French Explorers and Colonists in the Illinois Country

Map of French villages in the Illinois Country by Thomas Hutchins, 1851

French Settlement in Illinois

The French were the first Europeans to make contact with Native Americans in Illinois, build forts, and establish government. When the French and Indian War with Britain ended in 1763, France relinquished its claim to land east of the Mississippi River, but remnants of its influence remain in the regions it settled.

French Explorers and Pioneers

French explorers and settlers concentrated along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, establishing outposts while seeking a route to the Pacific Ocean. As the first Europeans to reach Illinois around 1673, the French were welcomed by the Illiniwek tribes, for which they named the land. Fur trader Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette made first contact with Native Americans at what they termed “the Grand Village of the Illinois”, a community with around 75 homes in northern Illinois.

Fort Massac site, looking toward the Ohio River and the George Rogers Clark statue, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Smallbones

French Outposts in Southern Illinois

Native American unrest in northern Illinois led the French to build outposts in the southern region, providing vital supply stations between Canada and ports on the lower Mississippi River. Important outposts included Shawneetown and Fort Massac on the Ohio River. The French territorial government in Canada hoped the land would yield furs and precious metals. Although there were no profitable mineral deposits, the French colony developed fur trading and farming communities along the Mississippi, including Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and Prairie du Rocher.

Cahokia Courthouse, photographed by Robert Lawton


Established in 1699 by Frenchmen from Montreal and Quebec, Cahokia is the oldest permanent European settlement on the Mississippi River. Because of its fertile soil and unlimited fish and game, the area had been occupied for more than 6000 years by Native Americans.

Eroded embankment at Fort Kaskaskia, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Kbh3rd


In 1703, the village of Kaskaskia was established by the Mississippi near the southern end of the bottomlands. French settlers arrived later from New Orleans, which was founded in 1718 as a commercial outlet on the Gulf for the Illinois villages. Kaskaskia eventually served as the first capital of Illinois from 1818-1820. Construction of a fort to defend the village of Kaskaskia was begun in 1759 but abandoned in 1760 when Montreal fell to the British during the French and Indian War.

Reconstructed Fort de Chartres gatehouse, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Kbh3rd

Fort de Chartres

The French government constructed Fort de Chartres in 1719 between Cahokia and Kaskaskia. The fort served as the French seat of government and was its chief military installation in the Illinois Country. The nearby village of St. Anne was named for the church at its center.

French colonial house in Prairie du Rocher, photographed by Mark Kaempfer

Prairie du Rocher

The village of Prairie du Rocher was founded in 1722, and St. Phillippe was built about the same time north of Fort de Chartres as the headquarters for Phillippe Renault’s lead mining operation. Renault brought around two hundred slaves from what is now the Dominican Republic to work in his mining operation. After many decades of severe seasonal flooding, St. Philippe was abandoned. Near Kaskaskia, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, was settled around 1723 to capitalize on access to high concentrations of lead for ammunition and salt for food.

Holy Family log church built in Cahokia in 1799, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Kbh3rd

French Architecture

French villages were characterized by houses constructed of logs hewn square and placed upright to form walls, called poteaux-sur-sol (post-on-sill) construction. In contrast, American pioneers stacked unhewn logs to form their homes. French homes also typically featured covered porches, sometimes on all four sides.

French Village Life

Although government policy prohibited competition with French industries such as clothing and furniture, records and artifacts show that skilled artisans lived in the villages, including toolmakers, gunsmiths, blacksmiths, stonemasons, and carpenters. Records of festivals and recreation reflect prosperity and leisure. Church activities were a focal point for communities.

Advertisement for a 1743 publication of French law pertaining to slaves and indentured servants

Slavery in the French Colonies

Before the arrival of Europeans, Native American warfare included taking captives as slaves. Although slave ownership in New France was not legally recognized, slavery was adopted by French colonists in Canada in the seventeenth century as French settlers engaged in diplomacy, acquiring Native American slaves through the process of ritualized gift giving. As slaves became valuable in trade, captive taking increased and spurred the formation of tribal alliances.

By the early eighteenth century, the French owned African slaves as well, extending the practice through the decade of British rule and following transfer to the new United States in 1783. The first documented African slavery in Illinois began in 1721, when Philip François Renault imported two hundred African slaves to the Illinois Country to labor in his lead mining operation. After the failure of the mining operation in 1723, Renault founded St. Philippe, Illinois, and used his slaves to produce crops. At the end of the French and Indian War, many of the French who moved west took their slaves with them.

Old Cahokia Courthouse interior.JPG
Cahokia Courthouse interior, photographed by Robert Lawton

Cahokia Courthouse

Built as a residence in 1740 during French settlement, the building later became a territorial political and legal center when it was purchased by the Common Pleas Court of the United States Northwest Territory in 1793. The oldest and only remaining courthouse from the state’s territorial period (1787-1818), it serves as a characteristic example of the French Colonial vertical log post-on-sill construction, featuring a double-pitch roof of cedar shingles and a broad porch on all four sides.

Liberty Bell at Kaskaskia, photographed by Wikimedia Commons user Kbh3rd

The French and Indian War

When war broke out between the French and British in the 1750s, the French strengthened Fort de Chartres by rebuilding it out of limestone, constructed Fort Massac along the Ohio River, and began constructing Fort Kaskaskia. Following the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War, British troops took control of Fort de Chartres in 1765.

Unhappy with British rule, the remaining French citizens hid their ammunition and weapons from the British and later provided assistance to American militia during the American Revolutionary War.

Pierre Menard House, photographed by Mark Kaempfer

Decline of French Settlements

After the British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, French settlers began to leave for the new village of St. Louis, established in 1764, Ste. Genevieve, and New Orleans. Fort de Chartres was destroyed in 1772, and the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War further diminished the French villages. Mississippi floodwaters eventually destroyed the villages of Kaskaskia, St. Anne, and St. Philippe, though the Pierre Menard House survives on the bluffs above the Kaskaskia River. Menard served as the first lieutenant governor of Illinois in 1818.