French Colonial History Comes Alive at Illinois’s Fort de Chartres
Rising from the farm fields in southern Illinois is an impressive stone fortress celebrating 300 years of history. Long before the United States was established, the French ruled over southern Illinois. The proximity to the Mississippi River, the hunt for precious metals, and the rich farm ground established this area as of strategic importance. Fort de Chartres is one of the best historic sites in the state and recreates this era of Illinois’s history under French rule.
History of the Fort
Between 1718-1720, the first of three forts was constructed here to protect settlers and trading interests. The French named the site Fort de Chartres. The first fort quickly deteriorated due to flooding from the river. The French constructed a second fort further inland in 1725, but also fell into disrepair. Finally in 1753, construction began on the third and final fort. This one was constructed out of sturdy stone and completed in 1760.
At the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, France surrendered most of its North American territory to Great Britain. British troops took possession of Fort de Chartres in 1765. The British renamed the site Fort Cavendish but did little with the fort as it continue to suffer erosion. The British eventually abandoned the fort in 1771 and a year later the south wall collapsed into the encroaching Mississippi River. Continued flooding, decay, and removal of the stone by settlers caused the fort to slowly disappear. The only remnant of the fort above ground by 1900 was the powder magazine, considered to be the oldest building in Illinois.
Visiting the Fort Today
*Note: While Illinois remains under Tier 3 COVID mitigations, buildings such as the museum are closed. However, the grounds including inside the fort walls and outdoor exhibits remain open.
The State of Illinois acquired the ruins in 1913 as a historic site. First, they restored the powder magazine in 1920. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the foundations of the forts buildings were excavated. The Works Progress Administration rebuilt the gateway and two stone buildings. Today visitors will find an impressive partially rebuilt eighteenth-century fort.
The north wall contains bastions, a gatehouse, musket ports, embrasures for cannon, and the restored powder magazine. You can walk inside the power magazine and state you have been inside the oldest structure in the state.
Other foundations and cellars have been exposed to explore. Use caution as some walls have a high drop to the cellar level.
A museum was constructed on the foundation of an original fort building. Well worth a visit, the museum has exhibits on the history and daily life of the fort era. Artifacts uncovered during reconstruction are also on display.
The large stone “Guards House,” reconstructed in 1936, contains a Catholic chapel furnished in the style of the 1750s, along with a priest’s room, a gunner’s room, an officer-of-the-day room, and a guard’s room.
The grounds also feature an operating bake oven and a typical French 18th century kitchen garden.
The garden shed is built of upright logs in the unique French Colonial poteaux-sur-sol (French: “post on sill”) construction.
The site is host to several events each year including one of the largest and oldest in the country, the annual Rendezvous. This event attracts thousands over the two day celebration with demonstrations, reennactments, military drills, crafts, vendors, and much more.
While the site is now protected by levees, the threat of flooding is still present. The great flood of 1993 breached the levee and sent waters fifteen feet deep into the fort.
Things to Know Before You Visit
- While Illinois is under Tier 3 mitigations, all indoor buildings including the museum, chapel, and powder magazine remain closed. The grounds remain open dawn to dusk.
- The site is open year round. During non-COVID times, the indoor exhibits and buildings are open Wednesdays-Sundays 9:00-5:00.
- Site facilities are closed on New Year’s Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Thanksgiving, Day After Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day
- Admission is free. A donation of $4 per adults $2 for children or $10 per family is suggested.
- Restrooms are located inside the museum. Vault toilets are also located on the grounds near the garden area.
- Picnic sites are located on the grounds outside the fort.
More Things to See
Other sites worth a visit in the area include the small town of Prairie du Rocher which has several other early French structures. More French colonial history can be found if you take the river ferry at Modoc over to St. Genievieve, Missouri. Or continue south to see the site of Fort Kaskaskia. If you are looking to hike, check out the nearby Fults Hill Prairie or Salt Lick Point trails.