The Kaskaskia Peninsula, now an island in Randolph County, Illinois, just north of Chester on the Mississippi River, was known to French speaking woodsmen, trappers and fur traders since 1686. The village of Kaskaskia was established with the arrival in 1703 in the Illinois Country of fathers Jacques Gravier and Pierre-Gabriel Marest who founded the mission of the Immaculate Conception among the Illinois.
Several French speaking families from Canada came to settle there in the early 18th century. Kaskaskia flourished to the point of becoming a major export center for agricultural and commercial products to communities in Lower Colonial Louisiana. The old log church was soon replaced by a larger stone structure. In 1741, King Louis XV of France donated to the catholic church a bronze bell with the engraved lettering – To the church of the Illinois by care from the overseas king (translated from French)
The first capital of Illinois
This historical bell, nicknamed the Liberty Bell of the West, weighs 750 pounds (340 kilograms). It was cast in La Rochelle, France, in 1741 and arrived in Kaskaskia in 1743 after having been transported up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Interestingly, the bell of Kaskaskia precedes the 1752 commissioned Liberty Bell of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by more than 10 years. Today, the Liberty Bell of the West rests in the Kaskaskia Bell State Memorial located at 302 First Street. In present-day Kaskaskia, only a few buildings attest to the glorious past and rich history of this hamlet of some 14 inhabitants.
After the American War of Independence, Kaskaskia became the capital of the United States’ Illinois Territory. At that time, more than 7,000 residents inhabited the Midwest metropolis where the first territorial newspaper was published. Illinois acquired its statehood and joined the Union in 1818. Pierre Ménard, a Canadian fur trader who became a successful local businessman and later a U.S. political figure, was elected the first Lieutenant Governor of Illinois State. His house located at the foot of Fort Kaskaskia is now a tourist attraction. When the state capital was moved a year later to a more central location, Kaskaskia began declining.
During the Seven Years’ War with Britain, the French erected Fort Kaskaskia atop the cliffs to defend the growing francophone community. The fort was never raided, and when the British took Kaskaskia in 1763, they left it untouched. Following the liberation of Kaskaskia by the Americans in 1778, it was then decided to preserve Fort Kaskaskia for its panoramic view of the Mississippi River. It was on this occasion that the bell of Kaskaskia took the name of Liberty Bell of the West after ringing all day in full glory.