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Historian's tale of colonial Illinois about collaboration rather than conquest

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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IMAGE: Illinois' colonial history is a distinctive one, says University of Illinois historian Robert Morrissey in a new book. The French who settled there found a mutual self-interest with the Illinois... view more

Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois has an early colonial history that's easily forgotten, or boiled down to just the explorers Marquette and Jolliet and a few French fur traders.

What's missing in that, however, is a surprising history of European and native cooperation, interracial marriage and mixed-race communities, according to a University of Illinois history professor.

"It's a very different and distinctive kind of colonial history than what we tend to think of," said Robert Morrissey, the author of the recently published "Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country."

Rather than finding conflict, the people involved found mutual self-interest, Morrissey said. And rather than carrying out the wishes of the French empire that supposedly ruled them, they often acted in defiance of it, then forced it to go along.

"My point in the book is to kind of complicate the understanding of how people think about colonialism in early America, and the idea of empire in early America, as much more of a two-way street," Morrissey said. "In this case, there were lots of ways in which Indians took advantage of the European presence, and Europeans benefitted from their relationship with native peoples."

Understanding that theme probably starts with understanding the Illinois Indians and their bid for power in the region at that time, Morrissey said. Their home base was the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia, near present-day Starved Rock State Park, on the Illinois River about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. At one point, it would be the largest concentration of population in North America north of Mexico City.

The Illinois had chosen that location for its access to bison-hunting, but also because it was a borderland between tribes to the east and west, and served as a base from which to raid those tribes to take captives for trading as slaves, Morrissey said. Mostly women, these slaves were taken and traded not for their labor, but to replace Indian populations that had been decimated by European diseases and conflicts in the Great Lakes region.

The slave trade became an important basis for Illinois power, Morrissey said, and the Illinois would rank among the most powerful peoples in North American at the end of the 1600s.

French settlement began with Jesuits establishing a mission in the 1680s near the Grand Village, and the settlement would attract French fur traders. As far as French officials were concerned, neither the priests nor the fur traders were supposed to be there. They were not part of French plans.

Soon, French men were marrying Illinois women, and with Jesuit encouragement, Morrissey said. The men gained not only wives, but beneficial connections to the tribe, and the women had their own reasons for valuing these arrangements.

Eventually, five mixed-race settlements would be established much farther south, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, south of present-day St. Louis. Morrissey said the settlements included slaves seized from both African and Native American populations. And they began to farm, eventually growing enough wheat for export down the river.

French officials had not wanted to settle the "Illinois Country," wanting instead to establish intensive settlements in Canada where they would "Frenchify" the Indians, Morrissey said. In many ways, and ironically, "these people had Frenchified," he said.

A further irony was that although these settlers and their Indian allies had largely acted from self-interest, they still wanted and needed connection with the empire. "They're not trying to be independent out here on the edge of the world," Morrissey said. "They're trying to work themselves into the networks of the Atlantic world, but on terms that are advantageous to them."

In addition to connection, they needed the empire to give them government and law, Morrissey said. The need was so strong that when the Illinois Country became British territory in the 1760s, after the French and Indian War, these villages were practical and ready to accommodate. "There's no nostalgia for France," he said. "They're like, 'OK, what's next? Fine, we'll be British.'"

As a result, in the early 1770s, as colonists on the East Coast are beginning to talk about throwing off British rule, the colonists in Illinois are lobbying for more of that rule. "The farmers of Illinois were appealing to the British empire to send them a government," Morrissey said.

But it was too late. By the time these inhabitants of Illinois got the British government's attention, the American Revolution was underway. Under the American government that followed, the collaborative imperial culture in Illinois was overshadowed by new Yankee settlers "with different ideas and more power," Morrissey said.

As a result, much of Illinois' multicultural colonial population migrated west, bringing their distinctive political culture and pragmatism with them.

The book, "Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country," is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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