American Bottoms

These sketches were taken from:


A Series of Sketches

Relating to Events That Occurred Previous to 1813

Narratives of many thrilling incidents connected with the Early Settlement of the West, drawn from History, Tradition and Personal Reminiscences.

By N. Matson



American Bottom

This section of country, so ofttimes referred to by the early western historian, lies on the east side of the Mississippi, extending from Alton to the mouth of Kaskaskia River, a distance of about seventy miles in length, and from three to eight miles in width. This tract of land consists of timber and prairie about equally divided, and much of it subject to inundation, but for fertility of soil it probably is unequaled in the western country. During the first century of the French occupation of Illinois the only permanent settlement (except Peoria) was made on this bottom, and here the descendants of the early pioneers continue to live. The old towns on this bottom still remain French in language, customs and habits, and the people have but little intercourse with those speaking the English language.

The name American Bottom had its origin about a century ago, at the time Illinois came under United States jurisdiction, and from the following circumstance: the west side of the river being known as Louisiana, or New Spain, while on the east, in the river bottom, was called America – hence American Bottom, which name it continues to bear.

In the early settlement of the country the valley of the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico to the lakes was known as Louisiana, designated as upper and lower country. In after years the settlements on both sides of the Mississippi were known as the Illinois country, and the same laws were in force, it being one country. After the west side was ceded to Spain it became known as Louisiana, and the territory assumed the name of Missouri about the year 1810, five years after it was ceded to the United States.

Prairie du Rocher

The old French village of Prairie du Rocher is located at the foot of the bluff, three miles from the Mississippi River, and in the northwest corner of Randolph county. There is a rocky cliff, thirty miles long and about two hundred feet high, bounding a fertile bottom, which gives to the place a romantic and picturesque appearance. Its secluded situation, fine scenery, rich soil and large spring of gushing water attracted the attention of early pioneers, and caused it to become a place of importance. A short distance above the town, at the base of a rocky cliff, is a large spring, sending forth and immense volume of water, whose crystal purity might have been taken for the fountain of life, which gave immortality to youth and vigor, so much sought after by the early Spanish explorers. Near this spring is a remarkable cave in the high rocky cliff, but it has never been explored to any great extent, as its chambers are filled with foul air, which is thought to be destructive to life.

According to Jesuit history Prairie du Rocher was incorporated into a village in the year 1722, and a large tract of land granted to its citizens, with an additional tract bounding the Mississippi River for a number of miles for school purposes.

The old Jesuit chapel of St. Joseph, built in 1734, is still standing, and is probably the oldest building on the American Bottom. Within its portals have been christened the infants of four succeeding generations, and the marriage vows of the people of Prairie du Rocher have been heard at its sacred alter for a century and a half. The register of the chapel, commencing in 1734, containing a record of births, marriages, deaths, etc., was taken to Kaskaskia in 1855 for the purpose of being copied, and unfortunately, was lost.


When La Salle and his comrades returned from an excursion to the mouth of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1682 they stopped some days at Cahokia, which at that time was a large Indian village. Two Jesuit priests, Pinet and Garvier, who accompanied the expedition, remained here for the purpose of converting the natives. These priests built a chapel in the midst of the village, dedicating it to St. Peter, and named the mission Notre Dames Cahokia. In the following year La Salle authorized Richard Bosley to establish a trading-post here, and with the traders came many emigrants from Canada, forming the first permanent settlement in the Mississippi Valley. The emigrants built houses in the town with the Indians, and for more than a century they lived together in peace and harmony as one people. Marriage between the French and Indians being legalized by the Catholic Church many of the fur traders and early explorers of the west found wives among the blooming daughters of Illinois. Some of the present inhabitants of Cahokia can trace their genealogy back to the time of La Salle, and, their ancestors having intermarried with natives show strong marks of Indian lineage.

The location of Cahokia is unfavorable for commerce, being situated on Cahokia Creek, a mile and a half from the Mississippi, but still not out of reach of its floods. In early times the water in the creek was sufficient to float their small crafts, but a Frenchman in seeking revenge cut a channel from the creek into the river, three miles above the town, leaving it without water communication except in time of floods. Along Cahokia Creek are a number of small lakes, and no less than sixty-seven mounds of various sizes and shapes.

Cahokia at the present time is only a small town, the houses standing here and there among gardens and shade trees, the inhabitants mostly engaged in farming, and but few of them can speak or understand English.