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Early Settlements and Historic FortsIllinset.gif (118683 bytes)

A variety of peoples have settled in Illinois throughout its history. The villages and towns they built became the centers of their cultural and social activities. Remains of the Mississippian Indian culture can be found at Dickson Mounds and Cahokia Mounds. Villages built by the Illiniwek include Old Kaskaskia, near present day Utica, Peoria and Cahokia. The Fox village of Saukenuk was located near present day Rock Island. The French also settled near many of these same locations. French priests started a mission in Cahokia, which is recognized as the state's oldest town. The Jesuits founded the town of Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River in 1703. Other French settlements included Prairie du Rocher and Peoria.

As the French moved into Illinois in greater numbers, forts were built to protect their settlements from the Indians living in the area, and from the British who wanted control of the land. Robert de LaSalle built the first French fort, Fort Creve Coeur, on the Illinois River near Peoria. It was mysteriously abandoned less than a year later. LaSalle and his lieutenant, Henri Tonti, also built Fort Saint Louis in 1682 near the Illiniwek village of Old Kaskaskia. With the help of the Illiniwek, Tonti and the French military built a second Fort Saint Louis, also known as Fort Pimitoui, near the Indian village of Peoria in 1691. A French settlement soon grew alongside the Indian village.

Illinois became a part of French Louisiana in 1717. Soon other forts were built to help govern and protect the French presence in Illinois. Fort de Chartres was built as a wooden fort in 1720 on the east bank of the Mississippi River, north of Kaskaskia. It was rebuilt with stone in the 1750's and became the strongest military outpost in the country. Fort de Chartres was the headquarters for the Illinois Country for ten years until France surrendered to the British at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. The British took possession of the fort in 1765 and renamed it Fort Cavendish. Many of the French who lived in this area left once the British took control and moved to what is now St. Louis. The British, deciding the fort was of little military value, abandoned it in 1771.

Fort Kaskaskia was built during the French and Indian War to protect Kaskaskia from the British. The people of the town destroyed it in 1766 rather than have the British occupy it. The British later built a smaller fort, which they named Fort Gage, at the same location. The French built Fort Ascension, also known as Fort Massac, on the Ohio River near present day Metropolis in 1757. This fort was turned over to the British in 1765 and, shortly thereafter, burned down by the Chickasaw Indians. The United States rebuilt it in 1794 because of increasing tensions with the Spanish, who claimed the lands west of the Mississippi River.

Additional Resources

bulletFor more information and activities about this time period, see the Illinois State Museum's - At Home on the French Frontier.

Study Guide Questions

  1. What city is recognized as Illinois' oldest town?
  2. Describe the organization of early French settlements built in Illinois?
  3. What forts were built by the French explorer Robert LaSalle and his lieutenant Henri Tonti?
  4. What was the role of Fort de Chartres?
  5. What happened to Fort Kaskaskia and Fort Massac after Britain took control of Illinois?
  6. Are there any Native American settlements in your part of the state? Who were the first Europeans to arrive in your part of the state and in what cities did they settle?

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