The fate of Kaskaskia

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Documents Collection, Illinois Digital Archives.
A service of the Illinois State Library and the Office of the Secretary of State
Illinois is not alone in having moved its state capital from one city to another. Exeter, New Hampshire; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Iowa City, Iowa; Benicia, California, and a handful of others have all been (for however brief a time) the capital city of their states. But after state government left their towns, those cities at least got to remain part of the state for which they had once been the seat of government. In Illinois, that was almost not the case for our first capital city of Kaskaskia.

The town of Kaskaskia was founded at the beginning of the 1700s. It was the site which French explorers chose to build the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The town’s strategic location near the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers made it a valuable piece of real estate for French and then British colonial authorities who used Kaskaskia as an administrative post for the area over the next century.

In the summer of 1778, a group of about 175 Virginia militiamen under the command of Major George Rogers Clark set out to drive the British out of the territory between the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Clark struck right at the heart of British command of the region: surrounding Kaskaskia on July 4. Clark’s approach was so stealthy that he not only surprised the small British garrison in the town, but he caught their commander fast asleep. Clark claimed the area for Virginia, and then that winter he set out to attack the British force at Vincennes in present-day Indiana.

Near the end of the Revolutionary War, Virginia ceded its claim to the “Old Northwest” to the Continental Congress. With Virginia’s withdrawal, one of the few remaining governing institutions was a largely-ineffective court at Kaskaskia. As the region sank into anarchy, residents fled and the population declined. Finally, in 1790 Arthur St. Clair was appointed Governor of the Northwest Territory and arrived in Kaskaskia to begin imposing some order, but it was a long, slow process.

Illinois meanwhile became part of the Indiana Territory, and then on March 1, 1809, the Illinois Territory. Kaskaskia, home to the federal land office for the region, was designated the territorial capital. President James Madison appointed a Kentuckian, Ninian Edwards, as the territorial governor, though the territorial secretary, Nathaniel Pope, would exercise executive authority for six months until Edwards arrived in Kaskaskia. Pope rented office space in his father-in-law’s house, while the territorial court met in another private home in town.

Territorial government gradually began to take shape in Kaskaskia. Pierre Menard was elected to head a legislative body made up of representatives from each of the territory’s five counties. A court system was put in place, with judges twice a year riding a circuit of the counties and then convening in Kaskaskia two times each year as a court of appeals. As Illinois moved toward statehood, a Constitutional Convention met in Kaskaskia and on August 26, 1818, produced the first state Constitution.

Population estimates suggest that Kaskaskia was the hub of a region which was home to about 15,000 residents living between the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers and stretching north to a point about halfway between modern-day St. Louis and Springfield. By the time of statehood, Kaskaskia had about 160 houses, several shops, a post office and a newspaper, the Illinois Herald. Its population was still in large part descended from the original French settlers. Though rivaled by the new commercial port on the Ohio River at Shawneetown, Kaskaskia was the obvious choice for the state capital when Illinois attained statehood on December 3, 1818.

Just north of town lived Shadrach Bond, farmer, territorial delegate to Congress, and in 1818 the first Governor of Illinois. Kaskaskia’s Menard was chosen as lieutenant governor. On October 5, 1818, the First General Assembly met in Kaskaskia, and the next day Bond and Menard were sworn in as the state’s first executives. The legislature approved some other appointments and then adjourned to await the official news of statehood. When it arrived, Bond directed the legislature to reconvene in mid-January 1819 to begin the work of drafting laws for the new state. The 29 representatives and 14 senators met in a two-story brick building in Kaskaskia, which had been rented for $4 a day.

This moment might have been the high point of Kaskaskia’s prominence in Illinois government, because its future as seat of government was already in jeopardy. Land speculation and the potential need for a more centrally-located capital contributed to the drive to relocate the capital city away from Kaskaskia. The state Constitutional Convention had placed the capital in Kaskaskia only until the legislature picked a different location.

The Illinois Enabling Act, the federal legislation which created the State of Illinois, did not designate a certain section of land for use as a state capital, as had been the custom when other states were admitted. The General Assembly now asked Congress to grant the state a piece of land on the Kaskaskia River somewhere near the middle of the new state. Illinois’ U.S. Senators succeeded in making this request to Congress and a commission of legislators began scouting for possible sites upstream from Kaskaskia. They chose a site more than 80 miles north called Reeves Bluff, which was renamed Vandalia. The move began shortly thereafter and the Second General Assembly met in Vandalia on December 4, 1820.

Kaskaskia, however, retained its historical significance. Five years later, when the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who in the eyes of many was a hero of the Revolution second only to George Washington, came to Illinois, he was welcomed at Kaskaskia by Governor Edward Coles with a reception and a ball.

But Kaskaskia’s days were numbered.

In 1844, disaster struck. The Mississippi burst from its banks and flooded the town. Damage was so extensive that Randolph County moved its county seat out of town to a safer location on a bluff in nearby Chester. Kaskaskia residents moved much of their town a short distance to what they believed was safer ground.

History repeated itself in April 1881 with catastrophic effect. The Mississippi has been prone not just to floods but to such deluges that it cuts for itself a new channel. This time, the river flooded with such ferocity that it destroyed most of Kaskaskia and submerged the original state capitol. When it was over, the new path of the Mississippi ran to the east of Kaskaskia, which put the remains of Illinois’ first capital city on the Missouri side of the river. In 1891 the General Assembly; having moved once again, this time to Springfield; created Garrison Hill Cemetery farther inland to be a safer final resting place for the graves of early settlers. By 1918, when a celebration of Illinois’ centennial was planned, the ceremony had to be held in Chester instead of Kaskaskia.

Now, like the Mississippi, the story takes an unexpected turn. Because the town was now situated west of the river (on what locals call “Kaskaskia Island” because of the river to the east and a bayou in the old river channel to the west) the state of Missouri attempted to claim it as part of the Show-Me State. The matter went to court and was litigated over several years before finally making it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 22, 1970, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Illinois vs. Missouri. The Court ruled 8-0 that the original boundary between the two states still held: “Beginning at a point in present centerline of the Mississippi River at the intersection of the centerline of the Old Mississippi River said point being designated as the Southeasterly corner of Kaskaskia Island; thence following the centerline of the slough which is the approximate centerline of the Old Mississippi River… the territorial and sovereignty right claimed by Illinois to the body of land given identification in the evidence as ‘Kaskaskia Island’ is hereby confirmed as against Missouri and decreed to exist in Illinois.”

Today, the Kaskaskia area is the home of several historic sites commemorating (as geographically closely as possible) the early days of Illinois. These include Fort de Chartres, Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site, the Pierre Menard Home, the Kaskaskia Bell State Memorial (also known as the Liberty Bell of the West), and the Governor Bond Memorial.

Kaskaskia is the home to just 14 residents according to the 2010 Census. They hold Illinois drivers’ licenses and use Illinois’ 618 telephone area code, but have mailing addresses of St. Mary’s, Missouri, 63673. They continue to confront the mighty Mississippi every so often. Another historic flood in 1993 inundated the town and the surrounding island, but its residents vowed to remain.

And thanks to the United States Supreme Court: as long as they remain on Kaskaskia Island, they will remain Illinoisans.