French Arrival, 1673

by James E. Lewis Jr., Ph. D., Kalamazoo College


Two decades later, French explorers, missionaries, and traders began to arrive in Illinois. In 1673, the trader Louis Joliet and the missionary Pére Jacques Marquette visited Illinois, where the latter established a mission among the tribes. During the next decade, other Frenchmen traveled down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, mapping territory, seeking trading partners, or spreading the gospel. In the early 1680s, the French began establishing forts in the western Great Lakes region, including Fort Chicago and Fort de Crèvecoeur (near modern-day Peoria) in 1680 and Fort St. Louis (near modern-day Utica) in 1682. These forts did not usually have large French garrisons; more generally, they held just a few troops, a mission, and a trading post. Some were built in strategically important areas, such as Green Bay or Mackinac Island. But others were placed where there were or had been concentrations of Indians. Fort St. Louis, the longest lasting French fort in Illinois, was built near the site of the principal Illinois village, the Grand Village of Kaskaskia. Perhaps eight thousand Illinois had lived there before an Iroquois raiding party drove the entire confederacy down the Illinois River and across the Mississippi in 1680. Encouraged by the new French fort, the Illinois returned to the area. By the mid-1680s, the population around Fort St. Louis had grown to around eighteen thousand, made up of the different Illinois confederacy tribes, Miamis, and various refugee Indians from the east.

Even at the end of the seventeenth century, the number of Europeans in Illinois remained very small. The Iroquois Wars ended in 1701; in the same year, the French suspended their involvement in the fur trade for two decades (though an illegal, unlicensed trade continued during these years). As the warfare and the trade wound down, the French abandoned all of their forts in the western Great Lakes. But the European impact was already significant. New people--mostly unfamiliar Indians--had moved into Illinois. Villages had been relocated and reconfigured, as many of them now held polyglot populations made up of eastern refugees. The recent wars had brought Iroquois war parties to Illinois and, particularly after the mid-1680s, had taken Miami and Illinois war parties to Iroquoia. Trade with the French had reorganized native economic life and provided countless new material objects (including guns, powder, and shot). French missionaries proselytized new religious beliefs and practices; in fact, the most important site for French-Indian interactions in the western Great Lakes around 1700 was a group of mission villages at the mouth of the Kaskaskia River. Finally, while the evidence for Illinois is not as rich as for other locales, we know that the French must have brought devastating diseases as well. With no previous exposure, and no immunity, to European diseases, native peoples throughout the Americas suffered almost unimaginable losses that reached one-third, one-half, or even three-quarters or more of the populations in each community.