Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cahokia Courthouse, 107 Elm Street, Cahokia, Illinois.

The Cahokia Courthouse State Historic Site is a reconstructed French-Canadian structure built about 1740 at what is now 107 Elm Street in Cahokia, Illinois. The structure was built originally as a private residence by French pioneer Jean Roy Lapance served as a residence for the first 50 years and then served as a courthouse and jail. It is currently interpreted to resemble its appearance from 1800 as a frontier courthouse of the Northwest Territory.

Some of the earliest French settlers came to Illinois from Haiti, Jean Roy Lapance, perhaps, among them. His house was built with a typical Caribbean style roof line: steep with extended eaves. This combination of roof and eave provided maximum protection from the ravages of sun and rain.
The wide eave directed water away from the house and kept the wood beams dry and safe from the destructive actions of insects and fungi. The wide eaves likewise provided a roof for the porch, which extended completely around the house. The roof shingles were split from white oak, one of the most durable hardwoods, and fastened with wood pegs. The outswinging casement windows were protected from the elements by the wide porch roof and the walls were protected by a coat of whitewash, both inside and out.

Only three frame buildings of early French architecture remain in Illinois; all three used the post and sill on a stone foundation construction method. The other sites are the Old Holy Family Church, also in Cahokia, and a private residence in Prairie Du Rocher. Both of these structures were later sided with weatherboard, which hides the unusual vertical construction.

Following the American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Cahokia region was transferred with the rest of the east bank of the Mississippi from Great Britain to the new United States. The alluvial region east of the river came to be known as the American-Bottom, to distinguish it from the west bank of the river, at that time a colony of Spain.

In line with his group's customary architecture, the cabin was built with logs raised vertically. This was different from having the logs placed horizontally, as had become the custom among English-speaking frontiersmen farther east. The French colonial building style is called poteaux-sur-solle (French: post on sill) construction, with the building's posts grounded in a foundation sill to retard wood rot.
French colonial building style "Poteaux-sur-solle."

The American frontiersmen invested a substantial amount of their very limited resources to set up a legal infrastructure of local self-government. On April 27, 1790, St. Clair County, Illinois, the first county located within the Illinois region of the Northwest Territory, was organized. Soon afterwards, the 1740 Cahokia house, an unusually well-built structure, was promoted to the status of a courthouse for the new county. In 1804 the federal government opened its first Illinois land office, in Kaskaskia, to sell former Native American land to settlers. Soon the population of St. Clair County grew far too large for the small log cabin to be adequate as a courthouse. 
From December 1803 until the spring of 1804, Lewis and Clark used the Old Cahokia Courthouse as a headquarters for collecting information, meeting with territorial leaders, gathering supplies and corresponding with President Thomas Jefferson while the party camped at nearby Camp River Dubois. 

In 1904, promoters for the St. Louis World's Fair discovered the old Cahokia courthouse, which by this time had become one of the oldest surviving buildings in Illinois. They bought it, dismantled it, and carried the surviving posts and other wooden pieces across the river to St. Louis for rebuilding as a fair attraction.

The courthouse appears to have survived this experience and to have excited interest from Illinoisans. At the end of the fair, the cabin was again dismantled, this time for a 1906 rebuilding in Jackson Park in Chicago.

Cahokia residents resented the fact that their oldest building had been moved to the opposite end of the state and began in the late 1920s to lobby for return of the historic courthouse. This lead the state to purchase the building and the land on which it was originally located. The remaining original fabric was returned to Cahokia and incorporated into the building that was constructed back on the original courthouse foundation.

By this time, however, very little of the 1740 cabin remained. Each act of dismantling and reconstruction had replaced much of the original wood with new timbers. The third reconstruction was mostly a new building. The state of Illinois stated that the rebuilt Cahokia courthouse contained some pieces of timber from the original structure.
Cahokia Courthouse interior.
The reconstructed Cahokia Courthouse is a historic site of the state of Illinois and is one of the oldest in the United States. The courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 9, 1972.  Since 1985, it has been under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA).

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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