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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 17

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 19
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p189  Chapter XVIII

Old Fort Chartre and the new site built in 1744;
War with England

Who that had felt the chilling influence of the odious and oppressive distinctions of society in old France, who had been fettered in his pursuits by the power of an arbitrary government in its manifold ramifications, minute divisions and subdivisions, would, after inhaling the bland zephyrs of these plains, scenting the balmy fragrance of these groves, and indulging in the luxury of a liberty almost unrestrained, return to France or Canada again, when here he could carry on, unmolested, his schemes of business or of pleasure — where the shade of his own vine and fig tree protected him — where every object that met his eye invited him to remain, and though a wilderness was around him, it was a wilderness of freedom, and where for the humble and the unaspiring, contentment might erect her loveliest bower.

 p190  It was the good fortune of all who came to this favored land, to find pursuits adapted to their dispositions, and the morning sun rose but to cheer them, and set without a cloud, and that feeling of "home," inseparable from the cultivation of the soil, in which the greater part engaged, was warmly aroused, strengthening and expanding with each revolution of the year.

To protect the interest of the "company," a few of the king's troops had been sent here, officered by "Knights of the Military Order of St. Louis," a portion of whom occupied the old Fort Chartre, first erected by the adventurers under Crozat, and a new one constructed by the company, on the hill, east of and commanding the village, stream and plain, and one at Cahokia. By this infusion into the social atmosphere of some of the etiquette and refinement of military life, its general tone was improved, and the society itself relieved from its otherwise wearisome monotony.

It was found necessary by the crown of France to continue a military force here, for the double purpose of chastising the Chicasas, whose roving bands sometimes threatened its  p191 safety, and for protecting it against the great power of his rival, England, with which, in 1744, Louis was once more at war.

His distant colonies were the most inviting points of attack, and it was a darling object with England to wrest that sceptre from his grip, which he had so long wielded over this valley, to tear down the lily of the Bourbons and plant in its stead the cross of St.George.

This caused a considerable number of troops to be sent here, in addition to those levied for the company's service, and the national banner was displayed above the palisades of the various little forts, which sentineled the land, the morning and the evening drum-beat was heard, and all the accompaniments of military garrisons were here displayed in their pomp and pride.

This was undoubtedly the era of the colony's greatest prosperity.

A swarm had, four years previous, in 1740, left the parent hive and settled on the western bank of the Mississippi, attracted thither by the "salt springs" near by, and by the rich lead mines, and above all, by the still fresh alluvion that there offered its bounties to those  p192 who, in every age of the world, are always seeking for change, ever restless and never satisfied.

The settlement is now known as "St. Genevieve," not now occupying the same ground it did then, nor bearing the same name.

It was immediately on the "river bottom," and was called "Misère," significant, certainly, not of poverty which did not surround it, but comparative merely, when contrasted with the then old, established and flourishing settlements on this side of the river.

This village was not removed to its present site, until an unusual inundation of the Mississippi, happening in 1785, and yet known and remembered as "l'année des grandes eaux," rendered it prudent to seek a higher elevation than the bottom afforded.

You may see, as you pass from Kaskaskia through its "common field," the heaps of stones, cellars nearly filled up, and the tame fruit trees and shrubbery entwining their stems and mingling their foliage with those of native growth.

All the other villages were flourishing and increasing rapidly in population, there being no checks to marriages and no fees to pay, except  p193 the dues to the priest, means of subsistence in the greatest profusion, the climate favorable to animal developments, and every thing inviting to early matrimonial connections. As a consequence of all these, each village abounded in black-eyed little creoles, as blooming and as joyous as that charming nature which surrounded them, who, in time, presented the arrowy form and other peculiar characteristics for which they have been noted.

It is remarked of them by all the early writers, that notwithstanding an appearance of languor so observable among them, the effects of climate no doubt, there was nothing of that withered‑up bilious look and unelastic bearing so perceptible in the creoles of the islands.

They were essentially French, with a dash of the gravity of the Spaniard, but the tout-ensemble indicative of cheerfulness and a most agreeable composure.

What their numbers amounted to at this time I cannot state. The "Letters of the Jesuits" give no satisfactory information on this head, at least none that I have read written at this period. It has been repeatedly asserted that Kaskaskia contained at one time eight thousand  p194 souls, but at what time no one can certainly say. I suppose a tithe of that number would mark her population in her palmiest days.

Father Vivier, a Jesuit missionary, there in 1750 states in one of his letters of that year, that in the five French villages, and this excludes Vincennes, Peoria and Chicago, there were eleven hundred whites, three hundred blacks, and about sixty "red slaves of the savages," and some half-breeds, and as no disaster had occurred from 1744 to that time to thin the population, it could not have amounted to as many in the first named year. I assume one thousand as the aggregate of the whole at this period, and perhaps as happy, as contented and as loyal a people as his majesty could boast of in his many and extensive dominions.

Deducting the traders, hunters, boatmen, the few mechanics, and those engaged in public employments, the rest of the population devoted themselves to agriculture. They made the fences, directed by Boisbriant, each proprietor being required to keep up, at his own expense, that part of them which bounded his own land, and as they extended across the traveled roads they were made "practicable for  p195 carts" by the necessary gates, at each of which some old superannuated negro officiated as porter.

The principal crops raised were wheat, oats, hops, for the Jesuits' breweries, and tobacco, without which the males would have been in despair, and the females, too, for they loved it when pulverized to snuff, the more elderly ones seldom being without their well-filled and fragrant "tabatiere."

Indian corn or maize was not much cultivated, principally for hominy and to fatten hogs, not for bread; for that use the French entertained for it a deep-rooted prejudice.a An idea of their success in agriculture, and of the fertility of the soil they cultivated may be gathered from the fact that one farmer with his rude and imperfect skill in the art, in one season furnished to the king's magazine eighty‑six thousand pounds of flour, and that but a part of his crop.

Their implements of husbandry and mode of using them were primitive indeed, a wooden plow, generally, and to carry their grain at harvest, small carts resembling those used by the Swiss peasantry in their vintages,º with no  p196 iron about them, the handiwork of the husbandman himself, aided by the ingenuity of his own slaves, or of that of his more wealthy neighbor.

To these, if oxen were used, they were connected not by a yoke, but by a strong wooden bar, well secured to the horns by strips of untanned hide, and guided by a rope of the same material. If horses were used, they were driven tandem, at length, or one before the other, and controlled entirely by the whip and voice, without any ropes or reins.

Who that lived, even twenty years since, at any one of those villages, has not been often amused by the words of command and control by which their descendants, "treading in the footsteps of their humble predecessors," urged their teams afield. And who, thus situated, has not observed the rigid grasp by which they held on to these modes, and with what obstinacy they resisted each attempted innovation upon them, and who at this day cannot perceive a continuing influence of early habits — one relic of another age — which the influx of Anglo-American population has not yet wholly destroyed?

 p197  The houses occupying their village lots were built in a very simple and unpretending style of architecture. Small timbers which the "commons" supplied, roughly hewed and placed upright in the ground a few inches apart, formed the body, the interstices being filled with sticks, pieces of stone and mud, neatly whitewashed within and without, with low eaves and pointed roofs, covered with thatch, or with shingles fastened by wooden pins. Those of the wealthier class were of strong, well-hewed frames, in the same peculiar, though more finished style, or of rough limestone, with which the country abounded.

Galleries, or porches as they were called, protected them on every side from the sun and storms, whilst the apartments within were large, airy and convenient, with little furniture, but with well-scoured or neatly-waxed floors.

Few of the appendages of luxury were to be found within them, though it was not uncommon to see in some, small services of plate, or a single article of silver ware, heir-looms, perhaps, from "fatherland," and ostentatiously exhibited upon the closet or upon the polished black walnut table.

 p198  Pictures illustrative of our Saviour's passion, or of the "Blessed Virgin," or of some apt portion of scriptural history, or of some holy pontiff, decorated the walls, not, it is true, the productions of a Guido, a Raphael, or a Correggio, yet, in their rudeness, well calculated to inspire devotional sentiments in a people naturally and by education so much inclined thereto.

The usual culinary plants and some medicinal herbs were cultivated in the garden by the side of the fragrant rose and stately sunflower and modest violet. There, too, the apple, pear and peach trees blossomed to maturity, whilst other less pretending stems and vines yielded their rich and abundant harvests. For clothing, the cotton plant furnished its fibre, and the warm Mackinaw blanket the indispensable capot, with a blue cloth hood for "winter wear," and skins of the deer dressed in the Indian manner for trousers and moccasins. Thus appareled, and with a short clay pipe burnt to an ebony color by constant use, wending his way to gossip with his neighbor, or by his own ingle, you have a picture of a colonial subject of the "Grand Monarque" —  p199 a far better man than his master, though he was called "Louis Le Dieu Donne."

The females were equally plain in their dress. The blue handkerchief was their usual "head gear," the hair parted on their forehead and combed smoothly to each side. Their countenances were lively and engaging, with sparkling eyes, of fine forms, and with a step like that of the mountain maiden of any it is sung:

"A foot more light, a step more true,

Ne'er from the heath flower dash'd the dew."

In their domestic relations they were exemplary, kind to their slaves and affectionate to their children, loving each other as much as they should, and faithful to all their vows.

In truth the domestic circle was a very happy and a very cheerful one.

Though there were slaves within it, it was not a prison house, and such was the kindness always manifested toward them in health and in sickness that they sought not to escape from it.

The males worked in the fields by the side of their masters, fared as they did, and had little plots of ground allotted them, and the  p200 use of their master's team, or their own not unfrequently, with which to cultivate them, and mutual attachment, cordial and affectionate, was inspired.

The women aided their mistresses in the culinary department, in the nursery, in all the household affairs, and in the garden, and accompanied them, in neat attire, to matins and to vespers.

When sick or afflicted, they were nursed with the greatest tenderness and care, and withal, were the recipients of so much kindness, as to become unmindful of the fetters with which a wicked policy had bound them.

Thayer's Note:

a As a child coming to France for the first time in 1961, I remember hearing French people say that corn was only fit for feeding pigs. The attitude persisted well past that, but by the 1990's seemed finally to be fading as France became more open to the cuisine of other countries.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 16