Asked to describe French involvement in early settlement of the United States, one might think of explorers Marquette and Joliet, the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana Purchase.

After that, not much.

This lack of knowledge makes the topic of this year's Quad-Cities Henry Farnam Dinner on Friday, March 9, all the more surprising, because it's likely few attendees know that the French were the first European settlers in Illinois and that they established colonies.

It's likely fewer still have ever heard of Kaskaskia, a town located along the Mississippi River in extreme southern Illinois that was home to 7,000 people — French, Indians and French/Indian mix — in the late 1700s. That made it the largest and most important town not only in what now is Illinois, but in the entire Midwest.

By the 2010 Census, Kaskaskia had shrunk to 14 people, but its largely forgotten glory days have provided fertile research ground — and personal and professional amazement — for Carl J. Ekberg, Illinois State University history professor emeritus, who will be the Farnam dinner main speaker.

As a French scholar, Ekberg was aware of French settlement in Illinois, but it wasn't until 1980 that he began to do research.

He started at a courthouse in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, founded in 1735 by French Canadian colonists as the first European settlement west of the Mississippi River. There he found an entire French archives, written in French, which he could read.

That led him to Chester, Illinois, in Randolph County, where he discovered another huge archive, and then to St. Louis and the Illinois state archives in Springfield.

"When you start poking around, French archives start popping up all over the place," Ekberg said.

Among the documents were records of baptisms, marriages and burials, real estate transactions, mortgages and papers relating to the purchase and sale of agricultural products and slaves, all of which helped reconstruct a picture of life in that area of southern Illinois/western Missouri.

Kaskaskia began as a Native American village and was founded as a French settlement in 1703 when a Jesuit priest established a mission there. A fur trading post followed and, in time, Canadian settlers moved in to farm, producing corn and wheat that were critical to New Orleans. Other settlers exploited the lead mines on the Missouri side of the river, and enslaved Africans became part of the population mix.

In addition to Kaskaskia and Ste. Genevieve (which Ekberg says has more French houses than New Orleans), the other major French settlement in the area was Fort de Chartres, now operated as an Illinois State Historic Site, near Prairie du Rocher, about an hour's drive from St. Louis.

Between 1753-1772, the fort was the seat of French government in what was known as Upper Louisiana and its chief military installation. A stone fort has been reconstructed on the grounds, along with a restored building used to store gunpowder, believed to be the oldest building in the entire state.

Nationwide, French settlers were always outnumbered by those from Britain. Their standing shrunk further in 1763 when they lost the French and Indian War — the North American theater of a war between Britain and France — and all French territory east of the Mississippi was ceded to Great Britain. The final straw was the British colonists' victory in the American Revolution, "which opened the floodgates to Anglo-American migration," Ekberg said.

His talk also will discuss warfare between Indian and French settlers.

"It's astonishing how much (history) there is, how interesting it is and how neglected it is," he said.

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