Entering the Illinois Country

In the early nineteenth century, people usually entered the Illinois Country by river. Flatboats and keelboats sailed down the Ohio River. Then they sailed up the Wabash, or continued down the Ohio to its mouth at the Mississippi, and up that river to St. Louis and the small towns on the Illinois side. Meriwether Lewis went down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh.

When traveling overland, many people took the National Road from Ohio, through Terre Haute across southern Illinois to Vandalia and the Mississippi River communities of Fort Massac, Fort Kaskaskia, and Cahokia. There was also a road from Philadelphia that followed a southern route through West Virginia and Kentucky to the Ohio River.

Except for trails used by the early settlers and Native Americans, there were no roads in Illinois in 1804. It was easy to become lost when traveling by land. By horseback, a traveler had to traverse thick forests, ford creeks, and cross prairies that were windy and bleak in winter and head-high with prairie plants in the scorching heat of summer. For example, in 1800 it took the Reynolds family four weeks to ride the 110 miles from Vincennes to Kaskaskia. They had to raft over a swollen muddy river and cut a new trail to detour around tornado damage. Horseflies and mosquitoes plagued daytime travel.

When travelers reached the villages and forts along the American Bottom (the river floodplain between Fort Massac and the lower Illinois River), they found fertile land. They met people in the first settlements of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher, and Belle Fontaine, many of them French or Native Americans. They commented on the beauty of the prairies, plains, woods, and river, and its bounty of waterfowl, fish, and mammals. However, they also noted the heat, humidity, insects, and fever. Still, the fertile and abundant land was attractive to many hardy immigrants.