Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818, but there is a lot of fascinating history prior to it officially becoming a part of the U.S., and the French in North America played an important role. Trace French roots in Southern Illinois and see the fantastic architecture, forts, and culture that French colonists, priests, missionaries, and soldiers left behind.
Follow this route and enjoy these places where you can stop and savor French history along the way!
1. Pere Marquette State Park: Site Of Early French Exploration
Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton offers a stone lodge where visitors can stay and dine. The lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC. Both the lodge and visitor center are accessible.
Pere Marquette is known for its hiking trails and views of the Illinois River and its awe-inspiring French history. Louis Joliet was a cartographer who traveled with Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, the Jesuit priest the park is named after.
Scott Isringhausen, a former site interpreter, shared the following about Marquette and Joliet’s stop: “The voyageurs were travelers and traders. They were traveling for the fur trade. Marquette and Joliet were looking for a passage to the Pacific Ocean. They met up with a band of Quapaw Indians, and when they got to the Arkansas River, they turned around. In 1673, they camped near where the Lodge is today. There is a stone cross where they supposedly came ashore and camped with the Illini Indians.”
The cross was erected in 1929, and there are stairs that allow visitors to access it.
The trip from Canada down the Mississippi took four months and covered 2,500 miles! The voyageurs were primarily after beaver fur that was sent to England to be used for beaver hats.
When we visited, Isringhausen and Natural Resources employee Jim Phillips showed us a replica of the birch bark canoes that the voyageurs used. There are currently three of these fiberglass canoes at Pere Marquette, all built by prominent conservationists and canoe maker Ralph C. Frese and used for Department of Natural Resources events.
Pere Marquette is very scenic. When you visit, Isringhausen pointed out one particularly lovely spot, Twin Mounds Lookout. Note, this is a bit of a steep climb.
Pro Tip: Nearby Aerie’s Winery offers great wine, food, and an amazing view!
2. Cahokia: The Oldest Permanent Settlement Along The Mississippi
Step back in time in Cahokia to check out the site where French Canadians from Quebec and Montreal arrived around 1699. Here they established a permanent settlement and mission along the Mississippi with the purpose “to convert the local Tamora Indians.”
There are three buildings that profile the French history in Cahokia, and the most striking thing about both the Cahokia Courthouse and the Holy Family Church is the French architecture. The architecture, called poteaux-sur-sol, uses vertical logs positioned upright.
The Cahokia Courthouse was first a home and later became a courthouse, serving that purpose for 20 years. Lewis and Clark used the courthouse as their headquarters for several years. Today, the courthouse serves as a museum about colonial life. There is a visitor center at Cahokia as well.
The first Holy Family Church was dedicated in May of 1699, but it burned around 1740. Settlers used salvaged black walnut logs when they built the new church in 1799. Mass is still held at the church, making it the oldest continuously operating parish in the U.S.!
In 1807, construction on the Nicholas Jarrott House began. This nearby home was built for French immigrant Nicholas Jarrott, who later served as a judge and a militia officer. It is the oldest brick house in Illinois!
Pro Tip: Follow Route 3 and travel on to Prairie du Pont to see the Martin-Boismenue House built around 1788!
3. Fort Kaskaskia, Intended To Protect The Town Of Kaskaskia
The town of Kaskaskia was founded in 1703, and Fort Kaskaskia was to be built to protect it. The first plan was for the fort to be built in the 1730s, but it was deemed too expensive. Then, in the 1750s, the French revisited their fort-building plan when they became worried about British invasion.
However, the French wound up constructing Fort De Chartres (more on that below) and decided to build a smaller post at the Kaskaskia site instead. While an earthen fort was started in 1759, it was never completed.
A bandit used the earthen fort in the 1780s, and then the land was passed from French to British hands with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
It is amazing to stand on the earthen mounds at this would-have-been fort and look across the water where the village of Kaskaskia is. The Mississippi River separated the town — the first capital of Illinois (from 1818 to 1819) — from the fort when the river changed paths. To see this site today requires a trip to Missouri!
In 1803, Lewis Meriwether and George Rogers Clark came to Kaskaskia to recruit men for an exploration expedition. They recruited 12 men from the Kaskaskia region.
This is a haunting opportunity to see the ruins of history, especially considering this fort was almost but never quite completed.
Pro Tip: When open, take time to visit the nearby French Creole-style Pierre Menard house.
4. Fort De Chartres Powder Magazine: The Oldest Surviving Non-Indian Structure In The Midwest
Fort De Chartres is not only historic but also breathtakingly beautiful. As early as 1717, the French sent troops to set up forts in this part of Illinois, known as les pays des Illinois. The French occupied the first fort in 1720, and this year marks the celebration of the 300th anniversary.
This area of Illinois was once incorporated into Louisiana and the fort was near the settlement of Kaskaskia, which was the largest settlement in the area.
Named after the Duke of Chartres, the last intact fort that visitors can tour today was built in 1753. With the powder magazine, this site takes on a special historic significance. Visitors can peek into rooms at the fort and see where the French soldiers ate and slept, and even the oven where bread would have been baked.
Fort De Chartres offers a wonderful museum that provides insight into what life was like for French soldiers and nearby settlers. There is also a chapel and other tour stops to enjoy!
Pro Tip: Be sure to see the Modoc Rock Shelter, a historic rock overlook. Travel this windy road only in daylight.
We loved following French history in the French Creole Corridor and hope that you will, too! For more Illinois inspiration, consider the seven best hikes to experience in Southern Illinois and the seven best stops on Illinois’ scenic Great River Road.