Sunday, October 7, 2012

250 Years Ago ... The Lay of the Land

*Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.

In October 1762, my ancestor Jean Baptiste Becquet lived in the village where he was born: Nouvelle Chartres.  Despite its name, Nouvelle Chartres was not located in France; it existed in what is now Southern Illinois.  Nouvelle Chartres was the little village that lay outside the walls of Fort de Chartres which was located along the Mississippi River about 50 miles south of what would become St. Louis and about 85 miles north of the confluence with the Ohio River.

It is probably helpful to understand the geographical relationship of the French villages along the Mississippi.  The following map will help.  You can orient yourself to St. Louis in the north and Kaskaskia in the south. Just above St. Louis, on the western side, would be the Missouri river.  Further below Kaskaskia, on the eastern side, would be the Ohio River.  Of course in 1762 St. Louis did not exist.  But Cahokia, across the river did exist as did all the villages reflected further south on the map.

Both Cahokia and Kaskaskia began as Indian villages in which Catholic missions were established.  The Mission of the Holy Family was founded in Cahokia in 1699 by the Recollect Fathers to serve the Tamaroa and Cahokia tribes.  The Mission of the Immaculate Conception in Kaskaskia was even older, being founded by that great exploring Jesuit priest Father Marquette in 1675 near Starved Rock on the Illinois River.  In about the year 1700, the Kaskaskia tribe decided to move away from Starved Rock and find a better location in the south.  The Mission of the Immaculate Conception travelled with them. 

First they crossed the Mississippi and settled near a small river in what is now south St. Louis which the French called River des Peres.  But the Kaskaskia were unhappy with the location and soon were on the move down the Mississippi again, finally settling in 1704 near the confluence with what became known as the Kaskaskia River.  In 1714 the Mission built a stone church and by 1718 there was a village with French settlers, mostly fur traders and their Indian wives. 
During this time both Cahokia and Kaskaskia came under the jurisdiction of New France, governed out of Quebec.  But in 1717 the Illinois Country, as it was called, was transferred to the new colony of Louisiana, to be governed out of the new town of New Orleans.  The following year the governor of Louisiana sent the Sieur de Boisbriant north to Kaskaskia to establish an administrative center.  When Boisbriant arrived in 1718, he brought sixty-eight soldiers, hired workers and convicts (who were required to work off their debt to society), greatly increasing the European portion of the population.

Listening to the complaints by the Jesuit missionaries that the French traders were corrupting the Indian converts, Boisbriant divided the community into three parts.  The French stayed in Kaskaskia, the Kaskaskia Indians moved to their own village six miles up the Kaskaskia River and the Metchigamia Indians moved sixteen miles up the Mississippi.  Then Boisbriant set about choosing a site where he could set up operations. 

The site Boisbriant chose for the new fort was about 16 miles upstream from Kaskaskia, just below the new village of the Metchigamia, right on the edge of the Mississippi.  The first fort was small, only a wooden palisade shaped in a square with two bastions.  Upon completion in 1720, the center of government for the Illinois Country moved to the fort and a small village grew around it that was sometimes referred to as Nouvelle Chartres. 

Meanwhile, in 1719 a Frenchman named Phillipe Renault arrived from France having obtained the rights to conduct mining operations in the area.  He used part of his land grant to create a small village, just north of the Metchigamia village, where his workers might live.  He named it St. Phillipe after his own patron saint. The mining operations were not successful but the village remained after Renault left. 

There were two other villages that are not on that map.  In 1722, Boisbriant's nephew was given land between Fort de Chartres and Kaskaskia and he founded the small village of Prairie du Rocher which means “Prairie by the Rock”.  It was located about four miles south of Fort de Chartres.  If Nouvelle Chartres existed to support the Fort and Kaskaskia existed to support the fur trade, Prairie du Rocher was primarily intended as an agricultural community.

The town of Ste. Genevieve is also not on the map.  It lies on the west side of the Mississippi just above Kaskaskia. It is the oldest permanent European settlement in Missouri.  There is some dispute as to the date it was founded, oral tradition setting the date about 1735 but later historians believing it was not founded until closer to 1750.  In any event it was in existence in 1762.   Ste. Genevieve was founded mostly as an agricultural community, the land on the western bank being very fertile.

Of all the settlements in existence in 1762, only three survive today.  Cahokia remains and is essentially a part of the St. Louis metro area, with a population in excess of 16,000 in 2010.  It contains the Church of the Holy Family (formerly the Mission) which is an original French building.
Ste. Genevieve also remains, having a population in excess of 4,000 people in 2010.  It is a picturesque little town that still retains its French roots and has the best collection of French colonial houses in the country.  Prairie du Rocher also still exists as a tiny little village with a population of 604 in 2010.  Just up the road from Prairie du Rocher is the restored Fort de Chartres (only the Magazine is original) which is now operated as a state park.   

Nouvelle Chartres disappeared when its raison d’etre disappeared –the French surrendered the fort to the British who abandoned it in the 1770s during the War for American Independence and the Americans had no interest in using it.  All trace of it was eventually destroyed by the flooding Mississippi.
Kaskaskia had the most dramatic ending.  The town was destroyed in 1881 when the Mississippi River changed course.  The River, which once ran to the west of the town, completely shifted and now runs to the east and Kaskaskia, although still a part of Illinois, is now only reachable from Missouri. It is essentially an island.  There is still a Church of the Immaculate Conception on the land, but not much else. The Church is a brick building dating from the mid 1800’s that was moved brick by brick when the town was moved.   There is no town anymore but the church remains.

The enclave of French villages along the Mississippi were far from other French settlements but it is surprising how many travelers passed through them.  The French traders traveled widely and news traveled with them. And of course news traveled with military convoys traveling to and from the Fort.

 By 1762 it seemed that all the news was bad news. But that is another story. 

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