10. FRENCH SETTLEMENT IN THE ILLINOIS COUNTRY
Cahokia is the oldest permanent settlement on the Mississippi River, first established in 1699 by a small group of Frenchmen from Montreal and Quebec.
Located in the midst of the most fertile bottomland on the continent and within easy reach of an unlimited supply of fish and game, the spot had been occupied for more than 6000 years by prehistoric Indians. Both the French and the Indians recognized it to be the crossroads of North America, as the Mississippi provided contact with the Gulf of Mexico, the nearby Missouri River a pathway to the great Northwest, and the Illinois River a waterway to the Great Lakes and to Canada.
In 1703 a second village, Kaskaskia, was established on the great river near the southern end of the bottomlands. By 1711 a large church had been constructed. As the years passed French settlers arrived from New Orleans, which was founded in 1718 and served as a commercial outlet on the Gulf for the Illinois villages.
Between the two outposts the French government constructed Fort de Chartres in 1719. Near the rough wooden fort a third village grew up around a church dedicated to St. Anne. A fourth French settlement, Prairie du Rocher founded in 1722, remains nestled beneath the bluffs of the Mississippi amidst ageless natural beauty. The fifth village, St. Phillippe, was built about the same time near Fort de Chartres as headquarters and home for 200 workers brought to the area by Phillippe Renault to exploit the lead-mining monopoly he
had been granted.
Frontiersmen found lead for ammunition and salt for food to be critical necessities. Because the great concentration of lead mines and Wine springs existed across the Mississippi, Frenchmen from the Illinois villages settled Ste. Genevieve, Mo., about 1723.
When war broke out between the French and English in the 1750s, the former made two final additions to their otherwise tenuous presence. They rebuilt Fort de Chartres between 1752-56 into a magnificent and expensive stone stronghold, and constructed Fort Massac along the distant Ohio River in 1757.
The French villages were marked by houses constructed of logs hewn square and placed upright to form walls. (American pioneers stacked unhewn logs one atop the other to form their homes.) Frequently, French homes had porches, sometimes on all four sides. Since government policy forbade the establishment of industries competitive with those in France, clothing, furniture, and other articles were imported. However, records and artifacts indicate that the French were well supplied with skilled artisans: turners, toolmakers, gunsmiths, blacksmiths, stonemasons, and carpenters. Numerous festivals, singing, dancing, and card playing indicated that French settlers in the Illinois country were relatively carefree and prosperous.
With the British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, French settlers began to leave for the new village of St. Louis (1764), Ste. Genevieve, and New Orleans. Fort de Chartres was destroyed in 1772, and after the outbreak of the American Revolution the French villages dwindled further.
Only a scant physical trace along with a mystical spirit of the French occupation of Illinois remain today. The Church of the Holy Family at Cahokia, dedicated in 1799, is probably the oldest church West of the Alleghenies. The Creole House in Prairie du Rocher was added to the Register of National Historic Places in 1973. Portions of Fort de Chartres have been restored but its original structures - like the towns of Kaskaskia, St. Anne, and St. Phillippe - succumbed to raging Mississippi floodwaters. The Pierre Menard House, on the bluffs above the Kaskaskia River, survives.
Still, the spirit of those years can be recaptured by contemporary Illinoisans who spend a day viewing these remains, strolling through the streets of Ste. Genevieve, or contemplating the Mississippi from the bluffs in Randolph County.
Because these historic places are few in number and clustered along a short stretch of the river, they can be seen in one day. The beauty and the history come together in much the same way they must have done for the Indians, the French, and the English who on marveled at these vistas; and the impression is unforgettable.