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The World That We Study
at the Foundation for Illinois Colonial and American Studies

“Pays Des Illinois”

The French referred to the greater Illinois region as the “Illinois Country”, after the Indigenous Nation of the Illinois (irenweewa or inohka) that had settled the region around 1600. The area encompassed modern-day Illinois and parts of southern Wisconsin, eastern Missouri, and western Indiana.

French-Canadian explorers, traders, and priests began to explore the Illinois and Mississippi River valleys during the 1670s. By the first decade of the 18th century, what we know of today as the State of Illinois was the home of several tribes of the Illinois and a fledgling colony of French-Canadian families and traders. By the first decade of the 19th century, Euro-Americans began to reshape the region again.


Times of Great Change

The Illinois Nation settled lands south of Lake Michigan and in the Upper Illinois River during the early 1600s, migrating to the area from the east. Here, they hunted buffalo and practiced agriculture. By 1700, the Illinois were composed principally of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Tamaroa, and Michigamea Tribes, with a combined population of about 10,000.


French explorers from Canada arrived in the region after 1650, searching for the Mississippi River and establishing a series of forts and missions. The first record of the French in Illinois dates to 1673, when Father Marquette arrived to explore the Mississippi.


Illinois became an official French colony (attached to New Orleans) in 1717. A series of French villages were established along the Mississippi River in modern-day southwestern Illinois and eastern Missouri. Much of the Illinois Nation lived nearby, and hunted, traded, and intermarried with the French settlers. Other indigenous tribes such as the Potawatomi, Sauk, and Kickapoo soon settled in the upper reaches of Illinois as well.


For generations, the Illinois Country was the home of a rich, multicultural society composed of Native Americans, French Canadians, and recent immigrants from Europe. Some residents were brought here against their will, from the West Indies or West Africa. The communities that were created during this time were often hybrid ones, reflecting the ancient traditions and customs of both indigenous North American and European cultures.

Great change began during the mid-1700s. The Illinois suffered massive population loss due to disease, and new indigenous tribes moved into the region. The French government fell to the British in 1765. Americans came west during the Revolutionary War and created a new frontier settlement in the southern Illinois uplands. By 1840, the transitions that we know as “colonial” or “frontier” had passed.


For over two hundred years, waves of new people had come to this place and created communities that were part tradition, and part something new. These transitional communities and hybrid worlds are the focus of our research.

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Exploring the Legacies of Colonial Communities

The research conducted by FICAS is intended to explore, preserve, and interpret the records and remains of the rich, multi-cultural societies that were a part of the colonial transitions of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries in the Illinois Country.  We do so through the study of the written record, the archaeological record, the built environment, and through interaction with the modern-day descendants of those who settled the region during times of great change. 

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