Nov/Dec 2012




Tom Friend
Staff Writer

A Little History


French in Southern Illinois


Southern Illinois is bordered on three sides by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers. Several other rivers traverse its countryside, including the Big and Little Muddy, Little Wabash, Saline, and Cache rivers.

The earliest inhabitants of Illinois were thought to have arrived about 12,000 B.C. They were hunters and gatherers but developed a primitive system of agriculture and eventually built rather complex urban areas that included earthen mounds. Their culture seemed to die out around 1400-1500 A.D.

The Illini Indian tribes, after whom the state is named, and other Indian tribes arrived in Illinois around 1500 A.D. Archeologists are not certain if these Indians are related to the previous inhabitants. They left behind all manner of artifact including burial sites, burned-out campfires along the bases of bluffs, pottery, flints, implements, and weapons. Interesting structures which were built by Indian tribes are known as stone forts or pounds.


The French were the first Europeans to reach Illinois in about 1673. When they arrived, the Indians welcomed them. It was French explorers who gave Illinois its name by referring to the land where the Illini Indians lived as the Illinois.

The French explored the Mississippi River, establishing outposts and seeking a route to the Pacific Ocean and the Orient. Because of increasing Indian unrest and warfare in northern Illinois, the French concentrated on building outposts in the southern part. The earliest European settlers in Southern Illinois concentrated along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers at the southern end of the state. Their settlements became important way stations and supply depots between Canada and ports on the lower Mississippi River. 

French Outposts

Important early outposts in Southern Illinois were located at Shawneetown and Fort Massac on the Ohio River.

The English ruled the Lower Great Lakes region after defeating the French in the French and Indian War and with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Their rule of this area was short lived.

During the American Revolution in 1778, the state of Virginia backed a military expedition led by 23 year old George Rogers Clark. Landing at Fort Massac in Illinois (which was abandoned a decade earlier), his force of 175 soldiers marched through southern Illinois and defeated the English at forts in Kaskaskia, Illinois and Vincennes in western Indiana. This laid the claim by the Americans to this territory. When news of the conquest by Clark reached Virginia, it claimed Illinois as one of its counties. Virginia ceded the county of Illinois to the federal government in 1784 when it realized that it could not govern so sparsely populated and distant land. 


Non-French speaking settlers were slow to arrive in Illinois probably less than 2,000 non-Indians lived in Illinois in 1800. But soon thereafter many more settlers came from the backwoods areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. These early settlers were of English, German, Scottish, and Irish families. They chose to settle in the southern part of Illinois as its wooded hills reminded them of the mountains they left behind. 


The federal government included Illinois in the Northwest Ordinance which with Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Illinois became a part of the Indiana Territory in 1800. Illinois settlers wanted more control over their own affairs and Illinois became a separate territory in 1809.


December 17, 1811 a great earthquake awakened the settlers in Illinois with a violent trembling. Fields rippled like waves on an ocean. Trees swayed, became tangled together, and snapped off with sounds like gunshots. In some places sand, coal, and smoke blew up into the air as high as thirty yards. It was reported that the earthquake shook so violently that tremors were felt as far away as Boston.

One report told that this earthquake made the Mississippi River flow backward momentarily. The river changed its course in several spots as a result of the earthquake as new islands appeared and others disappeared in the river. The earthquake is estimated to have been equivalent to an 8.0 on the Richter scale, which did not exist at that time. Fortunately, only a few people lost their lives because the quake centered in a sparsely populated area.


The U.S. Congress approved an Act which enabled the Illinois territory to become the 21st state of the Union. Immigration to Illinois increased after it became a state as more settlers arrived from New England and foreign countries. These settlers tended to migrate to central and northern Illinois, causing a noticeable Yankee influence in northern Illinois as opposed to the southern influence in the southern region due to a majority of settlers coming from southern states. 

Damn Yankees - you know the rest......

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