Founded in 1699, as a white settlement, Cahokia was already 77 years old when the United States Declaration of Independence was signed. 320 years later it is still a vibrant community. The priests of Société des missions étrangères based in Québec City chose this location on the eastern shores of the Mississippi River with a view to seeking to convert the members of the Cahokia nation to Christianity. They learned that Cahokia means people of the bustard.
Whereas the mission of Cahokia began in 1698, the first church of the Holy Family was erected in 1699. On the day of the raising of the cross approximately 2,000 Native Americans attended the ceremony. It is today one of the oldest catholic congregations in the United States. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, Father Jean-François Buisson of Saint-Cosme, born in Lauzon, Quebec, was the first resident priest. A village grew rapidly around the church. Gradually in the first half of the 18th century, French-speaking settlers came to live and work in the Illinois Country along the Mississippi from Cahokia in the north to Kaskaskia in the south. Transportation between the French settlements made use of the Kaskaskia – Cahokia Trail which was named “le Chemin du roi” (the King’s Highway).
The Cahokia Courthouse is also a local historic building. Constructed around 1737 according to the techniques of the post on sole, its structure is typical of Colonial French Louisiana. This remarkable building was previously the home of a French-Canadian family. Unfortunately, the identity of its builder has never been established. The records show, however, that the house was later acquired by Captain Jean-Baptiste Saucier, a former engineer in the Marine troops.
A great Native American city
Cahokia was most likely the largest Native American city north of Mexico. The ground has been a World Heritage Site since 1982 and continues to be a vast archaeological zone. Archaeologists estimate the ancient city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak. The Monks Mound (see photo) is the highest mound. It takes its name from the Trappist monks who occupied the heights of the terrace at the end of the 18th century.
Cahokia was an important place for trade: Native Americans had neither farm animals nor carts. They carried their goods on the backs of men or by water. Passionate history buffs know that the Mississippi River served as a main artery of navigation before the arrival of Europeans: the indigenous people cruised it by means of bark canoes; floating rafts made of logs were used for heavy stuffs. In Cahokia, copper, mother-of-pearl, bison meat and elk were constantly traded, among several other merchandises, for mercantile ends. Moreover, the mighty river and its tributaries provided fish and shellfish in abundance.