Following the French settlement of the St. Lawrence River Valley in the seventeenth century, French Canadians began to migrate from Quebec across North America, from Gaspésie to the Great Lakes, St. Louis to the Northwest. First came Catholic missionaries and fur traders, then farmers, merchants, lumberjacks, miners, and mill workers. Over time, French-Canadian collectivities, fragmentary but sharing a common origin, became scattered throughout the continent. They could be found in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, Acadia, New England, the Midwest, and Louisiana. The immigrants came in waves from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, until the flow dried up in the 1930s, due to the financial crisis and high unemployment.
In the Illinois Country, the encounter of diasporal French-speaking communities with American Indian groups and English-speaking settlements set in motion new social and economic identities that helped to shape the region as we know it. This exhibition explores the history of the French-Canadian presence in Illinois and its unique Franco-American cultural legacy.
Fur Trade in Illinois
The fur trade contract pictured above, drawn up in Ville-Marie, Quebec in 1692, is one of the earliest documents in which Chicago is named. A previous owner of the manuscript underlined the words “au lieu de Chicagou” (“in the place of Chicago”) half-way down the left side of the page. The contract established an agreement between François Francoeur of Ville-Marie (represented by his wife Marie Magdelaine St-Jean) and four voyageurs, who agreed to travel by canoe to the Jesuit mission and French army post situated at the mouth of the Chicago River. This document testifies to the increasing presence of the fur trade in Illinois at the end of the seventeenth century and provides insight into the tightly regulated economy of New France. The contract states that each of the four men would receive 500 livres (French pounds) of beaver pelts in payment, plus food and the right to trade 300 livres of goods.
The John H. Kinzie House
The paper used for this unsigned drawing of the John H. Kinzie house and Fort Dearborn suggests a mid- to late-nineteenth-century date. Kinzie’s father, born in Quebec City, settled with his family in Chicago in 1804. Until 1834 he owned the house and lands near the mouth of the Chicago River that had originally belonged to Haitian-born Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable and his Potawatomi wife, Kittihawa. John H. Kinzie ran to become the first mayor of Chicago in 1837, but lost to William Butler Ogden.
Mississippi Valley Map
This map was the last in a series of Nouvelle France maps made by Nicolas de Fer, royal geographer of Belgium. De Fer prepared it for the Compagnie d’Occident, which sold shares in colonizing efforts in the Mississippi Valley. It depicts the entire western portion of French North America, including the Great Lakes region, the Mississippi Valley, and the Gulf Coast. Strikingly, De Fer has placed a detailed inset of the Louisiana coast at the top of the map.
Les Checagou appears at the southern end of the Lac des Illinois, while Michigan is still offered as an alternative to the name of another lake, Huron. Just northwest of Les Checagou is the Nation du Feu (Nation of the Fire), which is a French derivative of the Potawatomi name for themselves, “People of the place of fire” or “Keepers of the sacred fire.” This name, as well as others on the map, shows a tradition of linguistic engagement between French-speaking and Algonquian-speaking peoples.