No exploration of the 200 years of Illinois history would be complete without a look at what preceded those two centuries.
While Illinois became a state in 1818, its story began nearly 150 years before that, in 1673, when Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette explored the Mississippi River in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean.
When the two explorers’ travels led them near hostile Spanish territories, they turned back and traveled along the Illinois River, finding safety among the Kaskaskia Indian tribe. Marquette founded the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, but left the mission in the hands of Father Pierre-Gabriel Marest due to Marquette’s poor health.
The mission had to be moved several times due to conflicts between the Kaskaskia, Illini Confederation and the Iroquois.
Eventually, the mission planted roots at the confluence of the Mississippi and Michigamea rivers, which is now known as the Kaskaskia River.
The village of Kaskaskia was established in 1703 and was mainly inhabited by French traders and their wives.
The village’s fertile ground in the American Bottoms, along with its positioning at the confluence of two rivers, led it to be a hub of agriculture and trading. It also became a focal point for warring British and French troops during the French and Indian War.
In 1756, fearing attack, the townspeople built Fort Kaskaskia on a hill overlooking the town. The fort was then destroyed by the townspeople who feared it would fall into British control after the French lost the war.
Those who did not want to live under the impending British rule moved to St. Louis or Ste. Genevieve, Mo. The town fell to the British and was kept under control of the crown until July 4, 1778, when George Rogers Clark led an expedition of American troops into the village to liberate it.
After a two-month journey over 1,000 miles, Clark and his 175 men arrived in Kaskaskia to take the area. Many of the British had been withdrawn from the area, and Clark captured the settlement without a shot being fired.
With Clark in town, residents rang the Liberty Bell of the West, which got its name that day. The bell was originally given to the Catholic Church of the Illinois Country by King Louis XV of France. The bell was cast in France in 1741, making it 11 years older than the Liberty Bell that sits in Philadelphia.
An inscription on the side of the bell reads “Pour Leglise des Illinois par les Soins du Roi D’outre,” which translates to “for the Church of the Illinois, by gift of the King across the water.”
One side of the bell is ornamented with the royal lilies of France. The other side bears a cross and pedestal, with the top and arms of the cross terminating in grouped fleur de lis.
Taking Kaskaskia was the first step in Clark’s plan to capture the western headquarters of the British at Detroit.
The bell is now a tourist attraction, much like the Immaculate Conception Church that sits next door.