Southern Illinois has been known as “Egypt” or “Little Egypt” for nearly 200 years. In popular culture, the name “Egypt” evokes images of gold, mummies, exploration, and human achievement, but to 19th-century Americans its biblically linked allusions conjured up darker impressions. This article pinpoints the origins of an Egyptian identity in Southern Illinois and its evolution to reflect the negative qualities of moral degeneracy and ignorance caused by the antebellum moral, religious, and ethical arguments surrounding the issues of slavery and white supremacy. Throughout the turbulent 19th century, Egyptian Illinoisans strengthened their regional cohesiveness in spite of and in response to political and social upheavals and retained a shared group identity even as they clashed with waves of multicultural immigration. This article uses an interdisciplinary approach to elucidate these trends by intertwining concepts in Egyptology, American history, theology, political science, and reception studies.
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