FRENCH COLONIAL ILLINOIS
Curriculum: U.S. history. Illinois history.
(1) To understand the emergence of the French colonial presence in Illinois Country prior to its more often-told history as Land of Lincoln.
(2) To analyze the international tensions that played out along the Mississippi River during the 18th and 19th centuries as global empires and Native peoples navigated new social, economic and political pressures.
(3) To review the colonial history of Illinois Country and the extreme displacement it caused to local Native peoples.
(4) To consider the Mississippi River as a major global nexus during the 18th century as global powers sought control of the continent, and the strategic reasons for this
(5) To evaluate the histories and historical narratives that are taught or not taught and how this relates to our sense of the state we live in
(6) To consider what sorts of information researchers can glean through historical documents of the period and through archaeological excavations of the various sites discussed in the lesson. What types of information does each source offer as evidence?
Illinois history is often told as the Land of Lincoln, with a focus on the post-Revolutionary or Civil War periods. However, many of the towns, cities and other sites across Illinois have French names. Why is that? It’s because prior to its fame as the Land of Lincoln and its establishment as the twenty-first state of the United States, the region known as Illinois Country was a frontier region settled by the French through incursions into Native lands. It was a strategic area to be sure, and the history of Illinois Country during the 18th century French colonial period is important in the cultural heritage of Illinois today.
2. Historical Background:
Illinois Country refers to a vast region of New France settled by French colonists in what is now the midwestern U.S. The area of today’s Illinois and Missouri, concentrated along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, was explored by the French beginning in the 1670s during which time it was given the French name, Pays des Illinois, or Land of the Illinois, in reference to the Confederation of Native peoples who lived in the territory. In 1717 Illinois Country was annexed to the French province of Louisiana from its previous position as part of the French territory of Canada. The area became part of Upper Louisiana and it was during the first half of the 18th century (until 1763) that Illinois Country was increasingly settled by French missionaries and colonists. At the end of the Seven-Years War between France and Britain, Louisiana was divided between Spain, which received the section west of the Mississippi, and Great Britain, which took over the area to the east.
During the French occupation of the region, the Illinois Frontier was a region that became increasingly strategic as a point along the mighty Mississippi River and the trading routes along it. For the French, it connected their territories in the North with the developing ports and land in the southern portion of Louisiana along the Gulf of Mexico. Controlling this region would give the French control of the continent, in addition to its vast potential for growing food, trading furs, and extracting minerals. Importantly, Illinois Country was an intercultural zone where Native peoples, French missionaries and colonists, British and Spanish colonists and enslaved Africans all interacted.
3. Key Sites and Figures:
French Cahokia: French Cahokia is the first Euro-American permanent settlement on the Mississippi. It was formally established in 1699 when a mission was consecrated by priests of the seminary of Quebec. The mission aimed to convert Native peoples along the Mississippi, including the Tamaroa and Cahokias. Just as the French explorers recognized the strategic importance of the site, Native peoples had long understood the importance of the various waterways for trade and movement, as well as the fertile farmland across the region. As the Europeans moved in and built more permanent infrastructure for the purposes of the mission, the settlement and subsistence practices of Native peoples were also altered to various degrees. During this period, Cahokia became a key outpost for French traders participating in commerce around the region. Records from 1723 show that there were 12 residents at Cahokia compared to 196 at Kaskaskia and 126 at Fort de Chartres. By 1752 there were well over 100 residents, and the largest property was that of the mission. The mission had 19 black and 4 Indian residents included in its count, all presumably enslaved.
Cahokia faced major changes upon French defeat to the British in the Seven-Years War in1763, at which time many of the French settlers fled over the river to the west to avoid British rule. Cahokia officially became part of the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Cahokia and its courthouse became an important political center for the United States during the early years of the new United States nation.
Today, Cahokia has three original colonial buildings of the settlement: the Courthouse, Church of the Holy Family/Holy Family Church, and Jarrott Mansion.
The Cahokia Courthouse was first built as a French home around 1740. In 1793, the building was purchased by the Common Pleas Court of the U.S. Northwest Territory and became an important court of law and political-administrative center for the newly independent United States. It is the oldest courthouse in Illinois and the only one remaining from the State’s territorial period (1787-1818). It is unique as having been built in French colonial vertical log construction style, distinct from the horizontal style of most Frontier American log cabins. The courthouse was moved to St. Louis for the World’s Fair in 1904 and to Chicago in 1906 but was returned to Illinois after lobbying by Cahokia residents in the 1920s.
Church of the Holy Family
The original mission site of Cahokia was founded in 1699 by priests of the Seminary of Quebec. Father Paul de St. Pierre later traveled to Cahokia in 1786 from Baltimore and learned that the original mission church structure was no longer standing. He had the new church constructed as a remedy and it was completed and dedicated in 1799, using the typical French construction style of vertical log (post-on-sill) architecture. It is preserved today as a National Historic Landmark.
The Jarrott Mansion was constructed in 1810 for Nicholas Jarrott, a Frenchman who achieved wealth through trading ventures in Illinois Country. The house now stands as the oldest brick house in Illinois. Indeed, the house is a rare, early example of American Federal Style architecture rather than traditional French colonial style utilized in that region of the old Northwest Territory. The house remains preserved as a National Historic Landmark of the United States in honor of this legacy.
Fort de Chartres: The fort was built originally in 1719-1720 by Pierre Duque, sieur de Boisbriant, the newly appointed commander of Illinois Country about 10 miles north of Kaskaskia. He intended the fort to serve as the seat of government in a location that could control the flow of goods shipped across this major waterway. This first fort was constructed of a wooden palisade. It suffered destruction by 1726 due to the floodwaters of the Mississippi. A new fort was apparently constructed shortly thereafter, though it is not entirely clear where precisely it was built. By 1732 it, too, was in bad condition and a third fort was needed to control the rapidly expanding economy in wheat, salt, furs, and mining.
Construction of the third fort was begun in 1753. It was made of limestone quarried nearby rather than the wood palisades of the previous two forts. The fort also acted to protect the territory of the French as the Seven Years War raged on between 1756-1763, yet direct conflict never reached this site and not a shot was fired there. Upon negotiation of the end of the War, Illinois Country east of the Mississippi was ceded to the British thus initiating the end of French rule in the area. Fort de Chartres was finally ceded to the British in October of 1765.
The fort largely lay in ruin until the 20th century as natural forces and the Mississippi itself slowly eroded the fort’s solid stone walls. The State of Illinois acquired the site in 1913 and over the next couple of decades began to rebuild parts of the fort. It is now a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Archaeological investigations of the Fort de Chartres site have highlighted some of the social activities that took place at the site and its construction techniques. Of particular note is the fact that 70% of the artifact assemblage was identified as household items, including objects related to food preparation, consumption and storage. This proportion is curious since records suggest that colonists did not live inside the fort. The evidence might suggest that as a political and administrative center, colonists and key figures would likely have met there and meal preparations would have been an important part of those meetings.
Prairie du Rocher: Prairie du Rocher was a small town founded in 1722 shortly after the nearby founding of Fort de Chartres. It was strategically located along the Mississippi River bottomland from which a rich assortment of foodstuffs like wheat and corn was grown and provisioned to settlements at New Orleans and those further south in Louisiana Territory. The land was originally given as common land to all of the villagers in long, narrow lots according to typical French design. Ultimately the land became exhausted and the population too large, resulting in its decline and the founding of additional nearby towns later on.
Kaskaskia: French Jesuits had been proselytizing Illinois Indians for around 25 years by the time Cahokia was firmly established in 1699. With the development of Cahokia, tensions grew between rival religious authorities and the Jesuits moved down the river in 1703 to found the village of Kaskaskia. When Illinois Country was reallocated to the administration of Louisiana in 1717, rather than Canada, French traders established a military and administrative post at Fort de Chartres near Kaskaskia. At this point, settlement at Kaskaskia outgrew that of Cahokia.
Fort Kaskaskia was built circa 1759 to defend the neighboring town. The fort was quite small, containing only a three-room barrack and a kitchen and seems to have never been fully completed.
Colonial Kaskaskia became a center of French culture and language during this period and the largest of the French villages in Illinois Country. A bell cast by King Louis XV in 1741 was gifted to the Catholic Church of Illinois Country and was originally located at the Immaculate Conception Parish at Kaskaskia. The bell was rung in 1778 upon their freedom from British rule during the American Revolution. Between 1818-1820, Kaskaskia served as the first capital of the new state of Illinois.
Natural disasters, however, haunted the village of Kaskaskia and eventually the Mississippi river washed it away. A small town still exists today a few miles from the original settlement, where some of the original materials are preserved, including the famous bell. The bell is now located in a small brick building adjacent to the church where it is remembered as the “Liberty Bell of the West.”
Pierre Menard: One of the most important figures in the early history of the state of Illinois is undoubtedly Pierre Menard. Menard was born in 1766 near Montreal, Canada (New France). Menard’s father was a French soldier who fought against the British twice; first in the Seven-Years War and later in the American Revolutionary War. By 1789 Menard was a respected fur trader who cultivated relationships with both American officials and local Native peoples. As a result, he often played the role of intermediator and became a key figure along the Illinois Frontier as Americans sought to continue westward expansion. In this vein, he aided Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in preparations for their famous reconnaissance expedition up the Missouri River. Due to his prestige and reputation, Menard was given important political positions, including a judgeship and a militia officer posting in Illinois Country.
After Illinois Territory was established in 1809, Menard was elected president of the Illinois Executive Council in 1812. This period saw an escalation in tensions between White settlers and the Indian peoples whose lands they sought to take. Menard played a major role in the negotiations between the parties and in the creation of several important treaties.
Menard is perhaps best known as the first Lieutenant Governor of Illinois upon Illinois Statehood in 1818, a role in which he served until stepping down in 1822. With the influence of people like Pierre Menard, French influence in Illinois Country extended well beyond the official end of French imperial presence there in the 1760s. Although he is recalled positively in Illinois history, even appearing as a statue on the grounds of the State Capitol and in a portrait in the Illinois State Museum, Menard has another side that should be indicated and for which archaeologists recovered traces at the Menard Home near Chester, Illinois. He was a slaveholder.
Menard lived in his home at Kaskaskia from 1802 until his death in 1844. Census records show that between 1810-1830, the number of enslaved laborers rose from 7 to 22 at the Menard estate. They were likely utilized as house servants and farm laborers, and sometimes were hired out as laborers for other ventures like shipping tasks. They were likely utilized for the construction of his mansion as well.
It must be stated, then, that Menard and his family relied on this enslaved labor force for the success that he ultimately gained as a businessman, fur trader and politician. To maintain these conditions, Menard supported measures at the time that would have preserved the institution of slavery in Illinois. Though the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Illinois state Constitution of 1818 barred slavery, the reality of enslaved labor was quite different. Certain concessions were granted to maintain slaves such as those purchased prior to the ban and their children.
Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail: The above places are all important sites in the collective heritage of Illinois and the Midwest and Mississippi region. While some fell into ruin over the course of the roughly two centuries after the end of French rule, many continued to be key sites for the nascent state of Illinois and were later recovered as historic sites to be researched, celebrated and preserved.
Visitors can learn more about these sites by visiting them in person along the Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail. The Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail is one of the oldest “roads” in Illinois and connects all of the important sites that we have seen above. First traveled by Native peoples, during the French occupation of the region the trail connected European forts and settlements along the river. Today, Illinois Route 3 largely traces the old route. Now that you know more about them, you can visit these sites along the Kaskaskia-Cahokia trail and learn even more about the French colonial period right here in Illinois.
Q1. Illinois has many towns, cities and sites with French names but the reasons for this are often not known locally and nationally. Begin by writing what you know about the French history of Illinois and what you want to know about the French history of Illinois. How does knowledge of French history of Illinois Country change your perception of the local history of Illinois?
Q2. Why do you think the Mississippi River Valley and the American Bottom would have been strategic during the colonial period?
Q3. Despite the significance of the French presence in Illinois Country and the Mississippi River, this history is often relatively unknown. Why do you think this is? What may have caused knowledge of this history to be either ignored or lesser taught?
Position yourself as a figure or category of figure during this period in Illinois Country. Create a journal entry from the perspective of at least two figures of your choice. You should describe how life has changed over a couple of decades during the first part of the 18th century. You may choose to consider the changes experienced by a French settler or missionary, a fur trader, a Native family, a frontier soldier, or enslaved laborers. Try to consider individual perspectives within these categories as well. For example, how would experiences differ as a man or woman? How might there be very diverse experiences and perspectives by individuals in each of these communities? Students should aim to consider positionalities of historical experience outside their own frame of reference for new perspectives on the colonial history of Illinois.
Balesi, Charles J. (1999) “Exploring the Midwest’s French Roots.” Illinois Heritage 2(5): 4-7.
Eckberg, Carl J. (1998) French Roots in the Illinois Country, The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times. University of Illinois Press.
Heerman, M. Scott (2016) “In a state of slavery: Black Servitude in Illinois, 1800-1830” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 14(1): 114-139.
Keene, David J. (2013) “War and the Colonial Frontier: Fort de Chartres in the Illinois Country. In The Archaeology of French and Indian War Frontier Forts, edited by Lawrence Babits and Stephanie Gandula. University Press of Florida.
MacDonald, David and Raine Waters (2019) Kaskaskia: The Lost Capital of Illinois. Southern Illinois University Press.
Morrissey, Robert M. (2013) “The Terms of Encounter: Language and Contested Visions of French Colonization in the Illinois Country, 1673-1702. In French and Indians in the Heart of North America, 1630-1815, edited by Robert Englebert and Guillaume Teasdale. Michigan State University Press.
Peterson, Charles E. (1949) “Notes on Old Cahokia.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 42(1): 7-29.
Reda, John. (2013) “From Subjects to Citizens: Two Pierres and the French Influence on the Transformation of the Illinois Country.” In French and Indians in the Heart of North America, 1630-1815, edited by Robert Englebert and Guillaume Teasdale. Michigan State University Press.
Stratton, Christopher & William Flesher (1999) Searching for the Slaves Quarters: Archaeological Investigations at the Menard Home State Historic Site, Randolph County, Illinois. Report prepared for Historic Sites Division, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Springfield.