Illinois Country

Pais des Ilinois (Illinois Country) in 1717 French map

The Illinois Country (French: Pays des Illinois, lit. "land of the Illinois (plural)", i.e. the Illinois people) — sometimes referred to as Upper Louisiana (French: la Haute-Louisiane; Spanish: Alta Luisiana) — was a vast region of New France in what is now the Midwestern United States. While these names generally referred to the entire Upper Mississippi River watershed, French colonial settlement was concentrated along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers in what is now the U.S. states of Illinois and Missouri, with outposts in Indiana. Explored in 1673 from Green Bay to the Arkansas River by the Canadien expedition of Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, the area was claimed by France. It was settled primarily from the Pays d'en Haut in the context of the fur trade. Over time, the fur trade took some French to the far reaches of the Rocky Mountains, especially along the branches of the broad Missouri River valley. The French name, Pays des Illinois, means "Land of the Illinois [plural]" and is a reference to the Illinois Confederation, a group of related Algonquian native peoples.

Up until 1717, the Illinois Country was governed by the French province of Canada, but by order of King Louis XV, the Illinois Country was annexed to the French province of Louisiana, with the northeastern administrative border being somewhat vaguely on or near the upper Illinois River.[1] The territory thus became known as "Upper Louisiana." By the mid-18th century, the major settlements included Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Chartres, Saint Philippe, and Prairie du Rocher, all on the east side of the Mississippi in present-day Illinois; and Ste. Genevieve across the river in Missouri, as well as Fort Vincennes in what is now Indiana.[2]

As a consequence of the French defeat in the Seven Years' War, the Illinois Country east of the Mississippi River was ceded to the British, and the land west of the river to the Spanish. Following the British occupation of the left bank (when heading downstream) of the Mississippi in 1764, some Canadien settlers remained in the area, while others crossed the river, forming new settlements such as St. Louis.

Eventually, the eastern part of the Illinois Country became part of the British Province of Quebec, while the inhabitants chose to side with the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Although the lands west of the Mississippi were sold in 1803 to the United States by France—which had reclaimed possession of Luisiana from the Spanish in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso—French language and culture continued to exist in the area, with the Missouri French dialect still being spoken into the 20th century.[2]

Because of the deforestation that resulted from the cutting of much wood for fuel during the 19th-century age of steamboats, the Mississippi River became more shallow and broad, with more severe flooding and lateral changes in its channel in the stretch from St. Louis to the confluence with the Ohio River. As a consequence, many architectural and archaeological resources were lost to flooding and destruction of early French colonial villages originally located near the river, including Kaskaskia, St. Philippe, Cahokia, and Ste. Genevieve.[3]

Location and boundaries

1681 map of the New World: New France and the Great Lakes in the north, with a dark line as the Mississippi River to the west and the mouth of the river (and future New Orleans) then terra incognita

The boundaries of the Illinois Country were defined in a variety of ways, but the region now known as the American Bottom was nearly at the center of all descriptions. One of the earliest known geographic features designated as Ilinois was what later became known as Lake Michigan, on a map prepared in 1671 by French Jesuits. Early French missionaries and traders referred to the area southwest and southeast of the lake, including much of the upper Mississippi Valley, by this name. Illinois was also the name given to an area inhabited by the Illiniwek. A map of 1685 labels a large area southwest of the lake les Ilinois; in 1688, the Italian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli labeled the region (in Italian) as Illinois country. In 1721, the seventh civil and military district of Louisiana was named Illinois. It included more than half of the present state, as well as the land between the Arkansas River and the line of 43 degrees north latitude, and the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. A royal ordinance of 1722—following the transfer of the Illinois Country's governance from Canada to Louisiana—may have featured the broadest definition of the region: all land claimed by France south of the Great Lakes and north of the mouth of the Ohio River, which would include the lower Missouri Valley as well as both banks of the Mississippi.[1]

A generation later, trade conflicts between Canada and Louisiana led to a more defined boundary between the French colonies; in 1745, Louisiana governor general Vaudreuil set the northeastern bounds of his domain as the Wabash valley up to the mouth of the Vermilion River (near present-day Danville, Illinois); from there, northwest to le Rocher on the Illinois River, and from there west to the mouth of the Rock River (at present day Rock Island, Illinois).[1] Thus, Vincennes and Peoria were the limit of Louisiana'a reach; the outposts at Ouiatenon (on the upper Wabash near present-day Lafayette, Indiana), Chicago, Fort Miamis (near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana) and Prairie du Chien operated as dependencies of Canada.[1]

This boundary between Canada and the Illinois Country remained in effect until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, after which France surrendered its remaining territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain. (Although British forces had occupied the "Canadian" posts in the Illinois and Wabash countries in 1761, they did not occupy Vincennes or the Mississippi River settlements at Cahokia and Kaskaskia until 1764, after the ratification of the peace treaty.[4]) As part of a general report on conditions in the newly conquered lands, Gen. Thomas Gage, then commandant at Montreal, explained in 1762 that, although the boundary between Louisiana and Canada wasn't exact, it was understood the upper Mississippi above the mouth of the Illinois was in Canadian trading territory.[5]

Distinctions became somewhat clearer after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, when Britain acquired Canada and the land claimed by France east of the Mississippi and Spain acquired Louisiana west of the Mississippi. Many French settlers moved west across the river to escape British control.[2] On the west bank, the Spanish also continued to refer to the western region governed from St. Louis as the District of Illinois and referred to St. Louis as the city of Illinois.[1]

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