The earliest-known inhabitants of the Illinois region were prehistoric peoples who built huge burial and ceremonial mounds of rubble and earth. Scattered throughout the state today are the remains of about 10,000 mounds, including the largest in the United States, Monks Mound in Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. The city of Cahokia, covering 5.54 sq km (6 sq mi), may have been inhabited by as many as 10,000 to 20,000 people of the Mississippian culture between 1100 and 1200 (see Native Americans of North America: Southeast). To support cities this large and permanent, these peoples developed a complex agricultural system and traded with other native peoples a great distance away, perhaps as far away as Mexico. These peoples also moved more than 1.4 million cu m (50 million cu ft) of earth to create their ceremonial mounds. The site of the principal temple in Cahokia covers 6 hectares (14 acres) and rises in four terraces to an elevation of 30 m (100 ft). The area was abandoned by the Mississippian culture by 1400. In the 17th century European explorers encountered the Illinois, or Illiniwek, a confederation of Algonquian-speaking peoples that included the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, and Tamaroa peoples. In the middle of that century, Iroquois peoples began entering Illinois to search for more furs to trade with Europeans.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, disease and intertribal warfare reduced the strength of the Illinois; they were easily driven from their villages by invading Iroquois, Fox, and Sioux peoples. Their lands eventually fell into the possession of other peoples, including the Sac (Sauk), Fox, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi, the last closely related to both the Ojibwa and the Ottawa peoples.
The first Europeans known to enter the Illinois country, as the area of the present-day state was called in the 17th and 18th centuries, were two Frenchmen, Louis Joliet, a fur trader, and Jacques Marquette, a Roman Catholic missionary. In 1673 the two men journeyed down the Mississippi River along the western boundary of the present state. On their return journey north they traveled up the Illinois River. They easily carried, or portaged, their small boats between the Des Plaines River, a tributary of the Illinois River, and the Chicago River, which then flowed into Lake Michigan. The Chicago portage, as it was later called, became an important link in the trade route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Late in 1674 Marquette returned to Illinois and started a mission among the Kaskaskia, near the site of present-day North Utica.
In 1680 another French explorer, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, built Fort Crèvecoeur (now Creve Coeur) on the Illinois River, opposite the present site of Peoria. In 1682 La Salle, with his lieutenant Henri de Tonty, completed Fort Saint Louis farther up the river. Located on a high, rocky bluff known as Starved Rock, Fort Saint Louis was a major fur-trading center for several years.
The town of Cahokia, on the Mississippi River, was founded as a French mission in 1699. It was the first permanent settlement in the Illinois country. About four years later, Kaskaskia was founded by French missionaries on the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Kaskaskia River. The native peoples were friendly toward the newcomers, and the fur trade flourished. John Law, a Scottish banker living in France, organized a company, Compagnie de la Louisiane ou d’Occident, in France in 1717 to colonize and develop the Mississippi River valley, all of which lay in the vast French territory known as Louisiana (Louisiane, in French).
Law’s company controlled large grants of land around the Mississippi River and had exclusive rights of trade in the territory for 25 years. In 1719 the company absorbed the rival East India and China Company; at the same time, a bank that Law owned became the state bank of France. When the public was invited to invest in the Mississippi venture, which became known as the Mississippi Scheme, or Mississippi Bubble, speculation drove the price of the shares to great heights. In 1720 the whole scheme collapsed after a French royal decree halved the value of Law’s banknotes; shares of Law’s company sank in price as rapidly as they had risen, and the bank suspended payments. Although the project was a financial fiasco, it did bring several hundred colonists to Illinois.
To protect their settlements and investments in Illinois, the French constructed Fort de Chartres, on the east bank of the Mississippi between Kaskaskia and Cahokia. Completed in 1720, the fort was one of the strongest links in the chain of French fortifications in North America, and it was the seat of the French civil and military government in the Illinois region. The fertile lands along the east bank of the Mississippi in Illinois were well suited for farming. There the habitants, as the French settlers were called, raised livestock, grapes and other fruits, tobacco, corn, and wheat. They raised enough wheat to help supply New Orleans and French posts on the Great Lakes. In exchange, the habitants received goods to trade for furs with the native peoples. Agricultural output increased after black slaves were imported in the 1720s. "Illinois" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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