The Oldest Civil Record in the West

Transactions of the lllinois State Historical Society--1901


By J. Nick Perrin.

While it may come to pass that in the course of time a nationality will be established in America that shall be characterized by a preponderating element of homogeneity, yet it is too soon to forget that we are the offshoot of European parentage; and in the midst of our national pride let us cherish at least a kindly memory for the European pioneer and immigrant who helped to build the foundation for our magnificent American superstructure.

Three great European streams entered into the discovery, settlement, colonization and civilization of North America: The Spanish in the Southland, the English along the Eastern seaboard, the French in the Northeast. Of these, the French and Spanish influences, constituting the Latin factor, have almost entirely disappeared beneath the weight of the paramount Anglo-Saxon influence, which has very largely impressed itself upon our institutions, in the shape of language, customs and laws supplimented and modified however to a great extent (and salutary extent too) by healthy Germanic and Celtic reinforcement. No matter what reasons we may attribute for this survival. the present fact is patent, that the survival has been accomplished; and the historic fact remains, that in the early stages of our history, those influences which are now scarcely discernible, were potent contributors to the march of progress. Hence it is a matter of historic fairness to render due credit to the Frenchman who in 1535 set foot in the Northeast and discovered the St. Lawrence River; for through this discovery, Canada was peopled by a branch of the world's dominant race; and the great waterway furnished a means to reach the great chain of lakes and thus the Northwest, as it was formerly termed, was opened up and Illinois became an offspring of the new creation. Tracing our historic ancestry through this lineage, we would be remiss in our historic devotions if we did not worship, in a sensible way of course, at the shrine whereon we find engraved the names of Cartier and Champlain, of Marquette and Joliet and LaSalle.

More. than a hundred years had passed and the French domination was recognized in the Northeast where Jacques Cartier had planted the regal arms. In 1670 a treaty was made between the Indians of the Northwest and the French in Canada by which the great Northwest passed to France in consideration of the protection furnished to those northwestern tribes against the encroachments of their eastern hostile neighbors. In this Indian cession was embraced the " Illinois country." Three years later (1673) Marquette and Joliet and their companions made the discovery of the " Illinois country and planted a mission station among the Kaskaskias in the present LaSalle county.

In 1682 LaSalle descended the Illinois River and the Mississippi to its mouth where he took possession in the name of France, and thus completed the chain of title to the French possessions in North America. LaSalle called the country extending along the Mississippi and its tributaries-- "Louisiana." The "Illinois country" then became a part of Louisiana.

In 1718 New Orleans was established and shortly thereafter a French marine station was established there and a marine officer was intrusted with the management of civil affairs. This oflicer had oversight of the territory within his jurisdiction in which was included the "Illinois country." The village of the Kaskaskias had been removed from the upper Illinois river its present site at the junction of the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers.

At Fort Chartres and Kaskaskia a notary was stationed whose business it was to look after the civil affairs of the "Illinois country." He kept a register in French. Some years ago I stumbled across this precious historical treasure in the archives of St. Clair county, where it had been buried for century beneath a mass of documents, and I believe was never consulted by any historian except perhaps Governor Reynolds, whose "Pioneer History indicates a possibility, that he might have had access to this record fifty years ago.

In 1890 I was looking for matter from which to prepare a paper for the St. Clair County Centennial Celebration. St. Clair county was established in 1790 by the Governor of the Northwest Territory-Arthur St. Clair. It embraced all that part of Illinois which extends from Pekin to Cairo and from the Mississippi to the "banks of the Wabash far away." In October, l795, the county was divided by running a line east and west through the present county of Monroe and all south became Randolph and the north remained St. Clair until later divisions took place. In sorting out the papers, documents and records, this record seems to have been allotted to St. Clair and has evidently remained in the possession of the successive clerks, though possibly without receiving any attention from any except the first clerk who received it, and the present gentlemanly and efficient clerk, who since its rediscovery, shows it with pride to the visiting stranger.

It dates back to 1737 and its entries cover a period from 1737 to 1769.It is bound in hog-hide, the cover having the appearance of being the skin of a pig, shaved and dried. The ends of the bristles are plainly discernible. In my judgment it is the oldest official record in the west containing civil entries. It contains a record of gifts by will, marriage contracts and otherwise. While the entries are not numerous, the book was well kept by-the notary and was inspected from time to time by a marine officer who added his approval after exanination. The writing is in a remarkable state of preservation. Some of the leaves, however, have been gnawed by the rats. It contains one hundred and forty-six pages and is called Registre des Insinuations des Donations aux Siege des lllinois. The first entry is a marriage contract between Louis Normand LaBriere and Catherine Clement. There were six entries for the year 1737. The notary was Bertlot Barroir and he signed each one, attesting its genuineness after the French style by simply signing Barroir. There is an approval at the end of each year* by Louis Auguste Delalcere Flancour, clerk of the marine department under the French government.

The record is exceedingly interesting in showing the existence of slavery in Illinois in the very earliest times. Thus by entry of September 25, l751, Paul Bizet gave to Francoise Dizie, the wife of Josephus Braseau (a cousin of Bizet's), at whose house he had been sick, for her services, an Indian slave named Marianne. On November 18, 175l, Mr. and Mrs. Bourbonnais gave to Pierre Aubuphon, who was their son-in-law, an old negro slave, who in the language of the tansfer, could only do the ordinary kitchen work and chores. On June 15, 1755, Francois Lacroix gave his property to his children on condition that they maintain him. He enumerates his slaves as one Indian man, two Indian women and one little Indian girl aged seven years. March 14, 1757, Joseph Guignon willed to Mr. Forget his house and negroes except a little negro named Francois aged about ten years.

This in brief is a synopsis of our venerable historic friend, who, a hundred years ago, was buried in his hog-hide, but has recently been resurrected and now claims priority of rank, on account of age, over the civil records of the west. True, the baptismal records at Kaskaskia date back to 1695, and there may be religious and military records which antedate 1737, but among the civil enties where are there any that antedate our hog-hide record? While waiting for competitors to present their claims we shall insist on the proud distinction of having the oldest western civil record right here in Illinois, where we have everything that is great in every material, mental and moral sense. Where we have a domain which in its extent dwarfs the states and principalities of the old world into mere track patches; on which domain there have sprung in the short space of two centuries and a quarter enough cities and villages to dot our hills and valleys as thickly as the stars dot the heavens on a clear December night; where we have prairie farms under the highest state of cultivation, whose beauty can not be surpassed by any dream of the hanging gardens of Babylon; where we have rich alluvial bottom soil along our great rivers which can not be equalled by the valleys of the Nile, the Rhine, the Seine, the Danube and the Thames put together; where we, have a teeming, pushing population of five millions of energetic people who have built up a commerce whose continuing growth shall outstrip the rest of the world in the next decade; where we have magnificent forests and inexhaustible coal beds; where, in the midst of our harvests, nature smiles upon our prolific grain fields, and upon our orchards and our gardens with their choicest fruits resembling in their beauty that garden which was planted eastward in Eden as the climax of creation; where the God of nature himself looks with favor upon the Illinoisans as his chosen people; and where this chosen people has made a record which will fill the brightest page in universal history; for as we search the register wherein the records of the acts of men are placed we find this page with its vast array of facts which appeals to pride of home and state and whereon are written deeds of men of lllinois. The deeds of such as Lovejoy, who died for freedom's cause; Shields, who buckled on his sword, and wounded fell on Cerro Gordo's field. but rose again, and then in later years rode through the Shenandoah vale for his adopted country's weal; Douglas, who was called the "little grant;" Lincoln, the martyr president; Grant and Logan. who fought the country's battles in its time of greatest need; and Eugene Field, whose tender notes are lullabys in every home where childish forms are rocked to sleep at night.

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