Friday, March 1, 2019

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

In the late seventeenth century, Pere (Father) 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. Then, they 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 river's upper reach, 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. Still, we can draw upon other evidence about this time and place 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 they provide the most complete picture used together. A multidisciplinary approach to the past is beneficial 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)
"PAÏS DE ILINOIS," near the 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 unavailable from different sources. In this context, folklore is part of history.

Archaeology is a less-traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois, which is the best means to explore the past without 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 usually the only one.

The least-traveled path to seventeenth-century Illinois is natural history, studying past environments. Nature influences Life, and the work of 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 so our journey begins. The year is A.D. 1600, more than seven decades before Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet recorded their exploration of the Illinois Country.

The Place: Païs de Illinois, the Illinois Country
Seventeenth-century Illinois would be familiar to us from a distance, but look more closely, and you will see some significant differences. Using historical records such as European crop production reports, botanical studies of pollen deposited in lake-bottom sediment, and other sources of information, Climatologists have identified a period of colder weather worldwide called 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 cause more severe winters.
Païs de 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 finding 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 before the arrival of the French. They have yet to find late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century villages, which generally do not have artifacts comparable to those discovered at the Grand Village. Thus, it is unclear 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, we do not clearly understand which tribes lived in Illinois in the early seventeenth century, let alone earlier. In fact, growing evidence 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 before 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 still determining 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.

In the Chicago suburb of LaGrange, Illinois, the discovery of a 1669 French jeton may be evidence of earlier exploration or trade. Still, 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 are not recorded in historical documents.

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.

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 contact between French traders and Indians in the Great Lakes region occurred 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 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 before the arrival of French explorers. Their importance increased because they controlled a part of the continent where all the largest inland waterways converged, thus trade routes. The French called the land "Païs de Illinois," meaning "Country of 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 called this place New France.

Although New France's trade radiated in all directions, it concentrated in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes appeared particularly attractive, with cold lands to the north and English and Dutch colonies to the south. Before the 1650s, Indians carried French trade goods far to the west and returned furs. 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 the land of the Illinois tribes. Soon, French traders were aware of a warmer land with large rivers and avenues of trade. These rivers promised 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 resisting the opportunity for extraordinary profit difficult. 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 river's opposite bank, mark the beginning of this period of more intensive trade.

French trade expanded in the Great Lakes and Illinois Country during the next two decades. The French built military posts and Catholic missions at Starved Rock, present-day Peoria (where archaeologists continue to search for evidence of French occupation), and elsewhere as more traders arrived. Marriages and subsequent offspring resulted in a Metis society 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.
We must draw upon various resources to explore seventeenth-century Illinois to assemble the most complete picture. Written documents and maps generally provide the most detailed record, but artifacts and "ecofacts" 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. 

“Ecofacts” are biological objects found at archaeological sites, such as remains of plant and animal foods.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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