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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Early History of Illinois

by
Sidney Breese

published by E. B. Myers & Company,
Chicago, 1884

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 13
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 p141  Chapter XII

The Foundation of Kaskaskia on the Mississippi

In what particular year they effected a permanent settlement here I cannot ascertain any further than the relation before alluded to, of the establishment of the Mission of St. Louis, at Peoria, in 1653. That Fort St. Louis, at the "Starved Rock" became a missionary station, and so continued until its abandonment, is unquestionable, as it was in convenient proximity to the most considerable villages of the Illinois. Its records may, no doubt, be found in the archives of the church in Quebec, and would well repay the efforts of the curious to search them out.

The earliest record I can find of any description is "the Register of Baptisms of the Mission of Illinois," under the title of "the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin," and now among the archives of the church at Kaskaskia.

The first entry in it bears date March 20,  p142 1695, and is in the handwriting of James Gravier. It is in the following form:

"In the year 1695, March 20th, I, James Gravier, of the Society of Jesus, baptized Peter Ako, newly born of P. Michael Ako, Godfather was D. de Hauchy, Godmother Mary Arami, Mary Jane grandmother of the child."

This record is continued down to the present time, and furnishes the names of all the priests who ever officiated there at any period.1

 p143  It is asserted that James Gravier was the founder of Kaskaskia, but in what year is not stated.

 p144  Here is the earliest evidence of his presence in this transcript from "the Register" which I have discovered, whilst the name of Michael  p145 Ako, companion of Hennepin in 1680 and his presenting a child at the baptismal font would serve to show that he had been there at a time sufficiently long before 1695 to have formed a matrimonial connection, the fruit of which Father Gravier enrolled in the calendar of the Church. He officiated until June 13, 1697, and was succeeded by Julian Bineteau and he by Gabriel Marest in 1699.

Before the commencement of the eighteenth century then, we have every reason to believe that a germ of civilization had taken root on  p146 our soil, had sprung up and borne fruit, and has continued to grow and increase and expand, to this, our day.

No evidence is to be found, among our early records, of the exercise of any controlling power, save that of the Jesuits, up to the time of the grant to Crozat in 1712, and I have no idea that any such existed in the shape of government, or that there was any other social organization than that effected by them and of which they were the head.

That the trader divided the empire with the priests cannot be doubted, for he had efficient means of control in his power also. He had the blankets and the stroud and the fusees, and the calicoes, and the fire-water, and what other elements of power did he require to gain an enviable ascendancy?

The question has been often asked, how was it that the French always had such amicable relations with the American Indians? How did they acquire such an influence over them as they possessed, and how retain it, in opposition to the many efforts made by a rival power to deprive them of it?

A satisfactory reply may be found in what has  p147 already been stated — religious influence brought to bear upon them, by the most learned, acute, crafty, zealous, and indefatigable men of the age — by intermarriages with them and by the power of the "fire-water" and the possession of fire-arms. Added to all these was that singular native aptitude, so characteristic of the Frenchman, to be satisfied under circumstances which would deprive an Anglo-Saxon of all his serenity and composure.

Though naturally gay and volatile, he has, notwithstanding, great energy, courage and fortitude, and a happy bonhomie, disposing him, in whatever situation he may be placed, to inspire the same feelings in others, and an astonishing faculty of dispensing the light and beauty of his own nature around every circle, Christian or savage, and instead of being grum, gruff, and surly over his wild rice and jerked venison, he laughs and talks with no counterfeited pleasure, and joins in the corn-dance to the sound of the drum, and the rattle of the chechegua, with as much apparent gusto as he would in his national cotillion to the music of his own loved violin. He has, too, his own interest in his eye, as much as any other man, and therefore would neither say or do any thing offensive to those among  p148 whom he had come to gather buffalo robes, peltries and beaver skins. His effort is to conciliate, and he is generally successful. Who in our day is sought for as the most competent for the Indian trade?

Who knows the most distant tribes best, and has pushed his adventurous canoe farthest up our wild western waters, and given them their names? The Frenchman. His peculiar qualities have enabled him to accomplish feats of the most daring enterprise, and to move, unharmed, among savage nations whose tomahawks have spared no white man but him.

At Cahokia the Jesuit Fathers Pinet and Bineteau had established the Mission of Saint Sulpice, and christened the little community that grew up around it by the name of "Sainte Famille de Caoquias," whilst that at Kaskaskia was denominated "Le Village d'Immaculee Conception de Cascasquias."

The pursuits of the adventurers to both places were similar — all hunted and fished for a living, assumed Indian habits, affected their manners and spoke their dialects, yet preserving their own national peculiarities with but little real change.

 p149  At Cahokia, the Jesuits had valuable mills for corn and planks, a large farm with a costly mansion upon it, and at Kaskaskia a stone church and chapel and a large house of the same material, an extensive brewery, a farm of more than two hundred acres, and immense herds of cattle, originally obtained from the upper missions, and horses from the same, the lineal descendants of the Canadian pony. At each all the comforts of life were at command, and each was blessed with a hopeful congregation of tawny neophytes. At both, the priests and the traders were the "big men," their quiet subjects taking but little thought of the morrow, "what they should eat, or what they should drink, or wherewithal they should be clad," for plenty surrounded them, and the only occurrences to checker the monotony of their spiritless existence, and rouse them up to a consciousness that they were not the only people in the world, were the occasional arrivals of bands of the distant Osages from the banks of the Missouri, to dance the calumet, or a fresh supply of missionaries from the cloisters of Quebec, or of traders from France, who, having inspected and approved the quality  p150 of the furs and peltries sent there from this valley, desired a more near and a more profitable acquaintance with the now tamed and christianized beings who supplied them. Land was not an object of acquisition at either place — the whole domain was free for their use, and individual appropriations to any great extent unnecessary and undesired.

The Jesuits occupied as commanding sites as could be had, and as much as they desired, but they were small parcels, which the native sovereigns cheerfully surrendered to their kind friends, who had crossed the great water to come to them, for the holy purpose of pointing them to a better heaven than the one "behind the cloud-capped hill," which they had pictured in their wild and untutored fancies, as for the others, they built their huts where they pleased, and planted their corn in such spots as gave token of the greatest return, and there was none to make them afraid.

As a consequence of this, Cahokia straggled along the creek or "Rigolet" where the first lodgment had been made, and Kaskaskia presented the same appearance upon the river bank it occupied, there being in neither the least regularity of design, or any attempt to profit by the acknowledged advantages each possessed.


The Editor's Note:

1 Note B. — Mr. E. G. Mason of Chicago, in the Magazine of American History, Vol. VI, No. 3, March, 1881, establishes the fact that the first town or village known as Kaskaskia in this state has been identified with that of a village of the Illinois tribe containing about seventy-four cabins, in 1673‑5, and situate upon the great meadow, south of the modern town of Utica. He says that when Father Marquette returned from his adventurous voyage upon the Mississippi in 1673, by the way of the Illinois, he found on the latter river a village of the Illinois tribe, containing seventy-four cabins, which was called Kaskaskia. Its inhabitants received him well, and obtained from him a promise to return and instruct them. He kept that promise faithfully, undaunted by disease and toilsome journeys and inclement weather, and after a rude wintering by the Chicago river, reached the Illinois village again April 8, 1675. Marquette established there a mission to which he gave the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, and for a little time was able to teach the chiefs and the people. But continued illness soon obliged him to set forth upon that return voyage which brought him to a lonely grave in the wilderness.

The learning and research of this article were first embodied by Mr. Mason in a lecture delivered by him before the Chicago Historical Society in 1882, and a transcript of the more interesting portions embodying the evidence as to the Kaskaskia, which became the capital of Illinois in 1809, and 1818 when she was first erected into a territorial government by Congress, and afterward admitted as a State into the American Union, is as follows:

But the evidence that this mission remained upon the Illinois River until the year 1700, and that there was no settlement before that time upon the site of the Kaskaskia we now know, appears to be well-nigh conclusive. A letter written to the Bishop of Quebec by John Francis Buisson de St. Cosme, a missionary priest, describes the journey of his party from Michillimackinac to the mouth of the Arkansas, by the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, in the year 1699. They stayed at the house of the Jesuit Fathers at Chicago, and set out from there about November first, on what one of their predecessors calls the divine river, named by the Indians Checagou, and made the portage to the River of the Illinois. Passing the Illinois village before referred to, they learned that most of the Indians had gone to Peoria Lake to hunt. Arriving there, they met the Fathers Pinet and Maret, with their flock, of which St. Cosme gives a good account, and he speaks of their work as the Illinois mission. The party journeyed onward, under the guidance of La Salle's trusty lieutenant, Tonti. While on the Illinois River, certain Indians attempted to prevent their going to the Mississippi, and intimated that they would be killed if they did so. Tonti replied that he did not fear men, that they had seen him meet the Iroquois, and knew that he could kill men; and the Indians offered no further opposition. They reached the Mississippi the 6th of December, and the next day reached the village of the Tamaroas, who had never seen any "black gown," except for a few days when the reverend Father Gravier paid them a visit. A week later, they ascended a rock on the right, going down the river, and erected a beautiful cross, which their escort saluted with a volley of musketry, and St. Cosme prayed that God might grant that the cross, which had never been known in those regions, might triumph there. From the context of the letter, it is evident that this ceremony took place not far below the site of the present Kaskaskia, which St. Cosme must have passed to reach this rock, but he makes no mention of such a village. Furthermore, within fifteen miles or so of Kaskaskia, there is a rocky bluff on the Missouri side of the river, known now as the Cape of the Five Men, or Cap Cinq Hommes. This doubtless is a corruption of the name of the good Father St. Cosme, as appears from a map made a little more than one hundred years ago, which gives both names, Cinqhommes and St. Cosme, to this very bluff. It probably is the identical one which he ascended, and he could not have spoken of the cross as unknown in those regions, had there been any settlement so near the spot as the Kaskaskia we now know. Tonti, who was the leader of this party, is thought by some to have founded Kaskaskia in 1686. Nobler founder could no town have had than this faithful and fearless soldier, but the facts just narrated make such a theory impossible.

Again, in the early part of the year 1700, a bold voyager, Le Sueur whose journal is in print, pushed up the Mississippi from its mouth, where D'Iberville had just planted the banner of France, and passed the site of Kaskaskia, without notice of such a place. He speaks of the village of the Tamaroas, where, by this time, St. Cosme had taken up his abode on his return from the south. About July 15th, going northward, Le Sueur arrived at the mouth of the Illinois, and there met three Canadian voyagers coming to join his party, and received by them a letter from the Jesuit Marest, dated July 10th, 1700, at the Mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin at the Illinois. The letter of St. Cosme, and the journal of Le Sueur, seem to show clearly enough that down to the middle of the year 1700, the present Kaskaskia had not been settled, and that the Mission was still on the Illinois River.

And lastly, we have the journal of the voyage of Father James Gravier, in 1700, from the country of the Illinois to the mouth of the Mississippi; from which we learn that he returned from Michillimackinac, and set out from Chicago on the 8th of September, 1700. He says he arrived too late at the Illinois, of whom Father Marest had charge, to prevent the transmigration of the village of the Kaskaskias, which was too precipitately made, on vague news of the establishment on the Mississippi, evidently referring to the landing of d'Iberville the year before. He did not believe that the Kaskaskias, whom Marest accompanied, would have separated from the Peorias and other Illinois, had he arrived sooner; and he obtained a promise from the Peorias to await his return from the Mississippi. After having marched four days with the Kaskaskias, Gravier went forward with Marest, whom he left sick at the Tamaroas village, and departed from there October 9th, 1700, to go to the lower part of the Mississippi, accompanied only by some Frenchmen. The Indians with Marest, we may presume, halted upon the peninsula between the Kaskaskia and the Mississippi Rivers, where we soon after find them; and thus doubtless was accomplished the transfer of the mission to its final location. The eagerness of the Illinois tribes to be in closer communication with the French was probably intensified by their desire to escape any further assaults from their dreaded enemies, and to rear their wigwams where they would never hear the war‑cry of the Iroquois. Both motives would operate more powerfully with the Kaskaskias than with any others, because they had been longer under the influence of the French, and because, in their old location, they were the first to receive the onslaughts of the relentless foemen of the Illinois. Hence they set out to go to the lower Mississippi, but Gravier's influence, and perhaps Marest's illness as well, led them to pause at the first suitable resting-place, and that became their permanent abode. And when we consider that a few years later, this same Father Marest, who accompanied these Indians on their migration, was stationed at the present Kaskaskia, in charge of the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, as appears from his letters; that he died and was buried there, as is shown by the parish records; and that we hear nothing further of a mission of this name on the Illinois River; we may reasonably conclude that the Kaskaskia of our time should date its origin from the fall of the year 1700, and should honor James Gravier and Gabriel Marest as its founders.


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