Visitors Guide to
Kaskaskia
Randolph County, Illinois
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Kaskaskia was once a town of major importance in the region and the first capitol of the State of Illinois. It traces its roots back to 1673 when Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette explored the Mississippi River looking for a route to the Pacific Ocean. When they realized they weren’t heading in the right direction and were entering hostile Spanish territory, they turned around and headed back by way of the Illinois River where they encountered the peaceful Kaskaskia tribe. Marquette returned to these people and founded the Mission of the Immaculate Conception. After Marquette left because of poor health, the Mission was headed by Father Marest and was relocated several times because of conflicts between the Kaskaskia of the Illini Confederation and the more warring Iroquois. Eventually the Mission moved to the confluence of the Michigamea River (now known as the Kaskaskia River) and the Mississippi.

The village of Kaskaskia was established in 1703 and its first were a few French traders, their Native American wives, and Father Marest. Because of Kaskaskia’s location on the fertile land now known as the American Bottoms, it quickly grew into an important center of agriculture and fur trading. With the onset of the French and Indian War in 1756 and fearing attack, Fort Kaskaskia was built on Garrison Hill overlooking the town. This fort was destroyed by the townspeople rather than having it fall into British hands after the French lost the war. The earthen mounds of this fort can be seen at Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site. The French and Indian War had a profound effect on the nature of Kaskaskia. Rather than live under British rule, many of its people moved across the Mississippi River to Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis.

The British built a fortification in the town itself, Fort Gage. This large stone building had once been used by a Jesuit mission until the British suppressed the religious order and used the building as a barracks. During the American Revolution, George Rogers Clark led an expedition of his "Long Knives" into the Illinois Country. On July 4, 1778 Clark surprised the British at Fort Gage and liberated Kaskaskia without firing a shot. Elated at being liberated from British rule the townspeople rang the parish bell which has been called "The Liberty Bell of the West" ever since. After the Revolution, and with no civil authority present, the area descended into anarchy with bandits occupying the site of Fort Kaskaskia.

The area settled down once the American military moved in. In November of 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stopped off at the American garrison at Fort Kaskaskia to recruit men, and gather supplies and information. By the period of the 1810's-1820's the town reached it largest size of approximately 7,000 people and was one of the leading towns in the Illinois Country. When Illinois was made a territory in 1809, Kaskaskia became its capitol. When Illinois became a state in 1818, a rented home in Kaskaskia was the site of the first state capitol. When the state capitol was moved to the more centrally located Vandalia in 1820, Kaskaskia began to lose its importance and immigration to the state produced rival towns. But the death blow to Kaskaskia was the Mississippi River. A great flood in 1844 nearly destroyed the town and most of its inhabitants either moved inland or to St. Louis. Another great flood in 1881 carved a new channel and most of old Kaskaskia was obliterated. Residents with anything remaining moved on.

The flood of 1881 created what is now called Kaskaskia Island. The small community of Kaskaskia located here is the only Illinois community west of the Mississippi River. The Liberty Bell of the West is in a small brick building that sits next to the rebuilt Church of the Mission of the Immaculate Conception. Kaskaskia Island is only accessible through St. Mary, Missouri.

Chester is the birthplace and early home of Elzie C. Segar, the creator of Popeye. Segar is said to have modeled many of the Popeye characters after real residents of Chester. In 1977 a 6-foot bronze Popeye statue was dedicated in Segar Memorial Park, located near the Chester Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River. In September Chester hosts its popular annual Popeye Picnic with events located at numerous locations throughout the town.

 
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