Webs of Kinship: Migration patterns and community building in Illinois country, 1730-1815

Robert Englebert (University of Saskatchewan)

This study examines the role of Francophone migration in the development of the Illinois Country throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Illinois Country was a colonial contact zone and borderland in the heart of North America that defies easy definition. Located in Illiniwek and Osage territory, the region experienced multiple francophone migrations. Most scholars agree that following a period of pronounced French-Indigenous intermarriage and métissage, a francophone settler population established itself in the 1730s and 1740s, buoyed by newly arrived Canadiens. Francophones continued to migrate to Illinois Country from Canada, the Pays d’en haut, Louisiana, and France throughout the remainder of the century. Indigenous peoples from the Ohio Valley and Anglo-Americans also migrated to the region during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Despite overwhelming evidence of a complex heterogeneous population, historians have largely given themselves over to referring to colonial Illinois villages as French, Creole, or French-speaking.

In 1995, Cécile Vidal asserted that family networks played a crucial role in French-Regime canadien migration to Illinois Country. Since then, there has been limited treatment of how francophone migration patterns actually functioned and the ways in which they shaped the contours of ethnicity and community, and virtually nothing on migrations after the end of the French Empire in 1763. My research expands upon Vidal’s assertion by seeking to understand the details of how family kinship networks operated and influenced patterns of mobility and regional dislocation. It asks, moreover, how these patterns changed over several generations and across different political regimes (French, British, Spanish and American). Following this line of inquiry, the study will focus on the following question:

How did marriage, kinship, and migration shape and reshape the demographic composition, and ethnic and cultural character of Illinois Country, and the region’s ties to the rest of French North America and the Atlantic world? In answering this query, the study will pay particular attention to the relationship between francophone migration and: métissage ; community identities ; imperial politics and regime change ; cultural crisis and resistance to Americanisation.

A detailed analysis of francophone migration will be conducted for 12 Illinois Country villages: Kaskaskia, Cahokia, St. Philippe, Chartres, Prairie du Rocher, St. Louis, Ste. Geneviève, Vincennes, Carondelet, St. Charles, New Madrid, and Cape Girardeau. These villages represent a crucial cross-section of different locations, time periods, and political regimes. Such breadth is feasible due to the relatively small colonial population. Such coverage, moreover, is essential for understanding both inter-regional (i.e. Louisiana-Illinois or Canada-Illinois) and intra-regional (within Illinois) migration over several generations.

The study will conduct a macro-analysis of migration and demography using historical censuses. Notwithstanding the variability of census categories (especially across regimes), each census provides detailed information regarding the names of individuals and families, and in many cases provides details such as age, status (married/single), children, employment, and general wealth. Comparing and contrasting the censuses will begin to provide glimpse into migration patterns and the changing demographic composition of individual villages and the Illinois Country as a whole. The purpose will be to identify broad migratory trends and how they changed over time. The analysis of this data will provide a crucial macro dataset to help contextualize case studies and kinscapes.

The study will aggregate data from marriage records for the villages of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, St. Philippe, Prairie du Rocher, Chartres, and St. Louis. These first villages represented the pale of francophone settlement along the middle Mississippi River for much of the French regime. Marriage and migration data will provide more direct insight into the effects of inter- and intra-regional francophone migrations on the rise of St. Louis as one of North America’s key colonial centers.

The aggregated marriage data will be analysed using social network analysis to identify multi-generational kinship networks (kinscapes), and to compare these kinscapes to the macro-analysis of census data. This will create a layered comparative model, whereby marriage kinscapes can be placed overtop of broad migration and demographic data. This will provide a crucial launching point for understanding if, why, and how villages defined largely by métissage developed a more “francophone” population and character over the course of subsequent francophone migrations. The kinscape data will also provide a preliminary understanding of how francophone migrations operated across regimes and in relation to Americanisation of the region during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Finally, marriage and migration data will be added for the villages of Ste. Geneviève, Vincennes, Carondelet, St. Charles, New Madrid, and Cape Girardeau. These villages will serve as case studies to help nuance the overall assessment of Illinois Country francophone migrations.