Illinois’ Ancient Highway: the Kaskaskia Cahokia Trail
By Jennifer Young
The Kaskaskia Cahokia Trail is regarded as the first road in Illinois. It’s been in use for the last 13,000 years , initially connecting Native American people for trade, religious, and social purposes. The path originally connected villages to the ancient city of Cahokia . With the arrival of the French in the region, forts and pioneer settlements were established on the trail, and many of these eventually grew into large towns and cities. Today, the trail continues to be associated with a myriad of historic and cultural attractions.
The Kaskaskia Cahokia Trail extends from Kaskaskia, a town in Southern Illinois on the Mississippi River, to the Old Cahokia Courthouse in the present-day St. Louis area. The trail begins on an island, but it wasn’t always so. Kaskaskia Island wasn’t formed until the Mississippi changed its course during the historic flood of 1881. Anyone wishing to trace the trail from its beginning can catch it on the island at Immaculate Conception Parish. It was at this site that Jesuit missionaries came down from Canada to settle and try to convert the Illini people to Catholicism.
Heading north along the trail, travelers will run into the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site. The French constructed the fort to protect the settlement of Kaskaskia, but it was never fully completed before the French were forced to give up lands that included the Kaskaskia region to the British. The residents of Kaskaskia destroyed a great deal of the completed fort before the British could occupy it. However, some of its buildings remained and were even visited by Lewis and Clark on their historic journey West in 1803.
Another point of interest on the trail is the Modoc Rock Shelter, a National Historic Landmark. The site is of immense interest to archaeologists as it establishes human habitation in the area during the Archaic Period (8500 – 3000 BC). The large rock cliff is located on the edge of the Mississippi River Valley and was likely carved during the last Ice Age floods. The site is located about two miles from Prairie du Rocher.
Another site along the trail that you don’t want to miss is the Fort de Chartres, a French fortification that was constructed in 1720. The fort is located on the eastern bank of the Mississippi and much of it was destroyed by river floods. Today, it’s been restored and is a popular attraction. It’s also the site of one of the oldest reenactment gatherings in the country; it celebrates Native American and French culture.
The trail ends at the Old Cahokia Courthouse, a State Historic Site that was originally constructed by French Canadians. The courthouse, more or less a reconstructed cabin, is a legend all in itself. What remained of the cabin, one of the oldest buildings in Illinois, was dismantled and rebuilt in St. Louis for the 1906 World’s Fair. Then, it was dismantled and rebuilt in Jackson Park, Chicago. During the 1920s, residents in the area of the cabin’s original homeland petitioned and were able to have the building, largely decrepit at that point, dismantled, and reconstructed where it still stands today.
Other attractions on the trail include stone bridges, one-room school houses, early churches, and nature preserves. Of course, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site are a major area attraction but demand an article all its own. Today, a journey on the historic trail would only take a couple hours by car, but pioneers would have traveled with their mule-hitched wagons for weeks to cover its length.
If you’re looking for a historic road trip, look no further than an exploration of the river bottomlands and historic landmarks of the Kaskaskia–Cahokia Trail. It’s a journey Illinois residents have been making for thousands of years and a tradition that continues with your visit.