Explored in 1673 from Green Bay to the Arkansas River by the Canadien expedition of Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, the area was claimed by France. It was settled primarily from the Pays d'en Haut [French: "up country" or "upper country"] in the context of the fur trade. Over time, the fur trade took some French to the far reaches of the Rocky Mountains, especially along the branches of the broad Missouri River valley. The French name, Pays des Illinois, means "Land of the Illinois [plural]" and is a reference to the Illinois Confederation, a group of related Algonquian tribes (usually referred to as "Illinois" or the "Illiniwek" or "Illini." who were a group of Indian tribes in the upper Mississippi River valley. The tribes were the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara).
The Illinois Country's landscape of today's Illinois boundaries was a patchwork of prairies, forests, marshes, and swamps. Bison and elk roamed the upland prairies, bears and mountain lions prowled the forests and swamps, and the skies were often darkened by large flocks of pigeons. Bordering the land were three large streams: the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers. To the northeast lay one of the world's largest freshwater lakes, Lake Michigan. These and other aquatic and wetland environments teemed with many different species of waterfowl, fish, and freshwater mollusks.
FRENCH FORTS BUILT IN ILLINOIS:
1680 - Fort Crèvecoeur, Creve Coeur, Peoria County
1682 - Fort Saint Louis du Rocher, North Utica, La Salle County
1691 - Fort Pimiteoui, Peoria County
1720 - Fort de Chartres, Randolph County
1729 - Fort Le Pouz, Joliet, Will County
1757 - Fort Massac, Massac County
1759 - Fort Kaskaskia, Randolph County
|Pais des Ilinois (Illinois Country) in this 1717 French map.|
As a consequence of the French defeat in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the Illinois Country east of the Mississippi River was ceded to the British, and the land west of the river to the Spanish. Following the British occupation of the east shoreline of the Mississippi in 1764, some Canadien settlers remained in the area, while others crossed the river, forming new settlements such as St. Louis.
Eventually, the eastern part of the Illinois Country became part of the British Province of Quebec, while the inhabitants chose to side with the Americans during the Revolutionary War.
Although the lands west of the Mississippi were sold in 1803 to the United States by France—which had reclaimed possession of Luisiana from the Spanish in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso—French language and culture continued to exist in the area, with the Missouri French dialect still being spoken into the 20th century.
Because of the deforestation that resulted from cutting down forests for wood for fuel during the 19th-century age of steamboats, the Mississippi River became shallower and broader causing severe flooding of the Mississippi between St. Louis to the confluence with the Ohio River. As a consequence, many architectural and archaeological resources were lost to flooding and destruction of early French colonial villages originally located near the river, including Kaskaskia and St. Philippe.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.