Nearly three hundred years after Fort de Chartres’s construction first began, Andrew and I stood in the stone doorway of its restored Catholic chapel, listening to a Franciscan monk—a real one, not an actor—speaking of French colonial life. He sat in a large, simple wooden chair on a low dais, looking as comfortable in the humid shaded heat as he was in his dark robes. Outside, the sun was slipping out from behind the moon, the Great American Eclipse not yet over even though totality had passed. The sunlight was ethereal, periodically shaded by passing clouds. My eclipse glasses still dangled in my fingers.
Pierre Dugué de Boisbriand and his small French contingent left New Orleans in 1718 not for military purposes, but financial ones. Louis XIV had strained the French treasury during his long reign, and with his great-grandson Louis XV now on the throne, a correction was in order to ensure French prosperity and power. New France—a broad swath of North America stretching from Quebec to New Orleans, abutting the British colonies to the east and the Great Plains to the west, united by the Mississippi River and its tributaries—seemed the obvious answer.
Trade, in other words, seemed the obvious answer. The Scottish economist John Law, highly respected by Louis XV, was so certain, and so convincing in his explanations, that the French king granted him a trade monopoly within New France, effective January 1718. Once established, this monopoly was meant to make France rich beyond imagining.
And so de Boisbriand and his contingent were charged with building a centralized fort beside the Mississippi, from which this ambitious trading web (and its resulting French wealth) could be governed, and also protected from nearby Native American populations. Their vertical-log palisade, built in the fertile American Bottom flood plain along the Mississippi River, was named Fort de Chartres, after the French Regent’s son Louis, duc de Chartres.
Construction was completed in 1720—just in time for the Mississippi Bubble (as Law’s disastrous trade monopoly is now called) to burst. In one of the earliest cases of an economic bubble, frenzied land development and speculation had exploded far beyond fiscal reality, and had then collapsed, taking France’s economy with it. Law fled France in the dead of night, disgraced. Louis XV’s financial missteps here and moving forward, building upon his great-grandfather Louis XIV’s excesses, set the stage for widespread suffering and unrest in his country, culminating in governmental collapse and the French Revolution in the 1780s, and dooming his grandson Louis XVI to the guillotine.
Yet now, in 1720, Fort de Chartres was complete, and life must continue in New France. France’s economic woes were far away from the sparse populations of French settlers scattered along the Mississippi. These settlers needed governance and defense all the same. New Orleans needed the wheat and corn grown on the fertile flood plain. Military outposts along the Mississippi could not go amiss.
Standing in the restored chapel doorway in 2017, I wondered what the original builders would think, if they could see into the future, could see Fort de Chartres poised at the edges of history but never making a distinctive mark. What would they think, if they could see Andrew and me standing here in the heart of New France, exclaiming in our peculiar colonial English as we watched the moon overtake the sun? If they knew the eclipse had drawn us here by accident?
The American Bottom is the Mississippi’s flood plain, and a flood plain is exactly what it sounds like. Within five years of Fort de Chartres’s completion, the palisade and other buildings were in disrepair, having been repeatedly inundated by North America’s largest river. The Mississippi giveth, and the Mississippi taketh away.
Those occupying the fort in 1725 gave up their repair attempts, opting instead to rebuild Fort de Chartres further away from the river, using logs as before, but improving construction, and adding defensive bastions at all four corners of the palisade. But their new location was still within the American Bottom. As politics and economics roiled in and between France and England and Spain, those garrisoned at the far-flung Fort de Chartres waged Sisyphean war against the mighty Mississippi.
Over the next decades, bureaucratic discussion began about replacing the deteriorating wooden fort with a sturdier stone one, constructed with limestone quarried from the nearby bluffs. The location along the river was strategic, and tensions mounted between the European nations represented in North American colonies. And so, in spite of and because of the proximity to the temperamental river, construction of the stone fort began at Fort de Chartres’s original site in 1753, in anticipation of the looming Seven Years’ War (or, as it’s known in North America, the French and Indian War).
But our monk didn’t speak much about that. Instead, he spoke of a fairly peaceful, almost dull frontier existence for the French soldiers garrisoned at Fort de Chartres. Worship in this small chapel. Vegetables grown in raised beds within the four acres enclosed by the 15-foot high, 3-foot thick limestone walls. Long, quiet watches in the bartizans. Interaction and trade with the settlers at nearby Prairie de Rocher. Reactions to the Mississippi.
Endless watching and waiting for battles that never came.
And then, in 1763, the Seven Years’ War was over. France was evicted from North America, and Fort de Chartres became one of the westernmost points to pass into British rule.
Our monk chuckled. “France thought this was a likely place for a battle—thought the British might come down the Mississippi. But Fort de Chartres was so out of the way from a British perspective that it took a whole two years after the war ended for anybody to come take possession.”
Once they did arrive in 1765, the British soldiers ousted the region’s French settlers, advising them to leave, or else acquire special licenses to remain. Many headed northwest, crossing the Mississippi to what was then Spanish-owned St. Louis, to escape British rule (thus avoiding the fate of the Acadians, their New France cohorts in Maritime Canada.)
Britain’s troops continued the ongoing war with the Mississippi until mid-1772, when the south wall and bastion were claimed by the river. It was just as well. That same year, most of Fort de Chartres’s forces were summoned to Philadelphia, to help manage a rising rebellion among the American colonists. Once the rebellion evolved into the full-scale American Revolution, Fort de Chartres was abandoned and claimed by the seasonal whims of the American Bottom. Britain never returned, and the fort was never again used as a military outpost.
I had a burning question. Our monk nodded at my raised hand. “You keep talking about proximity to the Mississippi,” I said. “But—we’re really not that close to the Mississippi, are we?” The fort’s restored front gates and wall, which should have faced the river, instead faced a two-lane highway and beyond that, farmland as far as I could see.
“Excellent observation,” the monk said, smiling.
“Has the fort been moved further away for preservation?” I asked.
“No. This is the original site,” he said. “But the river has moved.”
I raised an eyebrow. I spent five years living in south Louisiana as a child, and I’d crossed the Mississippi there, in St. Louis, and between Iowa and Wisconsin. The Mississippi River is enormous—sometimes over a mile wide, flowing from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, draining the wide stretch of North America between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. Of course rivers could move; they always seek the path of least resistance, and if that path changes, so will the river. But what could possibly change the path of a river like the Mississippi? What could possibly interrupt so much water?
“An earthquake,” the monk said. “A devastating earthquake in 1812.”
After the American Revolution, the abandoned fort beside the Mississippi fell into ruin, both because of the river, and because settlers in the area (primarily Americans who had driven the last French colonists to St. Louis during the Revolution’s final days) carted stones away for their own buildings.
According to the monk, the villages beside the river were able to flourish in the years following the Revolution, growing their crops in the fertile flood plain soil and trading with riverboats traveling up and down.
The New Madrid earthquakes began on December 16th, 1811 and continued through March 1812. Within a few short months, thousands of earthquakes rocked the regions surrounding the Reelfoot Rift, a geologic feature deep beneath the Mississippi’s alluvial plain. Eyewitnesses reported apocalyptic phenomena like earthquake smog, miles-long fissures in the earth’s surface, and flashing lights from compressed quartz deposits. Three of the New Madrid earthquakes are listed among the worst in United States history.
Of these three, the worst occurred early in the morning on February 7th, 1812, reaching as much as 8.8 on the Richter scale. The force of the quake destroyed towns and villages, diverted the Mississippi and its tributaries long enough to create Reelfoot Lake, opened temporary underwater fissures into which boats could vanish, caused waves large enough to drive riverboats far onto the shore, rang church bells as far away as Boston, caused the Mississippi to run backwards for several hours, and yes—changed the mighty river’s course.
I’ve since learned that the Mississippi River doesn’t need such good excuses to change course. Evidently the meandering river is fickle enough that Mark Twain took notice. But in 1812, as the United States, Canada, and Britain once again descended into war, it was the Mississippi River and the fault line it hid that would seal Fort de Chartres’s fate.
Without the river, the community surrounding the fort had no reason to stay. The population dwindled. Fort de Chartres, already in ruins, was left alone, overgrown with trees. And world history proceeded without it.
I turned away from the monk as he answered someone else’s question, looking instead over the restored grounds. Throughout the twentieth century, the area had been painstakingly restored on top of the original foundations, the last remaining original building—a stone powder magazine—celebrated as the oldest building in Illinois. The place is now a protected historic site, complete with museum, operating bake oven, and period-appropriate kitchen garden. Annual festivals celebrate frontier French and Indian culture.
Andrew and I stepped away as the monk began repeating information to newcomers. The sunlight was growing brighter as the sun eased out from behind the moon, and it was difficult to believe that not more than an hour before, the sun had been blackened, the moon haloed in glory.
Since construction began in 1718, Fort de Chartres had seen four total solar eclipses—but only this one, in 2017, had been perfectly poised for witnessing totality. The eclipses of 1724, 1780, and 1869 had been too distant, and only showed nearby viewers partial coverage. This time, Fort de Chartres was effectively dead-center within the path of totality.
We came around to the narrow stairs leading into one of the front-facing bartizans, and I climbed inside, trying to imagine the river, the forests, the fields; trying to imagine standing here with a musket in the sultry summer air (or in the frigid Midwestern winter), waiting, waiting, waiting. Within this structure, a hexagonal turret sticking off the wall’s corner, I could defend 270 degrees beyond the fort—the entire stretch of both adjacent walls. But I would never need to. I imagined thinking of France, and of how many miles lay between this place and that, and of the way time and distance distorted memory.
What would those original builders think? Of any of it, any of their story, the fort’s story—if it were told back to them with the broad view, with all the historical markers in place? If they knew that not until 2017 would their structure be perfectly placed?
I stepped down, wanting one more glimpse through my eclipse glasses before heading for the car. The sun was three-quarters free, an orange disc against the thick protective film.
“I’m glad we found this,” Andrew said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, taking the eclipse glasses off and gazing around the grounds once more. “Me too.”
Has your understanding of history ever been enriched by visiting a particular historical site? What was it? What did it help you contextualize? Share in the comments below!