Kaskaskia- Illinois’ first capital
This is the strange sad tale of a once booming town in Illinois that ended up a ghost town in Missouri. Legend says it was due to a curse, and whether or not you believe in curses, it certainly seemed like Kaskaskia was plagued with bad luck.
The village of Kaskaskia was founded in 1703 where the river of the same name flowed into the Mississippi. The Native American tribe of the same name migrated south with French missionaries and fur traders. The French settlers married the Native American converts to Catholism and settled in to building a thriving town. By 1711, agriculture had become more important than the original draw of fur trading, and the region was sending exports to the rest of the French colonies.
In 1765, when Great Britain took over the Illinois Country as part of the French and Indian War settlement, many people of French descent retreated across the Mississippi to St. Genevieve and St. Louis. Kaskaskia lost half of its population to this migration. However, those that remained thrived,. An expedition in 1778 by George Rogers Clark, brother of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, put Kaskaskia under American control. The church bell was rung in celebration when the town was in American hands. Thus bell was dubbed “the Liberty Bell of the West”.
In 1812, Kaskaskia had close to 7,000 residents and was named the territorial capital. Illinois became a state in 1818, and Kaskaskia became the first state capital. In 1819, the capital was moved to Vandalia because it was more centrally located. The residents of Kaskaskia did not know it, but this was the beginning of the end.
The city plodded along as the river chipped away at their farms and the city itself. Each year flooding and the changing river course took land away from Kaskaskia. A catastrophic flood in 1845 destroyed most of the town. The death blow came in 1881 when the Mississippi River completely changed the course and took over the channel of the Kaskaskia River. The peninsula on which the city stood has become an island, technically on the Missouri side. Cut off from the state it was once capital of, the city nearly ceased to exist.
Was this just bad luck or was some thing more sinister involved? Legends of a curse date back to 1735. There was a French fur trader who had made his fortune and had a daughter named Marie, who was the light of his life. As with these stories, Marie was very beautiful and could have had her pick of beaux. However, she fell in love with a Native American hired hand of her father’s. Her father did not want his daughter wasting her life with a hired hand, and had the poor young man tied to a log and set adrift in the Mississippi. He is said to have pronounced a curse that the fur trader would be dead in a year and Marie would join him on the other side to be united forever. Then he called his vengeance down on the very stones of the city of Kaskaskia saying the altar of the church and the homes would be destroyed. Even the graves of the dead would not be spared.
It all came to pass as he said. The fur trapper was killed in a duel, Marie faded away of a broken heart and the river took Kaskaskia as its own.
Whether it was the revenge of a wronged lover or the power of the Mississippi, the city of Kaskaskia is now not much more than a memory.