A comprehensive, readable history of this distinctive prairie state before the Civil War. Davis (History/Illinois Coll.; Frontier America, 1800-1840, not reviewed) takes us from the time when what is now the state of Illinois was nothing but uninhabited land to the year in which its previously defeated senatorial candidate, Abraham Lincoln, became president of the US. In between, Illinois passed from native through French and briefly British, finally to American hands and went from a frontier wilderness to a prosperous urban society. Davis analyzes this complex transformation in consistently lively prose, scanting neither the main characters nor the more impersonal forces that brought this change about. Native Americans are front and center through much of the story. So, too, are the diverse populations of European settlers--French and post-Revolution Americans uppermost--and African-Americans, both slave and free. What helped make this most south-reaching midwestern state distinctive was its dual in-migration of southerners moving north, often with their slaves, and easterners moving west with their free-soil culture. Out of the original territories of the Old Northwest, established by the great Ordinance of 1787, Illinois became a state in 1818, after political shenanigans that won it statehood without the minimum number of inhabitants required by law and with the questionable addition, from the Wisconsin Territory, of thousands of square miles that included the land on which Chicago, the Midwest's greatest city, rose. Throughout all of these developments, and especially the gradual erosion of slavery, this ""far distant country"" remained comparatively free of violence and attached to communal norms. Davis ends his tale when Illinois, no longer a frontier land, had become the most highly urbanized of any state west of the Appalachians on the eve of the Civil War. This deft synthesis of existing knowledge is likely to become the standard modern history of Illinois.