Highway to History

by Donald E. Chamberlain

Cahokia Courthouse
Cahokia Courthouse

Colonial Cahokia

Across the Mississippi River From downtown St. Louis lies the community of Cahokia, Illinois. Founded in 1699 by French-Canadian missionaries, Cahokia predates New Orleans and St. Louis. There are three historic sites that are of interest to Lewis and Clark buffs and are worth seeing as the nation prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
As an outfitting and supply center, Cahokia in 1803 held great interest to Lewis and Clark. The explorers arrived in December 1803 and recruited men, gathered supplies and collected information for the trek west.
The Cahokia Courthouse State Historic Site, built around 1740, is a wonderful example of poteaux-sur-solle (post-on-sill) construction. This vertical placement of logs is typical of French-inspired architecture from that era. Lewis and Clark spent time in the courthouse while conducting business with Cahokia residents on their historic journey.
This courthouse is reconstructed as it was in the late 1700s. The original four rooms have been restored. Three of the rooms contain displays portraying the history of Cahokia and of the courthouse building. One room is arranged as a courtroom typical of the Lewis-and-Clark era.

Jarrot House in Cahokia
Jarrot House in Cahokia

The Jarrot Mansion State Historic Site is located a few blocks from the courthouse. The house, which dates from 1810, is believed to be the oldest brick building in Illinois.

Nicholas Jarrot was a judge and merchant in the Cahokia area when Lewis and Clark began their journey. Lewis bought some provisions from Jarrot and spent time in his home. Jarrot became Lewis’ Spanish interpreter during his trips to St. Louis. It is believed that the land for Camp Dubois, the Corps of Discovery’s winter encampment, belonged to Jarrot.

While this home was constructed after Lewis and Clark’s visit, it gives visitors a vision of the affluent lifestyle during the early 1800s. The interior of the house is not open for touring, but the home can be viewed from the outside.

Holy Family Catholic Church
Holy Family Catholic Church

Located next to the Jarrot Mansion is the Holy Family Parish Log Church that dates to 1799. It is believed that Lewis and Clark visited this old church during their time in Cahokia. A Latin Mass, open to the public, is celebrated every Sunday morning and the church is open to the public for tours during summer months.

Ammunition Magazine at Fort du Chartres
Ammunition Magazine at Fort du Chartres

Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres

Rejoin Route 3 and travel south past Red Bud and Ruma to Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres State Historic Site.
The present fort is a replica of the third Fort de Chartres. The first two forts were wooden structures built in 1718 and 1725. The frequent flooding greatly limited their longevity. In 1751, work on the third fort began using limestone quarried nearby as the primary construction material. It took over nine years to complete the construction.
Following the French and Indian War, control of the stone fort was taken over by the English. They used the fort sparingly and in 1771 the fort was abandoned and quickly deteriorated. In 1803, Lewis and Clark observed and mentioned the remains of the old fort in their journals.
In the 1930s construction of the present-day replica of the stone fort began. The ammunition magazine is the only surviving structure that comes from the original stone fort. This ammunition magazine is cited as being the oldest surviving building in Illinois.
In June and October, Fort de Chartres becomes home to hundreds of re-enactors dressed in uniforms and finery from the French and Indian war era. Black powder musket contests are held and mock battles are fought. Thousands annually attend these festivals.

Garrison Hill Cemetery
Garrison Hill Cemetery

A short distance up the hill from the Menard home is the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site. Walk through Garrison Hill Cemetery, where you’ll see Menard’s gravesite. The headstones here date back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. The original cemetery was located near Kaskaskia, but flooding threatened the site and the human remains were moved to this site high on the bluffs overlooking the river.

Old Kaskaskia, Illinois’ first capital, no longer exists. It was originally located at the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi rivers, but annual flooding resulted in its destruction.

Observe the present confluence of the two rivers and view the area where Old Kaskaskia once thrived as the busiest population center in the area.

Kaskaskia Island is a 14,000-acre piece of Illinois that’s a bit of an adventure to get to, but the traveler who makes an effort will see the Kaskaskia Bell Shrine and Immaculate Conception Church.

The “Liberty Bell of the West” enshrined on the island dates to 1778, when Father Pierre Gibault rung the bell after Col. George Rogers Clark and his troops captured Kaskaskia from the British. The church, open for tours, has artifacts, including a chalice used by Father Pierre Marquette.

Southwestern Illinois offers excellent opportunities for travelers interested in history. Remember as you plan your historical tour of southwestern Illinois that many State of Illinois Historic Sites are closed on Monday and Tuesday.