Since before the first explorations by Father Pierre Marquette and Louis Jolliet were recorded, the Des Plaines River corridor was used as a passageway connecting the Great Lakes and Mississippi River water basins. Native Americans, and later French fur traders, found this portage area to be an easily accessible means of traveling in the region and getting to points elsewhere. Native Tribes used the corridor to extend trade routes from the northeast, the north, and the south. It was an area rich in natural resources and the converging watersheds provided habitat for many game species. The French saw the area as a mid-point between the far-reaching colonies of Louisiana and Canada. It acted as a hinge between France’s two largest colonies in North America and expanded to become part of the defense against the encroaching English. This essay will review the story of Native Americans and French in the region. It will also review some of the literature on suggest places where you can see some of this history first hand and provide a brief bibliography for further reading.
French and Native American encounters brought two very different worlds together. As part of the “Columbian Exchange”, these two cultures learned to adapt to new circumstances and readapt the others’ material goods. The main connection between these two was the fur trade. The French were more intent on developing commercial relations than colonizing in the area. They sought deer skins and various animal hides, but in particular they sought beaver pelts.
Beaver fur was particularly desirable for several reasons. Its fur was used for clothing and hats and was a popular fashion item in Europe. In addition, the beaver furs ability to repel water made it quite practical and popular. These qualities fed the demand for beavers that started on the east Coast and in Canada and found its way toward the beaver populations of Illinois and the Des Plaines and Illinois River valleys.
For Native Americans in the region, the fur trade exposed them to the material culture of Europe. Prior to European contact, Native Americans hunted beaver for their furs, but used the animal for several purposes. They recognized that their needs were limited and that the beaver populations could recover each year. But when the demand for furs rose through trade, Native Americans, and later Métis, increased hunting and negotiated for European wares. Copper pots, silver trinkets, colorful beads and cloths, along with guns, flint and steel, and knives all became desirous objects.
Eventually the fur trade would pass on further west of here. Several factors helped to attribute to this. The diminishing beaver population sent trappers onto to other areas to look for more. Political and demographic changes also played major roles. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 ended the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in North America) and transferred the Illinois Country to England. Although colonists were banned from settling in the area, they did so nonetheless. Encroachment and land treaties, first with England and later with the fledgling United States, lead to expulsion of Native tribes from the area. In addition, the conversion of the region into developed farmland also spelled the end of fur trapping and trading on the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers.
There are several sites in the Heritage Corridor that represent and reflect the fur trade era in Illinois. The Chicago Portage National Historic Site is located in the Portage Woods Forest Preserve owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in Lyons, Illinois. A statue of Jolliet, Marquette, and their Native American guide marks the site. This is where the Lake Michigan and Mississippi River water basins meet, providing a portage area between the two during their journey.
The Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville, Illinois, tells the story of the French, Native Americans, and beaver in the region. Operated by the Forest Preserve District of Will County, this site includes a museum, trader’s cabin education building, and Native American longhouse. It provides tours, public programs, and both on-site and in-school programs about life in the area in the mid-eighteenth century.
For Further Reading
Brown, Margaret Kimball. The Voyageur in the Illinois Country: The Fur Trade's Professional Boatman in Mid America. Naperville, IL: Center for French Colonial Studies, 2002.
Matson, Nehemiah, with a forward by Rodney O. Davis. French and Indians of the Illinois River. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, Shawnee Classic Reprint Edition, 2001.
Walthall, John A., ed. French Colonial Archaeology: The Illinois Country and the Western Great Lakes. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.