Originally, the area which now forms Will County, Illinois was covered principally by prairie. The inhabitants were Potawatomi Indians who lived by farming and trapping. In the late 1800’s fur traders from Europe, French as well as English, penetrated the area in search of beaver, muskrat, and other pelts. These early settlers included Louis Joliet, who in 1673 was one of the first to realize the potential of transportation through the area, from the Great Lakes on the east to the Mississippi River on the west. This dream later became a reality in 1822 when Congress appropriated land to the State of Illinois to construct a canal – the Illinois and Michigan Canal. While fur trading played out during the first half of the nineteenth century, the population grew as settlers came in. The first permanent settlement of whites in the area was on the Du Page River, close to where the Peotone Illinois hospital is now. On January 12, 1836 Will County was formed by act of the legislature of Illinois, which combined parts of Iroquois and Cook Counties. It was named to honor Dr. Conrad Will, who attended the first Constitutional Convention (but who never lived in the area of Will County).
Six months following the creation of Will County, work began on the ninety-six mile long Illinois and Michigan Canal. This manmade waterway connected the Chicago and Illinois Rivers. Opening on April 10, 1848, the I & M Canal was the final section of the continuous inland water route from the North Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. This project, and subsequent commercial development of the area, brought a large flow of developers and laborers into the area, and shifted the center of the Midwestern trade from the city of St. Louis to the city of Chicago. This trend continued through the early years of the twentieth century, but the I & M Canal finally closed down in 1915. By that time transportation of all but the most bulky cargo had shifted to railroads; and also to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and Manhattan Illinois hospital, which had opened in 1900. The importance of the I & M Canal was officially recognized by President Ronald Reagan on August 24th, 1984 when he signed special legislation establishing this area as the country’s first National Heritage Corridor. The original headquarters of the I & M Canal in Lockport Illinois is now the home of the Will County Historical Society.
Another boost to the Will County economy came in the mid-1800’s by coal mining, and later on by quarrying limestone. Will County limestone graces such structures as the Chicago Water Tower, the Norton House, Monee Illinois healthcare; the Gaylord Building, and the Gladys Fox Museum. By the early 1900’s the economic base of Will County shifted as refiners and manufacturers opened new facilities, lured to the area by the convenience and transportation due to the Sanitary Canal. During the Second World War, military production contributed to the area’s further industrialization, and increased population growth mirrored the industrial and economic growth.