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Monday, September 15, 2014

Browsing the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society : What is the Oldest Town in Illinois?

Have you ever read some old journals of historical societies?  The Oak Brook Heritage Center, located in the Old Butler School in Oak Brook, Illinois, houses the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in their research library.  The Oak Brook Historical Society oversees this research library, which contains over one hundred reference materials that cover local, county and state history subjects.

I love to browse through these state journals.  They contain so many interesting articles about people, places and events of Illinois.  Recently I browsed Volume XXX covering  April, 1937 through January, 1938.  This volume contains fourteen articles, historical notes and historical news of Illinois.

Reading about "firsts" in history is a passion of mine.  I was happy to find a Historical Notes article about the oldest town in Illinois.  I knew that southern Illinois was inhabited by the white man earlier than other areas of the states.  Guessing that perhaps Shawneetown, Kaskaskia, Cahokia or nearby areas were the first inhabited, I found that I was wrong, according to this article.

Prairie Du Rocher is claimed to take the honor, according to Dr. H. K. Croessmann of DuQuoin.  He claims that this little town is at the foot of the Illinios bluffs and has been there since 1722. Who knew?  I did a little exploring for myself to see exactly how old Prairie Du Rocher really is.  Using Google, I find the Prairie Du Rocher Chamber of Commerce website where they have posted a nice timeline of the history of the town :
Beginning in 1719, according to this timeline, a convoy of canoes bring persons to the area, and a fort (Fort Chartres) is established. It became a military and government command center.  I'd say that is proof of being inhabited at that time. According to The Jesuit Missions of the Illinois Country, 1673-1763, the ISHS quotes that it has the most accurate account of the founding of this village....a Randolph County atlas notes the town as being founded in 1722, incorporated in 1725.  In an article written in  The Messenger, of Randolph County, some families were living there as early as 1722, and the official founding date of the village at 1733.  Land was granted to Boisbriant in 1720, who is mentioned in the timetable above.  

Well, of course there is going to be a dispute about what is the earliest known town in Illinois.  I would be disappointed if there wasn't a dispute.  The ISHS article finds that Cahokia is mentioned as being established in 1699.  It was a scattered village and small. The area was explored by early French explorers.  Missionary priests came into the area and tried to convert some of the Indians to Christianity.  The Church of the Holy Family was erected in 1696 by the Seminary of Foreign Missions of Quebec.  It was replaced by this church building in 1799:

Church of the Holy Family, erected 1799.

Even though the Cahokia Indians were established in the area for over hundreds of years, does this make Cahokia the oldest town in Illinois?  I guess it makes a good question as to what defines a town. Cahokia was the county seat of St. Clair County (the oldest county in Illinois) until the seat was moved to Belleville, Illinois in 1814.  

  Kaskaskia is also mentioned in some Illinois memoirs as having been founded in 1703, and existed until the Mississippi River changed course and destroyed it.  Kaskaskia was an important shipping point on the river. French fur traders inhabited the area, and it was a starting point for those who decided to explore westward.  It was also named the first capital of the Illinois territory.  But was the fur trading camp of 1703 the first town of Illinois?  I suppose it is a matter of opinion.  What defines a town?  

Mather, Irwin F. (1900). The Making of Illinois. Chicago: A. Flanagan Co. p. 196. Photographer unknown. This copy retrieved from archives housed at the Skinner House in Griggsville, Illinois

Then there is Chicago, known as Checagou in early times.  Milo M. Quaife authored a text, Checagou, where he examines the identities of early explorers that had passed through, and briefly stayed in the area of what is now Chicago, Illinois.  Various explorers have kept notes on their experiences when in the Chicago area from 1674 to the early 1800s.  But no one is considered a permanent settler until Jean Baptiste Point du Sable came in 1784.  He traded with the Indians of the area and lived his life as the first non-Indian resident of the area. He sold his land and moved to St. Charles, Missouri where he died in 1818. There are no known photos of Du Sable or his home.  Only depictions of his likeness and sketches of what his cabin may have looked like can be found.   But, does his encampment fit the description of a town?  What defines a town?  

Finally, the ISHS article examines the town of Peoria, Illinois.  According to the Peoria Historical Society briefs, the town was settled in 1680 when La Salle built Fort Crevecoeur.  But the fort only lasted a few months, then it burned.  Peoria Lake was inhabited by Frenchmen.  They followed the Indians of the area when they shifted to hunting and fishing grounds.  Missionary priests are said to have lived among the Peoria Indians along the Illinois River.  Most of the Frenchmen left the area by 1817, just before the territory became a state in 1818. Fort St. Louis was built in 1691 to replace the burned fort.  Europeans inhabited the area around the fort, and was considered the first European settlement in Illinois.  Was this considered the first town of Illinois?  What defines a town?

The articles comes to it's conclusion....What was the oldest town in Illinois?  It is a matter of definition.  Kaskaskia can be eliminated if you are looking for a town that is in existence today.  If your definition of a town is a compact village with close dwellings, a few stores, a post office....then Cahokia can be ruled out.  If the history of the town must be continuous, literally, Chicago and Peoria must not be contenders.  Prairie Du'Rocher, in that case gets the title of first town of Illinois.  However, the article states, if the community was continuous, liberally, then Peoria would be mentioned as the first town of Illinois.  

So, What is the definition of a town?  Read more on the subject, and come to your own conclusion.

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