Reflections: At minimum, history texts ought to be accurate

Roger Matile

Twenty years ago, I was covering the Oswego School District Board for our local paper as the district was in the midst of selecting new social studies texts.

When I got to the board meeting that Monday evening two decades ago, one of the brand new fourth grade history books under consideration for approval—colonial through Civil War U.S. history—was sitting right in front of me.

Now, for me, it’s hard to resist reading a history book, any history book, even a fourth grade text.

So I picked the text up and paged through. And found a nice looking section on the French colonial era in North America, which naturally caught my eye.

The French era is, I believe, glossed over far too often, especially here in Illinois where it was such an important part of our state’s early history.

I was gratified to see information was included on Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, and on LaSalle. The most important exploratory trips of both Jolliet and Marquette on the one hand and LaSalle on the other were illustrated in a nicely colored map. The map, in fact, looked great. Problem was, as I looked at it more closely, it proved to be incomplete, and worse, wrong in some important respects.

In 1673, Jolliet and Marquette were dispatched on a voyage of exploration from the French military and commercial base at Michilimacinac, the Straits of Mackinac where lakes Huron and Michigan meet. The governor of New France had dispatched the pair to discover exactly where the great river called Mississippi by the western tribes flowed. Rumor had it the river flowed west to an ocean. If it was the Pacific, the fabled Northwest Passage to the Orient was near to hand for French traders. Picked for their individual expertise, Jolliet was a seasoned and skilled cartographer and explorer; while Marquette, a Jesuit priest, was a gifted linguist familiar with several western tribal languages and dialects.

The pair, with a small party of French voyageurs, set off in two canoes for their epic voyage down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay, then up the Fox River of Wisconsin to the portage with the Wisconsin River. The party paddled down the broad Wisconsin to its mouth on the majestic Mississippi—the “Big Water” off the western tribes.

The party traveled south on the Mississippi until it became clear from Jolliet’s navigational calculations that the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico and neither the Pacific nor Gulf of California.

So the expedition turned around and paddled north to the site of today’s Alton, where, on the recommendation of some local Native People, headed up the Illinois, which they were assured was a shortcut back to Lake Michigan. Thus they became the first Europeans to (legally, anyway) pass through Illinois. Up the Illinois they went, stopping at the Grand Village of the Illinois at today’s Starved Rock, then farther north past the junction with the Kankakee up the DesPlaines to the Chicago Portage, back to Lake Michigan and then north up the west shore of the lake back to Michilimacinac.

Then, LaSalle made an abortive attempt to colonize Illinois in 1679 when he built Fort Crevecoeur on the banks of the Illinois River at Lake Peoria. But LaSalle had to hurry back to France to straighten out his tangled business affairs, and the men he left at Crevecoeur mutinied, burned the fort and fled to who knows where. In 1682, LaSalle made a second, and this time successful, foray into Illinois. His large party of French and Indians began their trip through Indiana and Illinois at the French post of St. Joseph on Lake Michigan and pulled their canoes on sledges up the frozen St. Joseph River and down the Kankakee to the Illinois. They finally found open water at Lake Peoria and then paddled the rest of the way to the Gulf of Mexico via the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, where LaSalle claimed the entire Mississippi basin for France.

On the return trip, LaSalle and his comrade, the impressive and indefatigable Henri de Tonti, established Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock. The post on The Rock endured for nearly a decade and was the center of a vast fur trade system. It wasn’t only a trading post, of course. The French and their Algonquian-speaking Indian allies—Illinois, Miamis, and others—fought off a concerted and violent attack by the Iroquois Confederacy behind the fort’s palisade walls. Eventually, Tonti decided to move the fort farther south, close to LaSalle’s old post on Lake Peoria.

Those are both great stories that deserve to be told. And deserve to be told correctly. But as I looked at the map in that fourth grade textbook, it was immediately clear a few things were missing. According to the map, Jolliet and Marquette were like the Kingston Trio’s Charlie riding on the MTA—they never returned. It would have been nice if the return route through Illinois was shown on the map. And LaSalle, according to the map, started his epic journey at Peoria, not Fort St. Joseph.

But the oddest thing was that instead of long-serving strategically important Fort St. Louis, the map prominently illustrated the location of LaSalle’s abortive Fort Crevecoeur, a post that existed for only a few months before being burned by its own inmates. Worse, for some reason the map located Crevecoeur at present-day Alton, not Peoria.

So once again, despite someone’s best intentions, Illinois’ French colonial history not only got short shrift; it got the wrong shrift. I can’t remember whether the school board adopted that text; I sure hope they didn’t.

I’ve never forgotten that episode, which keeps poking at me, especially during this era of rampant online disinformation and even government attempts to tailor teaching the nation’s history to conform to whatever political philosophy is currently in vogue. For instance, my contemporaries experienced this in what we were taught about the Civil War and its aftermath, ranging from errors to downright lies. Here’s hoping today’s teaching materials are, at a bare minimum, much more accurate about basic historical facts.

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