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Chapter 18

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 20
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p201  Chapter XIX

Peace of Aix la Chapelle, 1748 — Population of the Villages — Indians and French — Habits of the people

The Indian population was, for the most part, catechumens of the Jesuits; it numbered at this time, according to the same authority (Father Vivier), but eight hundred persons of all ages who occupied the villages of Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Peoria, whilst the "Illinois Nation," living on the river of that name, and above the Peorias, occupied eleven different villages, with four or five fires at each, and each fire warming twelve families, except at the principal village, where were three hundred cabins. These data would give about eight or nine thousand as the total of Indians, almost all of them harmless and inoffensive, and on friendly terms with the whites.

The treaty of Aix la Chapelle, in 1748, again restored peace between the great rivals,  p202 calming every fear that might have been indulged in, of English power, and giving a more permanent security to the growing establishments in this quarter.

The attention of the sovereign, now in the pride of his manhood, was occasionally directed hither, from a motive similar to that with which one regards a tract of distant and vacant land to keep trespassers off, and prevent an adverse possession from growing up and ripening into a right. The dread of the English that they might get a foothold in this valley was unconquerable, and suggestion was made by the commandant here to the governor in New Orleans, and through him to the throne, that additional means of defense were necessary for these vast and rich possessions, hinting at a levy of fresh troops, and more extensive and impregnable fortresses. But nothing more was done than to enrol those capable of bearing arms into companies of militia, and maintaining small garrisons at the most important points.

Kaskaskia continued to be the most considerable of the villages, and with the others possessed a lucrative trade with New Orleans,  p203 carrying there in batteaux of about forty tons burden, and manned by sixteen or eighteen hands, and going in convoys for mutual safety — flour, beer, wine of the native grape, hams and other provisions, and the product of the forests and prairies, such as buffalo meat and tongues, venison, deer's tallow and bear's oil, and lead, peltry and furs, and sometimes tobacco.

All these were readily exchanged for such necessaries and luxuries as their own labor and soil did not supply, or converted into the gold and silver coinage of the French and Spanish mints, now in free circulation, after the collapse of Law's splendid "credit system."

Coins were now no longer in disgrace and feared not to show their shining faces in any crowd. Like the framers of our priceless Constitution, these honest creoles were "hard-money men." They knew nothing of the jargon of brokers, or of the stock-exchange, and the devices of modern alchemists, by which worthless rags are transmuted into sterling gold, were unheard of by them. Those were the pure days of honesty, simplicity if you will, when bankrupt laws were unnecessary  p204 and unknown, when the modern "credit system" was yet an embryo blossom, when every man paid his dues to church, to government and to his neighbor, and could then spend a Louis d'Or or a doubloon without murmuring and without a sigh. Paper called bons was issued in 1759 by the governor and intendant, at New Orleans, but it could not be circulated in this dependency. The inhabitants were very much opposed to paper money; it made no noise, had but little weight, and it did not seem to them they were in possession of any thing of value, when that was given to them. These bons were from ten cents (sols) to one hundred francs (livres), and so called from the first word on the paper "Bon pour la somme de payable en lettre de change sur le tresor," and signed by the governor and intendant — very like, in form, to the "shin plasters," issued by a barber or the keeper of a turnpike gate or toll bridge. Whenever the holder of an amount of this paper equal to sixty dollars presented it for payment, he received not gold and silver but a bill of exchange on France. A sum amounting to seven millions of livres, near one million and a half  p205 of dollars, was issued by these functionaries, which so alarmed the parent country, that the bills drawn on it, to meet them, were dishonored, to the great loss of the planters and others who had received them, and prostrating for years the energies of that rich province.

Although agriculture was extensively pursued and immense herds of cattle reared, it is a singular fact that the use of the common churn was entirely unknown, butter being made by shaking the cream in a bottle, or breaking it in a bowl with a spoon.

Nor were they any manufactories among them. The loom and the spinning wheel were not in use; the trader supplying all the articles of clothing for both sexes, not exposed on shelves, as is now the practice, but stowed away in chests, trunks and other safe depositories.

Mechanical employments were all embraced in a few carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, who could repair a fusee or a rifle, and stone-masons, for bricks were not used, and they, scattered in the different villages, journeying from place to place, in search of employment, the most of them ready and willing "to turn  p206 their hands to any thing." Occasionally a millwright could be found to make or repair the running gear for the few water-mills in the country, or to construct, for some less wealthy proprietor, a little horse-mill. One would suppose coopers would have been in demand, as large quantities of flour were made and exported; there were, however, but few here, and no other bagging, except that which the dried elk skins afforded, in which the flour was packed.

There was one employment I must not omit to mention, as it was considered more honorable than any other, calling forth a higher order of faculties than those required for the ordinary pursuits of life; that was boating, especially demanding a union of many qualities; activity, capability of great fatigue, courage and energy, a quick eye and a steady nerve, and withal good judgment.

For this pursuit, whatever portion of those qualities they possessed was then unfolded. The voyage to New Orleans — for that was the most important one — usually consumed three months, and far more dangerous than one across the Atlantic, even at that day, before  p207 the establishment of packets or the ocean steamboats.

A rapid river, its channel obstructed by planters, snags and sawyers, and continually changing also, and forming shoal bars, were not the only dangers.

There were no settlements or posts upon its banks, except at the Arkansas and the Natchez, and the route beset by roving bands of marauding Chicasas, whom French power had not subdued.

The upward voyage was very laborious, and all means used, by keeping in the bends, where eddies or counter-currents were formed, and by the cordel, to make head against the stream.

An ambuscade might be fatal, under such circumstances, to the crew of a single boat, but as they went in convoys, the danger was greatly lessened. An officer of the king's troops, when one could be had, usually commanded, or if not, one from among themselves was selected, in whom were united the qualifications necessary for such a command, strict military discipline and arrangements having to be adopted, and a regular guard mounted at each of their stopping places. To reach this  p208 high distinction, or even one less elevated, that of patroon of a single boat, was an object worth ambition, yet few attained this high prize of their perilous calling. Prodigal as they all were of their toil, in these long and dangerous voyages, they were not the less of the proceeds on their return. Absence and dangers seemed to increase their social feelings, and the revelries of one carnival would absorb all their gains.

They were as liberal as princes, and valued money as nothing more than means by which pleasure could be purchased and appetites indulged. Saving was no part of their economy.

Accounts were kept in livres at twenty to the dollar, and besides coin, "good peltries," at a certain price per pound, were an acknowledged measure of values and passed freely in commercial transactions. They were "as good as gold" in New Orleans and in Europe, and therefore a convenient form of remittance.

No common schools existed, nor any established system of public instruction. The Jesuits imparted some portions of the learning with which they were so highly endowed to such creoles as they could catch thirsting for the  p209 waters of the Pierian spring, but no general plan was adopted or encouraged by the public functionaries. The principles of the Roman Catholic religion were, however, instilled into all, and the little spires of its churches arose in every village.

In them were the marriage ceremonies performed, the priest consecrating the nuptial tie, and recording the act in the presence of witnesses. There, too, the ceremony of baptism was manifested, and there the last sad obsequies for the dead, and masses said for the souls of those not dying "in the odor of sanctity."

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