Kaskaskia: Where Illinois' rich history began 150 years before statehood

No exploration of the 200 years of Illinois history would be complete without a look at what preceded those two centuries.

Illinois became a state in 1818, but its story begins nearly 150 years before that - in 1673, when Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette explored the Mississippi River in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean.

When their travels led them near hostile Spanish territories, they turned back and traveled along the Illinois River, finding safety among the Kaskaskia Indians. Marquette founded the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, but left the mission in the hands of Father Pierre-Gabriel Marest when his health declined.

The mission had to be moved several times due to conflicts between the Kaskaskia, Illini Confederation and the Iroquois.

Eventually, the mission planted roots at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Michigamea River, now known as the Kaskaskia River.

The village of Kaskaskia was established in 1703 and was mainly inhabited by French traders and their wives.

The village's fertile ground in the American Bottoms, along with its positioning at the confluence of two rivers, led it to be a hub of agriculture and trading. It also became a focal point for warring British and French during the French and Indian War.

In 1756, fearing attack, the townspeople built Fort Kaskaskia on a hill overlooking the town. The same townspeople destroyed the fort after the French lost the war, fearing it would come into British control. Those who did not want to live under the impending British rule moved to St. Louis or Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Kaskaskia was under control of the British crown until July 4, 1778, when George Rogers Clark and his 175 American troops arrived, after traveling two months and more than 1,000 miles. By that time many of the British had already been withdrawn, and Clark captured the settlement without a shot being fired.

With Clark in town, joyous residents rang the bell given to the Catholic Church of the Illinois Country by King Louis XV of France - which they then renamed the "Liberty Bell of the West." The bell was cast in France in 1741, making it 11 years older than the Liberty Bell that sits in Philadelphia. An inscription on the side of the bell reads "Pour Leglise des Illinois par les Soins du Roi D'outre," which translates to "For the Church of the Illinois, by gift of the King across the water."

One side of the bell is ornamented with the royal lilies of France. The other bears a cross and pedestal, with the top and arms of the cross terminating in grouped fleur de lis.

Taking Kaskaskia was the first step in Clark's plan to capture the western headquarters of the British at Detroit.

The bell is now a tourist attraction, much like the Immaculate Conception Church that sits next door.

• Illinois 200 is a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories in this series at Travis Lott of the County Journal in Percy can be reached at, or (618) 497-8272.

The map of Randolph County, Illinois before an 1881 flood that cut Kaskaskia off from the Illinois mainland. Today, Kaskaskia is one of two Illinois towns located west of the Mississippi River. Courtesy of Randolph County/
When George Rogers Clark's American troops arrived in Kaskaskia to liberate it from the British, residents rang this bell, now known as the Liberty Bell of the West. Courtesy of Randolph County/

A yearlong birthday celebration for Illinois

Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire, but there's a lot more to Illinois history than that. Native American settlements thousands of years old, the battle over slavery, the transfer of influence from southern to northern Illinois, wars and riots, the leaders and gangsters and politicians and artists and athletes that shaped our state all will be part of a yearlong series of articles to mark Illinois' bicentennial. The Daily Herald and dozens of publications across the state are joining forces on the series, which will continue until Illinois' 200th birthday on Dec. 3, 2018.

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