Kaskaskia

Kaskaskia circa 1850, engraving by Hermann Meyer

In Southern Illinois, near the Mississippi, a hundred miles or more above the mouth of the Ohio, is situated the ancient village of Kaskaskia, supposed to be the oldest permanent European settlement in the valley of the Father of the waters. The eminent historian who concedes to it this distinction finds it difficult to fix the date of its origin, and leaves that undetermined.1 Its foundation has been variously ascribed to members of La Salle’s expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi on their return in 1682,2 to Father James Gravier in 1683 or in 1685,3 to Tonti in 1686,4 and to others still, missionaries or explorers, at different dates in the latter part of the seventeenth century. But the uncertainty upon this point has arisen, in part at least, from the confounding, of Kaskaskia with an earlier Indian settlement of the same name on the Illinois River, where was established the Jesuit mission afterwards removed to the existing village. And this, perhaps, will be more apparent from a brief sketch of the history of that mission.

When Father Marquette returned from his adventurous voyage upon the Mississippi in 1673, by the way of the Illinois, he found on the latter river a village of the Illinois tribe, containing seventy-four cabins, which was called Kaskaskia. Its inhabitants received him well, and obtained from him a promise to return and instruct them. He kept that promise faithfully, undaunted by disease and toilsome journeys and inclement weather, and, after a rude wintering by the Chicago River, reached the Illinois village again, April 8th, 1675.5 The site of this Indian settlement has since been identified with the great meadow south of the modern Town of Utica in the State of Illinois, and nearly opposite to the tall cliff soon after known as Fort St Louis of the Illinois, and in later times as Starved Rock.6 Marquette established there a mission, to which he gave the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, and, for a little time, was able to teach the chiefs and the people. But continued illness soon obliged him to set forth upon that return voyage which brought him to a lonely grave in the wilderness.

To him succeeded the zealous priest, Claude Allouez, who seems to have been at the mission the following year, and at all events reached it in April, 1677. He was lodged, as he says, in Marquette‘s cabin, and erected a cross 25 feet high in the midst of the town, which the old men earnestly commended him to place well so that it could not fall. Departing shortly after, he returned in 1678, but the incursions of the resistless warriors of the Five Nations scattered the Illinois, and checked the mission, and the approach of La Salle, who was unfriendly to him, compelled Allouez‘s retirement the following year. The attempts of the priests who accompanied La Salle to continue the work, were set at naught by the attacks of the Iroquois upon the Illinois, who fled before their fierce oppressors. In 1684, however, Allouez returned under more favorable auspices, and was at the mission the greater part of the time until his death in 1690.

He was followed by the famous Jesuit, Sabastian Rasle, who embarked in a canoe at Quebec, in August, 1691, to go to the Illinois, and completed his journey of more than eight hundred leagues the following spring. Within two years, he was recalled to his original charge among the Abnaki Indians, to find a martyr’s fate long after at the hands of New England soldiers by the waters of the Kennebec.

Father James Gravier, who had been at the mission during Allouez‘s absence in 1687, received it from Father Rasle, and built a chapel within the walls of Fort St. Louis which over looked the village. His journal of the Mission of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady at the Illinois from March 20th, 1693 to February 15th, 1694, gives a very interesting account of his labors among the Indians upon the Illinois River.7 This, it will be noticed, is ten years or more after the time when some have supposed he founded the present Kaskaskia, three hundred mile, or more to the southward, upon the Mississippi. The Illinois nation or confederacy was composed of five bands or tribes the Kaskaskias, the Peorias, the Cahokias, the Tamaroas, and the Mitchigamias. Graviers work was principally among the first of these, but extended also to the Peorias. He longed to include in it the Tamaroas and the Cahokias, who were on the Mississippi, between his mission and the site of the Kaskaskia of today, but was unable to do more than to make them a single brief visit, because he was alone in the land. Of the Mitchigamias, who were still lower down the great river, but north of the place he is said to have founded in 1683 or 1685, and whose village he must have passed in order to reach it, Gravier seems hardly to have heard, and it is but reasonable to infer that at the date of his journal he had not traveled as far as their settlement.

During his stay in this region, Father Gravier studied the language of the Illinois, and reduced it to grammatical rules, and was regarded by his successors as the real founder of the mission, because he ensured its permanency.8 When recalled to Michilimackinac, about 1699, he left the Fathers Bineteau and Pinet in charge of the different branches of the original establishment, and with them labored Gabriel Marest, who seems to have been particularly associated with the Kaskaskia tribe. It will readily be seen that in the writings of such a number of missionaries, at these various dates, concerning a mission frequently spoken of as at Kaskaskia, or the village of the Kaskaskias, many allusions might occur which would seem to refer to the present place of the name. But the evidence that this mission remained upon the Illinois River until the year 1700, and that there was no settlement before that time upon the site of the Kaskaskia – we now know, appears to be well-nigh conclusive. A letter written to the Bishop of Quebec by John Francis Buisson de St. Cosme, a missionary priest, describes the journey of his party from Michilimackinac to the mouth of the Arkansas, by the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, in the year 1699.9 They stayed at the house of the Jesuit Fathers at Chicago, and set out from there about November first, on what one of their predecessors calls the divine river, named by the Indians Checagou, and made the portage to the River of the Illinois. Passing the Illinois village before referred to, they learned that most of the Indians had gone to Peoria Lake to hunt. Arriving there, they met the Fathers Pinet and Maret, with their flock, of which St. Cosme gives a good account, and he speaks of their work as the Illinois mission. The party journeyed onward, under the guidance of La Salle‘s trusty lieutenant, Tonti. While on the Illinois River, certain Indians attempted to prevent their going to the Mississippi, and intimated that they would be killed if they did so. Tonti replied that he did not fear men, that they had seen him meet the Iroquois, and knew that he could kill men; and the Indians offered no further opposition. They reached the Mississippi the 6th of December, 1699, and the next day reached the village of the Tamaroas, who had never seen any “black gown,” except for a few days when the reverend Father Gravier paid them a visit. A week later, they ascended a rock on the right, going down the river, and erected a beautiful cross, which their escort saluted with a volley of musketry, and St. Cosme prayed that God might grant that the cross, which had never been known in those regions, might triumph there. From the context of the letter, it is evident that this ceremony took place not far below the site of the present Kaskaskia, which St. Cosme must have passed to reach this rock, but he makes no mention of such a village. Furthermore, within fifteen miles or so of Kaskaskia, there is a rocky bluff on the Missouri side of the river, known now as the Cape of the Five Men, or Cap Cinq Hommes. This doubtless is a corruption of the name of the good Father St. Cosme, as appears from a map made a little more than one hundred years ago, which gives both names, Cinqhommes and St. Cosme, to this very bluff. It probably is the identical one which he ascended, and he could not have spoken of the cross as unknown in those regions, had there been any settlement so near the spot as the Kaskaskia we now know. Tonti, who was the leader of this party, is thought by some to have founded Kaskaskia in 1686. Nobler founder could no town have had than this faithful and fearless soldier, but the facts just narrated make such a theory impossible.

Again, in the early part of the year 1700, a bold voyager, Le Sueur, whose journal is in print,10 pushed up the Mississippi from its mouth, where D’Iberville had just planted the banner of France, and passed the site of Kaskaskia, without notice of such a place. He speaks of the village of the Tamaroas, where, by this time, St. Cosme had taken up his abode on his return from the south. About July 15th, going northward, Le Sueur arrived at the mouth of the Illinois, and there met three Canadian voyageurs coming to join his party, and received by them a letter from the Jesuit Marest, dated July 10th, 1700, at the Mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin at the Illinois. The letter of St. Cosme, and the journal of Le Sueur, seem to show clearly enough that down to the middle of the year 1700, the present Kaskaskia had not been settled, and that the Mission was still on the Illinois River.

Kaskaskia Indian Engraving

Illinois Indian of the Kaskaskia Tribe, engraving based on drawing by General Georges-Henri-Victor Collot, 1796

And lastly, we have the journal of the voyage of Father James Gravier, in 1700, from the country of the Illinois to the mouth of the Mississippi; from which we learn that he returned from Michilimackinac, and set out from Chicago on the 8th of September, 1700. He says he arrived too late at the Illinois, of whom Father Marest had charge, to prevent the transmigration of the village of the Kaskaskias, which was too precipitately made, on vague news of the establishment on the Mississippi, evidently referring to the landing of D’Iberville the year before. He did not believe that the Kaskaskias, whom Marest accompanied, would have separated from the Peorias and other Illinois, had he arrived sooner; and he obtained a promise from the Peorias to await his return from the Mississippi. After having marched four days with the KaskaskiasGravier went forward with Marest, whom he left sick at the Tamaroas village, and departed from there October 9th, 1700, to go to the lower part of the Mississippi, accompanied only by some Frenchmen. The Indians with Marest, we may presume, halted upon the peninsula between the Kaskaskia and the Mississippi Rivers, where we soon after find them; and thus doubtless was accomplished the transfer of the mission to its final location. The eagerness of the Illinois tribes to be in closer communication with the French was probably intensified by their desire to escape any further assaults from their dreaded enemies, and to rear their wigwams where they would never hear the war-cry of the Iroquois. Both motives would operate more powerfully with the Kaskaskias than with any others, because they had been longer under the influence of the French, and because, in their old location, they were the first to receive the onslaughts of the relentless foemen of the Illinois. Hence they set out to go to the lower Mississippi, but Gravier‘s influence, and perhaps Marest‘s illness as well, led them to pause at the first suitable resting-place, and that became their permanent abode. And when we consider that a few years later, this same Father Marest, who accompanied these Indians on their migration, was stationed at the present Kaskaskia, in charge of the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, as appears from his letters;11 that he died and was buried there, as is shown by the parish records;12 and that we hear nothing further of a mission of this name on the Illinois River; we may reasonably conclude that the Kaskaskia of our time should date its origin from the fall of of the year 1700, and should honor James Gravier and Gabriel Marest as its founders.

From Marest‘s letters we know that some Frenchmen intermarried with the Indians of this village, and dwelt there, and we may naturally infer that their presence attracted others of their race, trappers, fur traders, and voyageurs to the new location. And so, almost at the dawn of the history of the territory included within the limits of the State of Illinois, the present Kaskaskia was inhabited by a mixed population of whites and Indians, under the sway of the priest of the Order of Jesus. At first a mission simply, then a trading station, and soon a military post; within twenty years from its foundation, it had enough of the features of a permanent settlement to justify the worthy priests, in organizing there a parish, which succeeded to their beloved mission, and was known by the same name.

A large portion of the church records of this parish, beginning perhaps with its establishment, and some extracts from those of the earlier mission, have fortunately been preserved to this day; and they throw many a curious and interesting sidelight upon the events of the times in which they were written. Of their authenticity there can be no question. Some of them are still in the custody of the priest of the parish, and others are in the possession of a prelate13 of the church that has labored so long and so zealously in the region of which these records illustrate the history. By his thoughtful care, the earlier books, which suffered damage at Kaskaskia in the flood of 1844, were removed to a place of greater security. And recently the volumes containing the entries made between the years 1695 and 1835 have been arranged and re-bound, and with proper care may remain a monument of the early history of what is now the State of Illinois for many years to come.

In the re-binding, has been preserved intact the old parchment cover of the first of these records, on which may be dimly traced in the faded ink the words “Registrum pro anno 1696” but the remainder of the inscription is too indistinct to be deciphered. Probably it is the same in which Father Marest carried the scanty records of the mission at its removal. The originals of these mission records have not been preserved, and we have in their stead a copy of a portion only, entitled “Extrait des Regitres de Bapteme de la Mission des Illinois sous le litre de l’immaculeé Conception de la S. V.” The copy itself, a small quarto of six pages, is in Latin, and the first entry is of the baptism, March 20th, 1695, by James Gravier, of Pierre Aco, the newly born son of Michael Aco and Maria Aramipinchicoue. The godfather was D. de Mautchy, in whose place stood D. Montmidy, and the godmother was Maria Joanna, grandmother of the boy. This Michael Aco was one of the Frenchmen who accompanied Father Hennepin on his journey to the Upper Mississippi, when the Falls Of St. Anthony were discovered and named, and probably was the leader of the party, although the intrepid falsifier, Hennepin, Assumes that honor for himself in his account of the expedition. Aco‘s wife was the daughter of the chief of the Kaskaskias, and Gravier‘s journal describes their marriage in 1693. She was a convert, and through her influence her parents embraced Christianity, and she rendered great service to the missionaries as a teacher of the children. The boy, Pierre Aco, lived to be a citizen of the second Kaskaskia, and the transcript of the old French title records now in the office of the recorder of Randolph County, Illinois, contains a deed from him of a lot in Kaskaskia, executed September 12th, 1725. The two other entries in the mission record in 1695 are of the baptisms of children of French fathers and Indian mothers; the second of Michael, son of Jean Colon La Violette and Catherine Ekipakinoua, whose godfather was Michael Aco. It is curious to notice the difficulty the good fathers seem to have found in writing the names of the Indian women who appeared at these baptisms, as mothers and godmothers of the infants, as shown by their use of Greek characters for this purpose. We can imagine them standing at the font, listening to the many syllabled titles of parents and sponsors, smoothly uttered in the Illinois tongue, and vainly trying to reproduce them, until in despair they have resource to their classical learning for symbols of something akin to the new sounds.

In the year 1697, another son of La Violette and Catherine of the lengthy name, was baptized by Father Julian Bineteau, who had been a missionary in Maine in 1693, and the next year was stationed on the St. Lawrence. St. Cosme met him at Chicago, in 1699, when he had recently come in from the Illinois and was ill. He died, not long after, while following his Indians on their summer hunt over the parched prairies, when fatigue and exposure led to a severe sickness, of which he expired in the arms of his devoted colleague, Gabriel Marest.

In September, 1699, Father Marest baptized Theresa Panicoue; and the same year, in November, another son of La Violette was baptized by De Montigny of the same party with St. Cosme, and Tonti was the godfather. St. Cosme in the letter from which quotation has been made, speaking of their descent of the Illinois and landing at an Indian village, November 28, 1699, says: “We said mass in the cabin of a soldier named La Violette, married to a squaw, whose child Mr. De Montigny baptized.” The entry in the mission record and the letter therefore confirm each other.

The first ceremony recorded after the removal of the mission to the present village, is a baptism performed April 17, 1701, by Gabriel Marest; and the first, and indeed the only one at which Gravier officiated, after this removal, occurred April 13, 1703, when he baptized the infant son of Pierre Bizaillon and Maria Theresia. No further mention is made of Father Gravier in these records; but we know from other sources that he returned to the Peorias to labor among them, was dangerously wounded in a tumult excited by the medicine men, and descended the river in search of medical treatment, and that his injuries, aggravated by the long voyage, proved fatal to him at Mobile in 1706.

Under date of April 13, 1703, there appears in the midst of the entries of baptisms the single sentence “Ad ripam Metchagamia dictam venimus.” Whether this commemorates an expedition by some priest to the shore of Lake Michigan, which perhaps he gazed upon from the site of Chicago, or a visit to the little river flowing into the Mississippi, by which dwelt the Mitchagamias, who gave their name to both lake and river, we cannot tell. But it indicates an event which to some one seemed of importance enough to be recorded in the archives of the mission as carefully as were the ceremonies of the church. In 1707, first appears the name of the Father P. J. Mermet, who came from the great village of the Peorias, after the death of Pinet and Bineteau, to join Marest, with whom he was happily associated for many years. The latter, writing of their life at Kaskaskia, says: “Mermet remains at the village for the instruction of the Indians who stay there, the delicacy of his constitution placing it entirely out of his power to sustain the fatigues of the long journeys. Nevertheless, in spite of his feeble health, I can say that he is the soul of this mission. For myself, who am so constituted that I can run on the snow with the rapidity with which a paddle is worked in a canoe, and who have, thanks to God, the strength necessary to endure all these toils, I roam through the forests with the rest of our Indians, much the greater part of whom pass a portion of the winter in the chase.”

April 26, 1707, Mermet performs the baptismal ceremony for the daughter of Tinioe Outauticoue, (godmother Maria Oucanicoue), and George Thorel, commonly called the Parisian. It is strange to think that there should have been at that early day in the western wilderness, one so having so much of the airs and graces of the gay capital of France, as to be known distinctively as its citizen. The subsequent baptisms at the mission seem all to have been by Mermet and Marest, and the names of the women are usually Indian, including such remarkable ones as Martha Merounouetamoucoue and Domitilla Tehuigouanakigaboucoue. Occasionally, however, both parents are French. Thus, March 3d, 1715, was baptized Joannes son of Jean Baptiste Potier and Francoise Le Brise, who officiated as godmother at a ceremony in November of the same year. These are the earliest appearances of one of the matrons of the hamlet, who seems from subsequent notices to have afterwards become a perennial godmother. She figures in that capacity on two occasions in 1717, having also presented a child of her own for baptism in that year, and on one of the only two chronicled in 1718, and we find her at the font again in 1719. With an entry made October 2d of the latter year, the baptismal register of the mission proper seems to end; although a very few entries in 1732-3 and 1735 are appended, but these seem to belong rather to the parish.

For the parish, by this time, had been established; and the next in order of these documents is a quarto of twenty-two pages, written in French, as all the rest of these records are, beginning with the “Registre Des Baptemes faits dans l’eglise de la Mission et dans la Paroisse de la Conception de Ne dame. Commencé le 18 Juin, 1719” It is evident from this that the mission chapel was still in use, but that a parish had been duly formed. And we learn from the first entry that another element had been added to the population, and that the soldiers of France were at the little village. This is of a baptism performed June 18, 1719, by Le Boullenger of the Society of Jesus, chaplain of the troops, and the godfather is Le Sieur Jacques Bouchart de Verasae, ensign of the troops. We may mention in passing that the infant is the daughter of the marriage of Jean B. Potier and Francoise Le Brise. The priest here named, Joseph Ignatius le Boullenger, is said to have been a man of great missionary tact and wonderful skill in languages. His Illinois catechism, and instructions in the same dialect concerning the mass and the sacraments, were considered to be masterpieces by other missionaries, for whose benefit he prepared a literal French translation. The names of French, officers, Charles Legardeur de L’Isle and Claude Charles du Tisne appear as godfathers in two succeeding entries, and our good friend Francoise Le Brise officiates on both occasions as godmother. We regret to notice that the godmothers as a rule, and she is no exception, declare that they are unable to write, and therefore make their marks! One baptism is of the daughter of a slave woman bearing an Indian name. January 20, 1720, was baptized the son of Charles Danis, a name well known at Kaskaskia as that of one of the first settlers, to whom was made the earliest recorded land-grant in that locality. It was dated May 10, 1722, and executed by Pierre Duque Boisbriant, Knight of the military order of St Louis, and first king’s lieutenant of the province of Louisiana, commanding at the Illinois, and Marc Antoine de la loire des Ursins, principal secretary for the Royal India Company. The godfather for Danis‘ child was this same Pierre Duque Boisbriant, who was the first military commander in that region, and in one sense may be called the first governor of Illinois. And about this time we meet with the name of Jean Charles Guymonneau of the Company of Jesus, who was the principal officer of the church at the Illinois, and had special charge of an Indian village six miles inland from the Mississippi.

And now another change takes place, and Kaskaskia is no longer in the pastoral care of a missionary or military chaplain, but has its regular parish priest. Father Nicholas Ignatius de Beaubois, who describes himself as “curé de cette Paroisse” signalizes his accession by opening a new “Registre des Baptemes faits dans l’eglise Paroissiale de la Conception de Ne Dame des Cascaskias” which he commences July 9, 1720. And this, perhaps, indicates the time of the substitution of a parish church for the earlier mission chapel. The entries preceding this date, made by Boullenger and Guymonneau are, as the manuscript plainly shows, copies, and not the original record, and how this happened we speedly learn. For the precise Beaubois inserts in his register the following statement: “All that which preceeds is an extract which I, Nicholas Ig. de Beaubois, S. J., Curé of the parish of the Conception of our lady of the Cascaskias, certified to be correct and conformed to the original, which I have suppressed because it was not in order, and because it was kept on scattered leaves, and the present extract is signed by two witnesses, who have compared the present copy with the original; the 25th of July, 1720: De Beaubois, S. J.” We could wish that this choleric priest had been a little more patent, or his predecessor a little more careful, for the scattered leaves of that suppressed original contained probably the only autograph of Commandant Boisbriant ever written in the parish register, and would have been a little earlier original record than any we know of now in Illinois. But it was not so to be, and we must content ourselves with the fact that this register which Beaubois began is an undoubted original, containing perhaps the earliest existing manuscript penned in what is now the State of Illinois. And its opening entry of July 9th, 1720, has a special interest of its own, for the godfather at that baptism was “Le Sieur Pierre D’Artaguiette,” captain of a company, and his signature is appended. He was a gallant young officer of good family in France, who some years later distinguished himself greatly in the wars with the Natchez Indians, and won promotion thereby, and the position of Commandant at the Illinois. From his station there, in 1736, he marched against the Chickasaws, under the orders of the royal governor of Louisiana, and bravely met a tragic death in the campaign. Next we have an entry of a child baptized by a soldier, because it was in danger of death before it could be brought to a priest, but Beaubois, nevertheless, performs the ceremony over again. In the year 1720, le Sieur Girardot, ensign of the troops, appears as godfather, and from this time on regularly officiates in that capacity, vying with Francoise Le Brise in frequency of attendance at the baptismal rite in the character of sponsor. His name was long known in Kaskaskia and its neighborhood, where he spent many years, and it is probably borne today by the town of Cape Girardeau in Missouri. In 1721, Le Sieur Nicholas Michel Chassin, Commissary of the Company of the West in the country of the Illinois, signs the register. He was one of the representatives of John Law’s famous Mississippi Company, or Company of the West, afterwards merged in the Company of the Indies. In the same year, a child was re-baptized, over whom the ceremony had been once performed, on account of the risk and danger of the voyage up the Mississippi, by le Sieur Noyent, Major de la Place, at New Orleans, September 10, 1720, which seems to show that the date of 1723, usually given for the founding of New Orleans, is incorrect. So too a child, born at the Natchez in December, 1720, and baptized there by a voyageur, Pierre La Violette, probably a son of the soldier named in the mission records, was again baptized at Kaskaskia in May, 1721. And in the following June, that worthy woman, Francoise Le Brise, comes once more to the front in her favorite role of godmother, and unhesitatingly asserts that she is not able to sign her name, and is permitted to make her mark, which she does with a vigor and emphasis, which indicates that she was a woman of weight and influence in the community. By this time she has a competitor in one Catharine Juillet, who almost divides the honors with her, and who about this period officiates at the baptism of the son of a Pawnee slave, in company with le Sieur Philippe de la Renaudière, directeur des mines pour la Compagnie d’Occident, who signs his name to the register. And the succeeding entry is that of the baptism of the son born of the marriage of this Renaudière, who was a great man in the new colony, and the lady Perrine Pivet. This affair was one of state, and to the record of it are affixed the signatures, not only of the parents and the godfather, Le Gardeur de L’Isle, but of D’Artaguiette, Chassin, St. Jean Tonty – perhaps a relative of the great Tonti—Jean Baptiste Girardot and others. The last entry of a baptism in this book is on July 28th, 1721, and no baptismal register between that date and the year 1759 can now be found.

But next in order of time comes the Registre des Decedes dans la Paroisse de la Conception de Notre Dame des Cascaskias, Commencé le 46 de Janvier 1721, which begins with “the death in the parish on that day, at two hours after midnight, of Adrien Robillard, aged about forty-one years, an inhabitant of the parish, married the preceding night to Domitilla Sacatchioucoua. He had made confession and received the viaticum and the sacrament of extreme unction. His body was buried with the accustomed ceremonies in the cemetery of the parish, upon the high ground near the church, the same day of the month and year aforesaid. In witness whereof I have signed, N. Ig. de Beaubois, S. J.” In 1721, appears the death of the wife of Francois Freiul, called the Good-Hearted One, of the King’s Brigade of Miners; and also a solemn service for the repose of the soul of the deceased Sieur Louis Tessier, church-warden of the said parish, who died at Natchez the third of the month of June. In 1722, an entry is made, which strikingly illustrates the perils which beset the people of that little village on the great river, which was their only means of communication with the nearest settlements, hundreds of miles away. It reads as follows: “The news has come here this day of the death of Alexis Blaye and Laurent Bransart, who were slain upon the Mississippi by the Chickasaws. The day of their death is not known.” Then, in a different ink, as if written at another time, is added below: “It was the 5th or 6th of March, 1722.” And this state of things is sadly emphasized by the entry immediately following. “The same year, on the 22d of June, was celebrated in the parish church of the Kaskaskias a solemn service for the repose of the soul of the lady Michelle Chauvin, wife of Jacques Nepven, merchant of Montreal, aged about 45 years, and of Jean Michelle Nepven, aged twenty years, and Elizabeth Nepven, aged 13 years, and Susanne Nepven, 8 years, her children. They were slain by the savages from 5 to 7 leagues from the Wabash. It is believed that Jaques Nepven was taken prisoner, and carried away with one young boy, aged about nine years, named Prever, and one young slave girl, not baptized.” This family, doubtless, was removing from Canada to Kaskaskia, as a number did about this time, and had traveled the long and weary way by the St. Lawrence and Lakes Ontario and Erie, the Miami River, the portage to the Wabash, and the Ohio. From fifteen to twenty miles above the mouth of the latter river, then called the Wabash by the French, or within eighty miles or so of their destination, when they were counting the hours to their glad arrival there, they were waylaid by the merciless savages, the mother, son, and. two daughters killed, and the father and two servants taken captives. One daughter appears, from other minutes in these records, to have escaped this catastrophe, and she became the wife of the young ensign, Jean B. Girardot, whose signature becomes so familiar to us as we turn these ancient pages. There follows another solemn service for Jean B. Robillard, who died and was buried at Point Coupée, upon the Mississippi, the 14th of July of the year 1722, and then the death of Pierre Barel, a married man having wife and children in Canada.

The register is kept entirely by Father Beaubois during these years, except one entry by Boullenger, who states that he made it for Beaubois in his absence, which words are heavily underlined. As he inserts this in the wrong place, by order of dates, and styles it an omission, it is a wonder that Beaubois permitted it to remain. And we can but be thankful that he did not lose his temper on his return, and suppress all that had gone before on this account.

In 1724, the simple relation of what happened in a single day gives us a graphic picture of the sad scenes the infant settlement had sometimes to witness. In that year, “the 12th of April, were slain at break of day by the Fox Indians four men, to-wit: Pierre Du Vaud, a married man about twenty-five years of age, Pierre Bascau dit Beau Soleil, also a married man about 28 or 30 years of age, and two others, of whom one was known by the name of the Bohemian, and the other by the name of L’Etreneusieu, the three last dwelling and employed at Fort de Chartres. Their bodies, having been brought to Cascaskia the same day by the French, were buried at sunset in the cemetery of this parish.” From break of day to set of sun! These four, who perhaps had just begun their daily labor in the forest or the fields, were set upon in the early morning by the wily savages, who had come from the far away Fox villages in quest of scalps, and made good their retreat with their trophies, before the sad news was known at the stronghold where the victims dwelt, or at the little village which gave them sepulcher before the evening shades had fallen. It is interesting to notice also that one of these men was called the Bohemian, probably the first of that race who came to Illinois, and the earliest, use of the name in the annals of the West September 15, 1725, is mentioned the death of Martha, daughter of M. Girardot, “officier des troupes” and of Theresa Nepven, his wife. In 1726, inserted in this burial register are the baptisms of a negress and negro belonging to residents of the village, and in 1727, that of a slave of the Padoucah tribe14 of Indians. These, with others following, seem to refer to baptisms performed during fatal illness, and hence included in the list of deaths. The attention is attracted by the larger handwriting, and the crosses and heavy lines in the margin of the last entry in this burial register, which reads: “On the 18th of December, 1727, died Zebedeé Le Jeune Donné, of the Reverend Jesuit Fathers, having received the sacraments, and was buried in the parish church, under the second bench from the middle. The same day were transferred from the old chapel to the said church the bodies of the Reverend Fathers Gabriel Marest and Jean Mermet, religious priests of the Company of Jesus, Missionaries to the Illinois, who died at the said mission.” Thus we learn that Marest, one of the founders of Kaskaskia, and Mermet, who likewise was most intimately associated with the early history of the place, both labored there until the end, and found there a grave. The good shepherds, who had followed their wandering flock from the banks of the Illinois to a home by the Mississippi, and had seen the roving mission change to a permanent settlement, where they had toiled long and zealously, were buried first in the mission chapel. But when this structure had fallen into decay, and a new edifice had taken its place, loving hands reverently brought thither the precious dust, that the faithful pastors might still sleep in the midst of their own people.

The record of the deaths occurring in the parish, between the termination of this register in 1727 and the commencement of the burial register opened in 1764, has disappeared. After the first burial register, and in the same book, is a portion of the first marriage register of the parish, which begins abruptly in 1724, with the nuptials of Antoine and Marie, slaves of the Reverend Fathers the Jesuits. Among the witnesses who sign, are Girardot, who seems as ready to officiate at a wedding as at a christening, Zebedeé Le Jeune, the priest whose death in 1727 is noted in the burial register, and one Francoise, the last name not given, who makes a mark we think we recognize, and who does not seem to be at all deterred from offering her services as a witness by her inability to write her name. The same year was the marriage of the widow of a sergeant of the king’s miners, which Girardot witnesses, and that of a Frenchman, a widower, to an Indian woman, the widow of Charles Danis. This seems to have been a notable wedding, and D’Artaguiette and Legardeur de L’lsle sign among the witnesses, and the inevitable Francoise le Brise makes her mark. Then follows the marriage of a native of Brittany with Anne, a female savage of the Nachitoches tribe, which both Girardot and Francoise le Brise grace with their presence; and the next year, that of a Frenchman with a German woman, which seems to have attracted the attention of the Aborigines, as two chiefs, one the head of the Tamaroa tribe, make their marks as witnesses. In 1726, Jacques Hyacinthe, of the Pawnee nation, was married to Therese, a freed savage woman of the Padoucah tribe, and the whole party signed with their marks.

Turn we now to another entry of which the handwriting, clear as copper-plate, and the ink almost as dark as if used but yesterday, make it well-nigh impossible to realize that more than one hundred and fifty years have passed since the characters were formed, and the event described took place. It tells us that in the year 1727, the twentieth day of the month of October, the nuptial benediction was pronounced over two inhabitants of the parish, Joseph Lorrin and Marie Philippe, and shows that this was a great social event in the early day. Chassin of the Royal India Company, Girardot, Pierre de Franchomme, and others of the gentry of Kaskaskia sign the register as witnesses, and then appear two signatures, distinct and bold as though freshly written, which we have not met with hitherto. These are the names of Vinsenne and St. Ange fils; the Chevalier Vinsenne, commandant of the post by the Wabash, on the site of which the city of Vincennes, in Indiana, bearing a name derived from his, has grown up, and the young St. Ange, one of his officers, a relative doubtless of the sterling soldier, who was to be the last French Commandant of the Illinois. They had come from their distant station, the nearest neighbor of Kaskaskia, a hundred leagues, in bark canoes, or had traversed the prairie and threaded the forest for days together, to greet old friends and new, and to dance gaily at the wedding, all unmindful of the sad fate to which they were doomed; for, ere ten years passed by, these two, with the knightly D’Artaguiette and the heroic Jesuit Senat, were to perish at the stake among the savage Chickasaws, who wondered to see the white men die so bravely.

The last entry in this marriage record is under date of June 7th, 1729, and for a space of nearly twelve years, or until January 3d, 1741, there is no register of marriages in this parish extant, and the book containing the intervening entries has probably been destroyed. On the day last mentioned it begins again, with R. Tartarin as Curé, and from that time on it is kept in a folio volume of 220 pages, apparently containing a complete record of the marriages at Kaskaskia, from 1741 to 1835. In November, 1741, is noted the marriage of the widow of Pierre Groson de Ste. Ange, lieutenant of a company detached from the marine, perhaps the young officer who died with D’Artaguiette five years before. September 19th, 1746, Father P. J. Watrin becomes Curé, and about this period the names of natives of Quebec and of Detroit, residing at Kaskaskia, frequently occur in the register. Brother Charles Magendie, of the Company of Jesus, acts as assistant to Father Watrin, and we hear also of Monseigneur Mercier, Vicaire General, who occasionally exercises his authority. Slaves, red and black, and freed men and freed women of both colors, give light, and shade to the good father’s pages, and are dismissed with brief mention.

But when, on Jan. 7th, 1748, the wedding of Monsieur Joseph Buchet, exercising the functions of Principal Secretary of the Marine, Sub-delegate of Monsieur the Commissary Ordonnateur and Judge at the Illinois, once a widower, and Marie Louise Michel, twice a widow, is celebrated, and the Reverend Father Guyenne, Superior of the Missions of the Company of Jesus in Illinois, performs the ceremony, assisted,, as we should say, by the priest of the parish, the entry is thrice as long as usual. And the Chevalier de Bertel, Major commanding for the King at Fort Chartres, and Benoist de St. Clair, Captain commanding at Kaskaskia, sign the record, and others of the first circles of Kaskaskia, and all are able to write their names. Then follows the wedding of the daughter of Sieur Leonard Billeront, Royal Notary at the Illinois, with the son of Charles Valine, another name known long and well at Kaskaskia.

In this year, Father S. L. Meurin, who describes himself as a missionary priest of the Company of Jesus, exercising the functions of Curé signs one marriage entry; and the next year Father M. T. Fourré officiates at the wedding of two slaves of Mr. de Montchevaux, Captain commanding at the Cascaskias. And January 13th, 1750, Father Watrin performed the ceremony at the union of Jean Baptiste Benoist de St. Claire, Captain of infantry, who had now become commandant at the Illinois, and Marie Bienvenue, daughter of Antoine Bienvenue, Major of militia, who had not long before removed from New Orleans to Kaskaskia, where his decendants still reside. And the same year De Giradot signs once more as a witness. In 1751, there appears the name of St. Gemme, which later was prominent in the history of the place. When, the property of the Jesuits in Kaskaskia was sold by the French commandant for the crown, under the royal decree for the suppression of the order, St. Gemme was the purchaser, and he became the richest subject in the village, furnishing to the King’s magazines as much as 86,000 weight of flour in a single season, which was only part of one year’s harvest. The family came from Beauvais, in France, and its members were often called by the name of that town, but the true patronymic was St. Gemme, which some descendants of that stock to day write St. James. In 1755, De Girardot‘s signature greets us again, and for the last time in these records. Aubert, Jesuit, relieves Watrin in 1759, and the succeeding year joins in wedlock Dussault de la Croix, officier des troupes du Roy, son of Messire Dessault de la Croix, Chevalier of the military order of St Louis, and the widow of Antoine de Gruye, Lieutenant of the troops, written permission having been given by Monsieur de Macarty, Major Commandant at the Illinois. One of the witnesses is Neyon de Villier, a bold officer in the old French war, who did much damage on the frontiers of the colonies. He was one of the seven brothers, who all held commissions under King Louis, and was Macarty‘s successor as Commandant of the Illinois country. April 11th, 1763, the bans of marriage were published for the third time between Messire Philippe Francois de Rastel, “Chevalier de Rocheblave, officier des troupes de cette colonie, natif de Savournon Diocese de Gap en Dauphiné, fils de Messire Jean Joseph de Rastel, Chevalier Marquis de Rocheblaver Seigneur de Savournon le Bersac place du bourg et de vallée de vitrolles” and Michel Marie Dufresne, daughter of Jacques Michel Dufresne, officer of militia of this parish; written permission having been given by Monsieur De Neyon de Villiers, Major Commandant at the country of the Illinois, who signs the register. This Rocheblave, at the transfer of the country by the French to the English, took service under the banner of St. George, and was the last British Commandant of the Illinois, being captured at Fort Gage, on the bluff above Kaskaskia, July 4th, 1778, by the able leader, George Rogers Clark. In 1764, Father Meurin seems to take charge of the parish, which he describes as that of the Immaculate Conception of the holy virgin, Village of Kaskaskias, Country of the Illinois, Province of Louisiana, Diocese of Quebec; and associated with him at times was Brother Luc Collet, Missionary Priest at the Illinois.

The sturdy priest, Pierre Gibault, assumes the functions of Curé des Kaskaskias et Vicaire General des Illinois et Tamarois, in 1768, and his bold signature, with its unique flourish, greets us through these records for fifteen years or more. We should know that the man with such a chirography would have been just the one to render the efficient assistance given to George Rogers Clark, and must have belonged to the church militant. He was very slow to recognize the change in the civil government of the country, when it was ceded by France to England, which was quite distasteful to him, and hardly notices it in these records. But in 1776, when the Vicar-General of the Illinois country, the former curé, S. L. Meurin, officiated, we find this transfer indicated in the mention of Mr. Hugh Lord, Captain commanding for his Britannic Majesty, and his signature and those of some of his officers are subscribed to one entry. In May, 1778, Father Gibault condescends to speak of Mr. De Rocheblave as Commandant-in-Chief in the country of the Illinois, but does not say under which king; and before, he made the next entry, 4th August of same year, the hapless Rocheblave, to Gibault‘s great satisfaction, was on his way to Virginia, a prisoner of war, and Clark and his “Long Knives,” as his men were called, held the fort.

Reluctantly we see the last of the handwriting of this friend of the new republic, which is followed in 1785, by that of De Saint Pierre as Curé and De la Valinière as Vicar-General; and in their time, from 1792 onward, English names begin to appear, such as Archibald McNabb, of Aberdeen, and William St. Clair, son of James St. Clair, captain in the Irish Brigade in the service of France, and John Edgar, once an English officer, and afterward a prominent citizen of Kaskaskia and of Illinois, and Rachel Edgar, his American wife, who persuaded him to forswear the King of Great Britain and all his works; and William Morrison, who emigrated from Philadelphia, in 1790, to establish a mercantile business in the old French town. And with these are the new French names, representing the arrivals from Canada during that period, and noticeable among them that of Pierre Menard, afterwards the first Lieutenant-Governor of Illinois, the son of a liberty-loving Canadian, who fought by the side of Montgomery, at Quebec. In 1793, Gabriel Richard takes up the record as parish priest. Later he was stationed at Detroit, and took a leading part in the early history of Michigan, representing that Territory in Congress, and was the only Catholic priest who was ever a member of that body.

The register runs on without a break well into the present century, and we note as we pass the marriage on May 22d, 1806, of Pierre Menard, widower, and Angelique Saucier, granddaughter of Jean B. Saucier, once a French officer at Fort Chartres, who resigned and settled in the Illinois country; Donatien Ollivier was the officiating priest. In 1817, at the wedding of a daughter of William Morrison, Ninian Edwards, then Governor of the Territory of Illinois, afterward third Governor of the State, and Shadrach Bond, first Governor of the State, sign as witnesses. July 11, 1819, at the marriage of a son of Pierre Chouteau to a daughter of Pierre Menard, it is recited that the husband was born at St Louis in the Missouri Territory, and the wife at Kaskaskia in the State of Illinois, which is the first mention of the State of Illinois in these records. Many members of these two families, both prominent in the early history of the Illinois country, witness this entry. In April, 1820, William Morrison, Eliza, his wife, Governor Shadrach Bond, and William H. Brown, in after years a leading citizen of Chicago, appear as witnesses, and the last entry in this book, commenced in 1741, is made in 1820. A smaller volume in the same cover continues the list of marriages to 1835, and in a clerkly hand, Sidney Breese, late Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois, affixes his signature to an entry made February 11th, 1822. John Reynolds, afterwards Governor of Illinois, is a witness in 1824, and two years later, Felix St. Vrain, the Indian agent, murdered by the savages at the outbreak of the Black-Hawk war, signs the record, and with him Nathaniel Pope, delegate to Congress from the Territory of Illinois, and first United States Judge for the District of Illinois—all in the time of Francois Xavier Dahmen, priest of the Congregation.

In a folio volume, imported, as it would appear, from Bordeaux, the Register of Baptisms is resumed in 1759, and continued to 1801, and is carried on in a smaller volume to 1815. One of its many curious entries is of the baptism of “the son of an infidel savage woman of the Choctaw tribe, and a savage man of the Peorias;” and numerous baptisms among negro slaves take place.

In a smaller book, the Burial Register begins again with this statement, “The old register of persons deceased in the Parish of the Immaculate Conception of the Kaskaskias having been filled, I have continued to register in the old book of accounts, of which a large part was blank. The Register of Deaths commencing only at this leaf, the 8th day of September, 1764.” Of the old register, thus referred to, which probably filled the gap from Dec. 18th, 1727, to September 8th, 1764, no trace can be discovered, and it is probably destroyed. One of the first entries in 1764, by Father Meurin, is of the death and burial of a poor voyageur, of whom he says: “I know neither the family, nor the parish, nor where or when he was born.” Some years later, Father G.’s vault buries a little Illinois savage eight hours after baptism; and in 1779, a negro slave belonging to “Mr. Le Colonel Klark.” And the same year, he performs the funeral service over Joseph Brayeau, aged seventy-eight years, slain the night before, by the savages on the Kaskaskia River. He also buries two little Illinois savages, one named Francois and the other Michael, and, shortly after, holds a solemn service for Charles Robbin, native of Canada, aged about thirty-eight years, killed by the savages, at the point of the River of the Kaskaskias; “his body was found and buried on an island of the Mississippi.” He next chants a solemn sendee in memory of Joseph Bineau, a young man from Detroit, slain on the banks of the Beautiful River by the savages with four other Frenchmen in the same canoe. And the following year, one is sung for the repose of the soul of Jean De Noyon, slain by the savages on the Beautiful River, and buried on L’Isle aux Boeufs “by all those who belonged to the barge who have certified that they were present at his death, and at that of Joseph la Fleur, killed and buried with him.” It appears that the Indians did not always confine themselves to white victims, for he records the death of one named Pierre, an Illinois indian, killed by his enemies along the River of the Kaskaskias. In 1792, died Archibald McNabb, native of the Shire of Perth, in Scotland, and next is mentioned the killing of two men, from the village of Kaskaskia, who fell by the hand of the savages upon the River Cumberland or Shawanon. In 1827, the death of a slave of Mr. Cain is noted. Probably Elias K. Kane is referred to, one of the first senators from Illinois. And we learn, at this last date, that Kaskaskia has ceased to be a part of the diocese of Quebec, and now belongs to that of Baltimore.

We might continue thus to cull from these old records things grave and gay, quaint and interesting, but the limits of this paper compel us to forbear, and we must leave the greater part of them untouched. It is pleasant to pour over the brown pages, to decipher the cramped handwriting, and to imagine the long succession of worthy priests making their careful entries, little thinking that they would ever be read beyond the bounds of their own parish, or be of value to any but the dwellers therein, but they made them none the less faithfully. And so these parish records, intended simply to show the births, marriages, and deaths among the people of one little village, for the greater part of its existence an outpost of civilization in the heart of the western wilderness, unconsciously and so most accurately reveal much of the early history of the region which is now a great State.

They tell us of the black-robed missionaries, who made those long and weary journeys to plant the cross among the savages, and toiled to spread their faith with a zeal and devotion unsurpassed; of the bold pioneers, who, for the sake of gain and adventure, traversed the wilds with their lives in their hands and of their merciless foes; of the days of wild speculation, when the streets of Paris were full of eager purchasers of shares in the wonder-working company which was to found an empire on the banks of the Mississippi, and draw endless riches from the mines to be opened there; of the high-born officers, who sought distinction or promotion by service in this far-away colony, and of their soldiers, trained to war across the sea; and, as we read, plumes and banners wave, and sabres clank, and the red men look curiously at the musketeers, and those whose names are written in the pages of these time-worn books pass before us, and the old scenes come back again. They give us glimpses too of the struggle between two mighty nations for the valley of the Beautiful River, and for dominion in the New World, the prelude to the mightier struggle in which the victor in the earlier strife lost its conquests and its ancient possessions as well; and of the part which this early settlement played in those contests. We see the sceptre pass from one nation to another, and when the sound of war is hushed we note the coming of peace, with commerce and agriculture in its train. And, as the tide of enterprise reaches the old French village, we see its temporary transformation into an American town, and can realize its astonishment at finding its limits extending, its population doubling, its streets thronged, and itself the seat of government of a vast territory and the first capital of a State. And we can appreciate its relief when the wave recedes and the new names disappear, and rejoice with it that this episode is over, and it is left to its ancient ways and its own familiar people, and to a rest which has since been almost undisturbed.

And hence, for one who approaches it today, there is little to disturb the impression that it is really the Kaskaskia of the olden time to which he draws near. The way still lies, as of yore, through a forest, in which stands the old residence of Pierre Menard, vacant, and fast going to decay, but with its furniture and books still in place, as if its occupants of long ago had left but yesterday. It is a type of the village itself, once astir with life, now full of stillness. As you cross the Kaskaskia River by the old-fashioned ferry, and are greeted by the ancient ferryman, the illusion is not dispelled. And the wide streets, unmarked by wheel-tracks; the antique French houses, with their high dormer-windows; the old brick buildings, the first erected of that material in Illinois, each with a history—this one the earliest courthouse in the State, and that one the old United States land-office built of three-inch bricks, brought from Pittsburg in flatboats, in 1792; the priest’s house, constructed of materials from the ruins of the nunnery once located there; and the parish church, containing the bell cast at Rochelle, in France, in 1741, for this parish, the first that rang between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi—all give one a mingled impression of antiquity and departed greatness.

You may dine at the village tavern, in the same great room, fully thirty feet square, in which dinner was served to the Marquis de Lafayette, in 1825, when he tarried here on his way down the Mississippi, and note the quaint wood-carving of the high mantlepiece, and of the mouldings of the doors and windows, and see beneath the porch the heavy hewn timbers of which the house is built, justifying the tradition that it is a century and a quarter old, and was already venerable when Edward Coles, the second Governor of Illinois, made it his residence. You may see part of the foundation of the William Morrison house, at which a reception was given to Lafayette, and the dilapidated framework of the Edgar mansion, where he was a guest. The site of the house of the French commandant, which was afterwards the first State House of Illinois, will be pointed out to you, and the place where stood the nunnery, and such landmarks as the corner-stone of the property of the Jesuits confiscated by the French Crown, and the post of Cahokia Gate, once giving passage through the fence that bounded the Common Fields, which are still divided and held by the old French measurement and title. And you will learn that the little village, now containing less than three hundred souls, is the owner of some eleven thousand acres of the most fertile land in the Valley of the Mississippi, under the grant to it of Kaskaskia Commons, by his Most Christian Majesty Louis the XV., in 1725, and derives therefrom abundant revenue. The older residents will talk to you of the flood of 1784, of which they have heard their fathers tell; and of Lafayette‘s visit, which they remember as boys, when, perched on the fence, they saw the stately form, in foreign garb, pass into the Edgar mansion, or peered at him through the windows as he sat at dinner in the large room of the tavern; and of the great flood of 1844, when the water was five feet deep above the floors of their houses, and large steamboats came up the Kaskaskia River and through the streets of the village, and, gathering the terror-stricken inhabitants from trees and roofs, went straight away across the Common Fields to the Mississippi. Of more modern events they have little to say, nor do the later years furnish them topics to take the place of these.

The little community, content to believe itself the first permanent European settlement in the Valley of the Mississippi, sleeps on, dreaming of its early days and of its former importance. It pays little heed to the warnings which the mighty river has already given it, and is seemingly unmindful that the third and last is at hand. The distance from the village centre to the the river bank, once three miles, has been reduced one-half; and the rich farm lands, which once bordered the stream, have gone in its current to the Gulf of Mexico. And now the Mississippi, unsatisfied even with this rapid destruction, in the very wantonness of its strength has cut its way above the town towards the Kaskaskia River, despite the efforts of the Government engineers to check it, until but a space of three hundred yards separates the two. The grave of Illinois’ first Governor has been disturbed, and but recently his remains were removed to a safer resting-place. And when the junction is made, the united rivers at the next flood-time will spare nothing of the ancient village, which meanwhile listens idly to the murmur of the approaching waters, and smiles in the shadow of its impending doom, which, before another spring has passed, may be so complete that there will remain no memento of Kaskaskia save its old Parish Records.

 

Footnotes

  1. Bancroft’s History of the United States, I. p. 195. 
  2. Davidson and Stuve’s History of Illinois, p. 110. 
  3. Atlas of State of Illinois, pp. 169, 202. 
  4. Montague’s History of Randolph County, Illinois, p. 12. 
  5. Shea’s Discovery and Exploration of the Mississippi, p. 55. 
  6. Parkman’s Discovery of the Great West, p. 69. 
  7. Shea’s History of Catholic Missions, pp. 410-415. 
  8. Marest’s Letter, Kip. p. 206. 
  9. Shea, Early Voyages up and down the Mississippi, p. 43. 
  10. Early Voyages up and down the Mississippi, p. 92. 
  11. Marest’s Letter, Kip. p. 197. 
  12. Kaskaskia Parish Records, p. 9. Burial Register. 
  13. Right Reverend P. J. Baltes, Bishop of Alton, Ill. 
  14. The Padoucah tribe was part of the Comanche