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THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PAST IN ITS OWN CONTEXT.
If there is a single word that best describes Illinois during the French Colonial period, it is strategic. The colony of New France, hereinafter called Canada, was centered upon the eastern end of the Great Lakes waterways ─ one of two major east-west axes of North America. When Illinois was part of Canada, it was merely a far western margin of that colony Even though Illinois had attributes that were in very short supply in the rest of Canada, such as a warmer climate, better soils, and large river transportation networks, Canada was focused upon the fur trade, and Illinois' attributes seemed unimportant.
|Map of western New France, including the Illinois Country, 1688.|
Beginning in 1699, the French established a weak presence at Biloxi on the Gulf of Mexico, beginning the new colony known as Louisiana and establishing a tenuous connection through the Illinois Country all the way to Canada. From the moment France took possession of Illinois, British traders and the Indian tribes under British influence were already looking to the Mississippi River. Regardless of France's claims of ownership, the Illinois Indians were the only buffer keeping the Iroquois from cutting off Canada from the Mississippi Valley. Meanwhile, British traders were both expanding westward from the Carolinas and planning to colonize the mouth of the Mississippi River. France had to establish itself in the Mississippi Valley if it wished to hold on to the continent.
Despite a difficult start, the French managed to build substantial posts at Mobile (1710) and New Orleans (1718). They began establishing posts in anticipation of trade, mining, and military control at various locations along the Mississippi River. The French were establishing forts in the Illinois County.
FRENCH FORTS IN THE ILLINOIS COUNTY (1673-1778)
1680 - Fort Crèvecoeur, Creve Coeur, Peoria County1682 - Fort Saint Louis du Rocher, North Utica, La Salle County1691 - Fort Pimiteoui, Peoria County (Rebuild of Fort Crèvecoeur)1720 - Fort de Chartres, Randolph County1729 - Fort Le Pouz, Joliet, Will County1757 - Fort Massac, Massac County1759 - Fort Kaskaskia, Randolph County
|French Map of "Pais des Ilinois" (Illinois Country) in 1717.|
Given its location and its supposed wealth of food, furs, and minerals, the Illinois settlement on the Mississippi loomed large on the political landscape as planners in France, Louisiana, and Canada tried to decide what to do with their tenuous hold on North America.
THE FRENCH TOWNS OF ILLINOIS
Prior to 1718, the Illinois Country was formally under the control of Canada. During this period, Cahokia and Kaskaskia were essentially Indian villages accompanied by missions, and a small population of French Canadians married to Indian women. In late 1717, when the official lines of division between Louisiana and Canada were drawn up, Illinois became the northernmost of nine military districts within Louisiana. Louisiana was indistinctly divided from Canada through the middle of present-day Illinois. Peoria had previously been the center of Illinois under Canada, but now the Illinois River was simply one of the "roads" between Canada and Louisiana. The tiny settlements of Cahokia and Kaskaskia were the center of Louisiana's hopes for a colony in the heart of North America.
After 1718 the number of French people in Illinois immediately rose. For many years the colony of French Louisiana was operated under a trade monopoly (initially called the Company of the West, then Company of the Indies). The Company sent an initial expedition to fortify and occupy the Illinois Country, which ascended to the Mississippi River in the summer of 1718. Fort de Chartres was built about eighteen miles north of Kaskaskia along the banks of the Mississippi River. Then the new Village of Chartres (1720-1765) quickly sprang up near the fort. The population of the French villages in Illinois was made up of a mix of settlers, soldiers, slaves, voyageurs, converted Indians, and administrators.
Initial hopes for the settlement of Illinois were based on the expectation that mineral wealth would be easily located and exploited. In spite of great efforts by the French, little more than lead mines were located, and the early attempts to mine the lead were unprofitable. As hopes for quick profits faded, the small French villages settled into a pattern of slow growth.
At the first census in 1723, Kaskaskia was listed as having nearly two hundred "French" people, while Fort de Chartres had 126 and Cahokia had 12. The French population was augmented by slaves who worked the mines and fields and by soldiers. Indian slaves were purchased from local tribes, and black slaves were brought to Illinois in 1720 for mining operations and soon were common among the settlers. For instance, a census in 1732 shows that the French population was still less than 400 but that there were now significantly more slaves (119 Indian slaves and 165 black slaves) than nine years before.
|Map of settlements in the Illinois Country in 1778.|
THE PEOPLE OF FRENCH ILLINOIS
The standard French settlers were known as habitants. These families were headed by married French men who settled on the land. Throughout the French period, there was a general shortage of women, so that in the earlier decades, the wives of French settlers were typically Indian women and the daughters of earlier French/Indian marriages. Another source of women in French colonies, in general, were orphans or those recruited from the impoverished classes in France. Officers and administrators sometimes brought their wives from France or New Orleans.
In both Canada and Louisiana, French settlers soon came to enjoy more personal freedom than their counterparts in France. Both the church and the nobility lost a certain measure of traditional control over the colonists. In accordance with their parent culture, the French in North America continued to display great respect for nobility and the privileges of rank. All who could claim any pretense of a noble-sounding name made full use of it.
Despite the distances to both Canada and New Orleans, merchants were able to establish themselves in the towns of French Illinois, where they employed -- men who carried the trade to Indian villages. Men farmed and traded or pursued a craft. Some craft skills were what one would expect; there were many masons and carpenters. Others worked as blacksmiths, millers, gunsmiths, roofers, tailors, and bakers. Other special skills were less common. For instance, records mention a wig maker, a tavern keeper, interpreters, and there was a "barber/surgeon." This odd-sounding combination of skills serves to warn us of that time of crude medical services. One skill surprisingly absent was weaving. Neither men nor women created fabrics. It was forbidden! All fabrics and most finished clothes had to be purchased from the King's stores or brought in with the fur-trade goods.
Some soldiers retired, married, and stayed in Illinois, but many more went back to New Orleans or France when their duties were finished. Another class of men living in the French villages were the voyageurs, who were typically born in France or Canada and carried goods back and forth to New Orleans in the annual convoy and made fur-trading trips to Canada and the Indian villages.
The presence of slaves in French Illinois is perhaps surprising given Illinois' later antislavery image. The truth is both more and less shocking than it might seem. The enslavement of blacks and Indians were relatively less harsh in Illinois in the 1700s than we generally think of in the southern states during the 1800s. Most slaves were distributed in small numbers among families rather than as workforces on large plantations. Both common practice and French law made slaves less subject to mistreatment. In some cases, slaves could even testify in court against their owners if mistreated. On the other hand, both morally and legally, this was still slavery. Indians and blacks were owned as property. Nor did French law allow blacks to intermarry with whites. Indian tribes captured native slaves from further west and sold them to both the French and other tribes further east. Slavery continued by both the English and the Spanish governments in Illinois County after the end of the French Period and was still a hotly contested topic after Illinois became part of the United States.
Lifeways of the habitants in Illinois were very much true to French culture. Both the form and the function of daily life were part and parcel of the Catholic religion. The annual calendar was crowded with religious observations, such as Holy Days of Obligation, in which there was no work but plenty of feasting and celebrating. Games and contests abounded. Holidays were celebrated with vigor and revelry, and every wedding, birth, and death was marked by ceremony, custom, and superstition. Marriage contracts, dowers and dowries, wills and inheritances, civil contracts, and matters of public pride and appearances were all avidly attended to in ways that hold but little resemblance to the arrangements of the English Protestant society that was forming along the east coast of North America. Temporary variations in the accepted codes of social behavior, such as can be seen in the Carnival festivities throughout South and Central America, were typical of French Louisiana and Illinois as well.
|French Festivities in the Illinois Country.|
The annual convoys to and from New Orleans were central to the life of the colony in Illinois. Voyageurs might risk traveling to and from Canada and Louisiana on their own, but much of the goods and all of the office supplies for the colony came by way of the convoy. For much of the French Period, convoys had to be heavily guarded. Anyone carrying goods alone or in small groups was subject to being robbed or murdered by Indians who were encouraged by the British. The mere task of ascending the Mississippi River made more than one journey per year unlikely. Early each spring, when the water flow was high and the banks of the river were flooded, a convoy left Illinois carrying meat, flour, hides, and other products. The trip down to New Orleans took twelve to twenty days, but the late summer trip back to Illinois against the low water and less current was very slow. It took several months for the convoy of flat-bottomed cargo boats to be pushed, pulled, paddled, and sailed up the Mississippi River.
Illinois was the breadbasket of French Louisiana. During good years approximately three times the food that was needed to sustain the people in Illinois could be raised here. Some products, such as wheat, corn, meat and hides, could be sold to the rest of Louisiana in especially large quantities. Convoys from Illinois supplied the French posts and villages to the south with huge amounts of flour. Corn, barley, tobacco, and cotton were also transported. Large numbers of cattle, oxen, horses, and pigs were raised in Illinois, and items gathered from the wild, such as buffalo hides and bear oil, were also transported in large quantities.
|French traders and Indians traded European goods for furs.|
WAR AND NEGLECT AT THE HEART OF THE FRENCH EMPIRE
As hopes for easy mineral and trading wealth failed to materialize in the Illinois Country, the companies paying for administration and defense of the Illinois Country soon tired of the burden and began cutting costs. It was deemed sufficient to have the Indian tribes fight the wars, and many soldiers were recalled. Forts fell into disrepair, leaving the settlers to their own devices.
The Mesquakie (Fox) tribe in the north attacked the new colony from its beginning. Nonetheless, military support for Illinois was soon greatly reduced. Farming, hunting, and trading were all attended to at risk of attack, and numerous people were killed in the vicinity of the settlements. After the Fox threat was overcome by the concerted effort of many tribes and French troops from both Canada and Louisiana, a new threat arose from the south. The Chickasaw Indians, who were allied with the British from the Carolinas, persisted in trying to cut Illinois off from Louisiana. French Illinois lived in an almost constant state of sustained warfare.
A TURNING POINT FOR THE FRENCH EMPIRE IN NORTH AMERICA
In 1748 a formal assessment of the French interests in North America concluded that the Illinois Country was of very little economic value to France. Posts and settlements generated little income and were a net loss. None of the anticipated prosperity for the settlers there was going to materialize. Yet, it was clear that if France wanted to hold any of its colonies in North America, it had to hold Illinois. Thus, at the end of the French regime in Illinois, the bitter truth was the same as it had been from the beginning: Illinois was strategic. If Illinois was lost to the British, who were already starting to encroach in the Ohio Valley, then France would also lose the rest of North America. But the population in Illinois was far too small. Although birth rates were high, immigration to the French colonies had always been limited. Compared to the vigorous and diverse peoples flooding into the British colonies, French immigration had been especially slow because of the unprofitable reputation of the colonies. In spite of repeated plans to fortify the Ohio River, nothing of substance had ever been done there. Decades of trying to reap the maximum profits by skimping on the military defense, administrative costs, and presents to the tribes left the Illinois Country with no strength or resources. Worst of all, Illinois now had a long history of making very poor returns on investments. The French government was going to have to shoulder the costs of safekeeping the colonies at its own expense.
ILLINOIS BECOMES THE NEW FRONTIER
In the 1750s, France tried to stave off the dangers to its North American empire. A major expedition descended the Ohio Valley and ousted the British. A major new fort was built near the mouth of The Ohio, and the fort on the Illinois River among The Peoria was rebuilt. In anticipation of a spreading general war in Europe, coordinated efforts with Canada were made, and attacks against the western expansions of the British were undertaken. Yet these fixes were both too little and too late. France's ambiguities about Illinois were also typical of its other colonial possessions. They existed to serve France, and they were valued accordingly. The fate of the French empire in North America was decided on European battlefields. All possessions east of the Mississippi, except the mouth of the Mississippi and New Orleans, were ceded to England. New Orleans and all of western Louisiana, including Ste. Genevieve and the brand new settlement of St. Louis, were given to Spain in return for its loss of Spanish Florida to the British.
When the British took over in the mid-1760s The Illinois settlements were largely deserted. Most of the French settlers had simply moved across the Mississippi River to be under Spanish rule. The British began expanding their trade westward from the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley. Their interest in Illinois was largely so they could push an illegal trade into Spanish possessions to the west. For the British and the new American government that followed very soon after, Illinois was a new frontier facing the West.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.