Struggle For Empire

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Struggle For Empire: Early Origins to 1815

 

The discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 set off a flurry of European voyages to establish colonial empires. The Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Dutch and Danes sent explorers on missions of discovery and flag planting to the New World.

Native Americans were already here, of course, having migrated from Siberia to Alaska during the last great ice age across the connecting land bridge. Since much of the earth's moisture was held in glaciers, sea levels were much lower 15,000 years ago.

The Spanish had a fort and settlement at St. Augustine, but lost interest in the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi Valley because there was no gold. They concentrated on the Caribbean area, Mexico, Central and South America. English settlements were compactly planted from Maine to Georgia, east of the Appalachians.

Frenchmen who came to America were interested in reaping profits through hunting fishing, and trapping. The domain of France stretched out in a wide arc from New Orleans, up along the Mississippi, throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. French Jesuits played an important role in early colonization through their efforts to convert the natives.

Before the arrival of whites in present-day Illinois, a confederacy of Indians occupied the territory. It was their home and hunting grounds. The group consisted of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Michigamea, Peoria and Tamaroa. They belonged to the Algonquin family whose name Illiniwek meant "superior men." They lived along the bluffs of the Mississippi flood plain and used the present site of East St. Louis as a meeting place to trade and exchange goods.

French claims to this part of the country were established by the exploration of Robert LaSalle, Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet. Cahokia was established in 1699 by French Jesuits, making it the oldest settlement on the Mississippi, and the oldest in the interior of the North American continent.

As English settlers pushed westward into the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, they encroached upon and came into conflict with existing French and Indian inhabitants. France and England fought a series of wars on the oceans, in Europe, and in colonial America. The British prevailed in this conflict, winning control of most French possessions in North America by the Treaty of Paris, 1763. George Rogers Clark was sent to this area to persuade existing French settlers to accept British rule. He received unexpected assistance from Father Pierre Gibault, a French priest who had first arrived at Kaskaskia in 1768.

It was during this French and Indian War that a character by the name of Richard McCarty became a part of the local history. He was drawn to Illinois by the immensely profitable Indian trade and built the first ferry and grist mill on the banks of the Mississippi, on the future site of East St. Louis, directly across from St. Louis, founded by the French in 1764.

England's victory was short lived because American colonists began to chafe under British mercantile regulations and efforts to levy taxes to help defray expenses incurred in the recent war with France. Mounting tensions led to rebellion and the opening volley of shots in the Revolution were fired in 1775 at Lexington and Concord.

Enter Captain James Piggott of the Pennsylvania militia - a man who assisted Washington's forces in engagements with the British army at places such as Germantown and Brandywine Creek. Piggott heard about the war in the West being fought by George Rogers Clark - a Virginian. He was attracted by an offer from the Continental Congress to grant large tracts of land to those who would fight for the patriot cause. He brought the first large contingent of English settlers into Illinois at Fort Kaskaskia. He then moved northward to Cahokia and met Richard McCarty; perhaps the two of them became friends. McCarty told him about his mill and ferry landing that were washed away in one of those periodic floods along the Mississippi.

After independence was secured by Washington's spectacular victory at Yorktown, Arthur St. Clair was appointed governor of the famed Northwest Territory which included present-day Illinois. At Cahokia, he suggested the need for a new ferry directly across from St. Louis, now controlled by the Spanish. In 1792, Captain Piggott took his sons and a few friends to look at the area by Cahokia Creek to determine what it would take to launch a successful business venture. He had no way of knowing that his actions in building some crude cabins and a connecting road to Cahokia would be the humble beginnings of a town destined to become the 86th largest city in America.

Piggott died of a fever in 1799 and his wife sold out and moved to Missouri. But the ferry business that he started would endure and grow to become a rich and powerful monopoly, playing a vital part in the expansion and urbanization of the city.

When the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, Illinois was on the verge of statehood, and Illinoistown - forerunner of East St. Louis - was ready to play a significant role in its growth and development, its commerce and industry.

Note: The author is deeply indebted to the extraordinary research of Carl Baldwin whose definitive books on the early history of this area, "Captains of the Wilderness" and "Echoes of Their Voices," provide us with great insight into European settlements in the Mississippi Valley. His research was especially critical for filling in the details of the fascinating lives of Richard McCarty, Etienne Pensoneau and Captain James Piggott, the founder of East St. Louis.

Click here to read about some events from this period

 

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