Mackinaw has a long and interesting history in Central Illinois. Early settlers in the area encountered Indians who were, for the most part, friendly. Mackinaw is named for the Mackinaw River, which is first mentioned in the journal of Patrick Kennedy in 1773 as the Little Michilimackinac River, and the name evolved to Mackinaw. The meaning is thought to be the same as the meaning in the case of Mackinaw Island and Straits area in Michigan, which comes from the Ojibway word for turtle (Michilimackinac means Great Turtle). This information comes from Virgil Vogel's book Indian Place Names in Illinois and most others concur. No one knows why OUR river was named this, but it is assumed that the word Mackinaw means turtle in several different Native Indian languages in the Algonquian language family, not just Ojibway.

Settlers probably found the area around Mackinaw geographically desirable for the same reasons the Indians did - nearness to water (the river) and general "lay of the land." For example, the highest point of elevation for many miles around is about 1 mile east of Mackinaw - near the entrance to Heritage Lake.

The history of Mackinaw as a Village may be said to begin early in 1827. At that time, Tazewell County was just organized and the commissioners appointed to select a county seat chose the settlement which had come to be known as Mackinaw. Thus, the Village was surveyed and became a legal municipality in 1827. The first tax levy passed to defray expenses of the new county government called for a tax of 1/2 of 1% on carriages, distilleries, livestock in trade, slaves and horses - but no real estate tax. A settler named Amasa Stout constructed the first Tazewell County Court House for $125. This Court House was an imposing structure for the time.

The first jail of the county was erected in Mackinaw at a cost of $325.75, and was one of the strongest and most costly jails erected in Central Illinois at that time. Nevertheless, the very first prisoner incarcerated within its' heavy walls took flight the same night. This individual, William Cowhart, is also noted for being the first horse thief in Tazewell County.

It is generally believed that the first building in the Village, the Mackinaw Inn, was built in 1827 out of logs. Later, after 1880, James and Delia Genseal purchased the building and turned it into their home. Another inn, Pendergast Inn was built in 1845 and became the best known of the inns in the area. Abraham Lincoln was often a guest at the Pendergast Inn.

The Illinois Terminal Railroad System was a significant part of Mackinaw's history. There was junction west of town where passenger trains passed through on the way to many different places in the state and to St. Louis. The Mackinaw Depot, which is still standing on the north side of town, is the first building in Tazewell County to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites.

Throughout Mackinaw's early history there were many businesses in the village and surrounding area. They included a hotel, opera house, cheese factory, several mills, furniture company, blacksmith shop and livery stable, dry goods store, ice business, hardware store and a newspaper - Mackinaw Enterprise Gazette. The Pomona Fair was held annually featuring parades and horse racing. As in other communities of the day, there were the usual tradesmen, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, doctors, lawyers, bankers and druggist.