LERNA, Ill. (AP) – Most Illinoisans today only use “French” when they order a popular finger food from a fast-food restaurant.
But more than 250 years ago, French was the language in the land that became Illinois. And French hunters, soldiers and traders mixed well with the first Americans, American Indians, who inhabited the Prairie State.
French colonial era re-enactors Phil Neal, Sarah Schatte and Shawna Kadlec represented different aspects of the diverse history of Illinois during the recent heritage expo at Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site.
“There was a hybrid of trading and clothing between the French and Indians in Illinois. The colonists were using what they had nearby, too. Settlers in the Midwest were making wheat beer while the French in Canada were making birch beer,” said Neal, who portrays a Coureur de Bois, or Woods Runner, during re-enactments.
“They were like land pirates,” said Kadlec, who was dressed in a bright red long military coat and three-cornered hat, portraying a French militia artillery gunner. The roar of his cannon in the French colonial campsite perked the ears of many visitors at the Lincoln Log Cabin site.
With a rough wool stocking cap, leather Indian leggings, brass earrings and a short knife hanging from around his neck, Neal could pass for a frontier rogue. He explained the Woods Runners were trappers and hunters who made family ties with Native tribes much like the American mountain men did in the Rocky Mountains during the early 1800s.
“You had the voyagers working the long canoes under contract with the fur trade for New France. But the Woods Runners set out on their own by breaking contracts. They had prices on their heads. But they got away to make a fortune, and it didn’t take much to get out in the middle of nowhere back then,” Neal said.
Illinois country then was not the backwater, but a nexus of trade fed by American Indians coming to trading posts and forts along the Mississippi and Wabash river valleys. The word “Wabash” is a version of a mix of French and American Indian on the river, meaning “Great White,” based on the past crystal clear quality of the river that ran over limestone bed sections within Indiana.
“You have some towns in Illinois today claiming they are the oldest in the state because they were created 200 years ago. But Kaskaskia, Fort de Chartres, Cahokia and other French towns were present in the 1700s or earlier,” said Schatte, who was dressed as a French colonial housewife in her wool shawl and patterned dress.
The French influence waned when France and her Indian allies lost to the British in the French and Indian War, one of the first truly global conflicts with both countries and their allies fighting on several continents to defend or gain colonies. The war was known by the less romantic title of “Seven Year’s War” to Europeans.
“Throughout history, the victors write the history,” explained Frank Doughman, chief park ranger for George Rogers Clark National Historical Park at Vincennes, Ind., a community with a rich French colonial history and direct ties to the American Revolutionary War with the 1779 capture of Fort Sackville by Clark and a company of frontiersmen soldiers.
“When Daniel Boone came to settle Kentucky in 1775, there were 600 people living in Vincennes and French was the main language,” Doughman said. “There was a great mixture of the French and Indian languages back then. When the British came into what is today’s Midwest, they wanted to control everything. The American settlers wanted to push the Indians out. But the French were intertwined in the Indian cultures. They wanted to trade for furs, not to just take land.
The staff at the Vincennes historic park have worked hard in recent decades to instill a greater respect for French and Native American history.
“There was a French influence with Clark’s efforts. He captured the towns of Kaskaskia and Cahokia. Half of his force were French militia that joined him in Illinois. They were his guides when he marched to Vincennes that winter,” Doughman said. “The French also provided Clark’s force with clothing and food as he set out from the Mississippi.”
Josh and Kendra Bragioni portrayed a Native American couple Dragonfly and Little Fox during the encampment. Their dress and other items showed the French influence, but also a connection to the British, showing how many tribes brokered between the European cultures during the 1700s.
“We might go to war together,” said Neal as he talked of the Woods Runners. “But it depended on whether I got paid enough. I might also be an intermediary between the French militia and the Indians. And I might sway things my way.
“I would want the militia to supply goods to help out my family when I was off to war with them,” said Dragonfly, aka Neal, who had the 1700s version of “shock and awe” with his head and face painted black with red streaks.
“The Indian warriors then were the peacocks of their time. Red for some tribes was an everyday thing. Black paint could be for war, ceremonial or for special events. This design is meant to instill fear like a taunt saying, ‘I’m going to be the toughest warrior you’ll ever see!’”
But Dragonfly, who portrays a Lenape Indian of the colonial era, was wearing a bright red military coat with a dark facing, in this case a British officer’s uniform.
“The Lenape tribe would have usually aligned with the British. This coat was more of a prize given to me for having a stout heart in battle. The Indian warriors wanted to emulate the power of the colonial officers. An officer would point and 500 men would move. That showed great status to the Indians,” he said.
Little Fox talked about how her role as a Native American housewife required great responsibilities from grinding corn to harvesting and keeping the family together when the warriors were off to war or hunting. She said many Native Americans were bilingual out of necessity.
“A lot of Natives then would have spoken French. There was also a trade language among Indians,” she said.
These re-enactors are trying to preserve this culture from a time when English was a foreign language for most residents of Illinois country.
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