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Duane Esarey
Historical Research and Narrative

French Illinois: Between Canada and Louisiana

If there is a single word that best describes Illinois during the French Colonial period, it is strategic. The colony of New France, hereinafter called Canada, was centered upon the eastern end of the Great Lakes waterways—one of two major east-west axes of North America. When Illinois was part of Canada it was merely a far western margin of that colony Even though Illinois had attributes that were in very short supply in the rest of Canada, such as a warmer climate, better soils, and large river transportation networks, Canada was focused upon the fur trade, and Illinois' attributes seemed unimportant.

When viewed from the south, however, the Illinois Country is bracketed by the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers. The Mississippi River forms the strategic north-south axis of North America. The Ohio and Missouri rivers and their tributaries form another east-west axis for all of the midcontinent between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. More important, the Illinois and the Wabash rivers connect these great rivers to the Great Lakes. All trade and travel were by water, and with Illinois at the center of North America it had vast potential for trade. Likewise, Illinois' potential for agriculture was unmatched. Illinois had other potential as well, but its primary importance was strategic.

Beginning in 1699 the French established a weak presence at Biloxi, on the Gulf of Mexico, beginning the new colony known as Louisiana and establishing a tenuous connection through the Illinois Country all the way to Canada. From the moment France took possession of Illinois, British traders and the Indian tribes under British influences were already looking to the Mississippi River. Regardless of France's claims of ownership, the Illinois Indians were the only buffer keeping the Iroquois from cutting off Canada from the Mississippi Valley Meanwhile, British traders were both expanding westward from the Carolinas and planning to colonize the mouth of the Mississippi River. If France wished to hold on to the continent, it had to establish itself in the Mississippi Valley.

Despite a difficult start, the French managed to found substantial posts at Mobile (1710) and New Orleans (1718), and they began establishing posts in anticipation of trade, mining, and military control at various locations along the Mississippi River. In 1719 and 1724 forts were established in the Illinois Country and on the Missouri River, respectively.

In Illinois the earlier Jesuit mission at Peoria was still present when Louisiana was established. As part of France's efforts to better establish itself in the Mississippi Valley, a group rival to the Jesuits (Seminary of Quebec, better known as "the Foreign Missions") was allowed to found a mission

1732 map of the Illinois country, "Partie Superieure de La Louisiane" from "Carte de la Louisiane par le Sieur d'Anville" 1732.

Used with permission of Louisiana State University Library.


Early French house in Illinois as seen in 1796 (Victor Collet "Voyage dans I'Amerique du Nord-1826)

along the Mississippi River in Illinois among the Tamaroa in 1699. This establishment, later known as Cahokia, was nearly opposite present-day St. Louis. In response to these rivals and to movements of the Kaskaskia tribe, the Jesuits then shifted their main emphasis to the south, founding the settlement Kaskaskia about forty-five miles south of Cahokia. Although Cahokia and Kaskaskia remained relatively small, this short stretch of the Mississippi River encompassed much of the total area eventually occupied by the French and French-Indian population of the Illinois Country. Trade with Louisiana increased rapidly, with agricultural products from Illinois helping sustain the rapidly growing posts in the south.

Given its location and its supposed wealth of food, furs, and minerals, the Illinois settlement on the Mississippi loomed large on the political landscape as planners in France, Louisiana, and Canada tried to decide what to do with their tenuous hold on North America.

The French towns of Illinois

Prior to 1718 the Illinois Country was formally under the control of Canada. During this period, Cahokia and Kaskaskia were essentially Indian villages accompanied by missions and a small population of French Canadians married to Indian women. In late 1717, when the official lines of division between Louisiana and Canada were drawn up, Illinois became the northernmost of nine military districts within Louisiana. Louisiana was indistinctly divided from Canada through the middle of present-day Illinois. Peoria had previously been the center of Illinois under Canada, but now the Illinois River was simply one of the "roads" between Canada and Louisiana. The tiny settlements of Cahokia and Kaskaskia were the center of Louisiana's hopes for a colony in the heart of North America.

After 1718 the number of French people in Illinois immediately rose. For many years the colony of French Louisiana was operated under a trade monopoly (initially called the Company of the West, then Company of the Indies). The Company sent an initial expedition to fortify and occupy the Illinois Country, which ascended to Mississippi River in the summer of 1718. Fort de Chartres was built about eighteen miles north of Kaskaskia along the banks of the Mississippi River. Then a new village, Chartres, quickly sprang up near the fort. The population of the French villages of Illinois was made up of a mix of settlers, soldiers, voyageurs, converted Indians, and administrators.

Initial hopes for the settlement of Illinois were based on the expectation that mineral wealth would be easily located and exploited. In spite of great efforts by the French, little more than lead mines were located, and the early attempts to mine the lead were unprofitable. As hopes for quick profits faded, the small French villages settled into a pattern of slow growth.

At the first census in 1723, Kaskaskia was listed as having nearly two hundred "French" people, while Fort de Chartres had 126 and Cahokia had 12. The French population was augmented by slaves who worked the mines and fields, and by soldiers. Indian slaves were purchased from local tribes, and black slaves were brought to Illinois in 1720 for mining operations and soon were common among the settlers. For instance, a census in 1732 shows that the French population was still less than 400, but that there were now significantly more slaves (119 Indian slaves and 165 black slaves) than nine years before.

By the 1750s the number of French villages had increased to include St. Phillippe and Prairie du Rocher near the fort and Prairie du Pont near Cahokia. At the census of 1752—nearly a half-century after their foundings—the total number of French community residents probably did not greatly exceed 2,000. About one-third of these were black and Indian slaves. Another source estimated that there were 260 houses in the Illinois Country.

The people of French Illinois

The standard French settlers were known as habitants. These families were headed by French men who were married and settled upon the land. Throughout the French period


there was a general shortage of women, so that in the earlier decades the wives of French settlers were typically Indian women and the daughters of earlier French/Indian marriages. Another source of women in French colonies in general were orphans or those recruited from the impoverished classes in France. Officers and administrators sometimes brought their wives with them from France or from New Orleans.

In both Canada and Louisiana, French settlers soon came to enjoy more personal freedom than their counterparts in France. Both the church and the nobility lost a certain measure of traditional control over the colonists. In accord with their parent culture, the French in North America continued to display great respect for nobility and the privileges of rank. All who could claim any pretense of a noble-sounding name made full use of it.

Despite the distances to both Canada and New Orleans, merchants were able to establish themselves in the towns of French Illinois, where they employed engages—men who carried the trade to Indian villages. Men farmed and traded or pursued a craft. Some craft skills were what one would expect; there were many masons and carpenters. Others worked as blacksmiths, millers, gunsmiths, roofers, tailors, and bakers. Other special skills were less common, for instance, records mention a wig maker, a tavern keeper, and interpreters. And, there was a "barber/ surgeon." This odd-sounding combination of skills serves to warn us of that time's crude medical services. One skill surprisingly absent was weaving. Neither men nor women created fabrics. It was forbidden! All fabrics and most finished clothes had to be purchased from the King's stores or brought in with the fur-trade goods.

Some soldiers retired, married, and stayed in Illinois, but many more went back to New Orleans or France when their duties were finished. Another class of men living in the French villages were the voyageurs, who typically had been born in France or Canada and carried goods back and forth to both New Orleans in the annual convoy and made fur-trading trips to Canada and the Indian villages.

The presence of slaves in French Illinois is perhaps surprising given Illinois' later antislavery image. The truth is both more and less shocking that it might seem. The enslavement of blacks and Indians was relatively less harsh in Illinois in the 1700s than we generally think of in the southern states during the 1800s. Most slaves were distributed in small numbers among families rather than as work forces on large plantations. Both common practice and French law made slaves less subject to mistreatment. In some cases slaves could even testify in court against their owners if mistreated. On the other hand, both morally and legally, this was still slavery. Indians and blacks were owned as property. Nor did French law allow blacks to intermarry with whites. Indian tribes captured native slaves from further west and sold them to both the French and to other tribes further east. Slavery continued by both the English and the Spanish governments in the Illinois Country after the end of the French Period and was still a hotly contested topic after Illinois became part of the United States.


Lifeways of the habitants in Illinois were very much true to French culture. Both the form and the function of daily life were part and parcel of the Catholic religion. The annual calendar was crowded with religious observations, such as Holy Days of Obligation, in which there was no work but plenty of feasting and celebrating. Games and contests abounded. Holidays were celebrated with vigor and revelry, and every wedding, birth, and death was marked by ceremony, custom, and superstition. Marriage contracts, dowers and dowries, wills and inheritances, civil contracts, and matters of public pride and appearances were all avidly attended to in ways that hold but little resemblance to the arrangements of the English Protestant

"Festivities of the Early French in Illinois" (Henry Howe, "Historical Collections of the Great West," 1851)


society that was forming along the east coast of North America. Temporary variations in the accepted codes of social behavior, such as can be seen in the Carnival festivities throughout South and Central America, were typical of French Louisiana and Illinois as well.

Yet there were marked differences between the colonial French and their counterparts in Europe. Land was essentially free and plentiful, hunting and fishing were conducted at will, and lumber and firewood abounded. All basic needs could be provided for without great effort. Leisure and social activities were enhanced accordingly. Both civil and religious authorities were ineffective at closely controlling the habitants. Interaction with the natives instilled a sense of freedom and self-determination that was unknown among the lower classes in France.

The annual convoys to and from New Orleans were central to the life of the colony in Illinois. Voyageurs might risk travel to and from Canada and Louisiana on their own, but much of the goods and all of the official supplies for the colony came by way of the convoy. For much of the French Period, convoys had to be heavily guarded. Anyone carrying goods alone or in small groups was subject to being robbed or murdered by Indians encouraged by the British. The mere task of ascending the Mississippi River made more than one journey per year unlikely. Early each spring when the water flow was high and the banks of the river were flooded, a convoy left Illinois carrying meat, flour, hides, and other products. The trip down to New Orleans took twelve to twenty days, but the late summer trip back to Illinois against the low water and less current was very slow. It took several months for the convoy of flat-bottomed cargo boats to be pushed, pulled, paddled, and sailed up the Mississippi River.


Illinois was the breadbasket of French Louisiana. During good years approximately three times the food that was needed to sustain the people in Illinois could be raised here. Some products, such as wheat, corn, meat and hides could be sold to the rest of Louisiana in especially large quantities. Convoys from Illinois supplied the French posts and villages to the south with huge amounts of flour. Corn, barley, tobacco, and cotton were also transported. Large numbers of cattle, oxen, horses, and pigs were raised in Illinois, and items gathered from the wild, such as buffalo hides and bear oil, were also transported in large quantities. Many of the better furs went north to Canada. Some lead was mined for Louisiana, but the quantitiy never met the expectations of administrators. The trading of goods and services—that is, barter-were the only effective mode of exchange. Very little money was to be found in French Illinois.

War and neglect at the heart of French Empire

As hopes for easy mineral and trading wealth failed to materialize in the Illinois Country, the companies paying for administration and defense of the Illinois Country soon tired of the burden and began cutting costs. It was deemed sufficient to have the Indian tribes fight the wars, and many soldiers were recalled. Forts fell into disrepair, and the settlers were left to their own devices.

The Fox tribe in the north attacked the new colony from its beginning. Nonetheless, military support for Illinois was soon greatly reduced. Farming, hunting, and trading were all attended to at risk of attack, and numerous people were killed in the vicinity of the settlements. After the Fox threat was overcome by concerted effort of many tribes and French troops from both Canada and Louisiana, a new threat arose from the south. The Chickasaw Indians, who were allied with the British from the Carolinas, persisted in trying to cut Illinois off from Louisiana. French Illinois lived in an almost constant state of sustained warfare.

A turning point for the French Empire in North America

In 1748 a formal assessment of the French interests in North America concluded that the Illinois Country was of very little economic value to France. Posts and settlements generated little income and were a net loss. None of the anticipated prosperity for the settlers there was going to materialize. Yet, it was clear that, if France wanted to hold any of its colonies in North America, it had to hold Illinois. Thus, at the end of the French regime in Illinois the bitter truth was the same as it had been from the beginning: Illinois was strategic. If Illinois was lost to the British, who were already starting to encroach in the Ohio Valley, then France would lose the rest of North America as well. But the population in Illinois


was far too small. Although birth rates were high, immigration to the French colonies had always been limited. Compared to the vigorous and diverse peoples flooding into the British colonies, French immigration had been especially slow because of the unprofitable reputation of the colonies. In spite of repeated plans to fortify the Ohio River, nothing of substance had ever been done there. Decades of trying to reap the maximum profits by skimping on the military defense, administrative costs, and presents to the tribes had left the Illinois Country with no strength and no resources. Worst of all, Illinois now had a long history of making very poor returns on investments. The French government was going to have to shoulder the costs of safekeeping the colonies at its own expense.

Illinois becomes a new Frontier

In the 1750s, France tried to stave off the dangers to its North American empire. A major expedition descended the Ohio Valley and ousted the British. A major new fort was built near the mouth of the Ohio, and the fort on the Illinois River among the Peoria was rebuilt. In anticipation of a spreading general war in Europe, coordinated efforts with Canada were made, and attacks against the western expansions of the British were undertaken. Yet these fixes were both too little and too late. France's ambiguities about Illinois were also typical of its other colonial possessions. They existed to serve France, and they were valued accordingly. The fate of the French empire in North America was decided on European battlefields. All possessions east of the Mississippi, except the mouth of the Mississippi and New Orleans, were ceded to England. New Orleans and all of western Louisiana, including St. Genevieve and the brand new settlement of St. Louis, were given to Spain in return for its loss of Spanish Florida to the British.

When the British took over in the mid-1760s the Illinois settlements were largely deserted. Most of the French settlers had simply moved across the Mississippi River to be under Spanish rule. The British began to expand their trade westward from both the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley. Their interest in Illinois was largely so they could push an illegal trade into Spanish possessions to the west. For the British, and for the new American government that followed very soon after, Illinois was a new frontier, one that faced toward the west.


Bonnie Laughlin


Main Ideas

Typically, students may be rather unfamiliar with Illinois' earlier history, as their understanding and exposure tends to center around the nineteenth- and twentieth-century experience. This lesson will be particularly helpful in filling in gaps in their knowledge of Illinois because it introduces students to the time long before Illinois became the Prairie State or the Land of Lincoln. In addition to providing historical content, this lesson will also augment and enhance student understanding of continental interaction in the age of worldwide exploration, expansion, and conquest that marked the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. This understanding is central in both American and world history.

This lesson is designed to assist student understanding and application of the information included in "Illinois as a French Colony." It is structured around three of the dominant themes of the narrative: geographical determinism in history, the re-settling of North America


by the French and British, and the interaction of various people—French, British, and Native American—in French colonial Illinois, Louisiana, and Canada. The activities are designed to target multiple learning styles and levels of Bloom's taxonomy, as well as to engage student reflection and interest in historical content and practice. Students will be readied for the narrative, do an activity designed to help them read for understanding, and then create written journal entries to convey and synthesize their learning, as well as to reflect on the issue of historical perspective.

Connection with the Curriculum

This lesson could easily be incorporated into the general United States history survey. It could be inserted during a unit on the French and British settlement of North American, or it could be utilized later as background information leading up to the French and Indian War. Additionally, it could function well in a world history survey to show students how the general Age of Exploration and colonization unfolded close to home. From the story of French settlement of Illinois country students can extract information about general motivations for settlement, experience and impact of change, and encounters with native peoples. Emphasis on historical analysis and interpretation (and the role of the historian) could also be stressed. The activities may be appropriate for Illinois Learning Standards 16.A.3b, 16.A.3C, 16.A.4a, 16.A.4b, 16.A.5b, 16.B.5b(US), 16.B.3d(W), 16.C.3a(US), 16.C.4a(US), 16.E.4a(W), 16.E.4b(W), 17.C.3a, 17.C.5C, and 18.C.5.

Teaching Level

The following activities were developed for high-school students but could easily be used or adapted for middle-school learners.

Materials for Each Student

Each student will require a copy of the narrative portion of this article as well as copies of the activities chosen for instruction. Access to a textbook and to present and past maps of Illinois and North America may also be instrumental. Access to the Internet would allow students to extend their learning and pursue questions that develop, but it is not fundamental to the lesson.

Objectives for Each Student

1. Students will categorize and analyze motivations (geographical, economic, strategic, religious, personal, etc.) for settlement and expansion, both in general and as they pertain to French colonial activity in North America.

2. Students will identify important factors in the French decision to colonize and support Illinois and other lands in North America despite the risks and hardships that accompanied their endeavors.

3. Students will distinguish and describe the groups affected in this process, including Native American indigenous peoples and various groups/types of French settlers.

4. Students will create journal accounts of the settlement process, writing from multiple historical perspectives and synthesizing their knowledge in a written assessment.

5. Students will evaluate the role of the historian in interpreting the past and attempting to consider multiple perspectives on the shape of the past. Students will appreciate the difficulty of presenting a "true" version of the past and will learn to take historical interpretation as just that--interpretation.


Opening the Lesson

To make historical study engaging and meaningful to students, one might open the lesson with a series of questions designed to connect a seemingly remote past to the present time. Issues of language and name origin—Peoria, Illinois, etc.—might offer a way into the lesson, as might broader questions about the history of Illinois and contact between Europeans and Native Americans. A final way into the lesson might come from thinking about Illinois' relation to the rest of North America today, and this could then be compared to it in the past. Activity One will also be instrumental in gauging what knowledge students already have and sparking an interest in the topic.

Developing the Lesson

The lesson is designed to extend and refine student knowledge and then allow students a chance to use what they have learned in a meaningful and creative manner. The three activities are designed to work together and in sequence, but parts could be taken out or others inserted without detracting from the lesson as a whole.

The first activity is a simple one: a K-W-L chart, designed to be the starting and ending place for the lesson. In a K-W-L chart, students brainstorm what they already know about the French activities in Illinois and their encounters with Native Americans, before developing a list


of questions to which they would like to find answers. At the end of the lesson, this activity is returned to, as students fill in the final column and reflect on what they have learned and taken from the lesson. It is a quite simple device but a good opener for class, as a way to settle students and get them immediately engaged with the material. It also provides a framework for what they will learn, what Robert MacDonald calls an "advance organizer" to preview and relate topics. (Robert E. MacDonald, "Drawing Students into Encounters with Learning" in A Handbook of Basic Strategies for Beginning Teachers, New York: Longman Publishing, 1991). The K-W-L activity is also discussed in Robert Marzano, A Different Kind of Classroom: Teaching with Dimensions of Learning (Alexandria, Va: ASCD, 1992).

The second activity consists of questions for a guided reading of the narrative portion of this article. The questions range from recall to analysis, highlighting important elements, facts, and themes of the narrative. The guided reading questions are particularly useful because this information may be unfamiliar and because the questions prepare students for the third activity. Extended class discussion of the geographical and strategic situation of Illinois would be a good accompaniment to these questions, as would use of visuals that accompany the narrative itself. The questions could be completed in student small groups or individually, in class or out of class.

The final activity is a student-centered creative written assessment. Based on the narrative, information in their textbooks, and their imagination, students are asked to write mock journal entries for three different people from the era chosen from a larger list of possible perspectives. Each short journal entry should rely both on historical fact and student creativity It is important for the teacher to stress the need for students to use historical evidence in creating these journal entries. Like the reading questions, this activity is very versatile: students can work individually or in small groups; read entries to the class or not; discuss the overall idea of historical perspective to promote interest; allow small groups; and promote individual self-expression. There are several goals for this activity, and discussion of the journal entries can encompass all or just some of these goals. The first is synthesis and creative application of their knowledge. A second goal includes student understanding of the function of perspective in history, and the multiple perspectives on the encounter between French and Native Americans in Illinois, as well as on the experience of French migration and settlement. The teacher may even delve further to talk about issues of perspective in the writing of history, to see whose perspective(s) historians have written from, and to discuss the nature of history—one more tentative than students normally suppose. In this, teachers may work towards what Robert MacDonald categorizes as "dispositional" goals, ones moving beyond cognitive knowledge to affect student frames of mind and action, as well as consideration of their relationship to past and present humanity. On dispositional goals, see Robert E. MacDonald, A Handbook of Basic Strategies for Beginning Teachers.

Concluding the Lesson

The lesson could be concluded with readings from student journal entries, as well as discussions of the historical perspective. The K-W-L chart should be revisited at the lesson's close, as students can fill in the final chart, what they learned, and see what questions still remain.

Extending the Lesson

The probability of students having unanswered questions on their K-W-L charts is high, and students could be encouraged to learn more about the subject, either through print sources, multimedia, or the Internet. Two especially helpful Internet sites are the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's sites on Cahokia Mounds, and Fort de Chartres, etc., at, and the Illinois State Museum (online exhibit on life in 1700) .

Assessing the Lesson

Written work (K-W-L chart and reading comprehension questions) could be checked for accuracy and/or completion, but the best chance for assessment comes from the journal-writing activity, where students are asked to include and apply factual knowledge from the perspectives of many types of people.


ActivitV 1 - K-W-L: The French in illinois.

Either as a class or individually, please fill out the first two columns of this chart. Focus on what you already know and what questions you have about the early history of Illinois survey during the time that the French attempted to settle it in the 1700s md encountered various Native Americans groups and the British. Try to list at least four things in the columns.

K—What I KNOW         W—What I WANT to know        L—What I LEARNED


Activity 2 — Guided Reading Comprehension and Extension Questions

This activity is designed to introduce you to the historical knowledge involved in French settlement in Illinois and French encounters with Native Americans. It is also designed to get you to consider the use of evidence in the writing of history. As you read the narrative portion of the article distributed in class, answer the following questions. If it would make more sense to answer with some type of graphic organizer rather than formal sentences, feel free to do so.

1. Why do you think the author chooses the word strategic in relation to Illinois' past situation? Give one example from the article to support your opinion.

2. On a map, locate the east-west axis and north-south axis that are referred to in the article. Locate the key waterways: Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers, as well as the Great Lakes. How was Illinois important to both of these sets of water?

3. How did the French population in Illinois change between 1718 and 1752? (Hint: A chart might be easier than sentences.)

4. Identify the various settlers you might find in a typical French village in Illinois. How did the settlers differ, both in their motivations and experience? Give at least two specific examples in your answer.

5. The article states that French settlers had more freedom in Illinois than their counterparts did in France, which was still governed by an absolute monarch (Louis XIV being the most famous). How were French settlers in North America freer, and why do you think this was the case?

6. How was slavery different in Illinois from other parts of North America? Why do you think it differed?

7. What does it mean when Illinois is described as the "breadbasket" of Louisiana? Why is this descriptor used? Give one piece of evidence from the narrative that supports this.

8. Imagine that you were living in France in 1720. Make a chart giving three reasons to move to North America and three reasons against such a move. Below your chart, write out your decision on whether you will go to New France or not.

9. In regard to the decision that you reached in question eight, what was the critical factor in making your decision? What could change your mind?


Activity 3 -- Journal Writing: New France Seen from Multiple Perspectives

In this activity, you will place yourself in the perspective of three different people who might have been living in New France in the early 1700s. Choose three different people from the list of descriptions below. Choose a date from the early 1700s, and for each character that you have chosen, write a two- or three-paragraph journal entry on your own paper. Be as creative as you like, while adding in all kinds of historical detail to the journal entries. You might write about various activities, experience, or feelings about life in New France. Make sure to label each of the journal entries according to its perspective.

After you are finished with the three entries, read back over them and see how they differ in their account of life. What do you learn from the multiple perspectives? Be prepared to discuss this in class and to turn in your journal entries.

Perspectives for Journal entries

• A voyageur—a carrier of trade—who has a convoy on a trip back to Illinois country from New Orleans, with a ship load of goods to trade and sell

• The Native American wife of a French habitant

An impoverished young French man considering moving to New France and Illinois

• A Jesuit missionary to the Native Americans

• A Native American from the Fox tribe

• A French administrator in New France

• An African slave transported to and working in Illinois

• A French soldier working on the frontier

• Another character of your own choosing who would have lived in New France


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