox tribes have the distinction of producing two of most recognized chiefs in American history: Keokuk and Black Hawk. Today, Rock Island residents can see artifacts of Indian life at Black Hawk State Historical Site, situated among the picturesque forested hills of the Rock River.

In 1816, the federal government established a military fort on what is now Arsenal Island. Fort Armstrong watched the passes of the Rock Island Rapids, a 14 miles stretch of treacherous water and rocks. In 1828, settlers erected homes on the eastern banks of the Mississippi, establishing the town of Port Byron. From here, the settlers spread through out what would become Rock Island County.

The City of Rock Island

During the early years of European settlement, the city of Rock Island was not known by that name. When Rock Island County was organized in 1833, the county seat was called Stephenson. This name was retained for the next eight years, until 1841. Only then did the growing town get the name Rock Island.

The city of Rock Island benefitted from an ambitious program of water way improvements conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers. By establishing canals and dams, the Corps created ideal conditions for Rock Island’s growth. Plentiful coal supplies, timber and ready access to the Mississippi made Rock Island a prime port on the Mississippi.

The earliest development of the area occurred in what is known today as the Downtown Arts and Entertainment District, or simply, the District. Today, brick office buildings and historic renovations keep the spirit of historic Rock Island alive.

Famous Persons Associated with Rock Island

In 1856, a lanky Illinois trial lawyer named Abraham Lincoln defended the Rock Island Railroad Company against a damage claim made by a steamboat owner. The steamboat owner claimed that the newly constructed railroad bridge built over the Mississippi River was at fault in a steam boat collision near the Rock Island Arsenal. Abe got the charges dismissed, a key step in opening up the West to the railroads. Today, Rock Island is home to the beautiful Centennial Bridge and the Rock Island Government Bridge.

John Looney, the inspiration for the events in the graphic novel and film Road to Perdition, lived in the Highland Park Historic District of Rock Island. The lawyer turned newspaperman and gangster bullied and harassed residents of the city until 1922, when he fled to New Mexico to avoid arrest. Federal agents caught up with Looney in 1924, and he was charged with a host of crimes. Not all of Highland Park’s residents were quite as colorful as Looney; most were very wealthy, and their homes are now pieces of living history.