Mary Beth Writes

 I finally finished reading “Empire by Collaboration” by Robert Michael Morrisey. It is a history of the Mississippi River from what is now the general St. Louis area down to its confluence with the Ohio River. This is the area Len and I traveled to see the solar eclipse in August 2017. While we were there, we visited Fort De Chartres and Kaskaskia, we saw old houses in tiny river towns, and we saw one of the oldest cemeteries I’ve seen in the US; it filled with 18th century gravestones inscribed with beautiful French names.

The time period of the history I am about to regale you with (all four of you who are still reading) is middle 1600’s till late 1700’s.

Before this book starts, the population of this area were mostly pre-Columbian people of the Mississippian culture. They lived here approx. 1050-1300AD and no one knows why they disappeared. Sophisticated native villages, cities, edifices and structures seem to have disappeared in many north, south, middle American sites in the 1400’s. There are theories, but no one is completely sure why. In case you enjoy a good mystery, have at it.)

Also, if you haven’t visited Cahokia, put it on your list. It’s as mysterious and complicated at Machu Pichu – but you can drive there, speak English, and have barbeque for supper. Also, if you have visited Aztalan State Park just east of Madison, it was an offshoot of Cahokia.

Okay, back to my story.

In the early 1600’s Illinois/Illini Indians moved to this area. They were pushed here after losing battles to other native peoples further north and east. Illinois was named after them, not the other way around.

The Illinois weren’t immediately happy about moving to a flat and nearly tree-less prairie; though it didn’t take them long to learn what a rich place they had landed. Corn/squash/bean crops grew profusely along the rich river bottoms that were fertilized by springs floods. There was plenty of small game and fowl in this land, as well as bison! Once they figured out how to kill a bison with bows and arrows – it requires careful choreography and teamwork - they had more to eat and more warm robes to wear and to sleep under than they had ever known. The Illinois people multiplied to become a strong nation that would do well in this area for nearly 200 years.

They now had enough time and strength to attack other tribes further west, capturing other Indians as slaves to exploit or sell. This made them rich. Captured women often were forced to become second, third, or fourth wives of the powerful Illinois warriors. These low-status slave women were set to the never-ending work of tanning bison hides, as well as being sex slaves and baby-producers to their Illinois husbands.

French Jesuit missionary Marquette and French adventurer Joliet first paddled down this part of the Mississippi in 1673. Within decades there would be small missions at several locations along the river. The Indians were friendly but not too interested in becoming Catholics.

Traveling and trading up and down the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers increased. There were furs to sell and buy from the north, crops to sell, people wanting to get from one place to another. The transportation system was mostly large canoes paddled by Voyageurs. Voyageurs were generally the sons of French traders and native women from French Canada. They plied the rivers of north American with shoulders as wide as the canoes they manned. They were hearty, adventurous, story-telling guys. They were also multilingual because they had native moms and French dads, and because they paddled from Indian village to Indian village and needed to be able to communicate from one to the next.

Because the Mississippi River and environs had been claimed for France in 1643 by Robert LaSalle, within a few decades French military officers and soldiers were sent to this “hinterland” by their leaders back in Quebec.

So all these players were in this area: A large and growing population of native Illini villages, enslaved Indian women, French soldiers, Jesuit priests, Voyageurs, and eventually enslaved Africans to help farm. While the English were settling into native lands in New England - a story most of us know far more – there was this other “melting pot” happening along the Mississippi.

Put scrappy, courageous, imaginative, not-rich folks together and what happens? They percolate.

Those exploited women and Jesuit priests got the ball rolling.

The enslaved native women listened to the priests that few others were listening to. They heard that marriage should be two-people only – and then they converted to Christianity. The Voyageurs - sons of Indians mothers - looked at those women, thought about giving up paddling 16 hours a day to take up farming - and you can guess how long it took for there to be a growing assortment of Christian marriages! Baptism records show lots of kids, lots of godparents who were French, Indian, and metis Canadians.

French leadership back in Quebec tried to outlaw marriages between Indians and French but no one paid much attention. Those new families thrived. Some bought Black slaves from the south. Yes, it was slavery, but historians have looked at the acreage, the number of slaves owned, and harvests. Numbers indicate everyone was working together – owners and hired people and slaves.  

Records show that wheat and vegetables grew so well that soon they had enough to export. Most of their extra went to New Orleans, but that wasn’t their only place to trade. They were connected by waterways to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic; to the Great Lakes; and via the St. Lawrence to Quebec and to Europe. Western rivers carried them to western Indians and to the to the Rockies. They could ship their products far from home and they could bring back wonderful things. Tools, guns, French furniture, cloth to sew and wear, small livestock, recipes, and more folks who came to see what was going on and stayed to be part of the scene.

Modern communities such as Kaskaskia, St. Louis, Prairie du Rocher, Fort de Chartres, Peoria, Utica and Starved Rock, St Genevieve; all have roots in the 1600-1700’s.

These was their biggest challenges.

1. They needed reliable rules and predictable laws for buying, selling, and transporting. They needed fair and consistent payment for what they traded and sold. They were often exploited and cheated, and they knew it but the only place they could turn for arbitration was the French military garrisoned in their area – except the military was the entity most likely to be exploiting them.

2. They needed protection against Indians.

A. Illini Indians had enemies; tribes who had been attacked by them did not like them. No one like the tribe that comes to town to steal food, kill warriors, and kidnap women and children.

B. There were shifting alliances among native nations after the French and English (and Spanish) arrived in the New World. Indians were seriously threatened by European horses, weapons, and disease. But Europeans did not have enough men to fight successful battles; they required native allies. Some tribes sided with the English and some with the French. But if they weren’t getting what they, the native people, needed from the European they were allied to, those Native men could and would parley with other Indian tribes who were allied to the other European nation. It drove European soldiers crazy that Indians were not loyal. Except, obviously, they were. They were loyal to their own communities. The Illini allied with the French for most of the 200 years in question. But it wasn’t loyalty built on respect and friendship, it was built on goods and privileges. When some French leaders would become stingy about giving products the Illini had come to depend on – cloth for clothing, tools for life, guns – if the Indians were not getting what they needed, they complained to leaders and if the leaders did not respond, the Illini knew their way to other Indians allied with the British.  

As the Kaskaskia / Mississippi area became more important, leaders in Quebec finally listened to pleas for protection from the farm and community families in this area and realized it was time to build a fort. In 1720 they began Fort de Chartes, although it wouldn’t be finished until 1760. Quebec expected locals to both help fund and construct the fort. Some commanders were reasonable about these expectations, most were peeved the people wouldn’t work as hard as the French expected them to work. Military documents from that time show imperious, frustrated commanders. Historians look at the records of harvests and calculate that most people were working most of the time on their farms, they simply didn’t have time to work for free, for the military. There was tension. Some commanders were so callous and demanding that they had to be recalled.

The French and Indian War, aka the Seven Year War, was fought 1756-1763. Modern historians suggest it should be called WWI. It was a war fought between England and France via their respective Native allies; American Indians fought alongside European soldiers and, in most battles, suffered most of the losses. The American Revolutionary War; as noble as we consider our War for Independence, was pretty much a continuation of the war between European superpowers.  

The Brits won the French Indian war. (In case you don’t remember your high school history classes). So the French moved out of Kaskaskia; many families moved across the river to continue living as French citizens (St. Genevieve, Missouri happened this way). Others stayed. A series of British commanders came to Fort De Chartes. Some were okay, a few were very poor, and one was horrendous.

That was John Wilkins, appointed by the British who began his term as commander at Fort de Chartres in 1768. There was much trade happening up and down the river with no taxes and no fees being paid. Wilkins used this situation to demand passports of anyone coming into or going out of his area. This severely restricted trade. He jailed some residents, demanded bribes, only allowed products distributed by a Philadelphia business in which he had a large financial stake. He eventually incarcerated two of the smartest men in town. They used their long and grueling incarceration in the garrison dungeon to write out their grievances. When released they created and carried a 250-page report and request for civil government, to British General Gage in New England. He gave them a scant fifteen minutes of his time, but their writing stayed in official headquarters and became a significant part of the known history of that time and place.

These communities of collaborating French, Indian, and Black families had grown and stabilized in ways rarely accomplished in the rest of the developing Americas. It was not ideal, it was not perfect, there WERE enslaved African and Indian workers, but those realities were encompassed by rich and diverse communities of people who kept asking for one thing.

They wanted civil government. They wanted elected officials to whom they could bring their issues and arguments. They didn’t want a military fort commander. They didn’t want French or British appointed commanders. They wanted a local men whom they would pick themselves, to run their local affairs. And they wanted to be bound to French or British law regarding trade and property.

They sent letters to authorities further up the chain of command. They signed many petitions. They continuously pled their case to the French and then to the British political authorities.

In the end they failed. The Revolutionary War was fought and the British lost. John Rogers Clark, no friend to any Indian, came to the area. He said he would establish American civil government, but he failed as did others after him. Most citizens emigrated away from the area, those that stayed endured and sometimes contributed to the chaos and violence that prevails where people are stressed and government fails.

Yet this: From the late 1600’s until 1770 these women and men created an “entrepreneurial export economy, and interracial society, and a legal culture that was not based on imperial law.” The Illinois Indians, a strong but not invincible native nation, caused the French government to go against their own stated objectives in order to obtain the backing of these local warriors and families. (page 232)

There is much to observe and consider in this story. For more than a century there existed a diverse culture where no one dominated. They farmed, traded, built homes and villages, as well as a fort that still stands. They married each other, raised kids, worked together to raise an abundance of grains, vegetables, orchards. They discussed their civil problems and petitioned for intelligent solutions.

In a fascinating, powerful, very real way … this was an American Camelot.

Empire by Collaboration, Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country by Robert Michael Morrissey. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Morrissey teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne.



Fascinating.....I knew nothing of the history of this area.....thank you, Mary Beth! I always learn something from your writing.
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you! This is a great podcast about this same time and general area. If I remember correctly (I'm 90% sure I am) this interview explains why CLOTH and not weapons were the product of choice of many Indian people in this time.

Must admit, history isn’t my strong suite. I learn so much from you.

As always, MB: wonderfully erudite takeaway on a complicated historical piece. Enjoyed the reminder of lessons from long ago: cooperative communities thrive. This nation has such a “rich” history.
Mary Beth's picture

You said it in a nutshell! And that was the nutshell I was looking for, for weeks! "Cooperative communities thrive." And we could riff on this that corrupt power separates us from each other.

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