Friday, March 1, 2019

Exploring Seventeenth Century "Pais des Illinois," the Illinois Country.

In the late seventeenth century, Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet explored what would become, a century and a half later, the state of Illinois. Entering the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Wisconsin River, they traveled downstream by canoe along the entire length of Illinois. At the mouth of the Des Moines River, they found a village of the Peoria, one of the tribes that spoke the Illinois language.
Map of western New France, including the Illinois Country, by Vincenzo Coronelli, 1688.
Continuing downstream they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River and then retraced their route to the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, where they decided to return to Lake Michigan via the Illinois river. Near Starved Rock, on the upper reach of the river, Marquette and Jolliet encountered the Kaskaskia, another tribe that spoke the Illinois language. After a visit, the French pushed on to Lake Michigan.

Jolliet lost his journal of the trip when his canoe overturned in the Rapids of La Chine above Montreal, and Marquette's accounts were vague and incomplete. The records of Marquette, Jolliet, and other French explorers provide much of what we know about seventeenth-century Illinois, but there is other evidence about this time and place that we can draw upon to create a more detailed picture of the past.

There are many paths to the past—anthropology and archaeology, folklore, history, and natural history—each with a distinctive perspective, but used together they provide the most complete picture. A multidisciplinary approach to the past is especially useful when our destination lies at the frontier of history, where written accounts are sketchy and incomplete.
French Map of North America 1700 (Covens and Mortier ed. 1708)
"PAIS DES ILINOIS," near center.
History is the most frequently traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois. Journals, maps, and other written documents provide firsthand accounts of places, people, and events. Historical accounts are often rich with information and details not available from other sources. In this context, folklore is part of history.

A less-traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois is archaeology which is the best means to explore the past in the absence of documents or to supplement written records. Such records frequently guide archaeologists to seventeenth-century sites, but it is clear that objects often bear witness to events not otherwise recorded. An archaeologist "reads" objects to create an incomplete record of the past—and often the only one.

Perhaps the least-traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois is natural history, the study of past environments. Nature influences life, and the work of scientists such as geologists, biologists, and climatologists, among others, provides information about the environment at a particular time and place that allows us to study environmental change over time.

To arrive at the best vista of seventeenth-century Illinois, we must follow each path, and so our journey begins. The year is A.D. 1600, a bit more than seven decades before Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet record their exploration of the Illinois Country.

The Place: Pais des Illinois, the Illinois Country
Seventeenth-century Illinois would be familiar to us from a distance, but look more closely and you will see some important differences. Climatologists, using historical records such as European crop production reports, botanical studies of pollen deposited in lake-bottom sediment, and other sources of information, have identified a period of colder weather worldwide that they call the "Little Ice Age." Between 550 and 150 years ago, annual average temperatures dropped one to two degrees centigrade, enough to shorten the growing season and to cause more severe winters.
Pais des Ilinois (Illinois Country) in 1717 French map.
Based on plant and animal remains discovered during archaeological excavations, the characteristics and distribution of certain soils, and later historical accounts, prairie— mostly wet prairie—dominated the flat lands of seventeenth-century Illinois. Forests persisted in areas of more topographic relief, and spurred by cooler weather, probably expanded their distribution, though enormous fires that periodically raced across the landscape impeded this expansion.

Walking across the state three centuries ago, a traveler would have seen bison, elk, bear, wolf, white-tailed deer, and many other species of animals. However, by the beginning of the nineteenth-century the large mammals were forced to find refuge elsewhere as increasing numbers of Europeans and then Americans settled here and eventually cultivated vast tracts of land.

The People: Indians in the Illinois Country
Historians and archaeologists are often asked, which tribes lived in Illinois before the arrival of the French? This is a simple question but difficult to answer. Without historical documents, archaeologists depend on their ability to recognize artifacts typical of a particular group or culture. For example, Marquette and Jolliet report that they found the Kaskaskia tribe near Starved Rock in 1673.

In the late 1940s, based on French documents and maps, archaeologists from the University of Chicago and the Illinois State Museum located the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, where Marquette and Jolliet had stopped in 1673. While excavating the site, archaeologists found examples of pre-contact artifacts, especially pottery, that they hoped would enable them to locate other Illinois villages that existed prior to the arrival of the French. They have had little success finding late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century villages, and those that have been found generally do not have artifacts comparable to those discovered at the Grand Village. Thus, it is not clear if artifacts found at older sites can be attributed to the Illinois' or another tribe. In short, archaeologists have been unable to link particular artifacts to specific tribes. Thus, at present, we do not have a clear understanding about which tribes lived in Illinois in the early seventeenth century, let alone earlier. In fact, there is growing evidence that suggests that the Illinois' tribes had not long been residents of the Illinois Country.

We recognize Marquette and Jolliet as the first Europeans in Illinois, but artifacts provide evidence of direct or indirect European contact prior to their arrival. Marquette noticed some French trade goods at the Peoria village on the Mississippi River in 1673. Archaeologists found French trade goods at the Grand Village of Kaskaskia but are uncertain whether they predate Marquette and Jolliet. Farther south, near the mouth of the Wabash River, European artifacts have been found on sites occupied during the late 1500s and early 1600s.

Elsewhere, in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange, Illinois, the discovery of a 1669 French jeton {{Jetons are tokens or coin-like medals produced across Europe from the 13th through the 17th centuries. They were produced as counters for use in calculation on a counting board or a lined board similar to an abacus.}} may be evidence of earlier exploration or trade, but it is also possible that the coin was carried for many years before being lost. Nevertheless, these are among the few tantalizing bits of evidence that suggest Indian contacts with Europeans in Illinois not recorded in historical documents.

The Event: French Exploration of the Illinois Country
Archaeological evidence suggests that nearly 150 years before they saw a European, native inhabitants of Illinois were affected by spreading European technology and culture. From the 1490s to the mid-1600s, diseases, changing economic relationships, and a few traded tools and ornaments began an inexorable change in the lives of the Indians. The first recorded contacts between French traders and Indians in the Great Lakes region took place in the 1630s. The first Frenchman who passed over the old trails of southern Illinois in 1673 was a poacher. The Illinois Country, more insular, would soon be recognized as the crossroad of the continent.

Trade is perhaps the best context in which to understand early Illinois history. In addition to French documents about trade with Indians, trade goods—glass beads, metal tools, containers, and textiles among others—are readily identifiable in artifact assemblages from Indian sites.

As trade expanded, Indian tribes in Illinois soon became more important. Based on archaeological research, Indians in Illinois sustained themselves through hunting, gathering, and farming prior to the arrival of French explorers. Their importance increased because they controlled a part of the continent where all the largest inland waterways, and thus trade routes, converged. The French called the land "Pays de Illinois," which translated means "the Illinois' Country" or "the Land of the Illinois'." Farming, waterways, and trade routes defined the Illinois Country and its people, then and now.

Exploration offered trading opportunities. Although several European nations established trade colonies on the coasts of North America, only the French built trading posts, and later more permanent settlements, in the middle of the continent.

In the 1500s the French explored the St. Lawrence River, the northeastern entrance to North America, while the Spanish approached the interior from the south. The search for trade routes to the Far East and treasure motivated exploration. By the early 1600s, the French had organized Indian trading partners; they built settlements along the St. Lawrence River, and they called this place New France.

Although New France trade radiated in all directions, it was concentrated in the Great Lakes region. With cold lands to the north and English and Dutch colonies located to the south, the Great Lakes appeared particularly attractive. Before the 1650s, Indians carried French trade goods far to the west and brought back furs in return. Some tribes, such as the Iroquois, maintained their importance by preventing French traders from independently exploring the Great Lakes. The poorly known western lands became known as the "Upper Country," from whence flotillas of Indian canoes traveled "down" to New France to obtain goods.

Eventually, the reach of French trade extended to land of the Illinois tribes. Soon French traders were aware of a warmer land with large rivers, the avenues of trade. These rivers gave promise to the possibility of extending trade even further west, perhaps to the western sea and beyond to Asia.

French policy on expanding its settlements further inland swayed back and forth. The lure of fur-trade fortunes and land was at odds with the government's desire to establish a strong colony before expansion. But what if other nations gained control of the interior? Although forbidden to trade in the interior, Canadians found it difficult to resist the opportunity for extraordinary profit. In the end, profits won, and by the 1660s, the French had taken up residence in the western Great Lakes. The Illinois Country would be the next frontier.

Illegal French traders may have traversed the Illinois Country in the 1650s, but the expedition of Marquette and Jolliet in 1673 marked a commitment to colonize the area. Jolliet requested permission to establish a settlement, but politics favored René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (Sieur de La Salle being a title only). La Salle obtained permission to build trading posts, make land grants to followers, and explore the mouth of the Mississippi River. Arriving late in 1679 following setbacks and near disasters, La Salle's party soon established trade on the upper reach of the Illinois River. European artifacts found at Indian villages at Starved Rock and the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, on the opposite bank of the river, mark the beginning of this period of more intensive trade.

During the next two decades, French trade expanded both in the Great Lakes region and in the Illinois Country. The French built military posts and Catholic missions at Starved Rock, at present-day Peoria (another place where archaeologists continue to search for evidence of French occupation), and elsewhere, as more traders arrived. Marriages and subsequent offspring resulted in a society of Metis that mixed French and Indian heritage and culture.

The rapid expansion of the fur trade overwhelmed the marketplace and undermined fledgling French settlements in Illinois. Key settlements to the north, including Detroit and Green Bay, continued to grow, but the French maintained only a token presence in Illinois.

Marquette and Jolliet, La Salle, and others explored the Illinois Country, and it remained a little-known area on the frontier in the late seventeenth-century. But this would soon change.
Map of settlements in the Illinois Country.
Thomas Hutchins map of 1778.
To explore the exploration of seventeenth-century Illinois, we must draw upon a variety of resources to assemble the most complete picture. Written documents and maps generally provide the most detailed record, but artifacts and "ecofacts" {{“Ecofacts” are biological objects found at archaeological sites, such as remains of plant and animal foods.}} often provide evidence not available elsewhere. Each source of evidence is biased, but a multidisciplinary approach to the past balances bias, or at least points out inconsistencies in the evidence. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


Henri de Tonti and his Connection with what would become Illinois. (1650-1704)

History of the Illinois Country from 1673-1782.

History of Indians in the Illinois Country.

French Life in the Illinois Country, from Canada to Louisiana, in the 1700s.

Illiniwek Tribes History from the Illinois Country through the Mid-1830s

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