In the 1600s France enjoyed a powerful position in the world. However, while Portugal, Spain, and Britain benefited greatly from their overseas expansions, France maintained a relatively minor role in American colonization except for a few settlements along the St. Lawrence that were unbearable in times of ice and extreme cold. King Louis XIV realized that if France was to maintain its leadership status that it must figure out a way to become a colonizing power, so he directed explorations in the North American frontier.
The Frenchman Samuel de Champlain from Quebec settled along the St. Lawrence River and befriended the Huron and Algonquin Indians. The French assisted these tribes in fighting the Iroquois Indians, who had established an alliance with British settlers. By 1615 France sent Jesuit priests to help civilize the Indians in the St. Lawrence area.
Frontenac, the governor of New France, learned of a "Great Water" to the west that could be a possible outlet to the Pacific Ocean. Realizing the great opportunity that such a route would be for French economy and trade, Frontenac asked Father Marquette and a fur trapper, Louis Joliet, to search for this "Great Water." In two birch-bark canoes, the men embarked on their journey in May 1673.
Cahokia became the first settlement in the area when it was founded in 1699. The town grew up around a religious mission. Eventually more Indians moved into the area with the French settlers. The latter group began to build permanent dwellings, and the village became the first permanent European settlement in Illinois. Kaskaskia was the second permanent settlement in Illinois to be established by the French. Besides these two villages, the villages of Prairie du Rocher and St. Phillippe were also established. The land where the villages were located later became known as the American Bottoms. In 1720 Fort de Chartres was built, as the region of the American Bottoms became an important junction between New France and New Orleans.
Due to the shortage of horses, the French used canoes for transportation. As time passed, word arrived in New France about the productive and fertile flood plain along the Mississippi. Settlers began to venture to the Illinois frontier. Forests of hickory, pecan, and black walnut trees grew along the region's river-bottom lands, as well as crabapple, persimmon, and mulberry trees. Plum and blackberry bushes grew in the underbrush. Limestone was abundant in the bluffs that rose nearly a hundred feet. Fur trappers were delighted with the vast amounts of deer, elk, fox, bear, raccoon, otter, and beaver. The French and Indians traded, hunted, and trapped together and paved the way to a great trust between them. Intermarriage became acceptable, and the groups began working together clearing land and planting tobacco and corn crops.
Trade was successful along the Mississippi River, as shipping to New Orleans created vast trading possibilities. Also, cattle became a great business when the French decided to raise cattle and swine for meat. All of the success halted each year when the river flooded in late spring. The hills left ponds and other small water areas that attracted mosquitoes, which spread disease and devastated some farm land. Many people died each year as a result of the harsh conditions, but nonetheless, life on the frontier continued.
The French saved large amounts of salted pork for the cold months. Instead of an abundance of potatoes, the French had peas as staple food as well as many other vegetables and fruits. Having little tea or coffee, the French relied on sour milk as a
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chief beverage, which could have possibly been buttermilk. Butter was created not by churns. Instead, the French shook cream in a bottle to create butter. Flour mills driven by wind-or horsepower produced wheat and rye flour. Most French families also had supplies of dried buffalo meat.
All clothing worn by the French inhabitants was homemade. Ranging from warm wool garments to soft animal-hide clothing, fashion of the French was based less on decoration and more on necessity. For example, everyone wore warm fur caps in winter, while in summer, everyone wore straw hats. The same held true for the shoes of the French. Oiled deerskin moccasins laced halfway to the knee and wool socks sufficed in winter, but in summer, most of the French walked barefooted. Some of the upper-class French imported items from Europe and traded with the eastern American colonies.
The French settlers enjoyed socializing. They always seemed to find time to enjoy themselves whether it be through dancing or card-playing. The French drank in moderation as they were more worried about living happy lives than luxurious ones. Both Mardi Gras and New Year's Day were celebrated in traditional French ways. To this day many Mardi Gras and New Year's celebrations take place as they did during the time of French settlers. La Guiannee, a form of Christmas caroling, was a common ritual among French settlers.
French Illinois colonial villages, which resembled many French villages, were generally dominated by a church that looked awkwardly out of place due to its large size. Houses of early French settlers were rather uniform. The homes, which were usually twenty by forty feet, contained a narrow porch on the front, the rear, and sometimes all the way around the building. It was known as the galerie. The galerie was formed because of the extension of the roof over the home's walls. It would be a steeply pitched hip or gable roof. This roof design allowed water to fall off the roof away from the home and also allowed protection from too much of the sun's rays, which could overheat the home in the hot summer. Houses were only one story, and they were usually built with logs or limestone found in the nearby bluffs of the American Bottoms. The logs were placed upright, and the gaps were filled with clay, grass, and rubble. If built on a stone foundation, this architectural design was known as poteaux sur sole. However, if the posts or logs were placed directly in the soil, the design was known as poteaux en terre. The floor was either made from wood or clay. The chimney was made of stone.
Inside, the fireplace was used for both cooking food and heating the one-or two-room homes. Families slept on straw beds that were placed in an attic. The attic was relatively warm and served as protection from the night weather. When nightfall approached, most families went to bed because nothing could be done at night without the use of candles or lanterns. Wealthier settlers had stone homes with sheds, barns, and even slave quarters. Each home was enclosed by a picket fence near narrow streets.
The farm land was completely outside of the village. All of the settlers lived in the village community; no one lived out in a secluded farm house. The farm land was divided into two parts: the common field and the commons. The common field was cultivated by the settlers while the commons was the pasture and the place where wood was kept. Due to the crudeness and impracticality of French farming materials, food was not produced for sale. However, after evolving its farming process, the French region produced large food surpluses, and it became the French bread basket of North America. Wheat became the chief agricultural product. The French farmer worked on narrow strips of farm land. This enabled each farmer to have access to water. Instead of living on a farm alone and traveling to the town as the English colonial farmers did, the French lived in towns together and traveled out to the farms. At the time, the French appreciated the seclusion from the corruption of large cities in their rural setting. Because of the seclusion, however, the French had to become self-sufficient.
The French Empire in North America ended after the British won the French and Indian War in 1763. Several historic landmarks and the annual Guiannee survive to remind us of the once-prominent French in Illinois.—[From Clarence Walworth Alvord, The Illinois Country 1673-1818; Charles J. Balesi, The Time of the French in the Heart of North America; Margaret Kimball Brown, "La Guinee," Illinois Magazine; H. V. Church, Illinois; Edward F. Dunne, Illinois; Georgia M. Engelke, The Great American Bottom; David Hamilton, "The French Colonial District," Historic Illinois; Robert Howard, Illinois; Betty I. Madden, Arts, Crafts, and Architecture in Early Illinois.]
18 ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 2000