To most residents of modern day Illinois, the fact that we were part of a French colony for nearly 50 years is barely apparent. Long before the American Revolution, families of French descent built homes, cultivated fields, engaged in the fur trade, and established towns along the Mississippi River.
The French colonial legacy of Illinois is a rich and often overlooked chapter in Illinois history. The “Illinois Country” of the 1600s and 1700s was the scene of a remarkable interaction between Native Americans, French explorers, priests, fur traders, merchants, and agricultural families. This resulted in a number of well-established fur trading and farming communities that spanned most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Towns and cities such as Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher and Peoria in Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis in Missouri, trace their origins to the plans of French traders and farmers of the 18th century. Such communities also created an important archaeological legacy as well. While many of these remains have succumbed to urban development and the movements of the Mississippi River, there is still an archaeological record that offers a direct link to the lives of those who were a part of French Illinois.
The French Colonial Heritage Project is designed to expand and summarize our understanding of life in French communities during the 18th and early 19th century using archaeological remains and documents from that period. This will be accomplished through the reconsideration of previous excavations and studies, and also from new research-based investigations at a number of sites that have not yet received such attention. In the process, it is hoped that these studies will highlight the importance and value of the remaining archaeological deposits, many of which lay on private property or in areas threatened by development. In addition to scientific study, the project intends to introduce these discoveries to the general public through educational programming, exhibits, and publications.
The French Colonial Heritage Project is supported by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (UI) in conjunction with the Sangamo Archaeological Center (SAC, Springfield, Illinois). Over the last 10 years, UI and SAC have conducted a number of excavations and studies that have focused on the French heritage of the middle Mississippi valley. Recently, the UI-Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program has excavated three French domestic sites for the Illinois Department of Transportation, including the first evidence of intact French archaeological remains at Peoria, what is believed to be the dwelling (near Fort de Chartres) purchased by Pierre Laclede prior to his founding of the town of St. Louis in 1764, and a small slice of the Village of Cahokia.
The SAC has located and conducted excavations at the late 18th century “La Ville de Maillet” in downtown Peoria, as well as the early 19th century “Upper Village” of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The SAC has also assembled a unique collection of traditional French pottery found in urban contexts such as St. Louis and New Orleans. Cooperatively, ITARP and SAC have also reexamined artifact collections that were recovered during earlyñmid 20th century archaeological excavations, which have never been reported. These include materials from the Cahokia Courthouse and the village of Nouvelle Chartres. Considered together, these studies promise to give us a clearer picture of life in the French colonial Illinois Country.
For more information on the French Colonial Heritage Project contact: