St. Clair County was the first organized, and therefore is the oldest county in the state of Illinois. It was named for General St. Clair, who was the governor of the Northwest Territory under President Washington and came to Illinois under his instruction to effect certain changes in the territorial government. The early history of St. Clair County is largely that of the State of Illinois. According to the assertions of early explorers who made extravagant claims in behalf of the countries they represented, Illinois once belonged to Florida, and at another time to Virginia. It was first explored chiefly by the French Jesuit missionaries, and was under French rule until the close of the French and Indian War. It was under British rule from that time till the Revolutionary War. After the establishment of American independence, it became part of the Northwest Territory. When the territory of Indiana was organzied in 1800, it was under control of that government until the Illinois Territory was organized in 1809, the year of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, who afterward had such a large part in the history of the Prairie State. St. Clair County as an organization was already more than a quarter of a century old when Illinois became a state in 1818. The early exploration and settlement of the Illinois country is a romantic story, bound up with missionary enterprise in which the explorers considered themselves real apostles carrying the gospel message to benighted heathens in the western wilderness. In relating the outlines of this interesting story we make no claim of originality but will merely follow the footsteps of those who have gone before and told the story more fully than we have space to tell it here. From the abundance of records of this early period we take only such portions as we judge to be most interesting to the modern reader, and which seem to make the best introduction for the story of the later achievements of the men and women who have lived and wrought as citizens of St. Clair County. We acknowledge our indebtedness to many historians of Illinois, and without mentioning all of them it is only fair to say that we have received special help from Governor Reynolds' "Pioneer History of Illinois," as well as from later writers, such as Mather, Perrin, and others.
In June, 1673, Fathers Marquette and Jolilet started on their canoe voyage down the Mississippi River, during which they passed along the whole western border of of the Illinois country and made landings at various points. . . . These Jesuit missionaries went as far south as Arkansas and from there they retraced their steps, returning to Green Bay in September, having seen vast reaches of new country and having become aware that numerous tribes of Indians, numbering thousands, inhabited these wild regions and furnished a large, tho difficult field for Christian missionary work. Among other explorers of Illinois whose names should be mentioned here are La Salle, whose name has been commemorated by both a county and a city in our state, as well as a prominent street in Chicago; and Tonti, after whom a village in Marion County has been named. LaSalle's explorations include not only the Great Lakes region, but south as far as the Gulf of Mexico. He reached the mouth of the Mississippi in 1682, and having erected there a column, he decorated it with the Arms of France and placed on it the following inscription: "Louis le Grand, Roi de France et de Navarre, Regne; le Neuvieme, April, 1682." Thus France lay claim to the Mississippi Valley, which has been characterized as "The faierest portion of the globe, an empire in extent," stretching from the lakes to the gulf, and from the sources of the Ohio to where the head waters of the Missouri are lost in the wild solitudes of the Rocky Mountains. LaSalle bestowed upon this vast indefinite region the name "Louisiana," in honor of Louis XIV, King of France. In 1680, he built a fort on the Illinois River, not far from the present site of Peoria and called it Creveceur. Two years later he fortified the rocky promontory on the Illinois River, later known as "Starved Rock," and called it Fort St. Louis. He did not establish any permanent settlements in the country but they would not have been possible without his work. The settlements were made later by those for whom he opened the way into the wilderness. He was a man born to command, where he could wield despotic authority, but he did not possess the faculty of winning the love or confidence of his followers. He never was popular with the men under his command, and finally he was shot from an ambush by some of his own men when he was still in the prime of his strength, only forty-three years old. His murderers were not punished, but they themselves were killed soon afterward in a quarrel with other members of the expedition. As early as 1675, Father Marquette carried out his purpose to establish a mission to the Illinois Indians. The pious priest went to the chief town of the tribe, located on the river which bears their name. The was near the present site of the town of Utica, in La Salle County. The priest called it Kaskaskia, a name that was afterward transferred to the southern part of the state and given to the town which became its first capital. He showed the Indians the pictures of the Virgin Mary, established an altar, and said mass. He was received by them as a celestial visitor, and there was great sadness among his savage friends when on account of failing health the old priest felt that he must leave them and return to Green Bay. However he did not live to reach the comparative comfort of the mission station at Green Bay, but perished on the way, tho cared for by his companions to the best of their ability. He did not regret his fate but felt that he had given his life to the cause of the Gospel in heathen lands, and had made an honest effort to carry out "The Great Commission." Other Jesuit priests took his place with the Indians. Toward the close of the century, probably about 1690, the Illinois Indians, on account of the attacks of the warlike Iroquois Indians, were compelled to abandon their village and move southward. The mission, under the charge of the Jesuit Fathers, was moved with them. The new location was a beautiful valley about six miles in width at the confluence of the Mississippi and Kaskaskia Rivers. Between these two rivers, but six miles above their junction, was the site chosen for the new village. Row after row of indian lodges soon covered the plain. A log chapel and a house for the priests were built and inclosed in a neat stockade. French settlers came in and with the help of the Indians the land adjoining the mission was cultivatd. About the same time Father Pinet established a mission along the Tamaroa Indians at Cahokia, about four miles south of the present city of East St. Louis. French settlers also came to this village. Houses were erected and each settler was given a piece of land three hundred feet square. Cahokia became a village of importance and in 1795 was made the county seat of St. Clair County. Many French immigrants were attracted from Canada to the Illinois country and these two new towns, by reports of mild climate and fertile soil. After New Orleans and other French colonies were planted in Louisiana, numbers of settlers came to Kaskaskia and Cahokia by the less laborious route of the Mississippi River. Among the French settlers whose names have been found in the old records at Kaskaskia are the names, Bazyl La Chapelle, Michael Derouse, Jean Baptiste Beauvais, Baptiste Montreal, Boucher de Montbrun, Charles Danie, Francois Charlesville, Antoine Bienvenu, Louis Bruyat, Joseph Paget, Langlois De Lisle, and many others whose names identify their nationality. Before many years had passed, a regular trade was established between "Upper and Lower Louisiana." Cargoes of flour, tallow, bacon, hides and leather were floated down the river to New Orleans where they were shipped to the West Indies or to France. The boatmen brought back sugar, rice, indigo, and other articles manufactured in Europe. By the middle of the eighteenth century, several thousand Frenchmen and their descendants were living on the banks of the Mississippi and its tributaries. Kaskaskia was then the "metropolis of Northern Louisiana." Mather's History of Illinois represents the houses as quaint in appearance and of peculiar construction. In some cases the walls were formed by planting deep in the ground, framework of posts held together by cross strips. The whole was strongly braced at corners. This framework was then filled in with straw and mortar. The walls were then given many coats of white wash, both inside and out. The roof was thatched and quite steep. The floors were of slabs hewn from logs. These dwellings gave the village an air of peace, comfort and contentment, in keeping with the simple lives of the people. . . .
Mather describes the dress of these people as simple and quaint. "Coarse blue shirts were covered with vests and pantaloons of homespun. A long blue coat with pointed hood was a common outdoor garment. Upon hunting expeditions and in winter, coon skin caps and deer skin trousers were worn. The dress of the women was of blue cotton or Spanish cloth, made with a short waist and full skirt. A blue handkerchief was a common head covering for both sexes. Both men and women wore buckskin moccasins, decorated with sheels and beads." Their agricultural activities were quite primitive. Their plows had wooden mold boards and were drawn by oxen. They raised tobacco, hops, oats and wheat. Also they raised corn to feed their stock or to make hominy, but the French did not eat corn bread. Neither do they today, and that is why we had certain "wheatless days" during the World War, in order that the French might have wheat bread. They did not have spinning wheels or looms as did the English who came later. They made butter by beating the cream with a spoon or shaking it in a bottle. Their homely tasks occupied much of their time, but the monotony of life was relieved at times by amusements, holidays, and festivals. These French were by nature a merry people. Both young and middle-aged enjoyed dancing, while the old men and priests looked on with approval. Even the Indians and slaves joined in this simple revelry. As agriculture was the chief occupation of the settlers, some of the young men entered the employ of the fur companies, or on their own account went on long trading expeditions among the Indians who dwelt on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Others found employment in running the flat boats which carried the furs and farm products down the river to New Orleans. The voyage usually required months and was attended by many dangers. Returning upstream the oarsmen were assisted by large sails. When the wind failed, they sometimes walked on the shore and pulled the barge slowly and with great difficulty, so that the upstream voyage was one of exceeding toil. The relations of these French settlers with the Indians by whom they were surrounded was usually friendly. Thus by tact and fair dealing, they escaped the wars and massacres which frequently harassed the settlers on the Atlantic coast. For nearly a century in this Illinois country the white man and the red man, native owner of the soil, dwelt together in peace and confidence with but little civil government and no courts of law. All differences were settled by the leaders of the church. The French seemed to have a genius for friendly dealing with the Indian tribes that was not possessed by the English. In the French and Indian War, the French and the Indians were lined up as allies on one side against the English on the other. The following incident from Reynolds' Pioneer Hisotry illustrates the relations existing between the French and the Indians of the Illinois country. "For a murder that had been committed in a broil, three young Indians were given up by the Illinois chiefs to the newly constituted authority for punishment. The sympathy of the Kaskaskia people, especially the women, was with the Indians, and they desired that they should be received into the true church and publicly baptised before their execution. Accordingly each of the young Indians was adopted by a French woman who gave him a Christian name and was to stand as his godmother during the ceremony of baptism. The entire female population of the town was engaged for a number of days in preparation for the occasions. Needles were plied incessantly and finally the preparations were completed. The evening before the execution was to take place, the Indians escaped, as some believed, thru the assistance of their fair sympathizers. When the danger blew over, the young Indians returned and were permitted to remain unmolested."
The population of Kaskaskia continued to increase and in 1725 it became an incorporated town and was granted special privileges by Louis XV, King of France. Cahokia never became as large a town as Kaskaskia. It was settled by whites about as early, and like the other town, it was first an Indian mission, and afterward French settlers came in and in a few years it was a thriving village. It carried on more commerce with the north, and Kaskaskia more with the south. Being wholly a French town, its growth and prosperity were somewhat checked by the results of the French and Indian War, which caused the French territory to pass to the control of the English. In a work entitled "The State of the European Settlements on the Mississippi," published in London in 1770, the following description is given of Cahokia at the beginning of the Revolutionary War: "The village of Cahokia is generally reckoned fifteen leagues from Fort Chartres and six below the mouth of the Missouri River. It stands near the side of the Mississippi and is marked from the river by an island two leagues long. The village is opposite the center of this island." This town, unlike its old neighbor, is still in existence and lies within the present boundaries of St. Clair County. The name is also borne by a creek which empties into the Mississippi River at East St. Louis; and also by the largest of the mounds left by the Mound Builders. These mounds, many of which are in St. Clair County, are the evidence of the civilization of the people who occupied this country just prior to the Indians. Two distinct races are said to have inhabited the Western Hemisphere before the Indians. The earlier was the more civilized. The ruins of extensive palaces and spacious temples in Mexico and Central America are sufficient proof that they lived in magnificent and populous cities. The second was the Mound Builders, an ingenious and peaceful, tho less civilized race of people who left their mounds in various parts of the United States, but no larger group anywhere than in St. Clair County. The Indians were still less civilized, and following a law of nature, have given place to a more intelligent people who are making better use of the abundant natural resources of this great country. The Indians who occupied this part of the Mississippi Valley belonged to the Algonquin branch of the great Indian family. The Illinois Indians were a confederacy of five tribes, the Tamaroas, Michiganies, Kaskaskias, Cahokias, and Peorias. In 1675, these tribes lived chiefly in the country of the Illinois River. A little later the warlike Iroquois burned their principal town and the tirbes were driven down the Illinois to the Mississippi. The Cahokia and Tamaroa tribes united and had their village at Cahokia. The Michiganies chose a location near Fort Chartres. The efforts of the Jesuits to convert these tribes to Christianity led to the establishmenmt of the French villages of Kaskaskia and Cahokia. The Tamaroas at one time had a town at Turkey Hill, which also is in St. Clair County, but were nearly exterminated in a terrific battle with the Shawnees near the eastern limits of what is now Randolph County. At the time of the earliest French settlements, the Illinois Indians numbered about twelve thousand. In revenge for the death of the Chief Pontiac, who was killed by an Illinois Indian at Cahokia in 1765, the Illinois Indians were almost exterminated by the Sacs, Foxes, and Pottawatamies. In the year 1800 they could muster only one hundred and fifty warriers. Their chief was a half breed named Du Quoin who wore a medal that had been presented to him by George Washington. Soon after 1800 Du Quoin and his tribes emigrated to the south-west. In 1850 the last remnant of the once populous tribes which composed the Illinois Indians were in the Indian Territory and numbered in all eighty-four persons.
The story of the French period would not be complete without some account of Fort Chartres, which was the military stronghold of the Mississippi Valley at that time, and was erected on a scale of magnificence unequalled by any other in the new world at that time. It was erected under the supervision of the young Pierre Duque Boisbriant, who came to Kaskaskia in 1718, just a century before Illinois became a state. A site was chosen about twenty miles above Kaskaskia and a mile from the river. Here the soldiers of France cleared the virgin forest, hewed out timber for the walls, and with much toil brought the stone for the foundation from the bluffs four miles away. After two years of labor and at a cost of one million crowns, the fort was completed and named in honor of the Duc de Chartres, son of the regent of France. It immediately became the seat of French military power, and under its protection the village of New Chartres sprang into life. Some time later Philip Renault, secretary of the French Trading Company, came to the fort bringing with him mechanics, slaves, settlers, and miners, for the French expected to find precious ore in the bluffs that lined the Mississipi River. The valley lands between Kaskaskia and Cahokia were cleared and planted to farm crops; and the French villages of St. Phillippe and Prairie du Rocher were founded and grew into thriving settlements. Renault's name was perpetuated in the village named for him, which is now one of the towns of Monroe County, situated on the bluffs not far from Fort Chartres. According to Mather's account, the people of the fort and villages led a merry life. Gay hunting parties issued from the gates of the fort and returned at night laden with the spoils of the chase. Roman Catholic worship was popular and lordly processions of dignified gentlemen and richly dressed ladies marched into the chapel to hear mass. Stately receptions were given where officers in uniforms covered with gold lace danced with ladies robed in velvet and satin. The fashions of Paris were reproduced in this military station on the distant Mississippi. The fame of Fort Chartres spread to every settlement in the new world. It became a common saying of the early day, "All roads lead to Fort Chartres." When France and Spain were at war in Europe, an attack upon the fort was planned by the Spaniards of distant Santa Fe. The soldiers of Spain marched across the mountains of Colorado and the plains of Kansas, but in Missouri they were betrayed and murdered by the Indians who were friendly to the French. In 1750 a new commander, the Chevalier Makarty, was sent to Fort Chartres with orders to reconstruct the fort of stone. Accordingly the wooden walls were torn down and at an incredible expenditure of labor and treasure the new fort was erected. When completed it was the strongest and most pretentious fortress in the new world. We can hardly realize the difficulties attending the building of so great a structure in the heart of the western wilderness. The iron that entered into its structure and the skilled workmen had to be brought from the old world. Wagon roads were built, over which rude oxcarts hauled stones prepared at distant quarries. The walls of the fort were eighteen feet high and inclosed four acres of land. The four bastions of masonry each contained eight embrasures, forty-eight loopholes and a sentry box. Above the arched gateway, fifteen feet in height, was a platform of cut-stone reached by a stairway of nineteen stone steps. Within the walls stood the great stone house, ninety feet long by thirty feet wide, and a guard house, with chapel and rooms for the priests on the second floor. The government house was eight-four by thirty-two feet, with a great stone porch running across the front, and the coach house and pigeon loft near by. The two rows of barracks measure each one hundred and thirty-five feet long by thirty-six in breadth. In one angle of the fort was situated a bake house and a well near by. Apart from the other buildings was located the magazine, a building of stone thirty feet square and thirteen feet high, the roof and door also being made of stone. In after years when the fort was in ruins, it furnished material for the walls and chimneys of many farm houses in the vicinity. Under the brave commandant, Makarty, the soldiers of Fort Chartres issued forth to fight the battles of France and actually fought on many battlefields in the French and Indian War. To the soldiers of Fort Chartres, Washington surrendered at Fort Necessity, and they were present at the overthrow of General Braddock. When Canada was won for the English by General Wolfe, in the famous battle beneath the walls of old Quebec, it was thought that the territory controlled by Fort Chartres might be retained by the French. But by the treaty of 1763, all the French territory of the new world, east of the Mississippi River, was ceded to England. By a secret treaty about the same time, the territory west of the Mississippi was given to Spain. The French commander kept possession of the fort till the arrival of the English, and then in October, 1765, he formally delivered it to the new commander, Captian Thomas Stirling. The French soldiers and even some of the Indians wept as they saw the "Lilies of France" hauled down and the "Cross of St. George" flung to the breeze instead. The little garrison, believing that they would there be upon French soil, withdrew to St. Louis. Some of the French inhabitants, unwilling to dwell in a country ruled by men of a different race and creed, whom they had been taught to hate for generations, sold their possessions and left the country. Others withdrew to the settlements of St. Genevieve and St. Louis on the other side of the Mississippi. Still others went down the river to Natchez, Baton Rouge, or New Orleans.