Located approximately 50 miles south
of St. Louis is the town of Prairie du Rocher which translates to
"prairie by the rock." The fourth European settlement in Illinois,
this village was founded in 1722
shortly after the establishment of Fort de Chartres on a tract granted by
the Royal Indian Company to Pierre Dugue Boisbriant, the commandant and
builder of the fort. Situated on the fertile farmland beneath the Mississippi
River bluffs now called the American Bottoms, Prairie du Rocher provided
grain and other foodstuffs to New Orleans and other lower Louisiana
Territory communities. A common field was granted in 1730 and the town’s
first church was built in 1734.
miles east of Prairie du Rocher is the reconstructed Fort de Chartres (photo
left.) The first fort was a wooden stockade built in 1718 to provide a base
for civil authority and military protection for the region. This
fortification and a second both succumbed to the ravages of the Mississippi
River floods. A third fort, this time built of limestone quarried in the
bluffs overlooking Prairie du Rocher, was completed in 1760. Fort de
Chartres was the last French fort east of the Mississippi River to be ceded
to the British after the French and Indian War. Following British occupation
many French citizens moved across the river to settle in towns such as Ste.
Genevieve and St. Louis rather than live under British rule leading to a
decline in French cultural influence in the area. The fort fell into
disrepair after the British moved their headquarters to Kaskaskia. By the
early 1900's all that was left was the ammunition house. The fort was
reconstructed in the 1930's and the King's Storehouse is home to the
Piethman Museum covering the history of the area.
Prairie du Rocher was one of the
outposts captured during the Revolutionary War by George Rogers Clark and his "Long Knives"
during their expedition that culminated in the capture of Vincennes,
Indiana. The success of this campaign gave control of the northwest territory (Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan,
and Illinois) to the forces that would eventually become the United States
of America, and opened the region to settlers from the east. Clark’s
younger brother William made note of Fort de Chartres in his journal on his way
to the winter encampment in Wood River in 1803 before setting off on the Corps
of Discovery expedition that explored the Louisiana Purchase.
Even as control of the town changed
hands the French heritage continues. On New Year's Eve, members of the La
Guiannee Society wear 18th-century costumes and bearing candles go from door
to door performing the French folk song "La Guiannee." This
tradition has been unbroken since 1722 even though the custom has long disappeared in France.
occur throughout the year, particularly at Fort de Chartres. Every June the
Fort hosts one of the Midwest’s largest rendezvous gatherings with as many
as 1,000 participants and 30,000 visitors. Other annual Living History events
include the French and Indian War Assemblage held in October.
The Creole House, which dates back to 1800
and represents a combination of French and American architecture, holds
several open houses in conjunction with events held at Fort de Chartres.