The Lost Colony
Carl J. Ekberg
The very phrase colonial Illinois invites puzzlement and perplexity. Recollection of the state's first capital, Kaskaskia, where the state's first constitution was written, likely turns on a dim light of recognition, which soon sputters out. The name George Rogers Clark itches somewhere in the back of the brain, perhaps provoking confusion about his relationship to William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition (George was William's older brother). The bicentennial of this expedition has excited a renewed spirit of Manifest Destiny and American triumphalism, a sense that Anglo-Americans were destined to conquer the continent and that this conquest represented the ascending march of civilization. Then there is Pontiac, the Ottawa chieftain who was murdered at Cahokia in 1769 by persons unknown for reasons unknown. His memorial, in the form of the Pontiac Trailer Court, fails to inform us why he should be remembered. Finally, the name Marquette raises the perplexing question about the French missionary's title and given name. Many folks think that Pere (as in the venerable Pere Marquette Hotel in Peoria) is a quaint spelling of Pierre, so we must be reminded that Pere Jacques Marquette was a Jesuit father (pere). Such vaguely recalled places and persons from pre-Lincoln Illinois constitute the vast bulk of the state's history for most Illinoisans.
The Illinois Country (or Upper Louisiana) has, for the past half century, been pretty much relegated to the dustbin of historical studies. When colonial Illinois appears in textbooks of American history, which it seldom does, its portrait is dim and distorted. In the massive folio volume Historical Atlas of the United States of America, published by the National Geographic Society, the history of the upper Mississippi River valley only comes into focus with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, although political correctness demanded that prehistoric Indians of the region make an appearance. Stroll into the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, D.C., the only museum of its kind in the country. Fascinating displays and multitudinous artifacts meet the eye, but do not expect to see anything relating to the colonial history of Upper Louisiana. In his monumental new biography of John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Colorado River and one-time teacher in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, Donald Worster remarks: "If Lewis and Clark opened a century of exploration, Powell closed it with comparable success." Typically, the scores of French explorers who ascended the Missouri River before Lewis and Clark—who are well documented in the two classic volumes assembled and edited by Abraham P. Nasatir, Before Lewis and Clark—are blithely forgotten.
But the region has not always been a lost colony in historical scholarship. From the first appearance of Francis Parkman's La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West in 1869 and for nearly a century afterward, a long list of distinguished historians wrote about Upper Louisiana, and many taught the subject in their classrooms. Francis Parkman, Frederick Jackson Turner, Clarence W. Alvord, James A. James, Theodore Calvin Pease, Abraham P.
The years 1918 and 1948 witnessed a flowering of scholarship on colonial Illinois. The first date marks the publication date of Alvord's classic, The Illinois Country, 1673-1818, and the second that of Belting's elegant little monograph, Kaskaskia Under The French Regime. In between came a stream of publications, most especially the wonderful series of source documents produced jointly by the Illinois State Historical Library and the Illinois State Historical Society. The lengthy introductions to these volumes are remarkable pieces of scholarship unto themselves and bear careful reading. In striking contrast to that period of fertility, the past half century has been relatively arid, with few books appearing as interest in colonial Illinois diminished. It is likely that American political and cultural hegemony since World War II has encouraged scholars to remain focused on the thirteen colonies of the eastern seaboard; more exotic fields, such as French colonial history, became marginalized as the Anglo-American world rose triumphant.
For the student approaching a topic as remote as colonial Illinois, some dates and definitions must be recalled in order to avoid confusion. Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, claimed the entire Mississippi watershed on behalf of King Louis XIV in 1682, naming it Louisiana in honor of the king. From that date through the French and Indian War (1756-1763) France grandiosely claimed sovereignty over the entire territory. The great historian of the American West, Francis Parkman, remarked, with a dash of nineteenth-century racism, "What now remains of the sovereignty thus pompously proclaimed? Now and then the accents of France on the lips of some straggling boatman or vagabond half-breed— this, and nothing more." Were Parkman alive today he would be surprised to discover the state-managed historic sites at Cahokia and Fort de Chartres, which are lovingly devoted to the ancient French presence in a region where much Indian blood is still present.
With the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the west side of the Mississippi, as well as New Orleans on the east bank, fell to Spain (Treaty of Fontainebleau, 1762)—the Borbon King Carlos III being a cousin to the Bourbon King Louis XV—while the east side of the river became British territory (Treaty of Paris, 1763). The British presence in Illinois was nasty, lonely, unhappy, and brief. British troops had difficulty making their way to the remote region; they remained for less than ten years, arriving in 1765 and departing in 1774. Their relationship with the local French-speaking inhabitants was one of mutual distrust and detestation. When George Rogers Clark arrived at Kaskaskia with this ragtag bunch of Virginians in 1778, he faced virtually no resistance from the miniscule remaining British presence, although coon-skinned-capped American frontiersmen roused no more affection in the local populace than had red-coated British troops.
During the entire eighteenth century the communities on both sides of the Mississippi in the upper colony were considered to be within the Illinois Country (le pays des Illinois). These included the main villages on the east side of the river—Cahokia , Kaskaskia, Chartres, and Prairie du Rocher, founded respectively in 1699, 1703, 1719, and 1732—as well as those
on the west side, Ste. Genevieve (1750) and St. Louis (1764). It is worth noting that the earliest of these communities existed well before New Orleans was founded in 1718, although soon after that date a brisk commerce developed between the capital of Louisiana and the Illinois Country. New Orleans came to depend on flour produced from the wheat grown in the fields surrounding the Illinois villages. In any case, right on down to 1804, Spanish lieutenant governors of Upper Louisiana identified themselves as commandants of the "western part of Illinois." Given the interstate rivalries that exist across the Mississippi River today, many folks in Missouri aren't very pleased to learn that in colonial times they too were Illinoisans!
Neither the British nor Spanish governments attempted to colonize Illinois with their own peoples, and large numbers of Americans did not arrive in the region until well after the American Revolution. This meant that, despite the presence of some Englishmen and Spaniards and many Africans and Indians (some slave and some free), the region remained overwhelmingly French and French-Creole (i.e. of French blood, born in Louisiana) in language and culture throughout the eighteenth century. The well-known St. Louis merchants Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, for examples, were born Frenchmen, became Spanish subjects, and lived for decades as American citizens, all the while communicating almost exclusively in their native tongue. The remainder of this essay explores the unique culture of colonial Illinois and presents some suggestions for viewing America, both the eighteenth century and the twenty-first, in a new light.
With the exception of St. Louis, which was founded relatively late and was primarily a trading and administrative center, the communities of the Illinois Country were organized in the form of traditional French village complexes. However, a significant difference between French agriculture and Creole agriculture in Illinois was the presence of slave labor, both African and Indian, in the latter. Of the 1,380 persons enumerated on the French census of 1752, for example, 43 percent were slaves. Many more of these were black than red, and Indian slavery decreased in importance as the century wore on.
Each of the French Illinois communities was organized in three distinct parts, with the settlement consisting of a compact village, a compound of plowlands, and a common area for pasturing livestock. The individually owned strips of plowland were not fenced off each onto itself, but rather all the plowlands were encircled with a single huge communal fence that protected the grain crops from the livestock. Traces of these elongated eighteenth-century plowlands may be seen in the street patterns of modern-day Cahokia and St. Louis. This open-field agriculture required a great deal of cooperation between the individual agriculturists (habitants) who tilled the fields along with their slaves. That is, habitants were required cooperatively to maintain the fence and to agree on a fixed date for sowing their crops of wheat and maize. After some trial and error, the irrevocable date set for sowing the grain crops was April 15. By that date the habitants had to have cooperated to repair any deficiencies in their communal fencing, in order that no marauding livestock could trespass into the grain fields. The pattern of land usage, settlement, and agriculture that evolved in the
Illinois Country during the eighteenth century was unique in North America, and it profoundly affected the daily lives—and even the psychology—of village inhabitants.
Historians of traditional European rural society have long recognized the effects of communal agriculture on the folks who practice it. Leopold Genicot noted that "collective matters require collective decisions.... Such a system of [open-field] cultivation .. . strengthened the common spirit and attitudes." Richard C. Hoffman commented that open-field agriculture was "more than just a way of raising crops; common fields were part of a way of life that combined social, legal, and purely agricultural institutions in a cultural unity." And the great French historian Marc Bloch remarked that the "existence of land that is collectively cultivated creates powerful bonds among members of the group."
When Antoine Girardin, commandant at Cahokia, was busy writing regulations for his village's agriculture in 1785, he saw what was at stake for his fellow citizens. If they chose not to agree to his regulations that maintained communal agriculture, he remarked, then the very fabric of the community would be torn apart; each individual had to agree to give up some degree of freedom if communal activities were to succeed. By 1785 Cahokia was technically American, having been conveyed to the United States by Great Britain after the American Revolution. But Commandant Girardin was intent on preserving the old-fashioned French system of communal agriculture.
Much historical evidence exists that this communal spirit—generated by communal, open-field agriculture—had profound effects on the psychology and the behavior of the Illinois Country inhabitants. This is perhaps best reflected in the aversion to physical violence that characterized this unusual frontier society. John Reynolds, governor of Illinois 1830 to 1834, became familiar with French-Creole society when he was growing up near Kaskaskia. He remarked that "No Creole was ever sentenced to the penitentiary of this State"; and "I believe the records of the courts in Illinois do not exhibit an indictment against a Creole French for any crime higher than keeping his grocery open on prohibited day of the week." Although the Creoles were non-violent, says Reynolds, they had no scruples about doing business, drinking, dancing, or playing cards (mostly Twenty-one) on Sundays. On the western side of the Mississippi, Frederick Bates, territorial secretary in Upper Louisiana after the Purchase, put a negative spin on the Creoles' civility "They are blameless and inoffensive for the most part, but they know nothing of the duties of a soldier, and could never be dragged into action either with Spaniards or Indians." Bates was contemptuous of Creoles for lacking martial spirit, and he seemed to think that their deficiencies of character were engraved on their souls rather than perhaps deriving from certain economic and social conditions, such as communal agriculture.
Remaining civil records from the Illinois Country reveal remarkably little physical violence between established members of the local Creole society Ste. Genevieve's colonial records, for example, reveal not a single instance of any habitant assaulting, much less murdering, another habitant, during an entire half century between the time of the town's founding (ca. 1752) and the Louisiana Purchase. Compare this to the Hannibal, Missouri, in which Mark Twain grew up. Twain's biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, claimed that young Twain personally witnessed no fewer than four murders during his boyhood in the small river town of Hannibal. This kind of red-blooded American behavior, which was endemic on the nineteenth-century Mississippi frontier, certainly did not occur on the French-Creole frontier in the Illinois Country.
Thomas Jefferson was American minister to the court of Louis XVI from 1785 until 1789. When, during the spring of 1787, he toured rural France, he remarked that there were "no farm houses, all the people being gathered in villages. Are they thus collected by that dogma of their religion [Roman Catholicism] which makes them believe that, to keep the Creator in good humor with his own works, they must mumble a mass every day? Certain it is that they are less happy and less virtuous in villages than they would be insulated with their families on the ground they cultivate." While living in France, Jefferson had difficulty restraining his detestation of organized religions, most especially the Roman Catholic Church, and his comments reflect the opinions of a man who believed in God but did not appreciate traditional churches.
It is risky to disagree with someone as intelligent and perceptive as Jefferson, but on this issue I stand in diametrical disagreement with him. For I would argue that communal village life in colonial Illinois—far from making the habitants "less virtuous"—in fact made them more virtuous, if part of virtue consists in respecting the lives and limbs of one's neighbors. This is one of the many interesting lessons that may be learned by following Illinois's interesting history back to the time period when people in the region spoke French, attended mass in their village churches, practiced traditional French agriculture, and preferred to settle their disputes peacefully.
Connection with the Curriculum
Materials for Each Student
Objectives for Each Student
SUGGESTIONS FOR TEACHING THE LESSON
Opening the Lesson
Developing the Lesson
Activity 1. Have students read the narrative portion of the article and answer the questions provided.
Activity 2. Hand out the directions for the Communal Farming Activity labeled 2A. After explaining the activity, assign the class into groups of 3 to 5. During this phase of the activity, they will be discussing the problem and organizing their thoughts. After encouraging students to brainstorm about the problem, hand out Activity 2B in order to aid in this process and organize their thoughts. At the end of the first day, allow students to write in their journals on the assigned topic for the day (topics below). Upon return the next day, the students will generate a class "problem statement" by filling in the statement "How can we"... "so that"... on the board. The rest of days 2, 3, and 4 can be used as data gathering/ sharing and journal writing. Access to a computer lab or library is necessary during this phase of the activity. Whenever time permits, create a class rubric for the final evaluation of their presentations. Direct this discussion so that the final evaluation reflects professionalism, documented information, stimulating visuals, etc. Finally, students will spend a day or two presenting their projects depending on the size of the class.
Journal Entry Topics
Day 1. How can we ... in such a way that...(describing the task before them)
Concluding the Lesson
Discuss the difficulties and benefits of communal farming. Ask the students if the same issues could have plagued the people of colonial Illinois. Consider using the following web sites about communal farming:
Utopias in America
Technological Innovation in a Rural Intentional Community, 1971-1987
Utopian Socialist Experiments
Strategies to Revitalize Rural America
A History of American Agriculture
Slavery as Practiced by the French in Illinois
The French Colonial Period in Illinois History-A Bibliography
Extending the Lesson
Assessing the Lesson
1. Why does the term colonial Illinois cause puzzlement or confusion?
2. Why does the author think that the colonial history of Upper Louisiana has been largely ignored? Do you agree?
3. What did the Spanish originally label Missouri?
4. What was a significant difference between French and Creole agriculture in Illinois?
5. How did the open-field agriculture require a great deal of cooperation? Give two examples.
6. How did communal farming lead to powerful bonds among the group?
7. What were some of the psychological effects of communal farming?
8. Describe a duel.
9. How does the author disagree with Thomas Jefferson?
To: Interested Persons
From: Department of Agriculture
Re: Free land to selected applicants
The Department of Agriculture is offering 1,000 acres of free land to any group wishing to apply. The only stipulations are that the applicants must work together in groups of 3 to 5 and use the land for agriculture and grazing. In order to be selected, the group must present a plan for how they will use the 1,000 acres.
WE ALREADY KNOW
WE NEED TO KNOW
WHERE CAN WE FIND THIS INFORMATION?