French Illinois and Louisiana
Exploration. The French presence in the American interior was initially launched from their settlements in Canada. In 1672 Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et Palluau, governor of New France, wrote to his superiors in France that he was sending Louis Jolliet to discover the “South Sea” through Indian country “and the great river they call Mississippi, which is believed to discharge into the sea of California.” The next year the expedition, joined by Father Jacques Marquette and various Indians who served as their guides, left Saint Ignace on the Straits of Mackinac (now in Michigan’s upper peninsula) in birchbark canoes and paddled and portaged their way down various rivers and streams until they reached the upper Mississippi. They then made their way down the Mississippi, meeting with various Indians, some of whom had already had contact with Europeans. Marquette and Jolliet, fearing the Spanish, did not go all the way to the sea but, a few days shy of the river’s mouth, turned around, ending their travels at Green Bay, now Wisconsin. Their voyage established French claims to the region and also made clear that the river did not empty into the sea of California but rather the Gulf of Mexico. The voyage of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in 1682 ended at the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle claimed all of the lands to the headwaters of the Mississippi and all of the river’s drainage basin for France under the name Louisiana.
Le Pays des Illinois. The Illinois country, or le pays des Illinois, was a series of settlements on the Mississippi
River that stretched from Cahokia, across the river from what is now Saint Louis, to Kaskaskia, some fifty miles downriver. Cahokia was initially a mission founded in 1699 to convert the Indians; Kaskaskia was a fort established in 1703. Both settlements began to attract a few Frenchmen from Canada, the so-called coureurs de bois. These “woods runners” were trappers and traders who spent much of their time living among the Native Americans. At Cahokia they began to settle down, often with Indian wives, away from the government of New France in Canada and most other authority. In 1718 the region began to prosper as a result of the French Gulf Coast settlements that provided them with a market for wheat, beef, and pork. New interest and authority led to the founding of Fort de Chartres and the villages of Chartres, Saint Philippe, and Prairie du Rocher. In 1740 the last of the French towns, Sainte Genevieve, completed the six French settlements of the Illinois country. By 1752 some 58 percent of the white settlers came from Canada, 38 percent from France, and the small remainder from Switzerland, Italy, and Louisiana. There was also a considerable black slave population. By the mid 1760s there might have been some 1,100 whites, 500 black slaves, and also a few Indian slaves in the Illinois country.
Lower Louisiana. The settlement of Louisiana began slowly, as the French were in no position to put money or people into a new colony. The first census of Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1699 listed only 82 persons, all male, of whom 13 were Caribbean pirates and 40 were soldiers or sailors. By 1708 there were 278 persons in Louisiana, of whom 80 were Indian slaves and 28 were white women. In 1718, when Louisiana became a province, the colony had 400 Europeans. During the next few years Louisiana became a penal colony and also the temporary home to indentured servants, but high mortality rates kept the population low. While between October 1717 and May 1721 the Company of the Indies embarked 7,020 colonists, only 5,420 survived the crossing. By 1726 a census showed that only 1,952 French comprised the colony—the rest had died. The company lost control of the colony in 1731, and slave imports ceased. By 1763, when France surrendered Louisiana to the Spanish, the population stood at some 3,654 whites and 4,598 slaves. Some
of these whites were West Indian pirates, Canadians who had traveled south, and recent European immigrants. Most of the slaves had come from the Senegambia region of Africa and included Bambara; others came from the Bight of Benin, with a few from the Congo and Angola.
Susan C. Boyle, “Did She Generally Decide? Women in Ste. Genevieve, 1750–1805,” William and Mary Quarterly, 54 (1987): 775–789.
Winstanley Briggs, “Le Pays des Illinois,” William and Mary Quarterly, 47 (1990): 30–56;
W. J. Eccles, France in America, revised edition (Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1990);
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992);
Carl O. Sauer, Seventeenth Century North America (Berkeley, Cal.: Turtle Island Foundation, 1980);
Daniel H. Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).