Welcome to the
French Colonial Country
The region along the Mississippi River south of St. Louis is French Colonial Country. The region was originally inhabited by a number of Native American cultures as far back as 11,000 B.C. and remnants of these cultures can be found at Mastodon State Historic Site and Washington State Park in Jefferson County, Missouri. The area was claimed by France after an expedition led by Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette in 1673. Into what became known as Illinois Country came traders and settlers from France and Canada who were attracted by the resources of the region. The town of Cahokia was founded in 1699 by French-Canadian missionaries, the same year as the founding of Williamsburg, the colonial capitol of Virginia, and predating New Orleans by nearly 20 years and St. Louis by 65 years. The village of Kaskaskia was established by French traders and their Native American wives in 1703 and in 1718 a contingent of soldiers, officials and workmen from New Orleans were sent north to establish a civil government in the region. A wooden fort, later to be rebuilt in stone, named Fort de Chartres, was soon constructed eighteen miles north of Kaskaskia from which the civil authority would operate and whose military presence it was hoped would pacify the Fox Tribe.
By 1735 Ste. Genevieve was established, becoming the first permanent European settlement in what now is the state of Missouri. The town started as a trading outpost and was later settled by lead miners, farmers and fur traders. The American Bottoms, a sixty mile long strip of land on the Illinois' bank of the Mississippi River and the le Grand Champs of Ste. Genevieve became the breadbasket of the Louisiana Territory providing foodstuffs to European colonists as far south as Louisiana. Although the Illinois Country flourished, France's colonial empire didn’t and France ceded the region to Great Britain when it signed the Treaty of Paris that ended the French & Indian War in 1763. Many of the French settlers on the east bank of the Mississippi River, preferring to live under Spanish rather under the British, crossed the river to live in St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve.
During the American Revolution a daring raid by George Rogers Clark and his "Long Knives" captured Kaskaskia and Fort Gage on July 4, 1778, and proclaimed the area to be part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The French citizens, fearing retribution from the Americans, were overjoyed when they found common allies against the British and rang the church bell in celebration giving rise to the bell's reputation as " The Liberty Bell of the West" (photo left.) Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recruited men from the American garrison at Kaskaskia and used Cahokia as an administrative center as they prepared for their journey of exploration. Kaskaskia was the seat of territorial government from 1810 to 1818 when it became the state capitol when Illinois became a state. In 1820 the capitol was moved to Vandalia and the importance of Kaskaskia diminished. The town was devastated by the floodwaters of the Mississippi in 1881 and another flood in 1893 obliterated the original town. Residents moved what they had left to the town's present site. This small community is the only Illinois community west of the Mississippi River .
greatriverroad.com invites you to explore this exciting and interesting region. Although English is the common language spoken in the region today, the French heritage is not forgotten. Ste. Genevieve has more than 150 pre-1825 structures and many are open to the public giving it the largest concentration of French Colonial architecture in the North America and its Historic District has been designated a National Landmark. Across the Mississippi River in Randolph County, the State of Illinois operates several historic sites. The Pierre Menard Home is the finest example of upper class French Colonial life in the region, Fort Kaskaskia preserves the site that George Rogers Clark captured during the Revolutionary War, and the restored Fort de Chartres (photo right) is the Mississippi Valley’s premier site for French Colonial reenactments. Farther north the Colonial Cahokia State Historic Sites complex features a number of sites such as the Cahokia Courthouse to experience the colonial era.