Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Story of the "American Bottom" in Southern Illinois.

The American Bottom region comprises the four counties in the St. Louis Metro East: Madison Co., St. Clair Co., Monroe Co., and Randolph Co. It runs along the eastern shore of the Mississippi River from Alton, IL, to Kaskaskia, IL. In 1849, the American Bottom was primarily rural with a few good-sized towns; Alton, East Saint Louis, Belleville, and Cahokia.
The name American Bottom had its origin about a century ago, at the time Illinois came under United States jurisdiction, and from the following circumstance: the west side of the river was known as Louisiana, or New Spain, while on the East, in the river bottom, was called America; hence American Bottom, which it continues to bear that name.

FROM 1700 TO THE 1830s 
Human settlement of the American Bottom region goes back to ancient Native Americans and their settlement in Cahokia. Europeans, beginning with the Spaniards, such as Hernando de Soto, first traveled through the region in the sixteenth century. This European contact was transitory, and in the seventeenth century, the French explored the region with the intention of settlement. 

French Cahokia, founded in 1699, was not the first French outpost but the earliest settlement that survived more than a few years. Kaskaskia was the next place French settlers built, followed by a series of east-bank towns at Prairie du Pont, Fort Vincennes and Fort de Chartres on the Mississippi River. Settlements by the French on the west bank of the Mississippi included New Madrid (then known as Ainse de la Graise or "Greasy Bend") and St. Genevieve. These were followed by St. Louis, St. Charles, Carondelet in 1767, St. Ferdinand (now Florissant) and Portage des Sioux. Settlement increased after the late eighteenth century and the end of the American Revolution. 
On the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
This tract of land consists of timber and prairie, about equally divided, and much of it is subject to inundation, but for the fertility of the soil, it was unequaled in the western part of the country. During the French occupation of Illinois, the only permanent settlement (except for Peoria) was made on this bottom, and that is where the descendants of these early pioneers continued to live. The old towns on this bottom still remain French in language, customs and habits, and the people had little to do with those speaking English.

As settlers reached the American Bottom, some established homes within the Mississippi River's flood plain on the eastern shore. At the time, the area was swampy and prone to flooding, and most settlers preferred the higher and better-draining Missouri side of the river. We know the identity of only a few of the first Illinois settlers. The historical record begins in detail with the forceful presence of a single man, James Piggott, who, while instrumental to the region's development, certainly benefited from the help of his family and the other settlers of the area. 

James Piggott took the long view regarding the development of Illinois territory. Born in Connecticut, his fortunes took him further west throughout his life. He served in the Revolutionary War as a member of the Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment. After his military service, he joined George Rogers Clark, recruiting families to live in the proposed town of Clarksville, close to present-day Wickliffe, Kentucky. Chickasaw Indians forced the abandonment of this endeavor in 1782. Piggott moved with seventeen other families to Columbia, where it is today.

Illinois Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair made Piggott a Territorial Judge in 1790.

In 1792, Piggott and his family settled in Cahokia. He laid a planked road from Cahokia to a low point on Cahokia Creek (at what would later become Illinoistown, then East St. Louis), then built a 150-foot wooden bridge over the creek so goods could get to his Ferry. During that time, that area was swampy and uninhabited. So... to get to St. Louis from the Illinois side, you'd have to start from Cahokia and go North, up the Mississippi, against the current, to get to St. Louis.

Fort Piggott, or as it was sometimes called, Fort Big Run. It was Piggott's idea to change the town's name to "Big Run." James Piggott erected this Fort in 1783 at the foot of the bluff, one and one-half miles west of Columbia. The Fort was located on what was known as Carr Creek, which the French called "Grand Risseau" (literal translation: large gully). The creek was named for Lenard Carr, an early settler.

Fort Piggott was located on the old Charles Schneider place, now the residence of Elmer Schlemmer et al., in survey 554 Claim 487, Monroe County, Illinois, and adjacent to the present City limits of Columbia.

Fort Whiteside or Whiteside Station was located on the Robert J. Frierdich place and East of the Shoemaker School, in survey 412 Claim 520, formerly owned by Francis Joseph Frierdich, now by Robert J Frierdich. These locations were in the American Papers in the Court House at Waterloo, Illinois, and the information was supplied by Robert Gardner, County Surveyor and Arthur H. Rueek, Circuit Clerk.

James Piggott, the builder of the Fort, was a soldier, and he fought with Washington in the Battle of the Brandywine and with Gates at Saratoga. As Indian depredations increased, the Fort became a haven for the settlers. When word went out to summon the settlers to the Fort for safety's sake, it was said that even the children realized the danger and would go silently to the Fort without a word of caution from their elders. Indian massacres were accelerated, and during 1789 and 1790, no one was safe. Indeed, one-tenth of the population was massacred by the Indians.

The growth of St. Louis encouraged the development of the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. With the demand for ferries to St. Louis increased. Piggott's Ferry became a central point for travelers. The Ferry quickly transports people, animals, carts, wagons, and goods to St. Louis docks. The area around the pier developed very quickly. Piggott faced competition from other entrepreneurs interested in capturing some of the ferry business. 
After James Piggott died in 1799, the Ferry continued to be operated by his sons. The McKnight-Brady process invested in Piggott's Ferry and eventually was sold to the Wiggins Ferry monopoly. They platted the land behind the Piggott ferry in 1818 and called it Illinoistown.

When James Piggott established his ferry service in 1795, the closest settlement on the Illinois bank was south of the Ferry in Cahokia. Piggott's ferry landing was little more than an outpost in the wilderness. However, Piggott soon transported people and goods to St. Louis, and the ferry landing was a natural place for commerce to develop.

Between 1805 and 1809, a wealthy French Canadian, Etienne Pinsoneau, purchased land behind the ferry landing and built a two-story brick tavern. He called the area Jacksonville.

Pinsoneau sold some of the lands in subsequent years, and in 1815, Moses Scott built a general store. The McKnight-Brady operation bought out Pinsoneau while it invested in Piggott's Ferry. Brady and McKnight platted the land behind the Piggott ferry in 1818, calling it Illinoistown. A traveler in 1821 reported that Illinoistown was located about 400 yards from the Mississippi River on the east side of Cahokia Creek and consisted of 20 or 30 houses and 100 inhabitants.

Illinoistown was described in 1837 Reverend John Mason Peck as a small village of about a dozen families. The town was said to contain a hotel, livery stable, store and post office. Wiggins Ferry was the official name of the post office, and Samuel Wiggins, a politician and Illinois businessman, was the postmaster.

Although a flood in 1826 (only one of many to damage the area) may have set back the growth of Illinoistown, Wiggins' concentrated ferry business helped spawn economic development throughout the 1820s and 1830s.

By 1841 Illinoistown had grown into a "lively commercial river town" with "125 houses, an iron store, one distillery, two stores of general merchandise, five groceries, two town bakeries, one saddlery, one shoemaker, two blacksmith shops, one cooper's shop, one tailor, and two taverns or hotels besides a variety of other subsisting businesses.

Also, a recently-established printing office issued a weekly newspaper, the "American Bottom Reporter," printed by Vital, Jarrott & Company. In his memoirs, Gustav Koerner said this was an Indian (Native American) paper published in 1841-42. This was the same paper as the "American Bottom Gazette" of East St. Louis, the American Bottom Reporter being the last name.

The phenomenal growth of residential and commercial settlement in Illinoistown during these four years is if we can accept the accounts as accurate, indicating the growing importance of the east side of the river and economic maturation. The apparent decline between 1823 and 1837 was probably a result of the devastating flood of 1826 and the loss of population to more suitable locations. In addition, the town was perhaps directly influenced by economic fluctuations on a larger scale. 

The steamboat in the 1820s and canals in the 30s and 40s brought the most significant changes in domestic trade. The effects of these developments in transportation were to decrease the costs of products coming into the West from the East while increasing the marketability of commercial goods in the West by providing cheaper transport to the East. The drastic change in the fortunes of Illinoistown reflects the shift from primarily a supplier to St. Louis to a lively commercial town in its own right.

The first thirty years of the nineteenth century marked a period of steady growth along either side of the Mississippi. St. Louis was established as the largest city in the region and a central starting point for people heading west. The community on the Illinois side was growing, providing passage to St. Louis. 

Steamboats brought Illinoistown and St. Louis a variety of new ventures. Steamboats needed fueling stations and a means of transporting their goods once ashore. The local ferry operations were a natural fit, developing shore facilities for steamboats and already possessing the ability to quickly move goods across the river at low cost. By 1828, the Wiggins operation had converted its ferries to steam, taking advantage of its renovated facilities and the reasonably low cost of constructing a steamboat. 

--- Prairie du Rocher ---

The old French village of Prairie du Rocher is at the bluff's foot, three miles from the Mississippi River and in the northwest corner of Randolph County. A rocky cliff, thirty miles long and about two hundred feet high, bounding a fertile bottom, giving the place a romantic and picturesque appearance. Its secluded situation, fine scenery, rich soil and large spring of gushing water attracted the attention of early pioneers and caused it to become a place of importance. 
Village map of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois.
A short distance above the town, at the base of a rocky cliff, is a large spring, sending forth an immense volume of water, whose crystal purity might have been taken for the fountain of life, which gave immortality to youth and vigor, so much sought after by the early Spanish explorers. Near this spring is a remarkable cave in the high rocky cliff, but it has never been explored to any great extent, as its chambers are filled with foul air, which is thought to be destructive to life.

According to Jesuit history, Prairie du Rocher was incorporated into a village in 1722. A large tract of land was granted to its citizens, with an additional lot bounding the Mississippi River for several miles for school purposes.

The old Jesuit chapel of St. Joseph, built in 1734, is still standing and is probably the oldest building on the American Bottom. Within its portals have been christened the infants of many generations, and the marriage vows of the people of Prairie du Rocher have been heard at its sacred altar for almost three centuries. The register of the chapel, commencing in 1734, containing a record of births, marriages, deaths, etc., was taken to Kaskaskia in 1855 to be copied. Unfortunately, some of the documents were lost.

--- Cahokia ---
When René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (Sieur de La Salle is a title only, translating to "Lord of the manor") and his comrades returned from an excursion to the mouth of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1682, they stopped some days at Cahokia, which at that time was a large Indian village. Two Jesuit priests, François Pinet and Jacques Garvier, who accompanied the expedition, remained here to convert the natives. These priests built a chapel amid the village, dedicating it to St. Peter, and named the mission Notre Dames Cahokia. The following year, La Salle authorized Richard Bosley to establish a trading post here. Many emigrants from Canada came with the traders, forming the first permanent settlement in the Mississippi Valley. 
Monks Mound at Collinsville, Illinois.
The emigrants built houses in the town with the Indians, and for more than a century, they lived together in peace and harmony as one people. Marriage between the French and Indians was legalized by the Catholic Church, and many of the fur traders and early explorers of the West found wives among the blooming daughters of Illinois. Some of the present inhabitants of Cahokia can trace their genealogy back to the time of La Salle, and their ancestors had intermarried with natives, showing strong marks of Indian lineage.

The location of Cahokia is unfavorable for commerce, being situated on Cahokia Creek, a mile and a half from the Mississippi, but still not out of reach of its floods. In early times, the water in the creek was sufficient to float their small crafts, but a Frenchman, in seeking revenge, cut a channel from the creek into the river three miles above the town, leaving it without water communication except in times of floods. Along Cahokia Creek are several small lakes and at least sixty-seven mounds of various sizes and shapes.

Cahokia is only a small town, with houses standing here and there among gardens and shade trees. The inhabitants primarily farmed, but only some could speak or understand English.

The American Bottom Historical Marker
The Marker is located in Randolph County on the east side of Route 3, 3.5 miles north of Ellis Grove and approximately 18 miles above Chester at a turn-out area. The Marker was erected on July 28, 1965, by the Illinois Department of Transportation and The Illinois State Historical Society.
The Marker Reads: A more congenial soil for general cultivation nowhere exists. It may be called the Elysium of America.' That is how a settler in 1817 described the American Bottom, the lowland between the Mississippi River and the bluffs to the East, which stretches from the Wood River to the Kaskaskia. Hundreds of years ago, agricultural people settled in this silt-filled channel of an ancient river and raised crops to feed their large cities. Today, many mounds in the area stand as monuments to this early civilization. The American Bottom served as the center of settlement for the French, the British and finally, the Americans in Illinois for over a hundred years. At the height of French activity after 1700, probably no more than 2,000 Frenchmen and Negroes lived in the region. Still, they produced the grain for posts on the Ohio and lower Mississippi, explored the surrounding territory for mineral wealth and established Fort de Chartres. The British took the land from the French in 1763, but their interest in the American Bottom was slight. When Goerge Rogers Clark led his small army to the area in 1778, he captured Kaskaskia and the other villages without striking a blow. Under the Americans, Kaskaskia became the territorial and the first state capitol.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Very interesting in depth story of the area's history.

  2. Fascinating. I grew up in Alton and only know part of this as my Mom's family was from Waterloo and Maeystown.

    1. My Maeystown Article:

  3. Thanks for this well-researched, detailed pictorial history.


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