The French Bottom
Civilization came (and went) early in Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
In spite of the fact that the state has a Frenchified name, many Illinoisans forget that Frenchmen governed the Illinois country for 90 years, a tenure that the Americans did not match until the 1870s. The French presence extends Illinois’s pedigree as a civilized place backward an additional 100 years, but the French as a group exerted remarkably little enduring influence on the new state. Nonetheless, their presence added an irresistible romance and exoticism to the state’s history.
The first Euro-American colonizers ventured—the term should be understood literally—into the Illinois country in the 1700s from France and Lower Canada. They built farm outposts, forts, trading towns, and missions up and down the major rivers, especially the region’s major major river, the Mississippi, in the fertile lowland opposite the future St. Louis. This part of southern Illinois would later become known as the American Bottom, but for something like a century it deserved to be known as the French Bottom.
Five French settlements went up in the American Bottom. They functioned variously as commercial centers (mainly for the fur trade), havens for French and their allies on what was still a fractious frontier, and communications links between New France and settlements to the south such as New Orleans. Mainly they were the larder for French possessions in the whole Mississippi valley.
French garrison, Jesuit mission, trading post, land office, and later state capital, Kaskaskia has seen much history—none of it, alas, very recent. The village of Kaskaskia was set up in 1703. By the late 1770s its population had grown to nearly 1,000 people, a miscellaneous community that was ruled to varying degrees of competence and enthusiasm by a succession of French, British, and American governments.
The village had been the commercial and cultural capital of European Illinois for more than a century, and so was a natural choice for the federal land office in 1804, the territorial capital in 1809, and the first capital city of the new state in 1818. Its preeminence, alas, was short-lived. After only two years, state government relocated to Vandalia.
As they did so often, the French had chosen the site for their town badly. The setting that made the river convenient to early Kaskaskians unfortunately made Kaskaskia convenient to the river, and the town was constantly beset by floods. Eventually the river would undo the town altogether. Here the smaller Kaskaskia River ran parallel to the Mississippi, and that year the surging Mississippi sliced through a bend seven miles above the Kaskaskia’s mouth and poured into the smaller river’s bed, taking over the final seven miles of the Kaskaskia’s channel, where it still runs.
The shift put 20,000 acres of Illinois on the Missouri side of the river and left the town of Chester (which had sat at the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi) several miles downstream from the river mouth. (Trader Pierre Menard’s fine house survived with its river view, only it now looks out upon a different river.) The shift in course also drowned Old Kaskaskia, whose remains still lie at the bottom of the river—nature’s judgment on politicians, perhaps.
Fort de Chartres
In 1718, a contingent of army officers, soldiers, engineers and others was sent to the Bottom some 40 miles south of Cahokia to construct a fort in the hope of cowing the Fox Indians who were then threatening French villages in the area. The wooden fort they built in the Mississippi flood plain was dubbed Fort de Chartres; finished in 1720, it was a military command post and governmental headquarters for the Illinois country.
The original wooden fort repeatedly had to be rebuilt. By the early 1750s, the French government possessed enough that was worth protecting on this stretch of the Mississippi that it endured the cost of a proper fort of limestone, which was quarried from the bluffs north of Prairie du Rocher. Foundations were laid in 1753 for what became one of a chain of military dams with which the imperial French hoped to stanch the flood of British colonists from the other side of the Appalachians.
Fort de Chartres perhaps looked a more intimidating facility than it was. Each of four bastions contained eight cannon embrasures and forty-eight loopholes for muskets, yet as David Buisseret points out in Historic Illinois From the Air, the fort’s thinnish walls (only two feet thick) would not have been stout enough to repel British cannonballs.
Fort de Chartres’ defenses were never tested in any event, as the new fort lasted longer than did the French North American empire. Under the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War (known on this continent as the French and Indian War), France surrendered most of her North American possessions to Great Britain, whose troops took control of the fort in 1765.
While the fort never saw action involving soldiers, it was attacked by the river often. Fort de Chartres was one of many 18th century French outposts that fell to water rather than to cannon balls. The French moved their mission village at Cahokia because of flooding, and the fort was abandoned in 1772 by its new owners (who had rechristened it Fort Cavendish) after a long siege by the Mississippi River.
By the 1820s, the fort was already a relic; local residents scavenged it for stone and timber with such industry that by 1900 all the walls and buildings except the powder magazine had been leveled. In 1913, the State of Illinois bought the site for a park and in time restored the old magazine. (Arguably the oldest building in Illinois, the magazine remains the only original element of the reconstructed fort.) Other bits and pieces were reconstructed beginning in the 1930s. Today’s visitors can see a restored north wall, complete with bastions, musket ports, and cannon embrasures, a guard's house, the king's storehouse, and the powder magazine.
The oldest permanent Euro-American settlement on the Mississippi River—and the oldest extant town in Illinois—is Cahokia. The French opened a mission here in a camp of some 2,000 mainly Cahokia and Tamaroa Indians in 1699, about the time Williamsburg became the capital of British colonial Virginia. Over time the mission attracted boatmen, traders, and merchants, evolving into a traditional French village whose parish was the focal point of town life. Life in Cahokia was lively, what with disputes among Jesuits and missionaries and the occasional wars among the local Indians.
In modern times the site of French Cahokia was swamped first by industry, then by suburbanites. For so long the political capital of this part of Illinois, Cahokia briefly became conspicuous for power of another sort: a massive electric generating plant built there by the Union Electric Light and Power Company. This brute had six smokestacks standing 265 feet high, and when fully fired up its 14 boilers ate coal at a rate of two tons a minute.
The demise of the French
The French interregnum in Illinois is different from later British and American eras to the extent (and it is considerable) that the French were different from the British and Americans. The French were bent on trade rather than territory. They were Catholic rather than Protestant. They also enjoyed, or rather earned, more amicable relations with the region’s inhabitants. Gustave Koerner, who later became one of the American Bottom’s outstanding citizens, noted with the candor of the outsider that the French and Canadian French who had lived there found no difficulty in living among the Indians, “a thing that the Anglo-Saxon was never able to do.”
The French ability to accommodate to the Native Americans of old Illinois, indeed, to adapt their own ways to those perfected by the much longer tenants of the place, had several causes. In time the French trappers and traders were closer in habits to the local Indians than they were to the British and their descendants, indeed than they were to the citizens of Catholic France. Priests on mission had set up in Indian villages to get a better grip on the souls of the occupants, but the trappers won their bodies. Babies born out of wedlock are not a new problem in Illinois, and the easy relations between French males and Indian women so undermined what the priests were trying to do that the king of France for a time banned trapping in the Illinois country in the hope of driving the naughty men away from the mission towns.
The transfer of the Illinois country to at least nominal British control in 1763 marked the end of the French era in Illinois. The British took an intolerant view of French society; among other measures they banned the Jesuits, who had played such a crucial political as well as spiritual role in early Illinois. Many French villagers sensibly fled west across the Mississippi River, first into what was then Spanish-controlled territory, later to the new town of St. Louis, taking their culture with them. (The French got their revenge by helping make St. Louis into a great trading city to which this part of southern Illinois would forever be subservient.) The names on today’s maps—Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher, Carondelet, Renault—recall the French influence but their pronunciation has long since been Americanized. In some cases even the names been lost; the Bottom village of Prairie du Pont, for instance, was renamed simply Dupo.
The French villages as French villages have long since disappeared—literally in the case of Chartres (outside the fort of that name) and nearby Saint Philippe, which have been washed away. (A visitor in 1796 found the former already “covered with wild herbs.”) Kaskaskia, or what is left of it, has nine residents. Cahokia, which by the 1950s had shriveled to only 800 people, has been transformed into another Metro East suburb, with nearly 17,000 residents; today's version is in no way a French town except when the Fete du Bon Vieux Temps is held every winter at the old Cahokia Courthouse, the Jarrot Mansion, and the Holy Family Log Church.
An exception is Prairie du Rocher. The village was built at the foot of the Mississippi bluffs in what is now Randolph County, on the overland route that linked the more significant French communities of Kaskaskia to the south and Cahokia to the north. (Like most French place names, Prairie du Rocher loses its poetry in translation; it means “prairie by the rock.”) The Federal Writers Projects guide noted that, as late as 1900, French was still spoken extensively in Prairie du Rocher. When scholars John M. Coggeshall and Jo Anne Nash surveyed the area’s architecture in the 1980s, they found that the language had deteriorated to Cajun-style speech, but that French street names and French building styles persisted more than two hundred years after significant French immigration into the state had ceased. Modern residents of Prairie du Rocher celebrate New Year's Eve with the old French custom of touring and singing “La Guiannee.”
A few physical relics of the era survive in the area, enough to spark the imaginations of a large and busy band of local historians and to make plausible the founding some years ago of a French Colonial District in the American Bottom. The State of Illinois’s Historic Preservation Agency calls the Pierre Menard Home “the finest example of French colonial architecture in the central Mississippi Valley.” Not many disagree. Menard was a French-Canadian fur trader and entrepreneur who died rich at 78; he also served as Illinois’s first lieutenant governor. His elegant post-on-sill frame house was built of hand-hewn timbers between 1800 and 1802 in what is sometimes called the "raised cottage" style. It stands on a hill and once overlooked the town that was drowned by the Mississippi River in 1881, which thus arguably improved the view.
The Menard house is sometimes called a mansion by proud Illinois patriots, but the Federal Writers Project 1939 guide to Illinois was more accurate when it stated that the house “recalls the minor plantation houses of Louisiana.” But in Illinois of the day, even a minor plantation house was a palace. The house hints at what one tourism brochure calls “the Timeless Charm Of French Colonial Life” around 1800, one feature of which was entertaining such guests as Lafayette, the French hero of the Revolution (our revolution, not theirs) who visited in 1824.
Cahokia boasts three relics of its French days. The old Church of the Holy Family, built in 1799 to replace an earlier one that burned in 1783, was erected in the usual French style, with upright hewn walnut logs topped by a roof shingled in cedar. A few yards away stands the Jarrot “mansion.” This large two-story brick house is French by ownership rather than design, save for its imported windows and other fixtures. Built between 1799 and 1806 for Maj. Nicholas Jarrot, a judge of the Cahokia court, it is the oldest brick house in Illinois, and one of the first done in the Federal style, which at that date was as rare in Illinois as a harpsichord at a hoedown. In its heyday the Jarrot house was the site of much dancing and gambling; it later had a more sedate career as a Roman Catholic school. It has been undergoing restoration by the St. Clair County Historical Society for years; in 2001 it was named a National Historic Landmark for its architectural significance.
Perhaps the most famous—and certainly the most traveled—of Cahokia’s relics is the house built between 1793 and 1814 that served as a courthouse for the new county of St. Clair, which under the Ordinance of 1787 took in all of the Illinois country. Probably built in 1737, the courthouse is where one can learn about the French style of colombage (half-timber) construction using pierrotage, or limestone rock in-fill between the logs. When the county seat was moved to Belleville the building was abandoned; by 1900 it was fit only to store farm machinery. It was dismantled and reassembled in St. Louis as a curiosity on the grounds of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1903, after which it was displayed for 35 years in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. The courthouse site was the scene of a pioneering excavation by the Works Progress Administration in 1938 and 1939; its restored version still has its original 18th century black walnut timbers (although some experts insist that perfect authenticity also requires a thatched roof).
Such buildings are the most conspicuous artifacts of the French era in the Bottom. (The State of Illinois is not too modest to state that the old Cahokia Courthouse, the Jarrot Mansion, and the Holy Family Log Church are “the most important French Colonial buildings surviving in the St. Louis metropolitan region.”) However, there are other physical reminders of the era. French farm fields were arrayed according to the form of the traditional—meaning feudal—pattern. Long, narrow tracts or “long lots” ran at right angles to the local watercourse (in this case the Mississippi) and stretched across the bottom, giving each tenant access to shipping, arable land for fields, and timber. While compiling his excellent Illinois From the Air, David Buisseret found that the outlines of such fields can still be seen from the air. “It is rather extraordinary to think that the mark left by peasants on the Illinois countryside during the life of Louis XIV,” he wrote, ”is still plainly visible from a satellite.”
It was social differences that really set the old French apart from their new American neighbors. The latter consisted mainly of Scots-Irish Presbyterians and American Baptists and Methodists who had little in common with French Roman Catholics, whose love of the “good life” offended them. The pioneer disdain of the French endured; as recently as the 1930s it was possible to read a respected writer—Donald Culross Peattie, in A Prairie Grove—describe the French, Indian, and Negro inhabitants of the then-decrepit French settlements in the Bottom as “mongrel, without spine” and their villages “picturesque—a sure symbol of decay.”
The traits of the French that gave pause to the founders of American Illinois—their Catholicism and their dubious mores—are less an affront in a more polyglot Illinois. Indeed, one trait that was once derided as a social vice has in recent years been embraced as a virtue. The Illinois French have been applauded as models of toleration and diversity for their generally un-violent relationships with Indians, for example, or their readiness to intermarry with them, and the rough equality afforded freed black people living among them.
A less prudish appreciation of the French era is welcome, but one should be cautious in using the French past to shame the present. It was the French who introduced black slaves into Illinois (although not slavery, which was an institution of long standing among the Indians). The French were the first Euro-Americans with which the six tribes of the Illini confederacy came into contact, and while they meant no harm to the Indians of the Bottom—the latter were their allies in the profitable fur trade, after all—harm them they did. In addition to furs, the French came to Illinois to take home souls, which they did by subverting the Indians’ religion. And of course it was the French who introduced the Indians to alcohol. By 1700, after approximately thirty years of contact with Europeans, the population of the Illini Indian groups had withered by approximately 40 percent to an estimated population of 6,000; by 1800 there hardly any survivors, and most of them, most accounts agree, were “rotten with whisky.” ●