Images of Kaskaskia

by Peter S. Felknor



WHEN I WAS eleven years old, I often drove my dad’s dusty Ford Galaxy station wagon through the streets of the capital of Illinois.


Springfield ? No, of course not. My father was pleased that I wanted to learn to drive, but he didn’t want me killing myself—much less some innocent bystander walking their dog on the sidewalk.


I learned to drive on Kaskaskia Island, about fifty miles south of St. Louis as the crow flies.  The island was appended to our home state of Missouri and separated from the mainland only by the brush-choked rivulet of the St. Marys River, forded by an ancient bridge just south of the limestone-processing town of Ste. Genevieve. That was the only way to reach Kaskaskia Island—bordered on its other extremeties by the mile-wide main channel of the Mississippi.


Other than the fact that it was on the wrong side of the Big Muddy for its Illinois address, there was little at first glance to suggest anything unusual about Kaskaskia. The island was flat like much of southern Illinois and was carpeted with cornfields. One road ran north and south, the other east and west. People may have lived there, but if they did you never saw them. Where the two roads intersected was what remained of a town. Most of the buildings seemed empty.


At the outskirts of this town—the only one on the island—there was a tiny building like a miniature church, situated on a small lawn. Inside this building was a sacred relic of times long, long past: THE LIBERTY BELL OF THE WEST. And it was here that I began to learn the incredible real story of Kaskaskia.


Just like St. Louis and New Orleans, Kaskaskia had been settled by French traders and missionaries who moved down the Mississippi in the early 1700s (and, as such, was older even than some settlements in New England). I was amazed to discover that the Liberty Bell of the West was actually older than the “real” Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia; it had been cast in 1741 and given as a gift to the citizens of Kaskaskia by none other than King Louis XV of France.


For awhile, it seemed as if Kaskaskia was destined for the greatness of its sister city of St. Louis, not far upstream on the other bank of the mighty river.


Before the American Revolution, the bustling outpost was considered sufficiently important to warrant capture by British forces—a fate that never befell St. Louis. The British sacked the fort that the French had erected in 1721 and the mostly French and Indian populace chafed under the rule of the “redcoats.”


Salvation finally arrived in the form of General George Rogers Clark of the Continental Army, who with his regiment of “Long Knives” fought a lengthy and pitched battle on July 4, 1778 to drive the British from Kaskaskia. General Clark was successful, and the great bell given to the people by Louis XV was rung repeatedly in celebration. This was a crucial engagement in the American Revolution, as it secured the Mississippi above New Orleans for the colonists.


The newly liberated Kaskaskia continued to thrive and grow. In 1809 Kaskaskia was named the capital of the freshly-minted Illinois Territory, and when Illinois became a state in 1818 it was only natural that Kaskaskia  would be named the state capital.


And then began the precipitous decline.


Some said it was due to a curse put upon the town by an Indian boy who had been lynched by the locals after falling in love with a trader’s daughter. In any event, in the mid-1840s the course of the Mississippi began to change, favoring the more easterly channel of the Kaskaskia River. The city was flooded repeatedly as the river sought the quickest route to the Gulf of Mexico, and by 1881 Kaskaskia (when it was above water) was a ghost town. Further adjustments to the river’s channel eventually attached the little peninsula to Missouri.


And the Liberty Bell of the West? It would be recovered time and again, from flood after flood, but not without damage. A hairline crack that had developed worsened when the Liberty Bell was washed from its moorings during the cataclysmic floods of 1973 and 1993. Prior to 1993 the bell was rung every year on Independence Day (to commemorate George Rogers Clark’s heroic liberation of the city), but for fear of further damage that practice has since been stopped.


Today the people may be long gone, but the Liberty Bell of the West remains in the drowsy ruins of Kaskaskia... glimpsed only by the occasional corn farmer, isolated tourist, or lucky kid at the wheel of his daddy’s car.