Illinois Country

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French settlements and forts in the Illinois Country in 1763, showing U.S. current state boundaries.
French settlements and forts in the Illinois Country in 1763, showing U.S. current state boundaries.

The Illinois Country (French: Pays des Illinois) was the name used in the 17th century and afterwards to refer to an undefined region centered around present day southwest Illinois that was explored and settled by the French beginning in 1673, when Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette explored the Mississippi River, and France claimed the Illinois Country.

The region never had clearly defined boundaries. Earlier descriptions tended to be more expansive. The largest scope described it as extending east to the Allegheny Mountains, west to the Rocky Mountains, north up to Peoria and south to the Arkansas Post where the Arkansas River flowed into the Mississippi River. By another description, it extended from lakes Michigan and Superior to the Ohio and Missouri rivers. A third, from after the British acquired the region, described it as bounded by the Mississippi River on the west, the Illinois River on the north, the Wabash River on the east, and the Ohio River on the south. The region now known as the American Bottom is very nearly at the center of all descriptions of the Illinois Country.

Initially, the principal white inhabitants were French traders and missionaries, both dealing with Native Americans, particularly the group known as the Kaskaskia. The French were not very successful in encouraging settlement in the area, despite the importation of women to induce permanent settlement. Some number of French convicts were relocated there and became settlers. There were also some German and Spanish immigrants to the region, creating one of the earliest American melting pot cultures.

It was originally governed from French Canada, but by order of King Louis XV on September 27, 1717, the Illinois Country was annexed to the French province of Louisiana, with the northern border being the Illinois River. In 1721, the seventh civil and military district of Louisiana was named Illinois, and it included more than half of the present state, as well as the land between the Arkansas River and the line of 43 degree north latitude, and the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. In 1723, the region around the Wabash River was made into a separate district. Around this time, the Illinois Country was sometimes referred to as Upper Louisiana, although this term was also used to describe the land west of the Mississippi River, with Illinois Country referring to land east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio Rivers. The distinction became clearer after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, when Britain acquired the land east of the Mississippi and Spain acquired Louisiana and land west of the Mississippi.

On January 1, 1718, a trade monopoly was granted to John Law and his Company of the West (which was to become the Company of the Indies in 1719). Hoping to make a fortune mining precious metals, the company built a fort to protect its interests. Construction began on Fort de Chartres in 1718 and was completed in 1720. It was located near Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, close to the Mississippi River.

This fort was to be the seat of government for the Illinois Country and help to control the aggressive Fox Indians. The fort was named after Louis duc de Chartres, son of the regent of France. Because of frequent flooding, another fort was built further inland in 1725. By 1731, the Company of the Indies had gone defunct and turned Louisiana and its government back to the king. The garrison at the fort was removed to Kaskaskia, Illinois in 1747, about 18 miles to the south. A new stone fort was planned near the old fort and was described as "nearly complete" in 1754, although construction continued until 1760.

The new stone fort was headquarters for the French Illinois Country for less than 20 years, as it was turned over to the British in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris at the end of the French and Indian War. The British took control of the fort on October 10, 1765 and renamed it Fort Cavendish. The British offered the French inhabitants the same rights and privileges enjoyed under French rule. In September, 1768, the British established a Court of Justice, the first court of common law in the Mississippi valley.

After severe flooding in 1772, the British saw little value in maintaining the fort and abandoned it. They moved the military garrison to the fort at Kaskaskia and renamed it Fort Gage.


Other Settlements

  • Peoria was at first the southermost part of New France, then the northernmost part of the French Colony of Louisiana, and finally the westernmost part of the of the newly formed United States. French interests were dominant at Peoria for well over a hundred years, from the time the first French explorers came up the Illinois River in 1673 until the first "American" settlers began to move into the area in about 1815. A small French presence persisted for a time on the east bank of the river, but was gone by about 1846. Today, only faint echoes of French Peoria survive in the street plan of downtown Peoria, and in the name of an occasional street, school, or hotel meeting room: Joliet, Marquette, LaSalle.
  • In 1675, Jacques Marquette founded a mission at the Great Village of the Illinois, near present Utica, Illinois, which was destroyed by Iroquois in 1680.
  • Fort Vincennes, later known as St. Vinennes and eventually Vincennes, Indiana, was established in 1732. It was renamed Fort Sackville after being captured by the British. George Rogers Clark renamed it Fort Patrick Henry, for the Governor of Virginia. Although part of the original expansive Illinois Country, as part of the Northwest Territory it was the seat of a separate county.
  • Cahokia, established in 1699 by French missionaries from Quebec was the one of the earliest permanent settlements in the region and became one of the most populous of the northern towns. In 1787, it was made the seat of St. Clair County in the Northwest Territory. In 1801, William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana Territory, enlarged St. Clair County to adminster a vast area extending to the Canadian border. By 1814, the county had been reduced to the size of the present St. Clair County, Illinois when the county seat shift away from Cahokia to Belleville. On April 20, 1769, the great Indian leader, Chief Pontiac came to an ignominious end in Cahokia, murdered by a chief of the Peoria.
  • Established in 1703, Kaskaskia was at first a tiny mission station, and later flourished to became capital of the Illinois Territory, 1809-1818, and the first capital of the state of Illinois, 1818-1820. The French built a fort here in 1721, which was destroyed in 1763 by the British. During the American Revolution, General George Rogers Clark took possession of the village in 1778. Flooding in the 19th century destroyed the old settlement. The area is now Fort Kaskaskia State Park.
  • In 1720, Philippe de Renault, the Director of Mining Operations for the Company of the West, arrived with about 200 laborers and mechanics and 500 negro slaves for working the mines. However, the mines yielded only unprofitable coal and lead, leading to the failure of the Company of the West. In 1723, Renault, with his workers and slaves, established the village St. Philippe (near the present day unincorporated community of Renault, Illinois in Monroe County, Illinois) about 3 miles north of Fort de Chartres. This is the first record of African slaves in the region.
  • The French built Fort Massac in 1757 near the present Metropolis, Illinois.

Post-colonial status

During the Revolutionary War, General George Rogers Clark took possession of the entire Illinois Country for Virginia. In November of 1779, the Virginia legislature created the county of Illinois comprising all of the lands lying west of the Ohio River to which Virginia had any claim, with Kaskaskia as the county seat. Captain John Todd was named as governor. However, this government was limited to the former French settlements and was rather ineffective.

For their assistance to General Clark in the war, French and Indian residents of Illinois Country were given full citizenship. Under the Northwest Ordinance and many subsequent treaties and acts of Congress, the French and Indian residents of Vincennes and Kaskaskia were granted specific exemptions, as they had declared themselves citizens of Virginia. The term Illinois Country was sometimes used in legislation to refer to these settlements.

See also



  • French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times by Carl J. Ekberg ISBN 0-252-06924-2
  • Kaskaskia under the French Regime by Natalia Maree Belting ISBN 0-8093-2536-5
  • The Illinois Country, 1673-1818 by Clarence W. Alvord and Robert M. Sutton ISBN 0252013379
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