Writers Guide: The Illinois Country of French Colonial America
This article stems from research done for the historical novel, The Pride of the King, copyright 2011, available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
The saying, “History is written by those who conquer,” seems to be true especially in relation to the French establishing colonies in America. In their rush to write the history of European settlements in Early America, English speaking historians have neglected to teach that the earliest colonies of North America were French colonies along the Mississippi River called the Illinois Country.
Today the area is in the states of Illinois and Missouri. Many of the towns still bear their original names such at Ste. Geneviève, Kaskaskia and Cahokia. The name, The Illinois Country comes from the name of the indigenous people of the area, the Illinois Indians.
The voyageurs of French Canada were the first to explore the rugged back country. They traded with the Indian people and transported furs via waterways back to Quebec where they were shipped to France for hats and garments.
In his explorations and mission work, Father Jacques Marquette of France founded the first settlement of the Illinois Country at the junction of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The village was named Kaskaskia. Most of the original inhabitants of the mission village were Illinois and Peoria tribes. Over time, many of the Illinois women married French voyageurs, settled down and formed the nucleus of what would later become the Illinois Country.
Over time European settlers of French background migrated to the area from Canadian settlements to escape the hardships of severe winters. Others migrated up the Mississippi from the harsh, disease ridden Gulf region around New Orleans.
In 1717, the Company of the Indies was established in the Illinois Country which encouraged agriculture and mining and brought colonists from France and slaves from Africa. In 1731, the company built several forts, began clearing land and established a town at the base of the Mississippi named New Orleans.
The villages thrived and eventually grain and minerals from the Illinois country were shipped downriver to New Orleans in bateaux, flat bottom crafts, paddled by voyageurs and local townspeople. On the return trip supplies needed from France were transported back up the river to the Illinois Country.
Early in the 18th Century villages grew into towns, forts and log cabins sprang up as well as churches, shops and inns. Nevertheless, the French government did not have the same passion for colonization that the British did. If the French had encouraged growth in the Illinois Country and New Orleans, the face of a continent would be different today.
Many of the settlers participated in the French and Indian war and after the war the settlement in the Mississippi Valley fell under English rule. Gradually numbers dropped in the region due to several factors, recent English rule, flooding and erosion along the banks of the Mississipi.
In 1778 during the American Revolution, George Rogers Clark lead an offensive against the Illinois Country annexing the area from the British for Virginia. At this time the Illinois Country ceased to be a European colony and was now part of the new American nation.