This year, Illinois will celebrate it’s Bicentennial. In December 1818, the U.S. Congress formally approved establishing the State of Illinois. And with its change in status from territory to state, Illinois was finally allowed to send two senators and a representative to represent the state’s people and their interests at the national capitol.
By the time Illinois became a state, Europeans had visited and settled in what the colonial French called the Illinois Country for nearly a century and a half. The first Europeans to arrive in Illinois did so illegally—that is, in violation of the Royal French colonial government’s prohibitions. Those earliest visitors were seeking riches, both mineral and in furs, and they found a bit of both.
The Indian way of life began to change as soon as those European influences began to reach Illinois. Thanks both to trade among the tribes and those hardy French freebooters, European influences reached Illinois well in advance of any permanent settlers.
As such items as glass beads and brass cooking pots were traded for furs in the East, they began working their way west through the extensive web of Indian trading routes. Gradually, this trade became formalized, with the great trading nations of the west, the Ottawas and Chippewas, trading the grain and furs of the western tribes to the Iroquois and Hurons of the east for European trade goods.
The role of middleman between the western tribes located around the Great Lakes and the Europeans (primarily Dutch, French, and English) was hotly contested. This economic rivalry brought on a number of wars between the Huron and Iroquois, resulting in the eventual destruction of the Huron Tribe.
The first legal penetration of the area now known as Illinois was made by an exploration group led by Louis Jolliet in 1673. Jean Talon, governor of New France, had decided to investigate the reports carried east by French missionaries and traders about a great river to the west of Lake Superior, called “Great Water” or Mississippi, by the Indians.
Talon appointed Jolliet, an experienced mapmaker and explorer, to command an expedition to determine whether this river emptied into the Pacific Ocean. If it did, reasoned Talon, the French would have discovered the long-sought Northwest Passage.
An interpreter familiar with many Algonquian dialects was considered necessary for the expedition, and to fill this post Talon and Jolliet picked a studious intellectual Jesuit, Father Jacques Marquette—at the time the expedition left, Marquette could speak six different Indian languages. Just as importantly, Marquette was easily available. His regular post was at the Mission of St. Ignace at Michilimackinac, located on the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, the major crossroads of the western fur trade.
The exploration party, consisting of Jolliet, Marquette and five French voyageurs in two canoes, left the strait between the two lakes on May 17, 1673—345 years ago this month—and set a course down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay. At the Bay, the party turned up the Fox River to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi.
As the party traveled south, Jolliet became convinced that hopes the mighty river’s course did not lead southwesterly to Gulf of California, offering a transcontinental passage to the Pacific Ocean as had been hoped. Instead, his navigational observations affirmed the Mississippi bore almost straight south to the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, upon reaching the Arkansas River in July, the party reversed its course and headed north once again. They were also encouraged on this course because the Indian villages around the Arkansas River’s mouth were in possession of Spanish trade goods, and given the small size of the French expedition, the last thing they wanted to do was get involved with hostile Spanish colonials.
So back up the Mississippi they paddled. When the explorers reached the mouth of the Illinois River, they decided to ascend it to Lake Michigan, probably on the recommendation of a friendly group of Indians who probably suggested the route as a shortcut back to the lake. They therefore became the first Europeans to see the rich Illinois River Valley, and their opinion of it was very favorable.
Noted Jolliet in an account written after the trip:
“At first, when we were told of these treeless lands, I imagined that it was a country savaged by fire, where the soil was so poor that it could produce nothing. But we have certainly observed the contrary; and no better soil can be found, either for corn, for vines, or for any other fruit whatever.
“The river, which we named for Saint Louis, which rises near the lower end of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan], seemed to me the most beautiful place; the most suitable for settlement…There are prairies three, six, ten, and twenty leagues in length and three in width, surrounded by forests of the same extent…A settler would not there spend ten years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plow into the ground.”
Although he didn’t realize it, Jolliet’s words would be echoed a century and a half later in emigrants’ guidebooks luring pioneers to the Illinois prairies.
At the time the party traveled through the Illinois River Valley, the Illinois Indians were in the process of moving to the upper reaches of the river in large numbers The Indians’ village of Kaskaskia was located across from Starved Rock and numbered some 74 cabins in 1673. By the next year, the village had grown to 100-150 cabins. In 1677, Marquette’s Jesuit colleague Father Claude Jean Allouez reported that the village had grown to 351 cabins.
The reports of the Jolliet-Marquette expedition, as well as those of such missionaries as Father Allouez, were clear testaments to the richness of the Illinois River Valley. And the reports of large concentrations of Indians living in the area seemed to make it an ideal location for a centralized trading post to cater directly to the Indians, thus removing the Iroquois, Ottawa, and Chippewa middlemen from the profit equations of the French fur traders.
It would take a strong man with the right connections to make this move, but in 1666, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle had arrived in New France, burning with the desire to make his fortune. It was a case of the right man being on the scene at the right time.