Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Very First Frenchman in Southern Illinois turns out to be a Poacher.

The very first Frenchman so far as known, who passed over the old trails of southern Illinois, was a poacher. That Frenchman passed this way in 1673. He was at or near the mouth of [Little] Mary's River (near Chester, Illinois) when La Salle came down the Mississippi on his very first voyage; that explorer stopped long enough to interview René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (Sieur de La Salle is a title only: translating to "Lord of the Manor.") and got certain valuable information from him.

In 1670 La Salle set out on another expedition. He led a group of men west across Lake Erie and then overland, ending up at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Although reports from the expedition do not indicate, it would have been obvious that the Great Lakes represented a vast freshwater sea. From Lake Michigan, the party moved south across Illinois and encountered the Mississippi River. From the first expedition, La Salle would have known that the position on the Mississippi was far north of the Ohio. He likely deduced that both rivers flowed South to the river reported by De Soto. La Salle later followed up the discovery and sailed down the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. His trip made him the first European to travel the length of the Mississippi.

The name of this lone Frenchman is not mentioned, but as he was a scout, he may, for convenience, be called "Le Espion" (French for 'the spy'). The information he gave La Salle reveals much of Le Espion's life. He told La Salle about the river from that point (Little Mary's River) to the Chickasaw Bluffs and the various tribes of Indians along it; he also told of a great tributary entering this river from the east and of some of its tribes. Le Espion must have been in that territory for several months to possess that knowledge, probably running into years. He was probably not alone in so vast a territory—there were other lone scouts. He was there not for pleasure, nor for sightseeing, but for business.

The business of Le Espion reveals itself. At that time, many French-Canadians—Itinerant (a traveler, wanderer) merchants, voyageurs, adventurers, etc.—traversing the unexplored west in search of favorable locations for the fur trade. One such voyageur rescued Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony. Of course, these adventurers were looking for areas for the illegitimate fur trade because they did not expect to pay the king a royalty for the privilege of trading under such difficulties. But since the fur companies and such men as La Salle did pay licenses, and since they had police powers and might arrest and punish poachers, and since it was the duty of the Fathers to apprehend all such poachers, these Itinerants followed the inland portages, divides, watersheds, or old Indian trails. They avoided the missions and the navigable streams; the Ohio River, from the mouth of the Wabash River to the mouth of the Tennessee River, was taboo because it was frequented by English-speaking traders whom the Itinerants feared to encounter.

The Itinerant Merchant was a Canadian with some means of his own or a line of credit with a Quebec or Montreal fur buyer. He had allied with him from five to twenty-five Canadian youths, on a sort of profit-sharing basis, who were designated voyageurs (commercial travelers). Each voyageur, in turn, had with him a servant and a 'coureur de bois' who acted as interpreter. A fully equipped Itinerant might have in his party as many as seventy-five men and boys—a considerable party, with considerable expense. Accordingly, it behooved the Itinerant to select a suitable location for trade. The best site for the purpose was to be found amid Indians, who were in the midst of fur-bearing woods. Le Espion, doubtless, was looking for just such a place; we shall see.

In 1684, Franquelin, a French geographer, made a map of Louisiana, which included the Mississippi and its tributaries to their headwaters. On that map, he shows, at the head of the Grand Chain of Rocks, a post named Tacaogane; at the Frankfort Hill, one named Nataogami; at the mouth of the Wabash River, on the left bank, one named Taarsile; one at about the location of East St. Louis, named Maroa; and at Cahokia, one named Kaockia. These are the only posts shown within several hundred miles of this old Reservation on that map, and it is presumed that they were the only ones then existed. These posts were necessarily built before 1684, and posts Tacaogane and Nataogami, the only ones within the Reservation, fairly shout as to the business of Le Espion in 1673. Of these two posts, Nataogami had by far the better location; it was at a great crossroads—the intersection of the "grand trace," or Ohio-Mississippi watershed, and the "salt trail" from river to river. If the Itinerant located there had his full complement of seventy-five men, he needed many shelters, requiring several huts.

The “trafiquer (French: a trafficker) post” was a log hut fourteen by twenty feet, with a log partition. A door in the south end of the hut gave ingress to and egress from the storeroom for merchandise, and there was a hole in the partition for convenience in storing furs and peltries in the rear room.
An example of a small American log trading post.
Today (1932), a voyageur would be called a pack peddler. The voyageur with his pack, his servant with a similar pack, and his coureur de bois with a gun and some camping equipment sallied forth in quest of an Indian camp and of trade. Le Espion, in all probability, was one such voyageur looking for a favorable trading place. Having found a desirable location, he built a small, one-roomed hut, thus establishing a sort of sub-post called a depot. He hired an Indian woman to chop wood, build fires, cook, wash and mend. He was then ready to trade brandy or other wares to the Indians for beavers. These cost him from forty cents to one dollar apiece; when they reached Montreal, they were worth four times that much, and at Paris or Bordeaux, ten times as much. Although the coureur de bois was his interpreter, the voyageur soon learned the twenty words necessary for him to be able to trade with the Indians; after that, the interpreter and the servant were kept busy carrying beavers to the post and other merchandise back to the depot.

This sub-post, or depot, was usually given a French name to benefit such persons as might desire to go there in the future. The stream, or prairie, upon which the depot was located, was also given a descriptive phrase name for better identification. In this manner, our many French names came to be here.

Some of the streams that have French names are Au Kas (Okaw), Beaucoup, Au Vase, Cache, Saline (Le eau de salle—salt spring), Grand Pierre, Gros Baie (Big Bay), Bobinet, Au Detour, and Le Clair; there were doubtless others whose names are lost to us. Some of the prairies in and near this Reservation are: Le Prairie du Bochier; Le Prairies du Long, du Chien, du Grand Cote, du Paradis, and du Etang (pond—East Six Mile); Le Prairie du ville de mont (Town Mount); du Coline (hill—probably Knob Prairie); du Mauvais (poor); and dn Fredonner (pronounced Fredonia, and meaning to hum, to buzz—probably Eight Mile).

Our most prominent landmarks were Cavite-en-rocher (Cave-in-Rock); Le Grand Chaine a la Rocher (the Grand Chain of Rocks); Cavite Deltoid (the delta-like formation at the mouth of the Ohio River); Le Cap de St. Croix (Grand Tower) and others not now familiar.

There were numerous little depots with big French names. The best-remembered of these were: Macedonian (Macedonia); Francefort (Frankfort - modern-day West Frankfort); Egalite (Equality); Eau Mineral (Creal Springs); Vienne (vi en, both vowels short; location of this depot uncertain); Moscou (Moscow, probably becoming a post later); Perou (Peru, location well known); Golconda (near Reevesville); A pas le Mocassin (Mocassin Gap) A pas le Geant (Giant's Pass, identity not sure); and many others that a former generation of men could name.

This large number of French names did not become attached to all these places by chance but were given by the French traders, trappers, and hunters who roamed about this Reservation before Americans came; enough of these Frenchmen remained until the coming of our forefathers to acquaint them with these names. Our forefathers adopted the French names they found here for the same reasons that the English-speaking peoples who settled around Kaskaskia adopted the French names of rivers, prairies, and places. A smaller and more scattered French population here probably accounts for the death of many others with French names.

The fact that our French left no history is not at all strange. They were baconers (poachers) violating two strict laws of Canada—they were trading with the Indians without a license and selling them brandy, which had been prohibited. (One such violator had been hanged in Quebec.) They were violating an economic law by wasting their time in the woods with Indians, learning all their vices and teaching them others instead of staying at home and producing foodstuffs for the next winter; this was a tremendous economic loss to Canada. And they were violating the moral law by their relations with Indian women; this was quite a scandal in the minds of the Jesuit Fathers. They wrote many scathing letters about that scandal to the governor and the intendant.

There were not more than nine thousand people in Canada at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and the territory was so immense that properly policing it was not practicable. A stricter edict was therefore declared, but to this edict, D'L'Hut and eight hundred young Canadians answered by withdrawing into the woods to become Indians. As a salve for these, who were much needed in the wars bound to come with the English, the king issued permits that allowed an Itinerant to have as many as twenty-five voyageurs with two men each as helpers. If the two "posts" known to have been in this Reservation each had its Itinerant with his full complement of helpers, then there were as many as one hundred and fifty Frenchmen here. In all, twenty-five such permits were issued. But their issuance only aggravated the brandy-selling and the dissipation and caused the priests to write stronger letters than ever. In this way, the permits were withdrawn and re-issued several times. And this was Canada's somewhat muddled condition of affairs at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


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