Jul 25, 2018

Trekking through Kaskaskia, Illinois’ first capital

My home state of Illinois turns 200 in 2018.  That’s a lot of history to discover from two centuries of existence.  And as much as I like to malign where I live, I’ve always had a fondness for learning more about Illinois’ past. 

In a state known for the Windy City and nicknamed the Land of Lincoln, it’s easy to ignore other chapters of Illinois’ history.  For instance, one of the least visited yet historically significant historic sites is that of the state’s first capital.  Thanks to geography, it’s also one of the hardest and most remote places to get to in the entire state.  And, despite once being of huge importance, today it’s the second smallest incorporated community in Illinois with 14 inhabitants. 

For all these reasons, I’ve always been intrigued by Kaskaskia.

Founded in 1703 by French settlers, Kaskaskia quickly became an important settlement along the Mississippi River as a major hub for commerce between the French and Native Americans who, of course, had already long been in the area.  In 1765, the British assumed control of the area. Because of its location, Kaskaskia was also strategically important during the American Revolution, which is why George Rogers Clark (later of Lewis and Clark fame) led a militia to liberate the place on (appropriately enough) July 4, 1778.  By 1818, when Illinois was admitted into the Union, Kaskaskia was still thriving and deemed important enough to be declared the first state capital.

Its luck went all downhill from there. 

In 1819, the capital was moved to Vandalia, which was deemed a more central location for the state’s inhabitants.  Then, two floods in 1844 and 1881 nearly destroyed the town and caused most residents to leave.  (The Great Flood of 1993 didn’t do the few remaining holdouts any favors.)  The second one changed the geography of Kaskaskia forever, carving a new channel for the Mississippi River and effectively separating the town and the land surrounding it from the rest of the state.  Kaskaskia became an island, more easily accessible from Missouri than Illinois.

Even today, while Kaskaskia Island is technically no longer an island – a section of backwater has filled in over time, more permanently connecting the Kaskaskia area to the rest of Missouri – the best way to reach Kaskaskia is to drive across this bridge from St. Mary, Mo.  It’s not exactly the most prominent state border crossing you’ll ever see. 

You’ll then take a left and drive along a levee for a bit before reaching a few out-of-place streets quite literally in the middle of nowhere.  This is not Kaskaskia.  Turn right through the fields and countryside for a couple more miles and eventually, you’ll see a few more streets with a few more houses to the left. This is Kaskaskia.

You’ll know you’ve reached the center of town when you see the Church of the Immaculate Conception.  As the sign indicates, it’s also the oldest. The site of the church actually predates the town by several decades.

You really can’t miss it.  It’s clearly the most impressive and nicest looking building left in Kaskaskia.  It’s also where you’ll find everything left of historic significance.

For example, a marker by the church commemorates Clark’s capture of Kaskaskia during the American Revolution. 

A much smaller (by comparison) brick building on the church grounds houses the Kaskaskia Bell State Historic Site and another marker to the town’s “liberation,” the “Liberty Bell of the West.”  Apparently, if you arrive at Kaskaskia at the right time, a guide will let you in.  We were not so fortunate on this day.  Oh, well.  Timing is everything somedays.

Another marker on the grounds describes Kaskaskia’s importance as a supply station for the Lewis and Clark expedition.  All this time, I had figured they got all their recruits in St. Louis.  Who knew? 

Yet another marker signifies the starting point of the Kaskaskia Cahokia Trail, Illinois’ first road.  Following the trail will take you to other significant sites of Illinois’ early history, such as Cahokia Mounds and Fort de Chartres.  It’s a good day trip to take.     

To me, Kaskaskia is a great example of how important parts of our history can easily be overlooked by the passage of time and a little misfortune.  Where 7,000 people once lived in Illinois’ first state capital, not much is left in today’s Kaskaskia.  And what’s left may only draw the most curious commoners like me, but that’s part of its allure.  It’s the adventure of stepping back in time and imagining what once was.  Kaskaskia may be almost gone, but it’s certainly not forgotten. 

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