The first white settlers to come to the area of Columbia, Illinois, were Frenchmen in the mid-17th century. They named the area in which Columbia was founded L'Aigle, which is French for "The Eagle."
In the mid-18th century, the British took over the territory until the Revolutionary War forced them out of the area. The colonial American settlers soon arrived in the early 1780s and established the first permanent settlements in the area of Columbia, Fort Whiteside and Fort Piggott. Both frontier forts were of log construction and were used to protect the settlers against Indian raids.
Germans began immigrating to the area around 1833, with the majority coming in the 1840s. United States land agents had traveled to Germany to sell land to emigrating Germans. When the immigrants arrived in the United States, they traveled immediately to their own parcels of land.
Entering the United States through New Orleans, these Germans went up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Missouri. They settled in the general region, including the Columbia area. The ground was not expensive, harvests were rich, and the climate was perfect for growing grain. German thrift, tenacity, and industriousness changed the character of Columbia from a pioneer settlement to a thriving community. The hard-working nature of the early immigrants had a direct influence on the town’s present prosperity.
In the early 19th century, the American landowners in the Columbia area often hired the German immigrants who were not landowners as farmhands. Money was short, so they were given land as payment. Soon, most of the land belonged to the Germans.
In 1859, Columbia was incorporated as a town as a result of the growth from German immigration. In 1868, the first railroad tracks were laid in Columbia, and the town continued to grow and develop. In 1927, Columbia became a city.
A notable feature of the community spirit was evidenced by the high level of Columbia’s interest in the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. With singular purpose, on September 22, 1904, all businesses and schools were closed and 1,000 of the 1,300 inhabitants of Columbia attended the World’s Fair on that one day. It set a record of attendance for members of one community to be at the Fair at the same time.
In 1959, Columbia's centennial was celebrated with a large community festival. In 1960, the Strassenfest ("street festival"), a three-day festival celebrating the German heritage of the community, was established. The Strassenfest became so popular that it had to be transferred to St. Louis in 1972, where it now attracts more than 100,000 visitors over a three-day period every year.
Today Columbia is a bedroom community with a population of about 10,000, mainly of German origin. Services and construction industry are the pillars of the local commerce.