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The king's road at the heart of the illinois country

The arched stone bridge in Maeystown is a real gem

October 14, 2016

Most people in Québec are aware of the intercity Chemin du Roy (King's Road) completed in 1737 when Louis XV was the king of France to link the capital city of Québec to Montréal for economic development purposes.

In contrast, very few people know that the King's Road (Chemin du Roi) in the Illinois Country was built by Quebeckers to connect the French settlements of Kaskaskia and Cahokia. The road follows an ancestral Native American footpath which was originally a buffalo trail. By 1725, the frequently used road had been widened to accommodate the classic wooden carts of the Great Plains which, on their own, remain a cultural symbol of French heritage. The brown road signs bear the appellation Kaskaskia-Cahokia Trail in reference to local indigenous tribes and also four white fleur de lys. The 60-mile (97 km) King's Road in what was then Upper Louisiana is Illinois State's first road. 'French Facts' are copious along this land of plenty.

In 1698 four priests from Québec City's Seminary of Foreign Missions arrived at Cahokia, including Father Jean-François St. Cosme (born in Lauzon, Québec). Together, they built a log church dedicated to the Holy Family. Today, it serves one of the oldest Catholic parishes in the United States. Nearby are the Cahokia Mounds (a UNESCO world heritage site) where the remnants of one of the greatest cities of the world can be visited. In the years 1250s Cahokia was larger than London or Paris in Europe.

Gift from King Louis XV to Kaskaskia, 11 years before Liberty Bell

In the spring of 1699 three francophone Jesuits established the Church of the Immaculate Conception around which the village of Kaskaskia was founded in 1703. King Louis XV of France donated the bronze bell. Among them was Father Jacques Gravier who compiled a 600-page Illinois-French dictionary that was published in 2002. In close proximity are the eroded ramparts of Fort Kaskaskia overlooking the Mississippi River. There is also the nicely preserved French colonial home of Pierre Ménard, a prosperous fur trader from St. Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Québec, who became the first lieutenant governor of Illinois. Besides, Kaskaskia ('the Old Capital' – whose 2016 population is 14) served as the first Illinois State capital.

The agricultural land along the King's Road was of remarkable fertility and its soil quickly became the breadbasket for Lower Louisiana, in particular New Orleans. Many settlers became farmers attracting a growing number of migrants, mainly from French Canada. New francophone communities were established such as St. Philippe founded in 1720 by Philippe François Renault, Prairie du Pont (now Dupo) where a bridge of timbers was built by the villagers over a little river, L'Aigle (now Columbia) named after a commune (township) in Normandy, France, Prairie du Rocher in 1722 where the plains lead up to rocky bluffs, and La Belle Fontaine (now Waterloo) in reference to a spring water fountain that became a must stop for the thirsty travellers. Several stone bridges were erected graciously espousing the landscape such as the Arch Bridge at Maeystown, a village of German origin.

With a view to protect their food supply, French marines built Fort de Chartres in 1720 under the command of Montréal native Pierre Dugué de Boisbriand. With the approaching conquest of New France by the British the fortifications were reconstructed in stone in 1753. Its guns and cannons, however, have always been silent. The site is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Each June since 1971 a traditional 'Rendezvous' is held in remembrance of life in the French colonial era.

Travelling on the King's Road in Illinois will make you realize that the Francophonie has a palpable soul aside from the language of Molière. Exploring its soul can be a very enriching experience.

The King's Road (Chemin du Roi) is located south of Chicago, near St. Louis, Missouri, two great francophile cities of America.

About the author

Jean-Pierre Bernier is a retired executive from the financial sector with a burning passion for America's Francophonie and its fraternity.

A Québec City native, he now lives in Aurora, Ontario.

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