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Michael Wiant and Duane Esarey
Historical Research and Narrative

In the late seventeenth century, Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet explored what would become, a century and a half later, the state of Illinois. Entering the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, they traveled downstream by canoe along the entire length of Illinois. At the mouth of the Des Moines River, they found a village of the Peoria, one of the tribes that spoke the Illinois language. Continuing downstream they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River and then retraced their route to the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, where they decided to return to Lake Michigan via the Illinois. Near Starved Rock, on the upper reach of the river, Marquette and Jolliet encountered the Kaskaskia, another tribe that spoke the Illinois language. After a visit, the French pushed on to Lake Michigan.

Jolliet lost his journal of the trip when his canoe overturned in the Rapids of La Chine above Montreal, and Marquette's accounts were vague and incomplete. The records of Marquette, Jolliet, and other French explorers provide much of what we know about seventeenth-century Illinois, but there is other evidence about this time and place that we can draw upon to create a more detailed picture of the past.

There are many paths to the past—anthropology and archaeology, folklore, history, and natural history—each with a distinctive perspective, but used together they provide the most complete picture. A multidisciplinary approach to the past is especially useful when our destination lies at the frontier of history, where written accounts are sketchy and incomplete.

History is the most frequently traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois. Journals, maps, and other written documents provide firsthand accounts of places, people, and events. Historical accounts are often rich with information and details not available from other sources. In this context, folklore is part of history.

A less-traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois is archaeology which is the best means to explore the past in the absence of documents or to supplement written records. Such records frequently guide archaeologists to seventeenth-century sites, but it is clear that objects often bear witness to events not otherwise recorded. An archaeologist "reads" objects to create an incomplete record of the past—and often the sole one.

Perhaps the least-traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois is natural history, the study of past environments. Nature influences life, and the work of scientists such as geologists, biologists, and climatologists, among others, provides information about the environment at a particular time and place that allows us to study environmental change over time.

To arrive at the best vista of seventeenth-century Illinois, we must follow each path, and so our journey begins. The year is A.D. 1600, a bit more than seven decades before Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet record their exploration of the Illinois Country.

The Place: Pays de Illinois, the Illinois Country

Seventeenth-century Illinois would be familiar to us from a distance, but look more closely and you will see some important differences. Climatologists, using historical records such as European crop production reports, botanical studies of pollen deposited in lake-bottom sediment, and other sources of information, have identified a period of colder weather worldwide that they call the "Little Ice Age." Between 550 and 150 years ago, annual average temperatures dropped one to two degrees centigrade, enough to shorten the growing season and to cause more severe winters.


Based on plant and animal remains discovered during archaeological excavations, the characteristics and distribution of certain soils, and later historical accounts, prairie— mostly wet prairie—dominated the flat lands of seventeenth-century Illinois. Forests persisted in areas of more topographic relief, and spurred by cooler weather, probably expanded their distribution, though enormous fires that periodically raced across the landscape impeded this expansion.

Walking across the state three centuries ago, a traveler would have seen bison, elk, bear, wolf, white-tailed deer, and many other species of animals. However, by the beginning of the nineteenth-century the large mammals were forced to find refuge elsewhere as increasing numbers of Europeans and then Americans settled here and eventually cultivated vast tracts of land.

The People: Native Americans in the Illinois Country

Historians and archaeologists are often asked, Which tribes lived in Illinois before the arrival of the French? This is a simple question but difficult to answer. Without historical documents, archaeologists depend on their ability to recognize artifacts typical of a particular group or culture. For example, Marquette and Jolliet report that they found the Kaskaskia tribe near Starved Rock in 1673.

In the late 1940s, based on French documents and maps, archaeologists from the University of Chicago and the Illinois State Museum located the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, where Marquette and Jolliet had stopped in 1673. While excavating the site, archaeologists found examples of pre-contact artifacts, especially pottery, that they hoped would enable them to locate other Illinois villages that existed prior to the arrival of the French. They have had little success finding late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century villages, and those that have been found generally do not have artifacts comparable to those discovered at the Grand Village. Thus, it is not clear if artifacts found at older sites can be attributed to the Illinois or another tribe. In short, archaeologists have been unable to link particular artifacts to specific tribes. Thus, at present, we do not have a clear understanding about which tribes lived in Illinois in the early seventeenth century, let alone earlier. In fact, there is growing evidence that suggests that the Illinois tribes had not long been residents of the Illinois Country.

We recognize Marquette and Jolliet as the first Europeans in Illinois, but artifacts provide evidence of direct or indirect European contact prior to their arrival. Marquette noticed some French trade goods at the Peoria village on the Mississippi River in 1673. Archaeologists found French trade goods at the Grand Village of Kaskaskia but are uncertain whether they predate Marquette and Jolliet. Farther south, near the mouth of the Wabash River, European artifacts have been found on sites occupied during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Elsewhere, in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange, Illinois, the discovery of a 1669 French jeton may be evidence of earlier exploration or trade, but it is also possible that the coin was carried for many years before being lost. Nevertheless, these are among the few tantalizing bits of evidence that suggest Native American contacts with Europeans in Illinois not recorded in historical documents.

The Event: French Exploration of the Illinois Country

Archaeological evidence suggests that nearly 150 years before they saw a European, native inhabitants of Illinois were affected by spreading European technology and culture. From the 1490s to the mid-1600s, diseases, changing economic relationships, and a few traded tools and ornaments began an inexorable change in the lives of Native Americans. The first recorded contacts between French traders and Native Americans in the Great Lakes region took place in the 1630s. The Illinois Country, more insular, would soon be recognized as the crossroad of the continent.

Trade is perhaps the best context in which to understand early Illinois history. In addition to French documents about trade with Native Americans, trade goods—glass beads, metal tools and containers, and textiles among others—are readily identifiable in artifact assemblages from Native American sites.

As trade expanded, Native American tribes in Illinois soon became more important. Based on archaeological research, Native Americans in Illinois sustained themselves through hunting, gathering, and farming prior to the arrival of French explorers. Their importance increased because they controlled a part of the continent where all the largest inland waterways, and thus trade routes, converged. The French called the land "Pays de Illinois," which translated means "the Illinois Country" or "the Land of the Illinois." Farming, waterways, and trade routes defined the Illinois Country and its people, then and now.

Exploration offered trading opportunities. Although several European nations established trade colonies on the coasts of North America, only the French built trading posts, and later more permanent settlements, in the middle of the continent.


In the 1500s the French explored the St. Lawrence River, the northeastern entrance to North America, while the Spanish approached the interior from the south. The search for trade routes to the Far East and treasure motivated exploration. By the early 1600s, the French had organized Native American trading partners; they built settlements along the St. Lawrence River, and they called this place New France.

Although New France trade radiated in all directions, it was concentrated in the Great Lakes region. With cold lands to the north and English and Dutch colonies located to the south, the Great Lakes appeared particularly attractive. Before the 1650s, Native Americans carried French trade goods far to the west and brought back furs in return. Some tribes, such as the Iroquois, maintained their importance by preventing French traders from independently exploring the Great Lakes. The poorly known western lands became known as the "Upper Country," from whence flotillas of Indian canoes traveled "down" to New France to obtain goods.

Eventually, the reach of French trade extended to land of the Illinois tribes. Soon French traders were aware of a warmer land with large rivers, the avenues of trade. These rivers gave promise to the possibility of extending trade even further west, perhaps to the western sea and beyond to Asia.

French policy on expanding its settlements further inland swayed back and forth. The lure of fur-trade fortunes and land was at odds with the government's desire to establish a strong colony before expansion. But what if other nations gained control of the interior? Although forbidden to trade in the interior, Canadians found it difficult to resist the opportunity for extraordinary profit. In the end, profits won, and by the 1660s, the French had taken up residence in the western Great Lakes. The Illinois Country would be the next frontier.

Illegal French traders may have traversed the Illinois Country in the 1650s, but the expedition of Marquette and Jolliet in 1673 marked a commitment to colonize the area. Jolliet requested permission to establish a settlement, but politics favored Robert Cavalier, Sieur de LaSalle. LaSalle obtained permission to build trading posts, make land grants to followers, and explore the mouth of the Mississippi River. Arriving late in 1679 following setbacks and near disasters, LaSalle's party soon established trade on the upper reach of the Illinois River. European artifacts found at Native American villages at Starved Rock and the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, on the opposite bank of the river, mark the beginning of this period of more intensive trade.

During the next two decades, French trade expanded both in the Great Lakes region and in the Illinois Country. The French built military posts and Catholic missions at Starved Rock, at present-day Peoria (another place where archaeologists continue to search for evidence of French occupation), and elsewhere, as more traders arrived. Marriages and subsequent offspring resulted in a society of Metis that mixed French and Native American heritage and culture.

The rapid expansion of the fur trade overwhelmed the marketplace and undermined fledgling French settlements in Illinois. Key settlements to the north, including Detroit and Green Bay, continued to grow, but the French maintained only a token presence in Illinois.

Marquette and Jolliet, LaSalle, and others explored the Illinois Country, and it remained a little-known area on the frontier in the late seventeenth-century. But this would soon change.

To explore the exploration of seventeenth-century Illinois, we must draw upon a variety of resources to assemble the most complete picture. Written documents and maps generally provide the most detailed record, but artifacts and "ecofacts" often provide evidence not available elsewhere. Each source of evidence is biased, but a multidisciplinary approach to the past balances bias, or at least points out inconsistencies in the evidence. Much remains to be learned about seventeenth-century Illinois. To do so we must continue to explore and reflect upon our research.



Monica Cousins Noraian


Main Ideas

Illinois' early history is difficult to piece together. One must look at a variety of sources and areas of research to understand the state's early history. Anthropology, archaeology, folklore, history, and natural history are all paths to the past. Even as we investigate contemporary events, it is important to consult various types of sources. Students will read, analyze, answer questions, and peer-teach about the narrative section of this paper. After this background preparation on early Illinois history, students will delve deeper into the topic through the use of the Internet. An independent web quest will allow students the opportunity to see visual images, read primary documents, and explore more specifically some of the information touched on in the reading about early Illinois history.

Connection with the Curriculum

This material could be used to teach United States history or local Illinois history. It is well-aligned with state and national standards for learning and teaching social studies. This lesson meets several of the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) thematic standards:

I. Culture and Cultural Diversity

II. Time, Continuity, and Change

III. People, Places, and Environments

It also meets several of the National Council for History Education (NCHE) Vital Themes and Narratives:

1. Civilization, Cultural Diffusion, and Innovation

2. Human Interaction with the Environment

NCHE Habits of Mind:

• Understand the significance of the past to their own lives, both private and public, and to their society.

• Perceive past events and issues as they were experienced by people at the time, to develop historical empathy as opposed to present-mindedness.

• Acquire at one and the same time a comprehension of diverse cultures and of shared humanity.

Illinois State Learning Standards:

• 16 A, and 16 D. Use benchmarks for appropriate grade level (late elementary, middle/junior high school, early high school and late high school).

• 18 B and 18 C. Use benchmarks for appropriate grade level (late elementary, middle/junior high school, early high school and late high school).

Teaching Level

The reading and activities are appropriate for grades 6-12. The ability and age of the students will determine the level and depth of written work, peer teaching and discussion.

Materials for Each Student

• A copy of the narrative portion of this article or a portion if done as a cooperative peer-teaching exercise.

• A copy of the Reading and Discussion Guide

• A copy of the Internet Guide Sheet

• Access to the Internet

Objectives for Each Student

Students will

• Experience the six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy through guided questions

• Demonstrate peer-teaching

• Synthesize information about seventeenth-century Illinois history

• Recognize the challenges of historiography

• Explore the topic independently using the Internet


Opening the Lesson

Share the following two quotes with students and ask for their interpretations and reactions. There are many definitions of history, but these connect historical thinking to identity. This lesson has students exploring, learning, and thinking about Illinois' early history. Students must make connections between the history they learn and their own lives. Illinois history is particularly relevant since earlier settlers influence people and communities today. Follow up the discussion with probing questions about what students already know about local history. The teacher could also make references to what is happening in other parts of the world during the seventeenth century as a broader connection to this lesson topic.

Illinois' early history is difficult to piece together.


"A people without history is like wind on the buffalo grass." Sioux proverb

"A nation which does not know what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do." Woodrow Wilson

Developing the Lesson

• Have students read, answer questions, peer-teach, and discuss based on the historical reading. This can be done individually or in cooperative groups at home or in class. Divide the students into five expert groups (A through E) and assign them the corresponding narrative portion of this article and the Reading and Discussion Guide. Groups can work (read and do questions) independently or collaborate. If students do the work independently, give them time to rejoin their expert groups to review the answers prior to peer-teaching the material to others. Have students organize so that there is at least one member of each expert group in each new group for peer-teaching. Students should share their information beginning with person A and fill in the remaining answers on the guide sheet during the peer-teaching activity. Upon returning to their seats or for homework, students should answer independently the last section. As a class, have a discussion based on the reading and the peer-teaching activity.

• Either as a follow up to the reading, peer-teaching activity, or further enrichment, have students explore the topic of early Illinois history using the Internet. Students will need a copy of the narrative portion of this article. This activity may be done as a class in the computer lab or assigned as homework. Students do not need to have read the historical article in order to complete the computer activity. Students should visit the two web sites and complete the questions. Finally, they should reflect on the validity of historical sources and tools of research. This would lead well into a discussion about the challenges of piecing together history, or in this case the particular challenges of early Illinois history.

Concluding the Lesson

• Discuss with students ideas from the reading, the guide sheets, and the Internet sites. Connect back to the set induction. What more do they now know about local history, the time period, or the challenges of historiography? Return to the two quotes about history, share different quotes about history, or have students bring in others to present to the class for the next day.

Extending the Lesson

• There are many useful teaching ideas found at the Illinois State Museum website. Field trips and further independent research are more ways to broaden the learning for students.

Assessing the Lesson

• Use the student responses to the two guide sheets and their discussions as assessment. Depending on time, further assignments could be given and assessed.


Narrative portion of this article

Bradley Commission. Building a History Curriculum. Westlake, Ohio: NCHE, 2000

Illinois State Board of Education. Content-Area Standards for Educators. Springfield:

Illinois State Board of Education, 2002 (source for: Illinois Professional Teaching Standards, Core Language Arts Standards for All Teachers, Core Technology Standards for All Teachers, Core Standards for All Social Science Teachers)

Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Learning Standards. Springfield: ISBE, 1997

National Council for the Social Studies. National Standards for Social Studies Teachers. Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 2000.


A Reading and Discussion Guide

After reading your assigned narrative portion of this article, think about the ideas, answer the following questions, peer-teach, and discuss the information and your reactions as a class.

A. Introduction—page 2

1. Name two early explorers of Illinois.

2. Describe their route of exploration.

3. Who did the explorers encounter along their journey?

4. Discuss five ways to learn about the past and give an example for each.

5. When does this story of Illinois history begin?

B. The Place—pages 2-3

1. Speculate why the authors say the seventeenth century would be familiar to us from a distance.

2. What historical records do climatologists use to understand the past, and what have they determined about early Illinois history?

3. What are "ecofacts" and what do they reveal about Illinois's early history?

4. Name three animal species that roamed Illinois during the seventeenth century.

5. Discuss two reasons why many larger mammals later found refuge elsewhere.

C. The People—page 3

1. Who determines who lived in early Illinois and using what records?

2. Why is it difficult to prove who lived in Illinois prior to the French?

3. Which tribes lived in Illinois in the seventeenth century and for how long?

4. Who were the first Europeans in Illinois?

5. What evidence is there of early Native American contacts with Europeans not recorded in historical documents?

D. The Event—pages 3-4

1. Native Americans were affected by European technology and culture. List three examples.

2. Explain with examples how trade tells the story of early Illinois history.

3. Based on archaeological research, how did Native Americans sustain themselves prior to the arrival of French explorers?

4. What defined the Illinois Country and its people, then and now?

5. Although New France trade radiated in all directions, where was it concentrated?

E. The Event continued and Conclusion— page 4

1. Describe the French dilemma about trade and settlement.

2. What French explorer had permission to build trading posts, grant land, and explore?

3. Name two present-day areas archeologists are searching for evidence of French occupation.

4. Define and explain a society of Metis.

5. Name four types of sources used to piece together early-seventeenth-century Illinois history and the challenges of using them.

Individual Pre-Discussion Questions

1. What are some key points about the narrative portion of the article?

2. What surprised you, and what did you find interesting in the reading?

3. Discuss ideas, information, themes, and connections to other things you have read and studied. What does your textbook include about this time period?

4. What are you still curious about regarding early Illinois history?

5. Speculate on the challenges of learning and teaching about this period and why.


Internet Guide Sheet

Use this Guide Sheet and the Internet to further explore and piece together the story of seventeenth-century Illinois. Visit the following sites to answer the questions.

1. Click on Explorers to begin your adventure.

a. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle, 1670-1687. Read and list information that relates to early Illinois history.

b. Marquette, 1673-1675. Read and list information that relates to early Illinois history.

c. Jolliet, 1673-1694. Read and list information that relates to early Illinois history.


Enter the exhibit and visit the time period 1700-1800

a. Name 3 things the early French settlers did.

Enter the French Frontier. Pick 2 people from Voices and Choices (different levels)

b. Name and describe your person.

c. List and define a new term.

d. Record a question facing your person and the answer.

e. What choices did your person encounter and what was the "right" one?

f. Describe what happened to your person.

Return to Voices and Choices, and select your second person

g. Name and describe your person.

h. List and define a new term.

i. Record a question facing your person and the answer.

j. What choices did your person encounter and what was the "right" one.

k. Describe what happened to your person.

Briefly engage in the following three activities to continue piecing together the story of seventeenth-century Illinois, and record some new information you learned.

l. Livre's Worth

m. The Convoy

n. Behind the Scenes

Visit the time line

o. List 3 dates—pieces of information you found interesting and why.

Using the Maps

p. How did the French get to Illinois?

q. Where did they live?

r. How did they live?

People from different cultures met in early Illinois as illustrated in Side by Side.

s. Complete the chart by picking 3 categories from the Side by Side link, and describe how people's lives were different.

Look at Objects used during the French era.

t. Select three objects of interest and share three facts in the chart below.

Read Clues from the Past to answer the following question.

u. What do estate inventories tell us about life in French Illinois? Give specific examples to support your answer from the two estate inventories.

3. Evaluating sources of information is very important for historians. Comment on the credibility, accuracy, clarity, and quality of primary and secondary sources on the two Internet sites you visited.


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