FICAS WEB ARTICLE
An Overview of Fort Saint Louis at Le Rocher, or Starved Rock
Mark Walcyznski 2022
Rising 125 feet above the Illinois River near present Utica, Illinois is a limestone bluff known today as “Starved Rock”, and to the French Le Rocher, or “the Rock.” Like most such landforms along the river valleys of Illinois, Indigenous tribes utilized the bluff for millennia. However, the unusual promontory played a critical role in the early French colony as well.
The first written reference to Le Rocher was made by René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle in March 1680. In a directive to his second in command, Henri Tonti (who at the time was commanding a small French outpost on Peoria Lake known as Fort de Crevecoeur), La Salle ordered his men to consider building a second fort on the high cliff. In the meantime, Fort de Crevecoeur was abandoned and La Salle made his famous journey to the mouth of the Mississippi.
In the fall of 1682, the French returned to Le Rocher to construct a new fort for La Salle, dubbed “Fort St. Louis”. La Salle described the setting of his fort:
“The rocks near are all lower than that one, and the nearest is two hundred paces off, and the others further still and between them and Fort St. Louis a great valley extends on both sides, with a brook dividing it about the middle and flooding it when it rains. On the other side there is a meadow bordering the river in which, at the foot of the fort, there is a fine island formerly cleared by the Ilinois [sic], in which I and my settlers have sown our seed within musket shot of the fort.”
(La Salle in Margry II: 175-176).
For nearly ten years, Fort St. Louis served as the administrative center of France’s tenuous claim in the Illinois Country and beyond. The post served as a trading post where local Indigenous tribes exchanged animal hides for items of European manufacture. It was also a diplomatic center where tribal leaders could discuss tribal relations with the French. The fort on Le Rocher, from the French point of view, was a distant part of the Empire of Louis XIV.
La Salle described the fort itself as follows:
“This side [the south side] is enclosed with a palisade of white oak stakes eight to ten inches in diameter and twenty-two feet high, flanked by three redoubts [square block houses] made of squared beams set one above another to the same height, so placed that they all protect one another. The rest of the inclosure [sic] of the rock is surrounded by a similar palisade, only fifteen feet high because it is not accessible, flanked by four other redoubts, like the others behind the palisade. There is a parapet of great trees laid lengthwise one upon another to the height of two men, with the whole filled up with earth; and the top of the palisade is a sort of cheval-de-frise, with the points tipped with iron, to prevent escalade”
(La Salle in Margry II: 175-176).
Inside the fort were several small buildings, including a chapel, a warehouse or “magazine”, living quarters, as well as traditional Indigenous structures. The buildings extended to the very edge of the cliff and were incorporated into the fort’s outer stockade wall. Several small cabins (each about 20 feet square) were inhabited by traders. One was owned by Jacques Bourdon d’Autray, a partisan of La Salle, while others may have belonged to Pierre Prudhomme (La Salle’s armorer) and d’Autray’s associates André Hunault and Jean Filastreau. It is possible, too, that other structures were built along the base of the Rock.
La Salle planned to establish a trade empire in the west, incorporating thousands of members of the Illinois and Miami Tribes, as well as (hopefully) French settlers from Canada. La Salle’s plans were large-scale: he hoped to carry hides procured in Illinois to an ice-free port on the Gulf of Mexico where they would be loaded onto ships and transported to France. These plans, however, were dependent on official support from the French Government, and his license to trade in the region expired in May 1683. Unable to procure trade goods to operate his Illinois Country enterprise, La Salle left Le Rocher in the late summer of 1683, to sail to France and petition the French Court for an extension of his patent. Henri Tonti was appointed commandant, but was temporarily replaced by Louis-Henri Baugy between September 1683 and spring of 1685.
La Salle’s patent was renewed by the French administration in 1684. Trade flourished at Le Rocher. Between 1685 and 1691, traders (including Jean Pacquereau, Jean-Baptiste Beauvais, Jean de Broyeux, and others) made the fort the center of the French trade in the region. Missionary work also conducted from the fort, first by the Jesuit Claude-Jean Allouez (1684-88) and then Jesuit Jacques Gravier (1688-1691).
La Salle himself, however, never returned to Illinois. In 1684, he instead attempted to establish a new colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. His enterprise in the Gulf of Mexico ended in disaster. La Salle was killed by his own men in present-day Texas in 1687.
Fort St. Louis was abandoned in 1691 due principally to the departure of the Peoria and Kaskaskia, who relocated to Lake Peoria. The French followed, building another fortification called Fort St. Louis. By 1712, some of the Peoria returned to the Starved Rock area, where they established semi-permanent summer agricultural villages. With the exception of their sojourn in southern Illinois between 1722 and 1730, some of the Peoria remained at Le Rocher until about 1741.
During the early nineteenth century, old stories about a siege on the Peoria by the Mesquakie in 1722 began to grow and become embellished. The result was the moniker “Starved Rock”, which is still used today.
Anderson, Melville B (translator), Relations of the Discoveries and Voyages of Cavelier de La Salle from 1679 to 1681, The Official Narrative (Chicago: Caxton Club, 1901).
Cox, Isaac (editor), The Journeys of Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, 2 vols., (New York: Allerton Book Company, 1906).
Kellogg, Louise Phelps (editor), “Memoir on La Salle’s Discoveries by Henri Tonty, 1678-1690” in Early Narratives of the Northwest, 1634-1699, (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1917).
Margry, Pierre (editor), Découvertes et établissements des Français dans l’ouest et dans le sud de l’Amérique septentrionale, 1614-1754 (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1875-1891) vol. II. English translations can be found by title in the selections of the Miami Tribal History Document Series, Great Lakes – Ohio Valley Ethnohistory Collection, Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Archives, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Margry, Pierre (editor), The Relation of Henri Joutel in Découvertes, vol. III: 478-515
Pease, Theodore Calvin and Raymond C. Werner (editors), French Foundations, Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, vol. XXIII, French Series Volume I, (Springfield: Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1934).
Walczynski, Mark. History of Starved Rock (Ithaca and London: Northern Illinois University Press, 2020).