B. Pierre Lebeau
The documented history of Illinois begins in 1673 with the voyages of Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit. Once the door was opened by those explorers, the French colonized and administered a huge territory, including modern Illinois, until 1765. Yet little remains today of their presence except for a number of geographical names. At odds with American culture, French culture was unable to survive in a significant way after Illinois statehood.
While Spain and Portugal were building colonial and commercial empires that circled the earth, France and England during the 1500s and 1600s were occupied by internal struggles and international disputes. The two countries eventually undertook the building of their own colonial empires in a struggle to establish their political and economic dominance of Europe. The resulting intense rivalry between the two countries lasted well into the beginning of the twentieth century. In the process, France established and lost—in a period of less than 150 years—a huge territory that started at the Gulf of St. Lawrence, encompassed the Great Lakes region, and extended to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Illinois Country was the keystone of that empire during most of the eighteenth century.
From its base at Quebec City (present-day Canada) in 1608 to the end of the seventeenth century the French sent expeditions led by priests and fur traders westward into the continent. In 1671 French explorers claimed sovereignty over the Great Lakes area and all the rivers, lakes, and lands still to be discovered from that point. Two years later the French authorities of New France, as Canada was known at that time, sent Jolliet and Father Marquette to verify the existence of a huge river in the west and the possible presence of white men often mentioned by Indians. Later, in 1680, Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, built Fort Crevecoeur about a mile south of Lake Peoria. La Salle was driven by the ambition of an empire builder. He had managed to convince Louis XIV to grant him the monopoly of the fur trade in the Illinois Country, and it was his intention to expand the monopoly south to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1682 he traveled all the way down to the mouth of the Mississippi River and took possession of the huge valley in the name of France, naming it Louisiana for Louis XIV. Missionaries followed, establishing missions at Chicago, Utica, and Cahokia. The mission of the Guardian Angel at Chicago was abandoned in 1700. The Immaculate Conception Museum at Utica was first moved to Peoria then to Kaskaskia where, along with the Holy Family Church of Cahokia, it became the nucleus for a series of French settlements in the area known today as the American Bottom (Randolph, Monroe, and St. Clair counties).
Queen Anne's War in the early eighteenth century kept France from paying much attention to its possessions in North America. The missions at Cahokia and Kaskaskia led an isolated and quiet life. The Jesuits and the priests from the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Quebec went on with their efforts to convert Indian people to Christianity while, gradually, French fur traders settled in the missions. A small number of traders brought their wives from French Canada, while most others married Indian women. The church registers show that 21 baptisms took place between 1701 and 1703. All the fathers were French, and 18 of the women were Indian.
However, in 1712 Louis XIV charged his secretary of finance, Antoine Crozat, with the responsibility of exploiting the economic resources of Louisiana. The political regime of France did not encourage free enterprise. The Spanish in Florida resented and resisted what they considered the encroachment of the French in their market area. Crozat was unable to stimulate French immigration to Louisiana, and his enterprise failed.
A joint-stock company—the Mississippi Company—created in 1718, marked the beginning of a new economic and political era in the Illinois Country. The Company's purpose was to exploit the mineral resources—silver, lead, copper, salt—of the Mississippi Valley. The Mississippi Company was responsible for the administration of the Illinois Country and adopted the Custom of Paris as its legal code. The Company's jurisdiction extended from the Wabash River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, and from the bend of the Illinois River in the north to the Arkansas River in the south. The first representatives of the Mississippi Company as well as some French Marines arrived in Kaskaskia in 1720, two years after the founding of New Orleans. They built a fort about 12 miles northeast of Kaskaskia, naming it Fort de Chartres in honor of the son of the Regent who governed France while Louis XV was under age. The fort became the government center for the colony. The Commandant assumed multiple and complex responsibilities. His military function was to protect the settlers and stop incursions by English merchants, while his diplomatic function was to maintain peaceful relations with and among the Indians. He also served as the chief administrator of the colony. French civilians came and settled around the fort and organized the village of New Chartres. Soon four other villages appeared along the Mississippi: Cahokia, Saint Philippe, Prairie du Rocher, and Kaskaskia. Several censuses were taken between 1723 and 1752. The population increased from three hundred in 1720 to more than two thousand in 1752, not counting the two to three hundred soldiers garrisoned at the fort.
The Mississippi Company went bankrupt in 1732, and the king took over the administration of this new royal province. Though the population was small, the nucleus of the five villages and the fort allowed France to control three major rivers: the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Missouri. The colony was settled on the rich soil of the flood plain of the Mississippi, and the economic activity of the region was not limited to the fur trade. There were important lead mines in the hills on the west bank of the Mississippi where the French employed a number of slaves from the Caribbean. The main activity, however, was the cultivation of corn, wheat, rye, fruit and vegetables, as well as the raising of hogs, cattle, and horses. The Illinois Country was in effect the granary and an important source of food for New Orleans. Illinois shipped several tons of flour with other foodstuffs each year to the lower end of the Mississippi Valley. Flat-bottom boats and pirogues were used to carry the goods. It took three weeks to go downriver and three or four months to navigate back up.
The American settlers who came later to the Illinois Country spread their farms throughout the countryside, but the French habitants gathered in small, nucleated villages. Property owners acquired their land through royal grants given out by the Commandant. Their fields were arranged in open and long narrow bands (long fields) usually ending at the river, as was the custom in Canada and in medieval France—a system that required farmers to work together at the time of planting and harvesting. Their cattle shared common pasture-lands. The church was the central point in the life of the villagers. They not only attended Mass there on Sundays and holy days, but also met there to discuss and decide most matters concerning village life.
The Illinois French villages were not unlike early New England townships. They provided security against Indian raids. Centered around the church, they reflected the importance assigned to the practice of religion (Catholicism for the French, Calvinism for the Puritans). However, they also expressed the deep-seated need for socialization and recreation, a typical and enduring trait of the French character. The Puritans also divided large fields into a number of small strips. The English settlers received by lot a number of these sections scattered in different places, while areas of land remained under joint ownership for common use. But New Englanders soon consolidated their land holdings by purchase or exchange, whereas the French persisted in their practice well into the nineteenth century.
The French habitants were also required to organize and maintain a militia to assist the Marines in the defense against enemy Indian tribes. The Captain of Militia was the most important person after the Commandant. The upper class consisted of the military officers, the Keeper of the Royal Storehouse, the notaries, physicians, and other administrators, as well as the most important land owners and merchants. The larger lower class included the other villagers, small farmers, and the various trades (carpenter, roofer, blacksmith, cooper, wheelwright, mason, innkeeper, baker, vintner, etc.). At the low end of the social scale were the slaves—American Indians purchased from local tribes and blacks brought from the West Indies. The latter were generally better treated than their counterparts on the cotton
plantations of the English colonies thanks to the Black Code enacted in 1724 in New Orleans. Those who were emancipated or purchased their freedom shared the same rights and privileges as freeborn Europeans.
According to church registers, about half of the settlers in the Illinois Country came from French Canada, and the other half from the mother country. The law required that an inventory be made of the estate of any person who died. These records show that most led comfortable lives. Linen shirts, silk dresses, lace, silver shoe buckles, and brass and pewter household objects appear frequently in the inventories. Children were educated at home and by the priests. Accounts by travelers indicate that the French enjoyed life. There was a ball almost every Sunday, especially in the winter. Card games were a favorite among the men. While these caused occasional disputes, it must be noted that serious crimes were practically nonexistent in the Illinois Country during the French period as shown by court records. Villagers also liked to gather in a home in the evening and listen to a good storyteller, a tradition that persisted in French Missouri well into the twentieth century.
Completely isolated from the mother country, relatively distant from Quebec and New Orleans, accustomed to cooperative work made necessary by the structure of their communities, the Illinois French enjoyed a degree of freedom and self government that was unknown anywhere else in the French-speaking world. They collectively administered their common fields and did not have to pay rent or seignorial dues to a local lord, in contrast with the French in Canada and lower Louisiana.
This almost idyllic life came to an end when the French and Indian War broke out in 1754 and ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The part of the Illinois Country on the east side of the Mississippi was turned over to the British crown, and the west side came under control of the Spanish. At first the Catholic French settlers feared religious repression on the part of the English officials, and a few French moved to the Spanish side. The banishment of the Jesuits from France and all its possessions in 1763 took away most of the priests from Illinois. Alone, old and ailing, Father Meurin was allowed to remain, but he had to reside in Spanish Louisiana and could cross the river only a few times a year.
With the departure of their priests the French lost an important binding component of their community. However, their religious apprehensions with regard to the British were unfounded. The government in London waited more than ten years before drawing up a policy defining the status of the French in the Illinois Country. Meanwhile the English commandants thought it best to allow the French to preserve most of their customs. Nevertheless, several commandants, especially Lt. Col. John Reed, took advantage of their isolated location to extort money from the habitants by imposing heavy fines for small offenses and charging outrageous fees for issuing writs and other official documents. Powerless, the French retaliated by inciting Indians against English traders and supporting as best they could trade with their compatriots on the Spanish side. The lack of an effective civil government or official court system produced chaotic conditions that led the wealthier families to emigrate "with their Cattle & Corn" to Ste. Genevieve on the west side of the Mississippi.
Most British troops left the Illinois Country in 1776 for Detroit where reinforcements were needed to counteract the offensive by American forces. Two years later Illinois was made into a county of Virginia when George Rogers Clark took over Kaskaskia and the other French villages. The habitants swore allegiance to the United States, as they were promised religious toleration and the respect of their laws, customs, and property, including slaves. Actually, the law court in Cahokia retained the French legal code until 1790 even though Americans started settling in the area in 1779. Still the French soon chafed under American demands to support the troops. The cost of the war against England had depleted the treasury of the new states. Virginia was unable to send badly needed money and supplies to Clark. The Americans shot oxen, cows, and pigs; they confiscated flour and grain. The French viewed with great distrust (and with good cause) the paper money that Americans offered in compensation. The French petitioned the government without success. Administrative chaos followed Clark's departure, and the French people who could afford to relocate moved across the river to Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis. By 1790, when the first Governor of the new Northwest Territory arrived in Kaskaskia, the French population had been reduced by more than 70 per cent. The majority of the French who remained lived in modest means. The new arrivals—persons who fled the conflict of the French Revolution—Nicolas Jarrot and enterprising Canadians such as Pierre Menard— fared much better.
The French who came after the Illinois Country acquired territorial status belonged to a relatively prosperous middle class and adapted easily to the American law and territorial government. On the other hand, the original French settlers who had remained in Illinois had a more difficult time adjusting to the wave of Anglo-American arrivals. These habitants believed that freedom consisted in working only as hard as was necessary to obtain the necessities of life. Quality of life meant the preservation of one's property cooperative work, and ongoing social interaction with close neighbors.
They viewed the preoccupation of many of the Anglo-Americans with gain and rapid accumulation of wealth as traits of unruly and brutal people who indulged too easily in strong drink and were always ready to sell their farms in order to move west in search of a better life. In return the Anglo-Americans found the customs of the French irritating, ridiculous, and characteristic of backward people. Impatient and aggressive, the Anglo-Americans were quick to collect debts and to subject a number of bewildered French to foreclosure.
On the west side of the Mississippi, in Missouri, the better-educated French people were able to preserve their unique culture until the middle of the nineteenth century in St. Louis, and well into the twentieth century in the isolated Old Mines area, north of Potosi. In Illinois, the smaller French population suffered from a high illiteracy rate and a lack of religious leadership. The younger generations became restless and were attracted to the opportunities offered by Anglo-American culture. Many French daughters married successful American traders and farmers. French children began to attend English-speaking schools. The old system of open-field agriculture was overwhelmed by American practices and could not survive. The villages disappeared in the early nineteenth century with the exception of Cahokia and Prairie du Rocher. In reality the Illinois French, while objecting to Anglo-American culture did little to resist its pressures, and they blended fairly rapidly.
Although some 240 years have passed since the end of the French colonial period in Illinois there still remains tangible evidence of the state's French heritage. Most obvious are the geographical names: Illinois (phonetic derivation from Illiniwek), Des Plaines River (Red Maple River), Embarras River, Massac County (for Fort Massac), Prairie du Rocher, Meredosia (phonetic derivation from marais d'osier, willows marsh) and a score of other names. In addition, the preservation of a few French colonial buildings in the Cahokia area and other historic sites, the reconstruction of Fort de Chartres by the State of Illinois, and the availability of a large number of the religious and civil records in Randolph and St. Clair counties make it possible to re-create the life of the colonial French whose settlements became the American administrative and political centers during the territorial period of Illinois.