Fur, farms and the French, early life on the Kankakee

Sandy Vasko

    Parlez vous Francais? That means do you speak French.
    Why should you speak French? Because gentle readers, you are standing on soil that once belonged to France. It is hard to imagine that time in our local history, but let's give it a try.
    To tell the beginning of the story we must go back 350 years. In his history of Will County, George Woodruff relates, “In 1668, Claude Dablon and James Marquette founded the mission of Sault Ste. Marie at the Falls of St. Mary, and two years afterward, Nicholas Perrot, as agent for M. Talon, Governor General of Canada, explored Lake Illinois (Michigan) as far south as the present City of Chicago, and invited the Indian nations to meet him at a grand council at Sault Ste. Marie the following Spring, where they were taken under the protection of the king, and formal possession was taken of the Northwest.”
    In 1673 Marquette and Joliet passed through the northern part of Will County, the first white men to do so. It wasn't until late in 1679 that the Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle paddled his way down the Kankakee to the Illinois, passing through Kankakee County, Wesley Township and Wilmington Township. Thus begins our local French history.
    The French wanted two things from the local Indian tribes. They first wanted the Indians to convert to Catholicism, and secondly they wanted furs.
    They established trading posts and in the fall of the year the Native Americans would bring in the pelts, trading for pots, beads, wool blankets, knives and metal objects of all kinds.
    It wasn't long before the fur traders took to the river systems with giant boats filled with trade goods, trading with the tribes they found along the way. Trading wasn't the only thing they did. Soon many of the French traders had Native American wives.
    One particular area attracted Canadian French settlers in particular. We now know it as Bourbonnais. Even after France lost this area to the United States, French, Belgian and Luxembourgian citizens settled there.
    St. Viatuer's College was soon founded there, completing the 17th century goal to bring Catholicism to the area.
    It soon became a land mark for travelers as we read from the description written by Ed Conley in 1875, who was on a hunting trip to the Kankakee marsh. He had three wagons and 12 men.
    They took what is now Route 102 from Wilmington to its end, the present day Olivet University, the site of the former St. Viatuer's.
    “The dry and very good road from here to Bourbonnais was soon traversed and half past seven found us seeking accommodations for man and beast in the purely French settlement. The lights of St. Viatuer's college gleamed brightly and the night proved quite light and pleasant.”  
    “It is proper to observe here that our third wagon was some distance behind and while we were at supper, it passed our hostelry and stopped at Kankakee, two miles distant for the night. After an hour's rest at Bourbonnais, our squad took the road leading for Momence, but not until Capt. B succeeded in getting a bite in the leg from a French dog that quarreled with our own canines.”
    The French did more than raise dogs. They quickly bought up the surrounding fertile farm land and grew prosperous in the grain, pork and cattle businesses.
    When the Illinois Central railroad came through, the French speaking farmers in the area prospered along with the entire city of Kankakee.
    If you want to take a trip to this earlier French history of our area, it isn't very far away. Just drive to 165 N. Indiana Ave. in Kankakee. There you will be able to trace all of this history through text and artifacts at the French Heritage Museum at the Stone Barn.
    It is operated by the Kankakee County Historical Society in an 1860's stone carriage house first built by Lemuel Milk, a historic figure in his own right.
    The trip is highly recommended, just ask the Wesley Women's Club who recently took the tour.