The City of St. Louis, founded on the west bank of the Mississippi River just south of its confluence with the Missouri River, and named for the thirteenth-century French King Louis IX, is probably the most prominent French-derived place-name in the American Midwest. But the city was only founded in 1764, i.e. right after France ceded the rights to almost all its North American territories either to Britain (east of the Mississippi) or Spain (west of the Mississippi). So St. Louis may have been founded by French people (the entrepreneurs Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent, Pierre Laclède, and Auguste Chouteau, to be exact, who would rather have lived under the Spanish than the British), and was predominantly French in culture, but it was only ruled by France for the two years between France’s reacquisition of the Louisiana Territory in 1801 and the Louisiana Purchase by the United States in 1803.
For earlier French-sponsored settlement along the Mississippi, one must travel south from St. Louis, where one finds evidence of it on both sides of the river. We were pleased to be able to visit some of these sites this past weekend.
1. The blue star on the map marks the location of Fort de Chartres, in Randolph County, Illinois. The fort was founded in 1719 as an administrative center for Illinois and named after the duc de Chartres, son of the Regent of France at the time (Louis XV had succeeded to the French throne at age five in 1715). Illinois itself had recently been transferred from Canada to Louisiana, and hopes were high for the territory: not only could its wildlife be hunted for furs, but its alluvial plain could also serve as a breadbasket for New Orleans. Under the direction of the financier John Law, the territory became the object of a great deal of economic speculation; this “Mississippi Bubble” burst in 1721, thenceforth to become one of the case studies in Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841). But the territory survived as a French possession, and so did the fort. In fact, it was rebuilt twice, the final time in limestone in the 1750s.
A reconstructed version of this fort is what visitors see today:
The onsite museum is pretty good, as are some of the recreated interiors:
The fort passed to the British in 1763, who renamed it Fort Cavendish; they abandoned it in 1772 when they recalled its troops to Philadelphia. The United States did not make use of the fort; an encroaching Mississippi took its toll on the wall facing the river, and subsequent locals treated the fort as a quarry. The site was acquired by the state of Illinois in 1913; significant parts were reconstructed by the WPA in the 1930s.
2. The red star marks the location of Fort Kaskaskia, Illinois. Kaskaskia was originally a Jesuit mission founded in 1703. According to a sign, in the 1730s French officials hoped to replace Fort de Chartres with Fort Kaskaskia, but instead ended up rebuilding Fort de Chartres, leaving a mere “earthen fort” at Kaskaskia.
In 1763, along with the rest of Illinois, the fort was transferred to the British, who made no use of it. However, a “local bandit” named John Dodge made it his headquarters in the 1780s, and the U.S. Army occupied it between 1803 and 1807. It was last used during the War of 1812 as a refuge for local residents.
Not much remains of it today, although you can make out its shape by the earthworks.
3. The black star marks the present location of the town of Kaskaskia, Illinois. This site is currently on the west bank of the Mississippi, but it was not always, and the state boundaries do not shift with the river, thus the large blob of Illinois one sees to the west of Chester, Ill. Kaskaskia only had fourteen residents in 2010, but for a year following Illinois’s admission to the union in 1818 it actually served as the state capital.
Kaskaskia is home to the so-called “Liberty Bell of the West,” which is housed in a purpose-built structure next door to the Church of the Immaculate Conception (where Mass was being celebrated when we visited; there were a lot more than fourteen people in attendance, so it is clear that the parish has a bigger catchment area than the town itself).
If you press a button, the door swings open, but the metal bars remain in place, so this is the closest you can get to the bell.
It was cast in New Rochelle in 1741 and given by Louis XV to the church in New France. It was rung to celebrate the capture of Kaskaskia by a company of Virginians on July 4, 1778, and continued to be rung on that date for many years afterward. It is interesting how the French of the Mississippi valley were apparently pro-American during the Revolution, when the French of Quebec remained with the British.
I was amused to discover that this bell, like the other Liberty Bell, has a crack in it. Did someone deliberately create this, I wonder? It is claimed that the floods of 1973 and 1993 exacerbated a hairline crack first noticed in 1948.
4. The green star marks the location of Ste. Geneviève, Missouri. In contrast to Kaskaskia, Ste. Geneviève is a thriving tourist town.
It was founded in 1735 and has one of the best collections of French colonial architecture in the United States, including three “poteaux-en-terre” houses.
In the 1930s, historian Charles Peterson proposed that Ste. Geneviève developed a distinctive architectural style that blended influences from French Canada (chiefly the internal structure) and from the West Indies (chiefly the galeries, i.e. the porches).
The National Parks Service Welcome Center has a great museum that explains all of this in some detail. Definitely worth a visit if you’re ever passing through.
Of course, once the Mississippi valley became American, Anglophone settlers came flooding in, and absorbed the Francophones like the Borg in Star Trek. Nonetheless, some customs remain: it seems that the Roman Catholic Church is thriving in these parts, and locals still participate in the New Year’s Guiannée ceremony.