The marvellous growth of the Great West obscures all relating to it, save what is of recent date. It has a past and a history, but these are hidden by the throng of modern events. Few realize that the territory of Illinois, which seems but yesterday to have passed from the control of the red man to that of our Republic, was once claimed by Spain, occupied by France, and conquered by England. And fewer still, may know that within its boundaries yet remain the ruins of a fortress, in its time the most formidable in America, which filled a large place in the operations of these great powers in the valley of the Mississippi. Above the walls of old Fort Chartres, desolate now, and almost forgotten, have floated, in turn, the flags of two mighty nations, and its story is an epitome of their strife for sovereignty over the New World.
The union of Canada, by a line of forts, with the region of the West and South, was a favorite scheme of the French crown at an early day. It originated in the active brain of the great explorer, LaSalle, whose communications to the ministers of Louis XIV, contain the first suggestions of such a policy. These military stations were intended to be centres of colonization for the vast inland territory, and its protection against rival nations. Spain laid claim to nearly the whole of North America, under the name of Florida, by the right of first discovery, and by virtue of a grant from the Pope, who disposed of a continent—which he did not own—with reckless liberality. France relied on the possession taken by LaSalle for her title to the Mississippi Valley; and a long altercation ensued. The ordinary state of feeling between their officers may be inferred from a correspondence which has come down to us from the early part of the eighteenth century. Bernard de la Harpe established a French post on the Red River, and this aroused the ire of Don Martin de la Come, the nearest Spanish commandant Writes the Spaniard: “I am compelled to say that your arrival surprises me very much. Your governor could not be ignorant that the post you occupy belongs to my government. I counsel you to give advice of this to him, or you will force me to oblige you to abandon lands that the French have no right to occupy. I have the honor to be Sir, &c, De la Come.” To him replies the courteous Frenchman: “Permit me to inform you that M. de Bienville is perfectly informed of the limits of his government, and is very certain that this post depends not upon the dominions of his catholic majesty. If you will do me the favor to come into this quarter, I will convince you I hold a post I know how to defend. I have the honor to be, Sir, &c, De la Harpe.”
Here and elsewhere, the French held their own, and continued to occupy the disputed territory. In the Illinois country, the mission villages of Cahokia and Kaskaskia sprang up and throve apace. From the latter place, as early as 1715, the good father Mermet reported to the Governor of Canada that the encroaching English were building forts near the Ohio and the Mississippi. So the shadow of the coming power of her old enemy was cast athwart the path of France in the Western wilderness, while Spain watched her progress there with a jealous eye. And the need of guarding the Illinois settlements became more manifest when the discovery of valuable mines in that locality was announced. Such rumors often repeated, and the actual smelting of lead on the west bank of the Mississippi, had their effect in the Mother Country. And when the grant of the province of Louisiana to the merchant Crozat, was surrendered, in 1717, John Law‘s famous Company of the West, afterward absorbed in that of the Indies, was ready to become his successor, and to dazzle the multitude with the glittering lure of the gold and silver of Illinois. The representatives of this great corporation, in unison with those of the French crown, recognizing the many reasons for a military post in that far-away region, made haste to found it; and thus Fort Chartres arose. It was established as a link in the great chain of strongholds, which was to stretch from the St Lawrence to the Gulf, realizing the dream of LaSalle; a bulwark against Spain and a barrier to England; a protector of the-infant colony, and of the church which planted it; a centre for trade, and for the operation of the far-famed mines; and as the chief seat in the New World of the Royal Company of the Indies, which wove a spell so potent that its victims saw, in the near future, crowded cities all along the course of the Mississippi, and stately argosies afloat upon its waters, one hundred and fifty years ago.
On the 9th of February, 1718, there arrived at Mobile, by ship, from France, Pierre Duqué Boisbriant, a Canadian gentleman, with the commission of Commandant at the Illinois. He was a cousin of Bienville, then Governor of Louisiana, and had already served under him in that province. In October, of the same year, accompanied by several officers and a detachment of troops, he departed for the Illinois country, where he was ordered to construct a fort. The little flotilla, stemming the swift current of the Mississippi, moved slowly on its way, encountering no enemies more troublesome than “the mosquitoes, which,” says the worthy priest Poisson, who took the same journey shortly after, “have caused more swearing since the French have been here, than had previously taken place in all the rest of the world.” Late in the year, Boisbriant reached Kaskaskia, and selected a site for his post sixteen miles above that vilage, on the left bank of the Mississippi. Merrily rang the axes of the soldiers in the forest by the mighty river, as they hewed out the ponderous timbers for palisade and bastion. And by degrees the walls arose, and the barracks and commandant’s house, and the store-house and great hall of the India Company were built, and the cannon, bearing the insignia of Louis XIV., were placed in position. In the spring of 1720, all was finished, the banner of France was given to the breeze, and the work was named Fort Chartres. An early governor of the State of Illinois; who wrote its pioneer history, has gravely stated that this Fort was so called, because it had a charter from the crown of France for its erection. But it is feared that the same wag who persuaded an Illinois legislature to name the second capital of the State, Vandalia, by reason of the alleged traces of a tribe of Indians named the Vandals in the neighborhood of the site, also victimized a governor. We can hardly accept his derivation, when it seems so much more probable that the name was taken, by way of compliment to the then Regent, from the title of his son, the Duc de Chartres, for whom, about this time, streets were named in New Orleans and Kaskaskia, which are still thus designated.
A The exterior wall—1447 feet.
B The gate or entrance to the fort.
C A small gate.
D The two houses formerly occupied by the commandant and commissary, each 96 feet in length and 30 in breadth.
E The well.
F The magazine.
G Houses formerly occupied as barracks, 135 feet in length, 36 hi breadth.
H Formerly occupied as a storehouse and guard-house, 90 feet by 24.
I The remains of small magazine.
K The remains of a-furnace.
L A ravine, which in the spring is filled with water. Between this and the river, which is about half-a-mile, is a thick growth of cotton wood.
The area of the fort is about four square acres.
The first important arrival at the new post was that of Philip Francis Renault, formerly a banker in Paris, the director-general of the mines of the India Company, who reached Fort Chartres before its completion, and made his headquarters there. He brought with him 250 miners and soldiers, and also a large number of slaves from St. Domingo. This was the beginning of negro slavery in Illinois. The practice of enslaving Indian captives was already in vogue, but from this time on, the records of the French settlements there, speak of both black slaves, and red slaves. The Fort was finished not at all too soon. The tardy Spaniards had at last decided to strike a blow at their neighbor on the Mississippi, and Boisbriant hardly had everything in readiness, when news reached him of the march of a force from Mexico against, his stronghold. But this invasion was repelled by the natives on the route, and all concerned in it slain, except the chaplain of the expedition, who was taken prisoner by the Pawnees. He finally escaped in a dexterous manner. While delighting the Indians with feats of horsemanship, he gradually withdrew to a distance, and described a final elaborate figure which had no return curve. Two Indian chiefs, who displayed, as trophies, a Catalonian pistol and a pair of Spanish shoes, gave this account to Father Charlevoix, at Green Bay.
This pleasant old traveler was then making the journey through North America, of which he has left such a charming account. On the 9th of October, 1721, he passed Fort Chartres, which stood a musket-shot from the river, as he tells us, and he further says, “M. Duqué de Boisbriant commands here for the Company to whom the place belongs. The French are now beginning to settle the country between this Fort and Kaskaskia.” The leader of Charlevoix’ escort was a young Canadian officer, Jean St. Ange de Belle Rive, destined in later years to have a closer acquaintance with Fort Chartres than this passing glimpse of its newly-built walls and structures afforded him. He hardly anticipated then that to him would come the honor of commanding it, and that on him, almost half a century later, would fall the sad duty of finally lowering there his country’s flag, which waved so proudly above it on that autumn morning.
No sooner was the Fort erected, than a village began to grow up at its gates, in which the watchful Jesuits forthwith established the parish of Sainte Anne de Fort Chartres. All that remains of the records of this parish, is in the writer’s possession. They begin with an ancient document, tattered and worn, written in Quebec, in the year 1716. It is a copy of a curious decree of Louis XV., promulgated in the same year, which seems to be something in the nature of a manual of church etiquette. Reciting that his majesty has considered all the ordinances on the subject of honors in the churches of New France, and wishes to put an end to all the contests on the subject, it proceeds to regulate the whole matter. Twelve articles provide that the governor-general and the intendant shall each have a prie Dieu in the cathedrals of Quebec and Montreal, the governor-general on the right, the intendant on the left; the commander of the troops shall have a seat behind the governor-general; in church-processions, the governor-general shall march at the head of the council, his guards in front, the intendant to the left and behind the council, and the chief notary, first usher, and captain of the guard, with the governor-general, yet behind him, but not on the same line with the council; and similar minute directions cover all contingencies. In all other churches of New France, the same rules of precedence are to be observed according to the rank of those in attendance. Doubtless, copies of this important decree were kept in readiness, that one might be furnished to each new church at its establishment And probably the one from which we quote was sent from Quebec to Ste. Anne of Fort Chartres some time in 1721, the year in which the first entries seem to have been made in the parish registers. We may presume that Boisbriant followed its instructions strictly, and took care to be on the right hand in the church, and also that the intendant or civil officer should be on the left. That position was filled by Marc Antoine de la Loire des Ursins, principal director for the Company of the Indies. These two, together with Michel Chassin, commissary for the Company, formed the Provincial Council of the Illinois, and speedily made Fort Chartres the centre of the civil government of the colony. To this council applications for land were made, and its members executed the grants upon which many titles rest to this day. Boisbriant, doubtless believing that he that provideth not for his own household is worse than an infidel, had a large tract conveyed to himself, beginning at the little hill behind the Fort. He and his associates dispensed justice, regulated titles, and administered estates, and, in fact, established the court, which, for more than forty years, decided the causes which arose in the Illinois country, according to the civil law. Their largest land grant was made in 1723, to M. Renault, and comprised a tract west of the Mississippi, another, fifteen leagues square, near the site of Peoria, and another above Fort Chartres, one league along the river and two leagues deep, the latter to raise provisions for his settlements among the mines. Of this last tract, a large part was never sold by Renault, and to this day the unconveyed portion is marked upon the maps of Monroe County, Illinois, as the property of the Philip Renault heirs.
About this time word came to the Fort that the faithful allies of the French, the Illinois Indians, who dwelt about Peoria Lake, and the Rock of St. Louis, now called Starved Rock, were hard pressed by their ancient enemies, the Foxes. Boisbriant sent a force to their relief which arrived at the close of a contest, in which the Foxes were defeated, but so greatly had the Illinois suffered that they returned with the French to the shelter of the Fort, leaving the route to the settlements from the north unprotected. In the year 1725, Bienville, the Governor of Louisiana, was summoned to France, and Commandant Boisbriant became acting Governor in his stead, with headquarters at New Orleans. His old position was filled by M. De Siette, a captain in the royal army. In the parish register in his administration, appears the baptism of a female savage of the Padoucah nation, by the chaplain at the Fort, who records with great satisfaction that he performed the ceremony, and gave her the name of Therese, but does not say whether she consented, or what she thought about it. She apparently paid a casual visit to the Fort, and he baptized her at a venture, and made haste to write down another convert. The Fox Indians were a thorn in the side of De Siette. The way by the Illinois River was now open to them, and their war parties swooped upon the settlers, murdering them in their fields, even within a few miles of the Fort. In great wrath, De Siette opened a correspondence on the subject with De Lignerie, the French commandant at Green Bay, and proposed that the Fox tribe should be exterminated at once. The calmer De Lignerie, replies in substance that this would be the best possible expedient, provided the Foxes do not exterminate them in the attempt. And he suggests a postponement of hostilities until De Siette and himself could meet “at Chickagau or the Rock” and better concert their plans. But soon the French authorities adopted the views of the commandant at the Illinois, and the Marquis de Beauharnois, grandfather of the first husband of the Empress Josephine, then commanding in Canada, notified him to join the Canadian forces at Green Bay, in 1728, to make war upon the Foxes. A battle ensued, in which the Illinois Indians, headed by the French, were victorious. But hostilities continued until De Siette‘s successor, by a masterly piece of strategy, waylaid and destroyed so many of the persistent foemen, that peace reigned for a time.
This officer, M. de St Ange de Belle Rive, who, as we have seen, first visited the Illinois country with Father Charlevoix, had since been stationed there, and made it his home, for the ancient title records of this region show that in 1729 he purchased a house in the prairie bounding on one side the road leading to Fort Chartres. And in an old package of stained and mouldering papers, but lately disinterred from the dust of at least one century, is the original petition addressed by St. Ange to the proper authorities for the confirmation of his tide to certain land, not far from the Fort, acquired “from a savage named Chicago who is contented and satisfied with the payment made to him.” During his term of office, in 1732, the Royal India Company surrendered its charter to the crown, which thenceforward had the exclusive government of the country. A few years before, the French warfare with the Natchez Indians, that strange tribe of sun-worshippers, probably of the Aztec race, had resulted in the dispersion of the natives, some of whom joined the Chickasaws, who, under English influence kept up the strife. A young officer, Pierre D’Artaguiette, distinguished himself so greatly in the Natchez war, that he was appointed to the Illinois district, in 1734, taking the place of St. Ange, who was transferred to another post. The new commander was a younger brother of Diron D’Artaguiette, a man very prominent in the early history of Louisiana, and his family connections, his services and virtues, his brilliant career and untimely death, have surrounded his name with a halo of romance. With pride and pleasure, he received his promotion to the rank of major, and his orders to take command at Fort Chartres. For two years he ruled his province well, and then the summons to the field came to him again. Bienville had resumed the Governorship and resolved to crush the Chickasaws. In preparation for the campaign he strengthened all the posts, that they might better spare a part of their garrisons for active work. De Coulanges, an officer sent to Fort Chartres with a supply of ammunition, disobeyed orders, transporting merchandise instead, leaving the powder at the Arkansas. A party of D’Artaguiette‘s men going after it, was routed by the Chickasaws. “For this,” Bienville says, “I have ordered D’Artaguiette to imprison De Coulanges for six months in Fort Chartres. I hope this example will moderate the avidity for gain of some of our officers.” When everything was in readiness, D’Artaguiette set forth from Fort Chartres. with all his force, on a morning in February, making a brave show as the fleet of bateaux and canoes floated down the Mississippi. This first invasion of Southern soil by soldiers from Illinois, comprised nearly all of the garrison of the Fort, a company of volunteers from the French villages, almost the whole of the Kaskaskia tribe, and a throng of Indian warriors who had flocked to the standard even from the far away Detroit. Chicago led the Illinois and the Miamis, and at the mouth of the Ohio, the Chevalier Vinsenne joined the expedition, with the garrison from the post on the Wabash, and a number of Indians, including a party of Iroquois braves. Landing, and marching inland, they reached the Chickasaw villages at the appointed time, but the troops from New Orleans, who were to meet them there, failed to appear. Compelled to fight or retreat, D’Artaguiette chose the former, and was at first successful, but the tide turned, when he fell, covered with wounds. De Coulanges, released from durance that he might redeem his fame, and many other officers, were slain, most of the Indians fled, and D’Artaguiette, Vinsenne, the Jesuit Senat, and young St. Ange, son of the Illinois commandant, were taken prisoners by the unconquered Chickasaws, who burned them at the stake, and triumphantly, marched to the Georgia coast to tell their English allies there of the French defeat. The broken remnants of the little army, under the leadership of a boy of sixteen, pursued by the savages for five and twenty leagues, regained the river, and slowly and sadly returned to the Fort. On the sorrow caused there by the mournful news, the masses that were said in the little church for the repose of the souls of the slain, and the deep grief felt throughout the country of the Illinois, in cabin and wigwam alike, we will not dwell. The impression made by the life and death of D’Artaguiette was so abiding, that his name remained a household word among the French for years; and well into the present century, the favorite song among the negroes along the Mississippi was one, of which the oft-repeated chorus ran, “In the days of D’Artaguiette, Ho! Ho! In the days of D’Artaguiette, O ho!”
Three years later, La Buissoniere, who succeeded him, led an expedition from Fort Chartres, composed of Frenchmen and natives, to take part in another campaign against the dauntless Chickasaws. Soldiers from Quebec and Montreal, with recruits from all the tribes along their route, overtook him on the way, and the Northern forces joined the troops under Bienville, newly reinforced from Paris, near the site of the city of Memphis. The dominions of the King of France, in the Old World and the New, were laid under contribution to concentrate this army at the rendezvous, but not a blow was struck. White and red men lay in camp for months, apparently unwilling to risk an encounter, and at length a dubious peace was arranged, and all marched home again, without loss or glory. Hardly had the Fort Chartres detachment returned, when a boat, going from New Orleans to the Illinois, was attacked by the Chickasaws, above the mouth of the Ohio, and all on board were killed, save one young girl. She had recently arrived from France, and was on her way to join her sister, the wife of an officer at the Fort. Escaping by a miracle to the shore, she wandered through the woods for days, living on herbs, until sore spent and ready to die, she chanced to reach an elevation from which she caught a glimpse of the flag floating over Fort Chartres, and, with new hope and strength, struggled onward, and came safely to the friends who had mourned for her as dead.
Among the few original documents relating to this period which are still preserved, is a deed executed at Fort Chartres by Alphonse de la Buissoniére, commandant at the Illinois, and Madame Theresa Trudeau, his wife. During his governorship were the halcyon days of the French settlers at the Illinois. The Indians were kept in check, the fertile soil yielded bounteous harvests, two convoys laden with grain and provisions, went each year to New Orleans, and Lower Louisiana became almost entirely dependent upon them for supplies. Other villages had grown up near the Fort. Prairie du Rocher, five miles away, was situated upon a grant made by the India Company to Boisbriant, and by him transferred to his nephew, Langlois, who conveyed it by parcels to the settlers, reserving to himself, certain seigneurial rights according to the customs of Paris. And Renault, on a portion of his grant above the Fort, established the village of St. Philip, which became a thriving place. These were laid out after the French manner, with Commons and Common Fields, still marked upon the local maps, and in some cases held and used to this day under the provisions of these early grants. In each of the villages was a chapel, under the jurisdiction of the parent church of Ste. Anne of Fort Chartres. To the colony came scions of noble families of France, seeking fame and adventure in that distant land, and their names and titles appear at length in the old records and parish registers. Among them was Benoist St. Claire, captain of a company detached from the marine service, who followed La Buissoniére in the chief command, and held it for a year or more. He found little to do in those piping times of peace, made an occasional grant of land, and sought other service early in 1742.
The Chevalier de Bertel, who describes himself as Major Commanding for the King, took charge in his stead. The parish register of Ste. Anne, in his time, is extant, and the title-page of the volume, then newly opened, bears the following inscription: “Numbered and initialed by us, Principal Secretary of the Marine and Civil Judge at the Illinois, the present book, containing seventy-four leaves, to serve as a Register of the Parish of St. Anne, of Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths. Done at Fort Chartres the first of August, 1743. “Chevalier de Bertel, Major Commandant. De la Loire, Flancour.”
The pages which remain, by their careful numbering and joint initials, show how important it was deemed to preserve and identify this register. It was soon to contain the record of the sudden death of Flancour himself, the Civil Judge at the Illinois. One of his last acts was to grant to the village of Prairie du Rocher, a tract of land for Commons, from which it now derives a revenue. And with Bertel he executed a deed to a young man at St. Philip, for the reason that he was the first one born in Illinois to marry and settle himself. And to another, who asked the gift of a farm, because he had seven children, they granted a tract of land for each child. Renault made his last conveyance of a lot at St. Philip by deed, executed in his rooms at Fort Chartres, September 2d, 1740, and, three years later, returned to Paris, after a residence in the Illinois country of nearly a quarter of a century. In the same season, Governor Bienville went to France, finally resigning his trust to the Marquis de Vandreuil. And here a word may be spoken of the first royal governor of the province, of which Illinois was a part, and in whose administration Fort Chartres was constructed. Le Moyne de Bienville, a Canadian born, was one of an illustrious family. His father, was killed in battle in the service of his country, seven of his brothers died naval officers, and of the three others, then surviving, one was Governor of Montreal, one captain of a ship of the line, and one a naval ensign. He distinguished himself at the capture of Port Nelson from the English, and in a brilliant naval engagement in Hudson’s Bay; was one of the founders of Louisiana; and chose the site of the city of New Orleans. He served as Lieutenant-Governor and Governor of the Province for nearly forty years, and won the reputation of being the bravest and best man in the colony. His portrait, which adorns the mansion, at Longueil, in Canada, of Baron Grant the representative of the family, shows a martial figure, and a noble face, in keeping with his record; and his intimate connection with its early history would make it fitting to preserve a copy of this original in the State of Illinois.
The Chevalier de Bertel had a difficult part to play. France and England were at war, because Frederick the Great and Marie Theresa could not agree, and this disturbed the settlements at the Illinois. Some Englishmen, found on the Mississippi, were, arrested as spies, and confined in the dungeon as Fort Chartres, and whispers of an English attack were in the air. The Fort was out of repair, and poorly supplied, and a number of its soldiers, tiring of the confinement of the garrison, deserted, to try the free life of the woods and prairies. The old-time Indian allies were won over by the British, and agreed to destroy the French post during the moon of the fall of the leaf, but they were thwarted by the skill and address of De Bertel. Many anxious thoughts he had as he paced the enclosure of Fort Chartres, and many an earnest epistle he addressed to his superior officers, assuring them that it was only by great good fortune that he could hold his post, which must be reenforced and strengthened. The abandonment of the Fort was at one time contemplated. This plan, however, was given up when the Marquis de Galissonière, Gov.-General of Canada, presented a memorial on the subject to the home government. He says, “The little colony of Illinois ought not to be left to perish. The King must sacrifice for its support. The principal advantage of the country is its extreme productiveness, and its connection with Canada and Louisiana must be maintained.” The peace of Aix la Chapelle came in time to give both parties a breathing space, in which to prepare for the sterner contest, soon to follow. Chevalier de Bertel, knowing that his wise counsels had borne fruit, transferred the command again to Benoist St. Clair, who signalized his return by wedding the daughter of a citizen of Kaskaskia, in January, 1750. The same year, De Galissonière once more urged upon the King the importance of preserving and strengthening the post at the Illinois, describing the country as open and ready for the plough, and traversed by an innumerable multitude of buffaloes. “And these animals,” he says, “are covered with a species of wool, sufficiently fine to be employed in various manufactories!” And he further suggests, and, doubtless, correctly, that “the buffalo, if caught, and attached to the plow, would move it at a speed superior to that of the domestic ox!”
In the succeeding autumn, the Chevalier de Makarty,1 a major of engineers, with a few companies of troops, arrived from France, under orders to rebuild the citadel of the Illinois country. Other detachments followed, until nearly a full regiment of French grenadiers answered to the roll-call at Fort Chartres. They toiled busily to transform it from a fortress of wood to one of stone, under the skilful guidance of the trained officer, whose Irish blood, as well as his French commission, made hostile preparations against Britain, a labor of love to him. You may see, to this day, the place in the bluffs to the eastward of the Fort, where they quarried the huge blocks, which they carried in boats across the little lake lying between. The finer stone, with which the gateways and buildings were faced, were brought from beyond the Mississippi. A million of crowns seemed to the King of France but a reasonable expense for this work of reconstruction, which was to secure his empire in the West. And hardly was it completed when the contest began, and the garrison of Fort Chartres had a hand in the opening struggle. In May, 1754, the young George Washington, with his Virginia riflemen, surprised the party of Jumonville at the Great Meadows, and slew the French leader. His brother, Neyon de Villiers, one of the captains at Fort Chartres, obtained leave from Makarty to avenge him, and with his company, went by the Mississippi and the Ohio, to Fort du Quesne, where he joined the head of the family, Coulon de Villiers, who was marching on the same errand. Together, with “a force as numerous,” said the Indians, “as the pigeons in the woods,” they brought to bay “Monsieur de Wachenston,” as the French despatches call him, at Fort Necessity, which he surrendered on the 4th of July. The capture of this place by the French, is one of the causes assigned by George the Second, for the declaration of hostilities by Britain; and thus the Old French War began. The little detachment, with its bold leader, returned, flushed with victory, to celebrate, at Fort Chartres, the triumph of Illinois over Virginia. Soon the demands upon this post for supplies and men grew constant, and the veteran Makarty labored steadily to keep pace with them. The commandant at Fort du Quesne, whose communications with Canada were interrupted by the British, writes him: “We are in sad want of provisions. I send to you for flour and pork.” The Governor-General of Canada, in an epistle to the Minister of Marine, observes: “I knew the route from the Illinois was as fine as could be desired. Chevalier de Villiers, who commands the escort of provisions from there, came up with a bateaux of 18,000 weight. This makes known a sure communication with the Illinois whence I can derive succor in provisions and men.” Nor did our garrison confine itself to commissary work. The tireless De Villiers, hardly resting from his escort duty, crossed the Alleghanies with his men, and captured Fort Granville, on the Juniata. The Marquis de Montcalm, writing to the Minister of War, thus pleasantly alludes to this little attention paid by Illinois to Pennsylvania: “The news from the Beautiful River is excellent. We continue to devastate Pennsylvania. Chevalier de Villiers, brother of Jumonville, who was assassinated by the British, has just burned Fort Granville, sixty miles from Philadelphia.” The next year, Aubry, another of the Fort Chartres captains, was sent by Makarty, with 400 men, to reenforce Fort du Quesne; then threatened by the British. The morning after his arrival, he sallied out and routed Major Grant and his Highlanders, and, a few days later, surprised the British camp forty-five miles away, captured their horses, and brought his party back mounted. Soon, however, the approach of a superior force, with Washington and his riflemen in the van, compelled the abandonment of Fort du Quesne. By the light of its burning stockade, the Illinois troops sailed down the Beautiful River, and sadly returned to their homes.
The British star was now in the ascendant, yet still the French struggled gallantly. Once more the drum beat to arms on the parade-ground at Fort Chartres, at the command to march to raise the siege of Fort Niagara. All the Illinois villages sent volunteers, and Aubry led the expedition by a devious route, joining the detachments from Detroit and Michilimackinac, on Lake Erie. As they entered the Niagara River, Indian scouts reported that they were “like a floating island, so black was the stream with their bateaux and canoes.” The desperate charge upon the British lines failed, Aubry, covered with wounds, fell into the hands of the enemy, and the bulletin reads, “Of the French from the Illinois, many were killed and many taken prisoner.” Despair and gloom settled upon the Fort and its neighborhood, when the sorrowful news came back. Makarty writes to the Governor-General: “The defeat at Niagara has cost me the flower of my men. My garrison is weaker than ever. The British are building bateaux at Pittsburg. I have made all arrangements, according to my strength, to, receive the enemy.” And the Governor-General replies, “I strongly recommend you to be on your guard.” The surrender, at Montreal, of the Canadas, followed upon the victory on the plains of Abraham, but still the Illinois held out for the King. Neyon de Villiers received his well-earned promotion, and assumed command at Fort Chartres. And the fine old soldier, Makarty, doubtless, regretting that he had not had the opportunity to test the strength of the goodly stone walls he had built, sheathed his sword, twirled his mustache, made his bow, and departed.
The village at the Fort gate, which, after the rebuilding, was called New Chartres, had become a well-established community. The title records quaintly illustrate its ways of transacting business, as when, for instance, the royal notary at the Illinois declares that he made a certain public sale in the forenoon of Sunday, after the great parochial mass of St. Anne of New Chartres, at the main door of the church, offering the property in a high and audible voice, while the people were going out in great numbers from said church. And the parish register, which, briefly and drily, notes the marriages of the common people, spares neither space nor words in the record of the weddings in the families of the officers at the Fort. When Jean la Freile de Vidrinne, officer of a company, is married to Elizabeth de Moncharveaux, daughter of Jean Francois Liveron de Moncharveaux, captain of a company, and when the Monsieur Andre Chevalier, royal solicitor and treasurer for the King at the country of the Illinois, weds Madeleine Loisel, names, and titles, and ancestry, are set forth at length, and Makarty, the commandant, Buchet, the principal writer, Du Barry, a lieutenant, all the dignitaries of fort and village, and all the relatives, subscribe the register as witnesses. The ladies sign with a careful deliberation, indicating that penmanship was not one of their recreations; the gentlemen with flourishes so elaborate, that they seem to have been hardly able to bring them to a close. These entries appear in a separate volume, the last in date of the parish books, entitled “Register of the Marriages made in the Parish of St. Anne, containing seventeen sheets, or sixty-eight pages, numbered and initialed by Mr. Buchet, principal writer and judge.” (Signed) Buchet. And in the Baptismal register of the chapel of St. Joseph, at Prairie du Rocher, appears an entry which has a strangely familiar sound. For it recites that several persons, adults and children, were baptized together, in the “presence of their parents, brothers, uncles, mutual friends, their sisters, their cousins, and their aunts.” This, palpably, is the germ of “Pinafore,” which Illinois may therefore take the credit of originating, long before our era!
New Chartres, and the other villages in the neighborhood, and the Fort, rested secure in the belief that, although Canada had surrendered, Louisiana, with the Illinois country, would still be preserved by the King, who might thence reconquer his lost possessions. Hence, like a thunder-clap, came the news that on the 10th of Feb., 1763, Louis XV had ratified the treaty transferring them to the British Government. The aged Bienville, then living in Paris, with tears in his eyes, begged that the colony, to which he had given the best years of his life, might be spared to France, but in vain. With a stroke of his pen, the weak King ceded to Great Britain the Canadas, the Illinois, and all the valley of the Mississippi east of the river. While at Fort Chartres they were in daily expectation of news of the coming of British troops to take possession, an expedition arrived from New Orleans to settle at the Illinois. It was headed by Pierre Laclede, the representative of a company of merchants engaged in the fur trade. Learning here of the treaty of cession, he at once decided to establish a new post in the territory, west of the Mississippi, supposed to be still French ground. Neyon de Villiers permitted him to store his goods and quarter his company at the Fort, and Laclede, after an exploring tour, selected a fine bluff, sixty miles to the northward, for the site of his colony. He foresaw something of its future importance, and, returning to Fort Chartres for the winter, discoursed with enthusiasm upon its prospects, and took possession in the spring. This was the beginning of the city of St. Louis. Many of the French from the Illinois followed him, even transporting their houses to the other shore, so great was their desire to live under their own flag. And terrible was their disappointment, when the secret treaty with Spain was made known, by which their faithless King ceded all his dominions beyond the Mississippi to the nation which had so long disputed with France her foothold there. Their last estate seemed worse than their first, for much as they detested the defiant banner of Britain, with a deeper hatred they regarded the gloomy ensign of Spain. Many more of the unhappy colonists descended the Mississippi, with Neyon de Villiers, in the belief that lower Louisiana was to remain under French control, and that their condition would be bettered there, only to be bitterly disappointed. Those who remained felt their hopes revive, as time passed on and the red-coats came not.
The veteran St. Ange, who had returned from Vincennes to play the last sad act of the drama, with a little garrison of forty men, still held the Fort, although it was the only place in North America at which the white flag of the Bourbons was flying. All else had been ceded and surrendered, but the way to the west was not yet open, for Pontiac was a lion in the path. The British victory was not complete until that flag was lowered, and repeated efforts to accomplish this were made. Again and again wrere they thwarted by the Forest Chieftain. Major Loftus, ascending the Mississippi with a force to take possession of Fort Chartres, was greeted with a volley at the bluffs, still called Loftus Heights, and retreated to Pensacola. Captain Pitman, seeking to find his way from Mobile in the guise of a trader, gave up the attempt as too hazardous. Captain Morris, sent from Detroit to arrange for the surrender of the Fort, was met by Pontiac, who, squatting in front of him, opened the interview by observing that the British were liars, and asked if he had come to lie to them like the rest. Attentions much less courteous were received from individuals of the Kickapoo persuasion, and Morris turned back, while still several hundred miles from his destination. Lieutenant Frazer, pushing down the Ohio, reached Kaskaskia, where he fell into Pontiac’s hands, who kept him all one night in dread of being boiled alive, and at daybreak shipped him to New Orleans by canoe express, with the cheerful information that the kettle was boiling over a large fire to receive any other Englishmen who came that way. Frazer could only console himself, for his otherwise fruitless voyage down both the Ohio and the Mississippi, with the thought that he had been nearer to the objective point than any other officer, and had seen a great deal of the country. George Croghan, Sir William Johnson‘s interpreter, following Frazer on the same errand, was waylaid by the Shawnees on the Ohio and sent to the Indian villages on the Wabash, whence he took Morris’ route to Detroit. The French and Spanish officers in Louisana, laughed at the British failures to reach a fort they claimed to own, and suggested that an important party had been omitted in the treaty of cession, and that a new one should be made with King Pontiac. Meanwhile that sovereign was ordering into service some Illinois Indians, assembled near Fort Chartres, and when they showed a reluctance to engage in hostilities against their new rulers, said to them: “Hesitate not, or I destroy you as fire does the prairie grass. Listen, and recollect these are the words of Pontiac!” Their scruples vanished with amazing rapidity, and they did his bidding. Then with his retinue of dusky warriors, he led the way through the tall gateway of Fort Chartres, and greeting St. Ange, as he sat in the government house, said “Father, I have long wished to see thee, to recall the battles which we fought together against the misguided Indians and the English dogs. I love the French, and I have come here with my warriors to avenge their wrongs.” But St Ange plainly told him that all was over; Onontio, their great French father could do no more for his red children; he was beyond the sea and could not hear their voices; and they must make peace with the English. Pontiac, at last convinced, gave up the contest, and made no opposition to the approach from Fort Pitt, by the Ohio, of a detachment of the 426. Highlanders, the famous Black Watch, under Captain Sterling, to whom St. Ange formally surrendered the Fort on the 10th of October, 1765. The lilies of France gave place to the red cross, of St George, and the long struggle was ended. At “Fort Chartres the great empire of France in the New World ceased forever.
The minute of the surrender of Fort Chartres to M. Sterling, appointed by M. de Gage, Governor of New York, Commander of His Britannic Majesty’s troops in North America, is preserved in the French archives at Paris. The Fort is carefully described in it, with its arched gateway, fifteen feet high; a cut-stone platform above the gate, with a stair of nineteen stone steps, having a stone balustrade, leading to it; its walls of stone eighteen feet in height; and its four bastions, each with forty-eight loop-holes, eight embrasures, and a sentry-box, the whole in cut stone. And within, the great store-house, ninety feet long by thirty wide, two stories high, and gable-roofed; the guard-house having two rooms above for the chapel and missionary quarters; the government-house 84 x 32, with iron gates and a stone porch, a coach-house and pigeon-house adjoining, and a large stone well inside; the intendanfs house of stone and iron, with a portico; the two rows of barracks, each 128 feet long; the magazine thirty-five feet wide, thirty-eight feet long, and thirteen feet high above the ground, with a doorway of cut stone, and two doors, one of wood and one of iron; the bake-house with two ovens, and a stone well in front; the prison with four cells of cut stone, and iron doors; and one large relief gate to the north; the, whole enclosing an area of more than four acres. The English had insisted that, under the treaty of cession, the guns in all the forts belonged to them. The French Governor, of Louisiana, disputed the claim, but consented to leave those at the Illinois, with a promise of their-restoration, if his view proved correct. Hence the cannon of Fort Chartres were transferred with it, for the time at least.
St Ange and his men took boat for St. Louis, where, feeling that their sovereign had utterly deserted them, they soon decided to exchange the service of his Most Christian Majesty of France, for that of his Most Catholic Majesty of Spain. They were speedily enrolled in the garrison of St. Louis, of which St Ange was appointed to the command, to the great satisfaction of his comrades and his old neighbors from the Illinois. One tragedy signalized the accession of the new government at Fort Chartres. Two young officers, one French and the other English, were rival suitors for the hand of a young lady in the neighborhood, and a quarrel arose which led to a duel. They fought with small-swords early on a Sunday morning, near the Fort, the Englishman was slain, and the Frenchman made haste to descend the river to New Orleans. The story of this, no doubt the first duel fought in Illinois, was related, nearly forty years after its occurrence, by an aged Frenchman, who was an eye-witness of the combat, to the chronicler who has preserved the account. With the departure of the French soldiers, the last spark of life in the village of New Chartres went out. On the register, then in use in the church of St. Anne, was written, “The above-mentioned church (parochial of St Anne of New Chartres) having been abolished, the rest of the paper which was in this book has been taken for the service of the church at Kaskaskia.” And the Mississippi, as if bent upon destroying every vestige of the once happy and prosperous village, encroached upon its site until a large portion of it was swept away. Shortly after its abandonment, the parish register of Prairie du Rocher, which place continued to be occupied by the French, records the removal of the bodies of the Reverend Fathers Gagnon and Collet, priests of St. Anne of New Chartres, from the ruined cemetery near that church on the point in the river, and their burial in the chapel of St. Joseph, at Prairie du Rocher.
The Illinois had now become a British colony, “in the days when George the Third was King.” The simple French inhabitants with difficulty accustomed themselves to the change, and longed for the paternal sway of the commanders of their own race. It is said that soon after the British occupation, the officer, in authority at Fort Chartres, died suddenly, and there being no one competent to succeed him, the wheels of government stopped. And that St. Ange, hearing, at St Louis, of the confusion in his old province, repaired to Fort Chartres, restored order, and remained there until another British officer could reach the spot The story is typical of the man, who deserves a wider fame than he has won. For he was a fine exemplar of the fidelity, the courage, and the true gentleness, which are worthy of the highest honor. He spent a long life in the arduous duties of a frontier officer, commanding escorts through the wilderness, stationed at the different posts in the North-West in turn, and for more than fifty years associated with the Illinois country, which became the home of his family. Born in Canada, and entering the French army as a boy, he grew gray in the service, and when surrendered to the foeman, he had so long opposed, by the unworthy King, who made no provision for the men who had stood so steadfastly for him, he was more faithful to France than Louis XV had been. For his removal to St Louis, and acceptance of a Spanish commission, were in the interest and for the protection of his misled countrymen, who had settled at that place solely that they might still be French subjects. There he remained, the patriarch of the infant settlement, beloved and honored by all, until his death, at the age of seventy-six, in the year of the commencement of our revolution. And all who knew him, friends and foes, countrymen and foreigners,”white men and red, alike bear testimony to the uprightness, the steady fortitude, the unshrinking courage, the kindliness and nobility of Louis St. Ange de Belle Rive, the last French Commandant of the Illinois.
In December of the year of the surrender, Major Farmer, with a strong detachment of the 34th British Foot, arrived at the Fort from Mobile, and took command. The following year he was relieved by Colonel Edward Cole, a native of Rhode Island, an officer in the Old French War, who commanded a regiment under General Wolfe at the siege of Quebec, and was at the capture of Havana by the Earl of Albemarle. In letters written from the Fort, in 1766 to 1768, to his old comrade and partner in business, Colonel Henry Van Schaick, he says, “This country is far from answering my expectations in any other point than the soil. I have enjoyed but a small share of health since I arrived. I have been much deceived in the description of this country, and am determined to quit it as soon as I can. No comfort Indians eternally about me.” During his term of office, Captain Philip Pitman, a British engineer officer, the same who had unsuccessfully endeavored to reach the Illinois during Pontiac’s rule, visited the Fort in pursuance of his orders to examine the British posts in the Mississippi Valley. In his report he says: “The walls of Fort Chartres are two feet two inches thick, and the entrance is through a very handsome gate.” He describes the works and buildings very fully, and concludes as follows: “It is generally believed that this is the most convenient and best built Fort in North America.” In 1768, Col. Cole was followed by a Col. Reed, who became so notorious for his oppression of the people, that he was speedily relieved by John Wilkins, Lieut-Colonel of the 18th or Royal Irish, the former commander of Fort Niagara, who reached tie Illinois, with seven companies of his regiment, from Philadelphia, by way of Pittsburg, in Sept, 1768. From the correspondence of Ensign George Butricke, an officer in this expedition, we learn that, on their way down the Ohio, they killed so many buffalo that they commonly served out one a day to each company, and they were forty-three days on the way, from Pittsburg to Kaskaskia. Speaking of Fort Chartres as “built of stone, with bastions at each angle, and very good, barracks of stone,” he describes the land around it as the finest in the known world, and gives his opinion to the effect that “it is a shocking unhealthy country.” Col. Wilkins, under a proclamation from General Gage, established a court of law, with seven judges, to sit at Fort Chartres, and administer the law of England, the first court of common-law jurisdiction, west of the Alleghanies. The old French court of the royal jurisdiction of the Illinois, with its single judge, governed by the civil law, had ceased with the surrender. Its records for many years were preserved at Kaskaskia, where the late Judge Breese saw and made extracts from them. When the county-seat was removed, less care was taken of them, and within a few years past, these documents, so interesting and valuable to the antiquarian and the historian, have been used by veritable Illinois Vandals to light the fires in a country court-house, and but a solitary fragment now remains. In Wilkins‘ time, that famous warrior, Pontiac, was basely slain at Cahokia, by an Illinois Indian. St Ange, then commanding at St Louis, honoring the noble red man, whom he had known long and well, brought the body to his fort, and gave it solemn burial. The friends of Pontiac, avenging his death, pursued one fragment of the Illinois tribe to the walls of Fort Chartres, and slew many there, the British refusing them admission. At Prairie du Rocher, about this period, is recorded the marriage of a French soldier, of the garrison of St Louis, with the written permission of M. de St. Ange, his commander, to an Englishwoman from Salisbury, in Wiltshire, which the good priest writes, “Solbary, in the province of Wuilser.” It is significant of the different races, and the varying sovereignties in that portion of our country, that a French soldier, from the Spanish city of St Louis, should be married to an Englishwoman by a French priest, in the British colony of Illinois.
The occupation of Fort Chartres, however, by the soldiers of any nation, was drawing to a close. For seven years only the British ruled there, though, doubtless, believing it to be their permanent headquarters for the whole North-West But the Mississippi had ever been a French river, and could not bide the presence of the rival nation on its banks. Its waters murmured the names of Marquette and Joliet, of LaSalle and Tonti, and their memories would not suffer it to rest contented with successors of another race. So it rose in its might and assailed the Fort, and on a stormy night in spring-time its resistless flood tore away a bastion, and a part of the river wall. The British in all haste fled across the submerged meadows, taking refuge on the hills above Kaskaskia; and from the year 1772, Fort Chartres was never occupied again.
The capricious Mississippi, as if satisfied with this recognition of its power, now devoted itself to the reparation of the damage it had wrought The channel between the Fort and the island in front of it, once forty feet deep, began to fill up, and, ultimately, the main shore and the island were united, leaving the Fort a mile or more inland. A thick growth of trees speedily concealed it from the view of those passing upon the river, and the high road from Cahokia to Kaskaskia, which at first ran between the Fort and the river, was soon after located at the foot of the bluffs, three miles to the eastward. These changes, which left the Fort completely isolated and hidden, together with the accounts of the British evacuation, gave rise to the reports of its total distraction by the river. Parkman, alluding to it as it was in 1764, says, “The encroaching Mississippi was destined before many years to engulf curtain and bastion in its ravenous abyss.” A work relating to the history of the North-West, published only last year, informs us that “the spot on which Fort Chartres stood became the channel of the river,” and even some who have lived for years in its neighborhood will tell you that it is entirely swept away. But this is entirely erroneous; the ruins still remain; and had man treated it as kindly as the elements, the old Fort would be nearly perfect to-day.
After the British departed, an occasional band of Indians found shelter for a little time in the lonely buildings, but otherwise, the solitude which, claimed for its own the once busy fortress, remained unbroken for many a year to come. Congress, in 1788, reserved to our government a tract of land one mile square, on the Mississippi, extending as far above as below Fort Chartres, including the said Fort, the buildings, and improvements adjoining the same. It would have been well to provide for the preservation of this monument of the romantic era of our history, but, of. course, nothing” of the sort was done. The enactment simply prevented any settlement upon the reservation, and left the Fort to become more and more a part of the wilderness, and its structures a prey to the spoiler. Now and then an adventurous traveler found his way thither. Quaint old Gov. Reynolds, who saw it in 1802, says, “It is an object of antiquarian curiosity. The trees, undergrowth, and brush are mixed and interwoven with the old walls. It presented the most striking contrast between a savage wilderness, filled with wild beasts and reptiles, and the remains of one of the largest and strongest fortifications on the continent Large trees were growing in the houses which once contained the elegant and accomplished French officers and soldiers.” And then, with a hazy idea of rivalling the prophecy of the lion and the lamb, he adds, “Cannon, snakes, and bats were sleeping together in peace in and around this fort.” Major Amos Stoddard, of the U.S. Engineers, who took possession of Upper Louisiana for our government under the treaty of cession, in 1804, visited Fort Chartres and thus describes it, “Its figure is quadrilateral with four bastions, the whole of lime-stone, well cemented. The walls are still entire. A spacious square of barracks and a capacious magazine are in good preservation. The enclosure is covered with trees from seven to twelve inches in diameter. In fine this work exhibits a splendid ruin. The inhabitants have taken away great quantities of material to adorn their own buildings.” Brackenridge, U.S. Judge for the District of Louisiana, in a work published in 1817, has this passage, “Fort de Chartres is a noble ruin, and is visited by strangers as a great curiosity. I was one of a party of ladies and gentlemen who ascended in a barge from Ste. Genevieve, nine miles below. The outward wall, barracks, and magazine are still standing. There are a number of cannon lying half buried in the earth with their trunnions broken off. In visiting the various parts, we started a flock of wild turkeys, which had concealed themselves in this hiding-place. I remarked a kind of enclosure near, which, according to tradition, was fitted up by the officers as a kind of arbor where they could sit and converse in the heat of the day.” In 1820, Beck, the publisher of a Gazeteer of Illinois and Missouri, made a careful survey of the remains of the Fort. He speaks of it then as a splendid ruin, “the walls in some places perfect, the buildings in ruins, except the magazine, and in the hall of one of the houses an oak growing eighteen inches in diameter.” Hall, the author of a book entitled Romance of the West, was at Fort Chartres, in 1829; “Although the spot was familiar to my companion,” he says, “it was with some difficulty that we found the ruins, which are cohered with a vigorous growth of forest trees and a dense undergrowth of bushes and vines. Even the crumbling pile itself is overgrown, the tall trees rearing their stems from piles of stone, and the vines creeping over the tottering walls. The foldings were all razed to the ground, but the lines of the foundations could be easily traced. A large vaulted pooler-magazine remained in good preservation. The exterior wall was thrown down in some places, but in others retained something like its original height and form. And it was curious to see in the gloom of a wild forest these remnants of the architecture of a past age.” The Fort Chartres Reservation was opened to entry in 1849, no provision being made concerning what remained of the Fort. The land was taken up by settlers, the area of the works cleared of trees, and a cabin built within it, and the process of demolition hastened by the increasing number of those who resorted there for building material. Governor Reynolds came again in 1854, and found “Fort Chartres a pile of mouldering ruins, and the walls torn away almost even with the surface.”
To one visiting the site but a year ago, the excursion afforded as strong a contrast between the past and the present as may readily be found. Leaving the railway at the nearest point to the ruins, the brisk new town of Red Bud, twenty miles distant, the greater part of the drive over the prairie and through the forest which intervene, is as monotonous as a ride anywhere in Illinois may properly be. But when you reach the bluff, far overlooking the lordly Mississippi, and its lowlands to the Missouri hills beyond, and wind down the road cut deeply into its face to the little village of Prairie du Rocher, lying at its foot, a change comes over the scene. The wide and shaded village streets with the French names above the little stores, the houses built as in Canada, with dormer-windows and piazzas facing to the south, the mill bearing the name the Jesuits gave the site, the foreign accent and appearance of the people, the very atmosphere, so full of rest and quiet, to which hurry is unknown, all combine to make one feel as if in. another time and another land than ours. It is as though a little piece of old France had been transplanted to the Mississippi, a century since, and forgotten; or as if a stratum of the early French settlements at the Illinois, a hundred years ago or more, had sunk down below the reach of time and change, with its ways and customs and people intact, and still pursued its former life unmindful of the busy nineteenth century on the uplands above its head. It was not surprising to be told that at the house of the village priest some ancient relics were to be seen, and that some ancient documents had once been there. In such a place such things should always be. But it was a surprise, when shown into a room adorned with portraits of Pius IX. and Leo XIIL, and expecting to see a venerable man with black robes, and, perhaps, the tonsure, to be suddenly-greeted by a joyous youth, in German student costume, with a mighty meerschaum in his hand, who introduced himself as the priest in charge of the parish of St. Joseph of Prairie du Rocher. Arrived but six months before from the old country, he had been stationed here because of his knowledge of French, which is spoken by nearly all of the 250 families in the parish, including a number of colored people, the descendants of the slaves of the. early settlers. He led the way to his sanctum, where he displayed, with pride, three chalices and a monstrance, or receptacle for the wafer, very old and of quaint workmanship, made of solid silver, and a tabernacle of inlaid wood, all supposed to have belonged to the church of St Anne of Fort Chartres. He had also a solid silver table-castor, marked 1680, the property of his parish, the history of which is unknown. At an inquiry for old manuscripts, he produced, from a lumber-room, a bundle of discolored papers, fast going to decay, which he had found in the house when he took possession, but of which he knew but little. Almost the first inspection revealed a marriage register of the church of St Anne, with the autographs of Makarty and De Villiers, and subsequent examination showed that these papers comprised a large part of the registers of that parish, as well as the early records of St. Joseph of Prairie du Rocher.
Such an experience was a fitting prelude to the sight of the old Fort itself, though this was, indeed, difficult to find. In the early day all roads in the Illinois country led to Fort Chartres. Highways thither are the most prominent feature of the old village plats and ancient maps of the region. Now, not even a path leads to it The simple French people along the way could not believe that any one could really wish to visit the old Fort, and with kindly earnestness insisted that the intended destination must be the river landing, which takes its name from the Fort, but is some miles away from it. By dint of repeated inquiries, a course was found which led to the goal after a five-mile drive from Prairie du Rocher. The ruins were approached by a farm-road across a beautiful level field, green with winter wheat, and the first sight of the low bank, which marks the position of the walls, and of the old magazine standing bravely up against the forest background, was a sufficient reward for the journey. Entering the enclosure through a rude farm-gate, which stands just in the place of its lofty predecessor of carved stone, the line of the walls and the corner bastions can be readily traced by the mounds of earth covered with scattered fragments of stone, beneath which, doubtless, the heavy foundations remain, except at the corner swept away by the river. On two sides the outline of the ditch can be seen, and the cellars of the commandant’s and intendant’s houses, and of the barracks, are plainly visible, half filled with debris, under which, perhaps, the old cannon of Louis XIV are still lying. Time has settled the question of title to them, and they belong neither to France nor Britain now. One angle of the main wall remains, and is utilized as the substructure of a stable. Two rude houses, occupied by farm tenants, are within the enclosure, which has been cleared of trees, save a few tall ones near the magazine and alongside the ditch. In front, the ground is open and under cultivation, and, looking from the old gateway, you have before you the prospect which must often have pleased the eyes of the officers of France and Britain, gazing from the cut-stone platform above the arch; the little knoll in front where Boisbriants land-grant to himself commenced, the level plateau dotted with clumps of forest trees, the gleam of the little lake in the lowland and beyond, the beautiful buttresses of rock, rounded and shaped as if by the hand of man, supporting the upland which bounds the view. Of the vanished village of St. Anne, scarcely a vestige remains, save a few garden-plants growing wild on the plain. Occasionally a well belonging to one of its houses is found, but there is no sign of the church, where “sales were made in a high and audible voice, while the people went in and out in great numbers.” The site of St. Philip is covered by a farm, but to this day a part of its long line of fields is known as “the King’s Highway,” though there is no road there, and it is supposed that this was the route along which Renault brought the supplies from his grant to the river for transfer to his mines.
Yet, though so much has gone of the ancient surroundings and of the Fort itself, it was an exceeding pleasure to find the old magazine, still almost complete, and bearing itself as sturdily as if conscious that it alone is left of all the vast domain of France in America, and resolute to preserve its memory for the ages to come. It stands within the area of the south-eastern bastion, solidly built of stone, its walls four feet in thickness, sloping upward to perhaps twelve feet from the ground, and rounded at the top. It is partially covered with vines and moss, and one might travel far and wide in our land to find, an object so picturesque and so venerable. But for the loss of its iron doors, and the cut stone about the doorway, it is well-nigh as perfect as the day it was built. Within, a few steps lead to the solid stone floor, some feet below the surface, and the interior, nearly thirty-feet square, is entirely uninjured. .You may note the arched stone roof, the careful construction of the heavy walls, and the few small apertures for light and air, curiously protected against injury from without. Here one may invoke the shades of Makarty, and De Villiers, and St. Ange, and easily bring back the past. For, as it is to-day, it has seen them all, as they went to and fro before it, or examined its store of shot and shell; it has heard the word of command as the grenadiers drilled on the parade-ground hard by; it has watched the tawny chieftains and their followers trooping in single file through the adjacent gateway; and past its moss-grown walls the bridal processions of Madeleine Loisel and Elizabeth Montcharveaux, and the other fair ladies from the Fort, have gone to the little church of St. Anne. And gazing at it in such a mood, until all about was peopled with “the airy shapes of long ago” and one beheld again the gallant company which laid the foundations of this fortress with such high hope and purpose, the hurrying scouts passing through its portals with tidings of Indian foray or Spanish march, the valiant leaders setting forth from its walls on distant expeditions against savage or civilized foe, the colonists flocking to its store-house or council-chamber, the dusky warriors thronging its enclosure with Chicago or Pontiac at their head, the gathering there of those who founded a great city, the happy village at its gates, and the scenes of its momentous surrender, which sealed the loss of an empire to France; it seemed not unreasonable to wish that the State of Illinois might, while yet there is time, take measures to permanently preserve, for the sake of the memories, the romance, and the history interwoven in its fabric, what still remains of Old Fort Chartres.
Source: Mason, Edward Gay. A Paper read before the Chicago Historical Society, June 16, 1880. Published in Illinois in the Eighteenth Century: Kaskaskia and Its Parish Records, Old Fort Chartres, and Col. John Todds Recordbook. Fort Chartres, Illinois: Fergus Printing Company, 1881.