French Connection

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For 90 years (1673-1763) the capital of the territory comprising the present state of Illinois was Paris, France. While hardy and often spectacular explorers, missionaries, and coureurs de bois (trappers) had pushed westward towards Illinois for the previous four decades, it was not until June 14, 1671, in a ceremony at Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, that the French laid formal claim to the yet unexplored land.

In May, 1673, the first expedition to the Illinois country began under the leadership of Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, and Louis Jolliet, an experienced woodsman and mapmaker. Floating down the Mississippi River they noted the natural wealth of the land, including outcroppings of coal. Strangest of all, high on a rocky bluff below the mouth of the Illinois River, they observed a large multi-colored pictograph -green, red, and black with the face of a man, beard of a tiger, horns of a deer, and a long fish-like tail, later called the Piasa Bird. Turning back after passing the mouth of the Ohio River and determining that the great Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, they returned across the beautiful prairie heart of the future state, following the Illinois River northward.

In the spring of 1675 Marquette founded the Mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin near present-day Ottawa to minister to the Kaskaskia Indians. He died in the wilderness soon afterwards. Jolliet returned to Montreal, tragically losing his firsthand notes of discovery on the way; and because the Jesuits were no longer in favor at the French Court, he was unable to return to Illinois.

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, and Henri de Tonti next began development of the new land. LaSalle built Fort Crevecoeur near present-day Peoria in 1680, and Fort St. Louis on Starved Rock. But religious and political bickering in Paris resulted in his loss of official support, and he left the Illinois country in 1685. LaSalle went on to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River and to claim all of the Louisiana Territory for France, only to die ignominiously, shot from ambush by his own men.

In 1699 the Seminary of Foreign Missions founded the Mission of the Holy Family at Cahokia. The next year the Jesuits closed their mission at Chicago.  Mission sites followed the movement of the Indians; and in 1703 Marquette's Mission of the Immaculate Conception was moved to its third site, Kaskaskia, which for the next century was to be the commercial and cultural center of the Illinois country. In 1717, administrative control of Illinois, originally a dependency of Canada, was shifted to Louisiana. The area was not considered particularly promising, for the French concentrated on procurement precious metals and trade, ignoring the potential of prairie land. Fort de Chartres, upstream from Kaskaskia, became the civil and military headquarters of the territory.

In 1720 Phillipe Renault brought the first slaves to Illinois work in gold mines. While the mines never materialized, the slaves remained. By 1763 between 1500 and 2000 French, holding 500 slaves lived in the Illinois territory, chiefly in the American Bottoms area between Kaskaskia and Cahokia.

The end of French rule in Illinois came, as it began, far away. British capture of Quebec and Montreal in the French and Indian War broke French power; and all land east of the Mississippi River (except for New Orleans) was ceded to the English in 1763.

In its 90 years of ownership, the French failed to significant colonize Illinois or to solve the central problem of empire: how to consolidate control while providing for colonists political equality with citizens of the mother country. Policy toward the territory depended on the whims of the court at Versailles, and rivalry, between Jesuits and other French Catholic orders complicated that policy still further.

A lasting French influence in religion, culture, and language remains along the Mississippi River; but it would be the American frontiersmen, not the French or the British either, who would finally appreciate the potential of Illinois.


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