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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Early History of Illinois

Sidney Breese

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

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 17
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p169  Chapter XVI

Rise of New Orleans and the entrepôt of twenty thousand miles of inland navigation

The operations of this company, confined as they were, for the most part, to the lower Mississippi, had no disadvantageous influence there, but rather the opposite, inasmuch as it laid the foundations of that great mart, where vessels of all nations now crowd and the merchants of the world most do congregate.

The great emporium of this magnificent valley, the recipient of the trade of twenty thousand miles of inland navigation, owes to this "scheme" its early importance, and a city was there in fancy, while its site was covered with canebrakes and the forest.

Named in honor of the regent, its vast advantages, and of the country surrounding it, were as well known on the Paris Bourse, and as much the subject of delighted remark as Paris itself, yet then all was a wilderness in  p170 this whole West, and no smoke curled from the habitations of the "pale-face," save those in this isolated colony westward of the Delaware, all was a dark and tangled forest, calculated by its dreariness and solitude, to inspire far other thoughts than those of empire, commerce, wealth and power.

As their operations progressed at New Orleans the upper part of Louisiana, called "The Illinois," was likewise benefited, as they gave a ready vent to all its surplus agricultural productions, then very considerable in amount, and to the furs and peltries gathered in Indian traffic, and to the lead dug from the mines.

They were important in another particular, as by them, a power was installed here by which the settlers could procure titles to their possessions and be quieted in any apprehensions they might so naturally have entertained in regard to them. The only tenure by which they held their little village lots and their little spots of prairie which they had subjected to a rude cultivation, was that by the Indian grant, with no reference to the sanction of the king, the lord paramount of the soil.

"The company" succeeded to the rights of  p171 the king in the soil, and although vast domains were granted by it to favored or influential individuals in the southern part of Louisiana, there were none here who sought to secure any thing more than those small parcels, the culture of which had inspired the feelings of "home."

Besides it was important to the company that the land should be cultivated as a ready source for the subsistence of those attached to it, and for the success of all their operations. Disappointed in the search for mines in different parts of the country — no "sparkles of golden splendor" rewarding their toil; no gems and no precious stones — many of the adventurers, as the speculators in our day have done, betook themselves to procuring shares in that bank which has never yet failed to pay a full equivalent for all its promises, and never yet dishonored a draft properly drawn upon it.

Grants of land were freely made for purposes of settlement and cultivation to all who applied for them, by an officer representing the royal interest, in conjunction with one in the service of the company. The earliest recorded grants trace back to 1722, and were  p172 made principally by one Mons. Boisbriant, the first commandant in the Illinois,a acting for the king, and one Des Ursins for the India Company.

Here is one of the earliest on record:

"Pierre Duguet de Boisbriant, Knight of the Military Order of Saint Louis, and First King's Lieutenant of the Province of Louisiana, commanding at the Illinois, and Mons. Antoine de la Loire Des Ursins, principal commissary for the Royal India Company, on the demand of Charles Danie to grant him a piece of land of five arpents in front on the side of the Mitchigamia river, running north and south, joining to Michael Philip on one side, on the other to Meleque, and in depth, east and west, to the Mississippi. In consequence they do grant to said Charles Danie, in socage, the said land, whereon he may from this date commence working, clearing and sewing in expectation of a formal concession, which shall be sent from France by Messrs. the Directors of the Royal India Company, and the said land shall revert to the domain of the said company if the said Charles Danie does not work thereon within a year and a  p173 day. Given this 10th day of May, 1722. (Signed) Boisbriant; (signed) Des Ursins."

Incipient titles were only granted by these officers, but almost all of them ripened into a right without the formality of a "concession" from the company in France, and became allodial, though granted in socage, for the simple reason that they were considered of so little value as property, that the agents of the company did not trouble themselves to see whether the conditions and services were performed or not.

The manner in which the settlers cultivated is peculiar, I believe, to the French, and deserves a passing notice. They had not, as we have, separate fields, nor did they reside on the cultivated lands in general. They dwelt in villages, on lots of ground containing an arpent square, generally — less than the English acre — which they inclosed with pickets of cedar or other durable wood, sharpened at the top, and appropriated it to the purpose of a garden, reserving a small part only for a barn, stable and other outhouses.

Their farming lands were adjacent to the village in the neighboring prairie, divided into  p174 narrow strips, sometimes not more than half an arpent in width, and extending, originally, west from the Kaskaskia to the Mississippi river, a mile or more in length, and uninclosed by any fence whatever.

These strips thus laying contiguous to each other embrace what is now, and has been for many years, the "common field."

Those at Cahokia extended from the bluffs by which the American bottom is lined, to the Rigolet or creek, and constituted their "common field."

It seems, from some old records which I examined many years since, that in 1719 this Mons. Boisbriant changed, somewhat, the lines of their cultivated lands, by drawing the lines of the "grand carre, or great square, which should limit the boundaries of their village lots and also confine the cultivated lands entirely west of them, and he, at the same time, confirmed each inhabitant in his claim to the tract he had appropriated. He then established "a common," for cattle, lying outside of the lines of the "grand carre," and extending south to the mouth of the Kaskaskia river, and also all the adjacent islands in the  p175 Mississippi, and the strip of bottom land on the east side of the first named river, from the shoal above the village to its mouth, for their cattle, horses and swine to range upon.

Under this system it was necessary to watch their cattle whilst grazing upon the common, adjacent to the cultivated lands, the idea not having occurred to them until Mons. Boisbriant gave them the hint, that a fence around them would protect them from their ravages, and render watching entirely useless. It was not, however, until eight years afterward, in 1727, that they did inclose these lands by planting pickets upon the lines marked out by Mons. Boisbriant, thus making a large field of several thousand acres.1

The "commons" afforded rich pasturage for their cattle and horses, and as much of it was covered with a luxuriant growth of walnut, hickory and oak, "the mast" from them, added to the hazel-nuts which were there in great abundance, offered rich repasts for their numerous swine, and sufficient wood for all their purposes.

On the 22d of June, 1722, these same officers,  p176 Boisbriant and Des Ursins, granted to the inhabitants of Cahokia their "commons," now one of the most valuable parcels of land in the State, being near the great and growing city of St. Louis, and as fertile as any other upon which the sun sheds his beams.

Their "common field" lands he also confirmed to them.

The Editor's Note:

1 See Appendix E.

Thayer's Note:

a In 1724, Pierre Duguet de Boisbriant (in the flexible spelling of those days: also Dugué, Dugay, etc.; also Boisbriand) would become for a brief period governor of all of French Louisiana.

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