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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

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

[image ALT: A photograph of an austere rectangular wooden building of post-on‑sill construction, about 13 m long and maybe 8 m deep, with a 40° pyramidal roof and two chimneys. It is the old courthouse in Cahokia, Illinois.]

Jean Baptiste Saucier Home, Cahokia, Built about 1737.

 p2  Oldest Illinois House

During the many years it has been revered as Illinois' most historic building, the ancient log abode now generally known as the Cahokia Courthouse was rarely, if ever, thought of as the oldest house — that is, private dwelling — in Illinois; or, in fact, as perhaps the oldest in the entire Midwest. But such it is, having been originally a dwelling house that had been built solely for this purpose. It was so used for almost half a century before being converted into a courthouse. And then, after being abandoned as a courthouse, it once more became a private home.

A family was living in this historic landmark when it was acquired in 1904 for exhibition at the St. Louis World's Fair. It was known then that various families had been occupying it since 1860. Before that it had served as a saloon and meeting hall. After the close of the St. Louis fair it was taken to Chicago and set up on the Wooded Island in Jackson Park where it remained until 1939. Now it stands on its original foundation stones at Cahokia, oldest town in Illinois. It has been completely restored, even to interior furnishings, by the state.

Of greater interest than its recent history, however, is the story of its earliest years; of the period before it became a courthouse and jail in the old Northwest Territory. The house is believed to have been built about 1737, or soon after the first white men settled in the wilderness of Mid-America. These men were French missionaries and traders from Canada who had established, a few years earlier, the Mississippi River settlements of Cahokia and Kaskaskia — outposts of the French empire in the New World.

When this log house was built, the Illinois country was part of the French province of Louisiana. The identity of the man who erected it has never been ascertained. Records show, however, that the house was later acquired by Captain Jean Baptiste Saucier, formerly an engineer in the French Colonial Army.

The house was still owned by the Saucier family when George Rogers Clark, in 1778, captured the Illinois country from the British and when, a few years later, the Northwest Territory was formed.

The first county to be organized in what later became Illinois was St. Clair County. It embraced most of northern Illinois, including the future site of Chicago. The county seat was established at Cahokia. It was in 1793 that François Saucier, son of Captain Saucier, sold the log house of that county for a courthouse and jail. Here were held the first American court sessions and the first election in the Illinois country.

 p3  As an indication of the great antiquity of the Saucier house, architects point to its method of construction. It is designed in the French style of pioneer log-house building — that is, with the logs set perpendicularly, as in a palisade. The later American style is characterized by horizontal logs.

Writing of this historic Illinois shrine in the June-July, 1941, Bulletin of the Illinois Society of Architects, a state architect, Joseph F. Booton, says the "structure originally had its interior walls plastered on split lath. Other refinements included casements with glass panes, shutters, beautiful wrought-iron hardware, beaded beams and ingenious roof-trusses. . . . The interior had four rooms and an attic. A chimney was placed at each end and a gallery surrounded the whole."

In this very old dwelling, then, we have an example of the earliest type of shelter built by white men in the Illinois country and the Midwest. The state of Illinois, too, produced what might be termed the latest mode of shelter — the Frank Lloyd Wright home built in 1891 in Oak Park, just outside Chicago. Thus, in Illinois one may observe the whole range of American domestic architecture, from primitive log cabin to sophisticated modern home.

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Page updated: 4 Dec 17