Originally, the area that now makes up Will County, Illinois was covered primarily by prairie. The inhabitants were Potawatomi Indians who lived by farming and trapping. In the late 1800s, fur traders from Europe, both French and English, entered the area in search of beavers, muskrats, and other furs. These early settlers included Louis Joliet, who in 1673 was among the first to realize the potential for transportation through the area, from the Great Lakes in the east to the Mississippi River in the west. This dream later became a reality in 1822 when Congress appropriated land to the State of Illinois to build a canal: the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Although the fur trade was developing during the first half of the 19th century, the population grew as settlers arrived. The first permanent white settlement in the area was on the Du Page River, near where Peotone Illinois Hospital now stands. On January 12, 1836, Will County was formed by an act of the Illinois legislature, which combined parts of Iroquois and Cook counties. It was named for Dr. Conrad Will, who attended the first Constitutional Convention (but never lived in the Will County area).
Six months after Will County was created, work began on the ninety-six-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal. This man-made canal connects the Chicago and Illinois rivers. Opened on April 10, 1848, the I & M Canal was the final section of the continuous inland waterway route from the North Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico. This project, and the subsequent commercial development of the area, brought a large influx of developers and workers to the area and shifted the center of Midwestern commerce from the city of St. Louis to the city of Chicago. This trend continued through the early years of the 20th century, but the I & M Canal finally closed in 1915. By this time, transportation of all but the bulkiest cargo had moved to the railroads; and also to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Manhattan Illinois hospital, which had opened in 1900. The importance of the I & M Canal was officially recognized by President Ronald Reagan on August 24, 1984 when he signed special legislation establishing this area as the first National Heritage Corridor in the country. The original headquarters of the I & M Channel in Lockport Illinois is now the home of the Will County Historical Society.
Another boost to Will County’s economy came in the mid-19th century with coal mining and later limestone quarrying. Will County limestone adorns structures such as the Chicago Water Tower, Norton House, Monee Illinois Healthcare; the Gaylord Building and the Gladys Fox Museum. In the early 1900s, Will County’s economic base changed as refiners and manufacturers opened new facilities, drawn to the area by convenience and transportation due to the Sanitary Canal. During World War II, military production contributed to the further industrialization of the area, and the increase in population reflected industrial and economic growth.