TBT: “We have seen nothing like this in all our travels”

"Father Marquette and the Indians" painting by Wilhelm Lamprecht, 1869
Many Illinoisans are tempted to snicker when an out-of-stater mispronounces our state’s name. We know that the ‘s’ on the end of the name is silent. Our state’s name and its correct pronunciation are part of the legacy left by the French explorers who in the 17th century became the first European settlers to visit the parcel of land in the middle of North America now known as “Illinois.”

The French had claimed the region sight-unseen in 1671. Two years later, an expedition led by Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet arrived in the area to be known as Illinois. Their group consisted of seven French explorers and two scouts in a pair of canoes. The French had already colonized portions of present-day Canada and had been exploring the Great Lakes region and its nearby rivers.

This particular group was on the homeward leg of a journey which had explored the upper Mississippi Valley. They had learned from Native Americans of the existence of another route back to the Great Lakes by boating northward up the present-day Illinois River.

Map of Marquette and Jolliet’s 1673 expedition
“We have seen nothing like this river that we enter as regards its fertility of soil, its prairies and woods; its cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parroquets and even beaver,” wrote one of the members of expedition. “We have seen nothing like this in all our travels.”

Explorer Julian Binneteau found the weather to be more agreeable: “There is a very great difference between this climate and that of Quebec, where the cold lasts a long time, and a great quantity of snow falls; whereas here, as a rule, the snow remains but a very short time.”

The expedition paused at a village near a steep-sided cliff overlooking the river. This village and the nearby cliff would come to be known as Starved Rock a century later following a deadly clash between the Pottawatomi and the Illinois or Kaskaskia. Father Marquette preached a sermon to the group’s hosts and pledged that he would return. In conversation, the French learned that these Native Americans were members of the Illiniwek Confederation, an alliance of several tribes in the area. From this name came the term “Illinois.”

Two years later, Marquette did indeed return to establish the Immaculate Conception mission. But by then his health had declined and future French expeditions were to be led by Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle. La Salle began building forts in the river valley, including Fort Creve Coeur near present-day Peoria. He also pursued trade in animal furs.

La Salle designated a lieutenant, Jacques Bourdon d’Autray to build a fort; Fort Saint Louis; on the high ground overlooking the river. It would form the base for the French in the region for about a decade as they became more involved in the conflict between the Illinois and the British-allied Iroquois. In that time, the area became known as “La Salle’s Colony.” Today, it is La Salle County.

However, La Salle himself was plagued by bad luck. Fort Creve Coeur was destroyed by a mutiny, a settlement he launched in Texas failed, and he was murdered by one of his colonists. Fort Saint Louis was abandoned a few years later by the French in favor of sites farther south.

La Salle’s successor was Henri Tonti, who kept the French commercial ventures alive. Tonti was impressed by the abundance of large fish in the Illinois River, writing in 1682 that his men had caught an Illinois River catfish, “of enormous size, furnishing enough meat for a supper for twenty-two men.”

Soon more settlers were flowing into the area from Canada, along with missionaries and their supplies. These settlers began establishing their own villages and missions in the area around 1700, some of them near existing Native American settlements such as Peoria, Cahokia, and Prairie du Rocher. In 1703, the French moved one of their largest missions in the region from present-day St. Louis southeast to a river junction which would become Kaskaskia. More than a century later this village would be Illinois’ first state capital.

Fort de Cartres gatehouse
French possessions in North America had by this time expanded to include holdings up and down the entire Mississippi River, all the way to Louisiana. The Illinois River valley was an important link between Canada and Louisiana. To protect the region and its important commerce, the French built Fort De Chartres in 1720 not far from Kaskaskia. The fort was rebuilt in the 1750s into a sturdier, stone edifice which still stands today.

Around this time, French traders attempted to re-establish their commercial enterprise in the area around Starved Rock, but they were not successful. Commerce on the Mississippi River and its environs, however, had met with more success. With New Orleans growing as an administrative center for French possessions in North America, King Louis XV transferred jurisdiction of the Illinois territory to authorities based in New Orleans, rather than those in Canada. The vaguely-defined territory of Illinois in the royal ordinance included all French holdings between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, as well as some territory west of the Mississippi.

Having settled the Illinois and Mississippi River valleys, the French now extended their reach to the Ohio River. In 1759, Fort Ascension was constructed on the Ohio on the opposite bank from its confluence with the Tennessee. The facility later became known as Fort Massac. A restored structure stands on the site today, right outside the town of Metropolis. In 1908 it became Illinois’ first state park.

British traders began appearing in the Illinois valley around 1760, and the worldwide friction between the competing empires was soon on display. War followed; a continuation of rivalry between the British and the French which had been ongoing in Europe and around the globe for centuries. This time, the French were on the losing end.

French claims to Illinois and the rest of North America east of the Mississippi ended with France’s defeat in 1763. But while the French king no longer held the title to the land, and some French settlers moved across the Mississippi, many of them remained. British control of the region was soon established, but their days were numbered.

In an attempt to placate the unhappy French-speaking settlers, the British government extended the Quebec Act in 1774, which brought back French law and religious customs to the area, but still under British control. The effort failed. When revolution broke out on the east coast of North America, Virginia troops under George Rogers Clark marched in to claim the entire area for the new United States of America. When they arrived, they found allies already in the region: French settlers and their descendants who, like the American colonials, were more than happy to be rid of the British.

French residents were so overjoyed by the arrival of the American colonial troops that they celebrated by ringing the bell of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Kaskaskia. The bell was cast in 1741 as a gift from the French king to the residents of the Kaskaskia area. The bell, which soon came to be known as the “Liberty Bell of the West,” remains on display in Kaskaskia.
French officials visit Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, 1917
The ties between the two nations continued long after American independence. In 1917, after America’s entry into World War I, delegations of British and French officials both came to America to build bonds with their new ally. While the British confined their goodwill visits to the East Coast, French officials visited the Midwest. A delegation led by former Prime Minister Rene Viviani and Marshal Joseph Joffre came to Springfield to lay a wreath at Lincoln’s Tomb and to deliver an address to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly.

While French control of Illinois came to an end more than a dozen years before the Declaration of Independence, French influence remains. Besides the name of our state, the French legacy includes many citiescounties, schools and other locations throughout Illinois.